Lion 101: New Screen Sharing features explained

OS X Lion (s aapl) brings multiple improvements to one of OS X’s most useful and least celebrated built-in elements: screen sharing. If you’re an experienced user of the built-in Mac Screen Sharing app, here are some things you may have missed, and if you’ve never tried it, these improvements might convince you it’s worthwhile.

Note that for Screen Sharing to work, you either need to be on the same network as the Mac you’re trying to access, use Back to My Mac with MobileMe, or use a VPN client like Hamachi.

Per-user and Apple ID login

You can now log into other Macs on your network not only with an authorized user account on that machine, but also with an Apple ID. Plus, you can also specify individuals manually, or add them from your Address Book, who are also allowed to login remotely on a per-user basis, and provide each with a unique password of your choosing. That eliminates the need to create a separate user account just for remote access, since you can just add your son or daughter from your Address Book and send them a password, allowing them to gain remote access if you need tech support, for example.

To add users, go to the Sharing pane in System Preferences, make sure Screen Sharing is turned on, and hit the “+” button to select people from your Address Book contacts. Hit the “New Person” button to authorize people manually.

Observe mode

In previous incarnations of Screen Sharing, you could take over control of another computer, but if you wanted to step back and watch what was happening on said computer, it was fairly tricky. Basically, you had to make another window active and just not touch anything. Now, you can switch to Observe mode, which is perfect for those times when you want to watch what a user is doing in order to provide them with accurate tech support help.

To switch to Observe mode, you can add an icon to the toolbar (pictures, via View > Customize Toolbar…), or go to View > Switch to Observe Mode in the menu bar.

Virtual Display mode

If you want to just change a setting or start a download without interrupting someone else currently using the computer you’re accessing via Screen Sharing, there’s a new Virtual Display mode designed to do just that. It will provide you with your own desktop that doesn’t interfere with what’s currently being shown on the Mac’s actual connected display. This is perfect for running application updates on your parents’ computer while they browse uninterrupted, for instance.

Virtual Display option greyed out here because Screen Sharing is in Observe mode.

If you’re logging into another Mac with per-user permissions, as described above, you’ll be asked whether you want to view the hardware or a virtual display. You can also access Virtual Display mode by going to View > Switch to Virtual Display in the menu bar, and change back to the hardware display by going to View > Switch to Hardware Display.

I find I’m already using these new features quite a bit. How are you finding Screen Sharing in OS X Lion?