Lend a hand from afar

Use Remote Assistance to help fix your friends' PC problems.

If you have an interest in technology, you probably find your friends think you're fair game when it comes to fixing their PC problems.

I don't mind lending a hand to a bewildered friend. But when it's inconvenient to visit and you can't rely on them to accurately describe the dilemma or follow your phone instructions, not being able to see what's onscreen can be frustrating.

Remote access can take the pain out of the troubleshooting process. It allows you to access a friend's machine as if it were right in front of you, from the comfort of your own home. You can drive the controls yourself and fix problems quickly.

To set up such a session, you'll need permission to access their PC via the web. Their desktop will appear on your screen, allowing you to access their files, programs and settings.

Microsoft provides good options in the form of Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop Connection. But if you're using a non-Windows PC or you want more functionality, several third-party apps are available free of charge on a trial basis.

If your friend would rather not give you free rein on their PC, Windows 7's Problem Steps Recorder utility can record a series of screenshots to be viewed in Internet Explorer. This will help you fix the problem from afar.

Using Remote Assistance in Windows 7

Windows offers two remote-access options: Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop Connection. The former lets you securely access a PC that's not in front of you, without others being able to access it online. This method requires a user to initiate the Remote Assistance request and then approve the incoming connection.

Remote Desktop Connection, meanwhile, is more suitable if you regularly need to connect to a remote machine. This versatile tool lets you control any PC from anywhere.

Remote Assistance isn't new to Windows 7 - it first appeared in XP - but a few tweaks along the way have unlocked new potential. To access the utility In Windows 7, click Help and Support, select 'More support options' and choose Remote Assistance. In earlier versions of Windows, click Help and Support and run a search for Remote Assistance.

Once you've opened the utility, choose how to send a request for help. In Windows XP, this can be done via an instant message or email. Windows 7, meanwhile, lets you send an email, save the invitation as an email attachment or use Easy Connect.

If you choose Easy Connect, Windows 7 establishes a relationship between two PCs, which can then instantly connect using the utility. Selecting the email request option launches your default mail client and creates a message requesting help, along with an attachment that the recipient will need to provide their assistance. You're then prompted to create a password.

On receiving your help request email, the recipient must click on the attachment and enter the password to connect to your PC. You'll then receive a prompt requesting your permission to establish the incoming connection, plus a warning that the connection will allow them to see everything on your Windows desktop.

As long as the Remote Assistance session is connected, both you and the person you're helping will be able to see the same Windows desktop. A chat function lets you communicate with each other to troubleshoot and resolve the problem.

Remote Assistance is useful for troubleshooting remote PCs on a one-off basis. For regular remote access, Remote Desktop Connection is better.

Using Remote Desktop Connection in Windows 7

Before you can connect to a remote system with Remote Desktop Connection, the computer must be configured to accept such connections. In Vista and Windows 7, right-click Computer and select Properties, then choose Remote Settings from the lefthand side of the window. Alternatively, go to Control Panel, System and choose the Remote settings link in the left pane. In XP, right-click My Computer, choose Properties and select the Remote tab.

The Remote Settings control panel lets you give other systems permission to connect with your computer. Members of the Administrators group automatically have access to a machine that has the Remote Desktop Connection feature turned on. You can add other users here.

Once Remote Desktop Connection is enabled, the basic information about your computer will tell you the name or address of the PC that must be used when connecting to the PC remotely.

To begin a Remote Desktop Connection session, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, Remote Desktop Connection. In the Remote Desktop Connection window, you can enter either the IP address or the computer name of the system you want to connect to, as well as the username you're using for the connection.

Once you've initiated the connection process, the software will ask you to enter a valid username and password for the remote computer, unless you saved the connection credentials from a previous session on that PC.

Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008 permit multiple simultaneous connections via Remote Desktop Connection, but desktop versions of Windows allow only one connection at a time. Unlike Remote Assistance, Remote Desktop Connection lets only the remote user see the desktop.

While you're working on another user's machine using Remote Desktop Connection, all they'll see at their end is a blacked-out screen. Whether they think you've made the problem worse and panic, or they get bored of waiting and think they'll have a look online, logging into the machine while you're working on it will automatically terminate the session. Advise them to sit back and not to fiddle until you say otherwise.

Working with Problem Steps Recorder in Windows 7

Problem Steps Recorder (PSR) is a helpful utility that's new to Windows 7. It lets you document the actions that led to or created a computer problem. You can then send the compiled recording to a helpdesk or a tech-savvy friend for review, hopefully enabling them to provide you with a solution in return.

It's often difficult to identify the exact problem with your PC to explain to another user. Likewise, your tech-savvy friend may have trouble recreating the behaviour you're describing. In such cases, PSR can be invaluable.

PSR sessions can be sent as file attachments, letting the recipient work on the problem offline and in their own time. This process enables tech support to work more efficiently (and without the added pressure of a frustrated user waiting on the other end of a phoneline).

PSR can't be accessed via the Control Panel or through any Windows menus. Instead, press the Windows key on your keyboard and type psr.exe into the search field. Double-click the PSR logo displayed in the search box and you'll see a simple console with options to start and stop screen recording, and to add comments.

Click Start Record. Recreate the problem on your machine by following exactly the same steps as you did when it appeared.

You can pause the recording at any time and resume it later. Click Add Comment to jot down any notes that may be of use in solving the issue.

When the problem has occurred, click Stop Record. The recorder will save the recording as a .zip file.

PSR sessions aren't videos but a collection of annotated screenshots. The resulting slideshow is compiled into an MHTML (multimedia HTML) file that you can email or send as an instant message attachment. This file is viewable only in Internet Explorer. To view the record of the steps yourself, open the .zip file and double-click the file to open it in your browser.

This utility isn't only useful when problems arise. You can also use it to create tutorials for complex tasks, potentially avoiding future problems.

Of course, connecting to a troubled PC and observing the problem are only the first steps in solving it. But if you can avoid a home visit, you've already made fixing the problem easier.