Using the Microsoft Remote Desktop Application on Apple macOS

Introduction

I use many computers in my daily life, including Windows, Apple Mac’s, and Linux computers running a variety of distros. It’s very convenient for me to be able to remote into another computer from whichever computer I happen to be on.

On my MacBook (although this would work on any Apple machine running macOS, such as a Mac Mini), the Microsoft Remote Desktop application is a fantastic program for remoting to another computer.

While primarily designed for accessing a Windows machine, it will work with most computers that support the RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) such as many Linux distros.

Note that it will not let you connect to another Apple Mac, as macOS does not support the Remote Desktop Protocol. You can go from a Mac to Windows (or some Linux) computers using the Remote Desktop application, but not to another Mac.

Microsoft Remote Desktop is free, and in the Apple App Store. Just do a search for Microsoft Remote Desktop, get and install it. But don’t open it quite yet, as we have to configure the computer you are going to connect to.

Configure Your Windows Computer

I’m going to assume you are connecting to a Windows 10 Pro computer. Click on the Start button, the pick Settings. In the Windows Settings, pick System.

On the System page, scroll down in the menu on the left and click on Remote Desktop. (You can click on the image below, or any of the ones in this article, to see them in their full resolution).

You’ll first need to toggle on the Enable Remote Desktop setting, as I’ve done here.

Next, look under “How to connect to this PC”. This has the name you need to enter into the Microsoft Remote Desktop app. In this image it shows <name>, but for you it will show the name of the computer. Note that for security reasons, I’ve replaced the actual name of my computers with simply <name> in the screen captures.

Finally, at the bottom look at the User accounts section. By default, if you are an administer on the computer, you are automatically able to remote to the computer.

If you want a standard user, in other words a non-admin user, to be able to remote in you’ll need to add them using the “Select users that can remotely access this PC” link.

At this point you’ve now setup your Windows computer to be remoted into. Note you only have to do this once on this computer, after that it can be remoted to from other computers.

Adding a PC to Microsoft Remote Desktop on your Mac

Now return to your Mac. Assuming you’ve installed the Microsoft Remote Desktop application, open it.

The first time in, you’ll see the big “Add PC” button right in the middle. After you’ve added the first machine, using the instructions here, you can add more computers using the plus button (pointed at by the big red arrow) and pick “Add PC” in the menu.

You’ll then be shown the Add PC window. Start by entering the name of the computer you want to connect to.

After entering the computers name, you’ll see the User account line, which by default is set to Ask when required. In this mode you will be prompted for your login credentials every time.

As an alternative, you can save your credentials by picking Add User Account… in the User account drop down. You’ll then be prompted for your Username and Password. You can also create a “friendly name” for the account.

For example, if you were setting up a connection to your wife’s computer, you’d have to give her full user name, perhaps it’s her e-mail address. In the friendly name could just enter “She who must be obeyed’s computer”.

One nice thing Microsoft Remote Desktop does is save your credentials. Then when you add more computers that use these same credentials you can just pick it from the User account drop down and not have to recreate them every time. This is especially nice for when you use your same Microsoft credential to login to multiple Windows computer.

Once you add the user account, or leave it at the default to ask each time, you’re ready to look at some of the options in Remote Desktop. It’s worth your time to understand these, as it will affect your experience when working with remote computers.

Friendly name can be helpful if the computer has a cryptic name. Often when a PC is purchased the default name is something like WINRPXM457JB. Most home users don’t realize they can rename their computer and leave it at the default. Using the friendly name you can enter “She who must be obeyed’s computer” and know what machine it is.

I find this even more helpful in work environments where they use naming conventions like “HR-PC-001”, “HR-PC-002”, etc. You could instead use meaningful names like “Anna’s computer”, “Jack’s computer”, or “The nice lady who brings us donuts computer”.

If you have a lot of computers you connect to, you may want to group them. By default, there’s one group “Saved PCs”. You may want to create groups such as “My computers”, “Wife’s computers”, “Kid’s computers” and so on. This is totally optional, but the more computers you need to work with the more useful it will become.

The Gateway option is used in corporate environments that have setup Remote Desktop Gateway servers. Since this article is geared toward home users, it shouldn’t affect you. If you are in a corporate environment and need to remote in, your friendly neighborhood system administrator will be able to tell you if you need a gateway, and if so what do you need to enter here.

The other options are pretty straight forward, so let’s click on the Display tab.

Display Options

Here you have some choices on how the remote machine is displayed on your Mac. One notable one is “Use all monitors“. If your Mac has multiple monitors connected to it, you may want to have the remote computer displayed on all of them. To do so, check this box. If you do some of the other options become disabled.

Alternatively, you may want the remote computer only on one monitor so you can still access your Apple computer on the other monitors. Leaving this unchecked allows this.

If you don’t select Use all monitors, you then have the choice to start the remote session in full screen, or show it in a window.

Next up are quality settings, such as the color depth or optimizing for Retina displays. Note that the higher settings you pick, the more bandwidth and processing power it will take.

In my selection, shown above, I chose to use all monitors at a high quality. Make your own selections then click on the Devices & Audio tab.

Devices & Audio Options

This tab controls what gets shared between the host computer, your Mac, and the remote computer (typically a Windows computer).

If, for example, you started a video playing on your remote computer, the “Play sound” option controls where you hear the audio. The default, On this computer simply means the Mac running Microsoft Remote Desktop.

I generally go with the default options, shown here, then go to the Folders tab.

Folder Options

Using the folders tab, you gain the ability to transfer files between your Mac and the computer you are remote controlling.

Start by checking the “Redirect folders” option. Then in the lower left click the + button. In the dialog that pops up, select one of the folders on your Mac. After you’ve connected to your remote computer, this will show up as a folder in your remote computer. Here’s what it looks like on Windows, after you have remoted in.

You’ll see the name of the folder you picked, in this example the Documents folder, the text on my, then the name of your Mac, in this case represented by <my mac>.

From here you can double click to open the Mac’s folder in File Explorer, and begin copying files back and forth. Do note there is a “Read Only” checkbox in the Add PC dialog’s folder options. If you check it, on the Windows computer you connect to will be able to read and copy files from the Mac, but will not be able to copy files to the Mac.

Using redirect folders is optional, and only needed if you wish to move files between the two computers. To be honest, I seldom use this option as I’m a heavy user of Microsoft OneDrive.

If I need something, I simply save it into my OneDrive on the remote computer, then I can open it in my OneDrive folder on my Mac, and vice versa. If you aren’t a user of OneDrive or a similar service then this will be a useful tool for you, should you need to share files.

OK, you’re all done, just click the Add button. This computer will now be added to your Microsoft Remote Desktop window.

Connect To a Remote PC

You can connect by simply double clicking on the block with the computer’s name (in this example represented by <name>).

Note the two icons in the upper right of the computer box. The pencil icon can be used to edit the settings we just saw. The trashcan can be used to remove this computer from your remote desktop application.

When you double click on the computer, you may be shown a message “You are connecting to the RDP host <name>. The certificate couldn’t be verified back to a root certificate. Your connection may not be secure. Do you want to continue?

If you are connecting to your own computer, that you trust, likely on your home network, then you can click the Continue button. In a future post we’ll show you how to resolve this so it will skip this dialog.

Once you have connected, you’ll see the remote computer, probably full screen (unless you changed the property back in the Display options).

Exiting a Remote Desktop Session

I will say, it’s not at all intuitive how to switch back to your Apple macOS desktop, or how to exit a remote desktop session once you are in it. Since I’ve shown you how to get into a remote desktop session, I should take a moment and show you how to get out of it.

To switch back to your macOS machine, simply use the CTRL key, plus the left arrow to swap to the previous desktop. Using CTRL plus right arrow will go back to the Remote Desktop session.

If you are using the virtual desktops feature in macOS, you can use CTRL and the left or right arrows to move past the remote desktop session to other macOS virtual desktops, then go back to the remote desktop.

To exit a remote desktop session, while you are looking at your remote computer simply drag your cursor to the very top of the screen and let it sit there a few seconds.

The Apple menu bar will pop up. You can then use the Window menu, and click Close. Alternatively you can click the Red X button in the Remote Desktop window to close the session.

Also note it’s possible to connect to multiple computers at the same time. You can use either the CTRL and left/right arrow to swap between them, or in the Window menu pick a different remote desktop to connect to.

Network Connectivity

Please note that both the Apple Mac and the computer you are remoting to must be on the same network. Typically this will be your home network, or perhaps a work network.

By default, Remote Desktop won’t work if, for example, you go to a coffee shop with your Mac and your Windows computer is still at home.

It is possible to work around this by setting up a VPN connection back to your home network. Setting that up, however, is beyond the scope of this already long blog post.

Summary

In this post, you saw how to install and configure Microsoft Remote Desktop on Apple’s macOS and connect to a Windows Computer. The screen captures were from macOS Big Sur and Windows 10, but I’ve also tested it with Catalina and Mojave.