A helping hand

It's happened to all of us. If you use a PC, sooner or later, you're going to find yourself at one end of the following conversation: "I don't know what's the matter with this stupid program, but I just can't make it work!"

"Hmmm. I think I know what's wrong. Right-click on that last window and tell me what you see."

"Delete, Run as, Table, Insert clip art, Maximise, Translate...?"

[Ominous silence.]

"Okay, there's no way you can possibly be seeing that!"

At this point you can both pull your hair out trying to explain to each other what you're seeing and what the other person should be doing, or you could take the easy route and try Remote Assistance.

Remote Assistance connects you to another person's XP PC over a network or the Internet, allowing you to have a look at their screen to see what's going on and even - if they give you permission - take temporary control of their computer to solve the problem.

I've used it to help out my outback-dwelling parents with some mysterious computer ailments. And my husband and I have sorted out networking problems in the home office while he's been 1000 kilometres away on business.

Remote Assistance is enabled by default, but you can confirm whether it is turned on by choosing Start-Control Panel-System and then clicking on the Remote tab - see Figure 1.

If the box next to "Allow Remote Assistance invitations to be sent from this computer" isn't checked, then select it and choose OK. You can impose controls on Remote Assistance through the Advanced tab.

Asking for help

There are two ways of sending out a Remote Assistance invitation: by e-mail or by MSN Messenger. To ask for help, choose Start-All Programs-Remote Assistance and click on "Invite someone to help you". In the Windows Messenger section, you can see a list of your contacts (this function isn't supported in Live Messenger yet). If your helper is online, click on their name and then click the "Invite this person" button - see Figure 2. If you get a message from your firewall asking whether to block or allow the messenger service, then allow it.

You can access Remote Assistance directly from MSN Messenger (and this function works in Live Messenger, too). In the main contacts window, choose Actions-Request Remote Assistance - see Figure 3. A list of your online contacts will then pop up. Choose whom you want to ask to help you and a messaging window will appear telling you that they have been invited and to wait for a response. Your contact will either accept or refuse the invitation, and it's at this point that you get a last chance to bail out - or close down windows containing sensitive information - before letting them in.

Once you've given them the go-ahead, a Remote Assistance chat window will pop up, allowing you to type back and forth while you're in the session. If both your PCs have microphones, you can click on the Start Talking button to have a voice conversation. Your friend can see everything that you see on the desktop, so you can show them the problem. When you're finished, either one of you can click on the Disconnect button to end the session.

You can also send a "Help me" message out by e-mail. Choose Start-All Programs-Remote Assistance and then type the e-mail address into the blank line in the e-mail section and click Invite this person. In the next window, fill in your name and message and choose Continue.

Don't forget that you're able to set a time limit for the invitation and add a password to make the session more secure - you could give them the password over the telephone.

When the e-mail invitation arrives in their mailbox, there will be a file attached to it - they should double-click it to accept the invitation and start the Remote Assistance session. You can view the status of all the invitations you've sent out by choosing Start-All Programs-Remote Assistance and then clicking the View Invitation Status link. This window gives you more details on an invitation and lets you cancel a pending invitation with the Expire button, as well as resend and delete.

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Susan Pederson-Bradbury

PC Advisor (UK)
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