Remote Desktop vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?

Michael Graw
Remote access
As more and more personal and business computing moves online, VPNs and remote desktops are increasingly a part of our daily lives. But there’s still a lot of confusion about how exactly VPNs and remote desktops work. Which are you supposed to use when? Is one better than the other?

In this guide, we’ll explain what each of these connection systems are, how they work, and when you should use one or the other.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is essentially a mask that slips on over your internet connection. When you connect to the internet from, for example, your home, every website or network you try to access registers you as connecting from your home. But with a VPN, you can mask your connection so that it looks like you are connecting from inside your office or even from another country.

The way this works is that your internet connection is re-routed. Instead of connecting from your home straight to a website, your connection first travels through another server. That server acts as your mask. Any site or network you try to access sees a request coming from the server’s location, not your actual location.

A VPN can be extremely useful in a number of different cases. Let’s say you’re based in the US but want to watch a Netflix show that’s only available in the UK. With a VPN, you can mask your internet connection to make it appear to Netflix as if you’re connecting from within the UK.

You can also use a VPN to access a business network. Many companies have intranets that are secured so that they can only be accessed from inside the office. A VPN can enable you to access that intranet even if you’re working from home or traveling.

What is a Remote Desktop?

A remote desktop or RDP (remote desktop protocol) isn’t a single system like a VPN, but rather a category of software tools. Remote desktop software is designed to enable you to take over an entire computer remotely via the internet. Once you set up a remote desktop connection, you can move the mouse around, access files, and generally use the remote computer just as you would if you were sitting in front of it.

A remote desktop connection can be extremely handy if you frequently need to access a work computer from outside the office. You can transfer files back and forth from the remote desktop, make a copy of your address book or schedule, or even access the office intranet as you might with a VPN. Some remote desktop software also enables you to turn on a sleeping computer remotely.

Remote Desktop vs. VPN: Flexibility

Remote desktops and VPNs are flexible in different ways. If your goal is primarily business-related, such as to function like you’re in the office when you’re at home or on the road, a remote desktop is more flexible. You can not only access all the files on your work computer remotely, but also use that remote computer to gain access to the office intranet.

Remote desktops are also especially suitable for helpdesk applications. An IT technician can share screens or control your computer outright to solve technical issues, rather than simply trying to walk you through complex steps over the phone. A VPN won’t help with this type of scenario.

However, if you need to mask your location or network frequently to gain access to multiple networks, a VPN can be more flexible. You can create one masked connection for your office network, another for a geofenced website, and another to protect your location data when surfing the web.

Keep in mind, though, that a VPN doesn’t give you access to any individual computer when you access something like an office intranet. If you think you might need to transfer files or access any data stored locally, a remote desktop will be the better choice for you.

Remote Desktop vs. VPN: Security

Both remote desktop and VPN connections offer outside entry into an otherwise fenced-off network. That’s great for businesses with employees working from home, but it can also expose a company’s intranet to intruders. So, security should be top of mind when comparing a remote desktop with a VPN.

Unfortunately, neither connection is inherently more secure from a technical standpoint. End-users need to be vigilant about changing passwords frequently and keeping their devices free of malware that could infect a broader network.

That said, many security experts suggest using a VPN rather than a remote desktop when a VPN will suffice. The reason is that the damage a breached VPN can cause is slightly more limited. Whereas a compromised VPN can wreak havoc on an internal network, an intruder cannot easily control individual computers.

If a remote desktop connection is compromised, the intruder can not only access the network, but also use the remote computer to change administrative settings, steal files, and cause other security problems. If you use a remote desktop, it’s a good idea to modify the security settings so that remote users only have limited access—for example, access to files but not to administrative settings. 

Which is Right for You?

Remote desktops and VPNs have some overlap in that they can each provide access to an internal network. However, they are generally used for different purposes. A remote desktop is used when you need to control a remote computer, whereas a VPN is used when you need to access resources on a secured network.

Remote desktops are somewhat more flexible than VPNs, particularly for scenarios like remote work and hands-on IT help. However, think carefully about whether you need full computer access. A compromised remote desktop connection can be much more devastating than a compromised VPN connection. Whichever type of remote connection you choose, make sure to keep a close eye on security.

Michael Graw
Michael Graw is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Pacific Northwest