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VPN vs Remote Desktop: What you need to know

Jul 11, 2018 · 4 min read

VPN vs Remote Desktop: What you need to know

Believe it or not, you can assume the identity of another computer online. Both a VPN and an RDP will do that for you, but they’ll give you different degrees of power and are used for different things. This comparison of VPN vs RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) will tell you which one is right for you.

VPN vs remote desktop

VPN and RDP services are similar in a sense, so it’s easy to understand why some people might get them confused. Both will (usually) encrypt your traffic in one way or another, and both will grant you private access to a server or device that might be thousands of miles away. However, there are key differences, especially when it comes to how we actually experience and use these devices.

Here’s the easiest way to understand the difference:

  • Using a VPN is like putting a mask on that hides your identity by making you look like another server in another location when you browse.
  • More than just a mask, an RDP allows you to become that other server or computer, using its files and apps and desktop space as if you were sitting right in front of it.

What is RDP?

An RDP works by creating a virtual connection between you and a remote computer. Have you ever watched a live stream or a video where someone broadcasts what they’re doing on their screen? With an RDP, the computer broadcasts its screen to you and allows you to control it. You can use the files, programs, and computing power on the host computer from a client computer that’s potentially thousands of miles away.

The advantage of RDP over a VPN is that all of the power of the remote host machine is at your disposal. If there’s special software that you can only have on the host machine or if the host machine is more capable of performing computationally difficult tasks like detailed renders, then RDP can be a powerful tool. You can be using a laptop and still command the power of a supercomputer.

Unless you’re using a very localized RDP (like connecting to a powerful central computer elsewhere in the same building), the connection is likely to be frustratingly slow. After all, you’re sending more than just files – you’re sending mouse movements, app commands, and tons of other information back and forth between your device and the host.

Another drawback to RDP is that it can potentially render the host machine highly vulnerable. Unless your sysadmin implements certain restriction, you can use the host machine as if you were its admin. What happens, then, if your connection is hijacked or if your machine is otherwise infiltrated or compromised? If your RDP offers anything less than top-of-the-line encryption, this can be easy to do – and even then, the host machine won’t be 100% protected.

By the way – technically, RDP is the name of a specific remote desktop access system released by Microsoft and built into their systems. However, there are tons of other remote desktop programs available.

Why choose a VPN?

A VPN works totally differently. Your device connects to a VPN server, which can’t do much more than connect users to the internet and implement various security measures. Once you do connect, all that the VPN server processes is your outbound and inbound online traffic – your requests, websites’ responses to your requests, and any files you decide to send or receive.

The essential difference when comparing VPNs and RDP is that a VPN doesn’t provide your device with any additional functionality the way an RDP does. You’re still using the same old device, only that its IP address has changed and it is now a whole lot more secure when accessing the Internet.

That security and privacy is a VPN’s greatest advantage. RDPs don’t have to offer robust encryption to work, but a VPN without powerful encryption isn’t much of a VPN.

Which is right for you - VPN or RDP?

Do you need a VPN or RDP?

That depends on whether you’re a business or an individual user.

If you’re a business:

  • Use a personal VPN like NordVPN to provide your employees with secure and private internet access when they work in public spaces or travel abroad;
  • Use an internal VPN to provide your employees access to a secure central server that contains files they need to do their jobs;
  • Use an RDP if you need your employees to access and use a central system from remote locations. This can be the case if the central system features software or technical capabilities that cannot easily be duplicated or distributed to your remote employees;
  • Use an RDP if you need IT technicians to access remote employees’ computers for maintenance and troubleshooting tasks.

If you’re an individual user:

  • Use a personal VPN like NordVPN to access the internet securely and privately;
  • Use a personal VPN to stream your favorite content while you travel or work abroad;
  • Use a personal VPN for extra features that make the Internet a safer place (like NordVPN’s Cybersec)
  • Use a personal VPN to evade online surveillance and censorship;

There are few uses for an RDP for individual users. These would be highly specific cases where the user must access a home computer or must allow a trusted friend or colleague to access their own computer.

Unless you’re a business system admin with special requirements, you’ll probably be looking for a VPN. NordVPN will keep you secure, allow you to change your location, and provide you with a ton of other benefits. Secure your internet now!


Daniel Markuson
Daniel Markuson successVerified author

Daniel is a digital privacy enthusiast and an Internet security expert. As the blog editor at NordVPN, Daniel loves to serve up generous helpings of news, stories, and tips to help people stay private and secure.


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