Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The new Google Drive desktop app

Google Drive is a free cloud-based file storage service provided by Google. It allows you to browse, upload, and download files in the cloud using a web browser. For more convenient access to your files, Google provides a Windows desktop application that allows you to access your Google Drive files through File Explorer without needing to use a web browser.

This application used to be called “Backup and Sync”. A new and improved version, not-so-creatively dubbed “Drive for desktop”, has recently been released. This new version is considerably different from its predecessor.


The biggest improvement in my opinion is the ability to stream files. With Backup and Sync, you had no option but to download a copy of every single file to your computer (Drive for desktop calls this “mirroring”). This approach is problematic if you are short on disk space or have a slow internet connection. While Drive for desktop continues to support mirroring, it also provides a second option called “streaming”. This means that the files are only downloaded when you open them, saving a lot of disk space and bandwidth. Files and folders that you need offline access to can be marked as such using the right-click context menu.

Microsoft Office support

Another improvement is better integration with Microsoft Office. When you have an Office file open, such as a Word document, Drive for desktop will notify you if the file was changed by somebody else. This helps to prevent you from blowing away edits made by somebody else you have shared the file with. However, if you are doing a lot of collaboration work, I recommend using Google’s web-based office suite instead (Google Docs, Google Sheets, etc), as it handles simultaneous, collaborative editing much more effectively.

Backing up external drives

As with Backup and Sync, the new app makes it easy to back up any external drives, like flash drives, that you plug into your computer. Upon connecting a drive, a popup immediately appears asking if you want to back the drive up or not. Unfortunately, unlike Backup and Sync, there is no option to completely disable these notifications.

Location in File Explorer

An interesting change is where it puts the files in File Explorer. With Backup and Sync, it simply stored the files in a folder at the root of your user directory. Drive for desktop, however, takes the meaning of “drive” quite literally: it stores the files in their own drive under “This PC”, as if it were a flash drive or external hard drive. It assigns the drive to letter “G” by default (for “Google” I presume), but it is possible to change the drive letter in the settings. Every Google account you add gets its own drive with its own letter. One feature I wish it offered was the ability to customize the drive label, which defaults to “Google Drive” if you just have a single account connected, or “<email address> - Google Drive” (truncated based on the max character length of this field) if you have multiple accounts connected. You can change the label yourself in File Explorer, but the change is not preserved between reboots.


Overall, I would say the new app is an improvement over the old one. Google has not forced Backup and Sync users to update yet, but you also cannot download Backup and Sync anymore. The download page only offers Drive for desktop for download. See the full feature comparison listing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

TeamViewer Overview

At the library where I work, we recently purchased a paid TeamViewer license. This allows us to conduct remote computer classes and provide socially distanced patron computer support during the pandemic. This blog post contains some of the things I have learned about TeamViewer during this process.

What is it?

TeamViewer is a remote access application which allows you to view the screen of another computer over the internet, as well as control the mouse cursor and keyboard. In this way, it is like Remote Desktop, but the similarity ends there. TeamViewer is a "zero config" service, which means it does not require the complicated network setup that Remote Desktop requires to be functional over the internet. To make this possible, all traffic is routed over port 80 through TeamViewer’s servers. The data is protected with end-to-end encryption, so nobody, not even the TeamViewer server admins, can eavesdrop on your session.

Also unlike Remote Desktop, it does not interact with the Windows login system. With Remote Desktop, you must supply the login credentials of a Windows user account to initiate a connection. But with TeamViewer, you directly see what is being displayed on the remote computer’s screen, as if you were sitting in front of it. For example, if you logout of the current Windows user account while using TeamViewer, you are shown the Windows login screen. Doing this whist using Remote Desktop would cause your connection to be terminated.

Instead of using IP addresses to connect to remote computers, TeamViewer assigns each computer a nine-digit, globally unique ID. This number never changes, even if you uninstall and reinstall TeamViewer (which makes me wonder if the ID is stored in the registry or if it is associated with your IP or MAC address). It also gives you a random, 6-character password, which the person connecting to your computer must know in order to connect. This password changes every time you open TeamViewer, which prevents someone who connected to you in the past from connecting again without your permission.


TeamViewer’s license states that you may use it for free so long as you are only using it for personal use. What is "personal use" exactly? If you’re using it to connect to a friend or family member’s home computer, that’s considered personal use. The moment you use it to connect to a computer at work or to a server, you are expected to purchase a license. If you don’t have a paid license and TeamViewer’s algorithms think that you are using it non-personal purposes, it will put a block on your computer’s ID, which prevents you from initiating and receiving connections. How it makes this determination, I don’t know. But if you think you have been wrongly accused, there are ways to submit a request to have them unblock you.

One thing that is restrictive about the paid plans is that it heavily limits how many computers can have active connections open at time. TeamViewer calls these "channels". A channel is created when a computer initiates a connection to one or more computers. For example, if Computer A remotes into Computer B, that’s considered one channel. A single channel can include multiple connections. For example, if Computer A remotes into Computers B, C, and D at the same time, that’s still a single channel.

The least expensive paid plan only allows a maximum of one channel. So, if you install TeamViewer on two computers, only one of those computers can initiate remote connections at a time (both computers can still receive incoming connections, it’s just that only one computer at a time can create outgoing connections). If another computer associated with your license has a channel open and you try to create a new channel by connecting to a remote computer, you will get an error message that blocks you from doing so.

The more expensive plans allow you to add more channels, and they come at a hefty price tag. We decided to purchase 1 additional channel, which would have costed us an additional $778/year. But because the library is a non-profit organization, we were able to obtain a 60% discount through TechSoup, which is a website that sells software at reduced prices to non-profits.

Variants of the software

There are three different variants of the TeamViewer software.

TeamViewer: Listed at the top of the download page on their website, this is the full-featured software application. With it, you can both connect to other computers and have other computers connect to you.

TeamViewer QuickSupport: This is a good choice for when you want to do a one-off computer support session with someone who is sitting at their computer. It allows other computers to connect to you, but does not give you the ability to connect to other computers. One nice thing about this application is that it does not actually install anything onto the computer—it’s just an EXE file the user downloads and runs. With a paid TeamViewer plan, you can customize the way the QuickSupport window looks, which is useful for displaying your business’s logo and branding.

TeamViewer Host: This is the best choice for when you need remote access to computers that are under your control (as opposed to the computers of random people on the internet). Like QuickSupport, it only allows incoming connections. But unlike QuickSupport, it installs software onto the computer, which automatically launches when Windows boots. If you’re installing this on a server, you’ll want to enable unattended access by assigning it a password that never changes.

Other features

Integrated voice/video chat: Talk with the person on the other end directly through TeamViewer without needing to maintain a second line of communication (e.g. phone call or VoIP call).  In my research, I have not been able to find any other remote access software product that has this capability. The audio quality is fine, and I’ve never had problems understanding people.

Clipboard syncing: TeamViewer supports seamless copy and paste between your local system and the remote computer. Not all remote access software supports this.

File transfer: There are several ways TeamViewer allows you to copy files between computers. Note that the transfer speed is quite slow (seems to be capped around 1 Mbps), so it’s not great for large files.

  • File browser: This is similar to an FTP client in that it allows you to browse the remote computer’s entire file system (or, at least, the folders that the remote user has access to) and download any files you want. You can also upload files to any location of your choosing.
  • File box: Allows you to upload individual files to a drop box, which the person on the other end then downloads from the drop box.
  • Clipboard transfer: Just like you can "copy and paste" files in File Explorer to make copies of file, you can do the same with TeamViewer to transfer a file to the remote computer.

Multiple monitor support: If the computer you are connecting to has multiple monitors attached to it, TeamViewer allows you to switch between them with ease or display them all at once.

My Verdict

My two main criticisms are the channel limits and price. I feel that channel limits can be very restrictive when you are working in a team, and the software seems expensive compared to alternatives.

But on the flipside, you definitely get what you pay for. Think of TeamViewer as the iPhone of the remote desktop world. The service is reliable, and the software is very easy to use. It was the only remote access software I could find that had integrated voice chat, which is feature that we needed to have. The company is based in Germany, a country that is subject to strict European privacy laws such as the GDPR, which is reassuring from a security and privacy standpoint. Oh, and did I mention the user interface has a dark theme? ;-)

If you’re an IT technician that just needs remote access to a handful of machines, there are other less expensive solutions out there. But for everyone else, TeamViewer provides a reliable, user-friendly solution that non-computer professionals can use with relative ease.