Troubleshoot Windows remotely over the Net

Microsoft offers a few good Internet-based options that simplify the task of connecting to a troubled PC
  • Tony Bradley (PC World (US online))
  • 15 February, 2010 16:40

Whether you're an IT pro or the go-to geek in your social circle, often the biggest hassle in fixing a computer problem is simply getting to the PC that needs help. Fortunately, Microsoft offers a few good Internet-based options that simplify the task of connecting to a troubled system.

With Remote Assistance, Remote Desktop Connection, and Problem Steps Recorder, you can control a remote PC as if you were sitting at the keyboard in front of it. Not only do these tools save you a drive, but they also help you avoid scenarios where you try to help out a friend who can't seem to use menus properly or identify settings and dialog messages accurately. Instead of guiding a clueless soul to Control Panel and beyond, you can drive the controls yourself and fix problems quickly.

Remote Assistance


Remote Assistance lets you provide safe and secure tech support for distant computers, whether for your company or for friends and family.

Unlike many remote-access tools, Remote Assistance doesn't open a user's Windows PC to the Internet so that any outsider can connect at will. The user must initiate the Remote Assistance request and approve the incoming connection.

This tool has existed since Windows XP, but it has evolved a bit during the transition from XP to Vista to Windows 7. In Windows 7, click Help and Support, select More Support Options at the bottom of the window, and choose Remote Assistance. To find Remote Assistance in previous versions of Windows, click Help and Support and run a search for it.


Once you've opened Remote Assistance, you can choose how to send a request for help. The method and format of the request have changed over time. In Windows XP, the choice is between instant messaging and e-mail. In Windows 7, you can opt to send an e-mail, save the invitation as a file to be sent as an attachment, or use Easy Connect, which establishes a relationship between two Windows 7 systems that can then connect via Remote Assistance instantly.

Selecting the e-mail request option opens the user's default e-mail client and creates an e-mail message requesting help, along with a file attachment that the recipient will use to connect to the computer needing assistance. In Windows XP and Vista, the system prompts the user to create a password for the remote helper to use in order to connect with the PC; Windows 7 creates its own (ostensibly more secure) password.


After you receive and click on the attachment, you must enter the password to start the connection to the remote PC. At this point, the person who asked for your help will see a prompt requesting permission to establish the incoming connection and warning that the connection will allow you to see everything on their 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.

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Remote Desktop Connection

Remote Assistance is good for troubleshooting remote systems on a one-time, as-needed basis; but if you need to connect with a remote system regularly, use Remote Desktop Connection. This versatile Windows tool lets you control any remote PC; it's especially valuable for administrators who need to connect with servers or other critical systems.


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

The Remote Settings control panel lets you allow or disallow remote systems to connect with your computer. Members of the Administrators group automatically have access to systems whose Remote Desktop Connection is turned on. If you want users who aren't already administrators on this PC to be able to connect using Remote Desktop Connection, you must add them here. Once Remote Desktop Connection is enabled, it will tell you the address to use in order to connect 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 user name 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 PC, 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 systems allow only one connection at a time. Unlike Remote Assistance, Remote Desktop Connection lets only the remote user see the desktop. A person sitting in front of the PC will see the screen blacked out while the Remote Desktop Connection session is engaged. If someone logs back in to the system locally, the session will terminate; so when you use Remote Desktop Connection to troubleshoot a PC, tell the person at the other end to sit back and relax while you do your thing.

Problem Steps Recorder

Windows 7 includes a very helpful new tool called Problem Steps Recorder. This cool utility lets you document step-by-step the actions that led to or created a computer problem. You can then send the compiled recording to a help desk or another individual so they can review the exact scenario you encountered and--maybe--figure out where things went wrong.


Problem Steps Recorder is a big deal for several reasons. Frequently users can't identify exactly what the problem is, and help-desk agents often have trouble re-creating the computer misbehavior that users describe. Though Windows Remote Assistance allows both the user and the help desk to see the desktop at the same time and work through the problem together, third-party providers rarely use it as a troubleshooting tool.

Second, because Problem Steps Recorder sessions can be sent as file attachments, the user and the help desk do not have to be connected in real time. Having access to a visual re-creation of the problem and being able to resolve the issue offline and subsequently inform the user about the solution allow help-desk agents to work more efficiently (and without the added pressure of a frustrated user waiting on the other end of a connection).

Problem Steps Recorder is unavailable in the Control Panel or through any Windows menus. To open Problem Steps Recorder and create a session, press the Windows key on your keyboard and type psr.exe into the search field. Press Enter, and you'll see a simple console with options to start and stop the recording, and to add comments.

Problem Steps Recorder sessions are not videos; they are a collection of annotated screenshots. The resulting session is compiled into an MHTML file that you can e-mail or send as a file attachment via instant messaging. The MHTML file is viewable only in Internet Explorer.

Another nice thing about the Problem Steps Recorder is that you don't have to save it for times when problems arise. You can use it to create tutorials or documented how-to sessions for complex or confusing tasks, thereby educating users and preemptively avoiding potential problems.

Of course, connecting to a troubled PC and observing the problem are only the first steps in solving a remote computer difficulty. But if you can avoid traveling to the remote system, you've already made fixing the problem a little bit easier.