Providing PC support remotely to family and friends

I take the role of “computer-problem-fixer” in my family very seriously. πŸ™‚ I love tinkering and troubleshooting so helping out doesn’t feel like a burden to me. So, I thought I’d do a post on how I’m able to assist my family members and friends from afar.

One of the things I’ll tell you right away is to assume that your computer jargon will be that: jargon and not understood by the non-techie. That said, do the following and you’ll be less likely to be frustrated:

  1. If you absolutely must direct the person being helped over the phone, spell out each step using specific terms (right- or left- click versus just telling them to ‘double-click’, position of the windows/prompts, etc) and depending on the skill level, feel free to spell out letters (this comes in handy when collecting usernames and/or passwords), use colors, and directional language (bottom-left panel/windows/alert-box, top-right, etc) to get the job done. It might sound silly, but if someone’s not as used to using computers as you are, they’ll need all the pointers they can get. From a recent memory, I lost an hour of time because the asker omitted a space between their Windows username and Logmein kept rejecting my login!
  2. If we’re talking about removing badware from the person’s computer, I strongly recommend using a remote service. I like to see what’s going on and reduce the chance that something crucial gets overlooked.

For this article, I’ll writing about my experiences with the following services: Logmein, Windows Remote Assistance (for XP, Vista, Windows 7), Windows Remote Desktop and Microsoft SharedView.

 

Logmein

Short and sweet verdict: If you’re called up out of the blue and have never touched the asker’s computer, this may be a lot of pain, but once you get over the installation and connection part, you’re good!. That said, there are a couple of steps to get things going:

  1. you’ll have to get the asker to sign up for the logmein.com website.
  2. install the Logmein software (increasing support time and risk of something else going wrong)
  3. Get the asker’s username and password to the Logmein website. With the Logmein free version (compared to the Pro version of Logmein), there’s no way to temporarily “invite” someone to work on your computer. The alternative would be to have the asker to install the Logmein software on their computer and input your credentials so that on the Logmein.com web interface, you can take remote control of the asker’s computer. Obviously, I recommend against doing that.
  4. The better alternative is to have the asker provide their Logmein.com credentials after they’re done installing so you can log in to the website and take control of their computer that way.
  5. I’ve done this and I highly recommend you already set up your relatives/friends who you think might need help) with Logmein before they need help. πŸ˜› And write down their username/password combination to the Logmein website AND their Windows username/password combination too! Trust me, in S.O.S situations like this, anything that can go wrong, will.
  6. Go ahead and fix what’s broken.

Windows Remote Assistance

Short and sweet verdict: no installation process especially if they’re on the Windows operating system and requires a bit of attention to detail on the asker’s part. That’s *always* the tricky part when assisting people. That said:

  1. On Windows XP, go to this Microsoft knowledge base article. Please read the article which explains how to get access Windows Remote Assistance in-depth. Briefly, fire up XP’s Help & Support and look for the tool under the “Ask for help” section. When in doubt, search for “remote assistance”. For Windows Vista and 7, hit “start” and type “remote” and you should see this image:
    remote.png
    Quick Tip: Read this link to learn how to enable remote assistance on Windows XP. On Windows 7, right-click on the “My Computer” icon and go to “Properties”. Click “Advanced System Settings” and navigate to the “Remote” tab. Refer to this image for more:
    win7-remoteassistance.png 

    With Windows Remote Assistance on Windows 7, you have the option of saving the invitation file to a .msrcincident file which can be opened by PC’s running other versions of Windows or using Easy Connect which can only be used with another Windows 7 computer. I was not able to get Easy Connect to work with this persistent “can’t connect to global peer-to-peer network” message. Microsoft has a tool on their website called the “Internet Connectivity Evaluation Tool” which “checks your Internet router to see if it supports certain technologies.” See image below:
    remote-easy-con.png

  2. Anyway, get the asker/use to fire up Windows Remote Assistance and invite you using your email address with a time limit of ~ 4hrs (arbitrarily chosen). Get them to email you this file and once you have received & opened it, walk them through the expected prompts. In my case, I had pictures of what it would look like on the asker’s machine so that I could talk them through accepting my request to take over their computer.

Windows Remote Desktop

Short and sweet verdict: Involves advanced concepts like port forwarding, public IP addresses and such. πŸ˜› I can’t speak too much on this and the biggest reason being I haven’t given it a serious shake to properly configure and gain access to a test system. On a private/home network, it’s easy, but on a public network behind an ISP, things are trickier. This FAQ by Microsoft on using Remote Desktop has pointers to helpful info and this article by TeamTutorials.com on setting up remote desktop does a great job of giving you a detailed walkthrough on using remote desktop. Good luck! πŸ™‚

SharedView

Short and sweet verdict: involves the asker & you signing up for a Windows Live account, downloading & installing the software but otherwise easy-to-follow steps with some attention to detail.
I found out about Microsoft SharedView through reading Scott Hanselman’s list of tools he uses. I downloaded & installed it, but never got a chance to use it until a couple of days ago. It’s billed as a collaboration tools and thus, should serve very well as a means to work on a relative’s computer, no?

  1. If you don’t have a Windows Live account (if you have a Hotmail account, you’re good to go), go ahead and sign up for one. Get the asker to sign up for one as well.
  2. Download & install the SharedView program.
  3. Start a session. Refer to the image below (first image show what it looks like when I’m connected to the asker’s computer and the second image shows how to start a session).

sharedview.png
sharedview-1.png

As always, corrections and comments are welcome. For my personal home network, I use Logmein Free. For assisting others, I’ve used a combination of Windows Remote Assistance and SharedView. Your mileage may vary. There are other ways of assisting people remotely, but that’s beyond the scope of this “short and sweet” article. Thanks for reading! πŸ™‚

Setting Up Ubuntu in Oracle VM VirtualBox

I’m way too enamored of Windows 7 to consider wiping it off and replacing it with Ubuntu Lucid Lynx. However, I’d read lots of good things about it and wanted to see/feel the changes firsthand. The next best solution for me was to install Ubuntu in SunOracle’s VirtualBox software. I’ve always found VirtualBox friendly to use, but realize that that might not be the case for everyone. So, I created this long-ish video showing you how to install Ubuntu as a Virtual machine in VirtualBox from a .iso file. Ingredients for doing this:

  1. ~ 1 hour to spare.
  2. Make sure you’ve downloaded the .iso files for the operating system you’d like to test out. Visit DistroWatch for a selection of OSes to pick from.
  3. Install VirtualBox
  4. Watch my video called “32-bit Ubuntu on Oracle VM VirtualBox” on the Jane Talks Tech! channel on BlipTV and on Youtube as well (embedded below).
  5. The same video is up on the Facebook page for Jane Talks Tech! (janetalkstech.com).

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jV23KKsCKn4

I won an HP TouchSmart 600 giveaway by Chip Chick!

If you don’t know, Twitter‘s a great way to get involved with various communities (photography, technology, etc). Another good use of Twitter has been giveaways. Just make sure that’s NOT all you do on Twitter or if you must, set up a separate twitter account for participating in giveaways. In several giveaways based on Twitter, all you need to do is retweet a couple of sentences with a hashtag included. I’ve participated in non-twitterbased giveaways before and those are always more involved than just retweeting something. Here are the most common ways to enter giveaways that I’ve seen on the web.

  1. Leave a comment about “why you want X device/what X device will do for you/ETC” and be randomly selected. Usually done by big blogs and expectedly reduces your chances for winning due to the low barrier for entry.
  2. Post a video/picture and most creative will be selected by contest editors.
  3. Write a blog post about topic X and link back to a predetermined page.
  4. Create a video/picture/blogpost and the one with most votes win.
  5. Enter your personal details (name, email address and/or home address) for a random drawing.
  6. or Do all of the above and be selected by contest editors.
  7. or do all of the above and be randomly selected.

This particular contest I participated in was run by Chip Chick and the methods of entry were:

  1. Tweet @chip_chick saying β€œEnter me in the HP TouchSmart 600 Giveaway http://bit.ly/9FIls1”
  2. Make a comment on this post which explains what you would do with the HP TouchSmart 600 if you won it.
  3. Or send us an email detailing what you would do with the TouchSmart 600 if it was all yours.

I found out about this giveaway through Twitter and my initial instinct was to enter the contest through retweeting. This method would be great if entries were randomly selected b/c least amount of work on your part. However, I wasn’t too sure on how this contest would be judged and I decided writing an email would be my best option. I’ve done several of these that I was not under any illusions that this giveaway would be different. Giveaway contests are completely subject to the editors/sponsors rules so always read the rules. The rest, as they say, is history. πŸ™‚ Yadda yadda yadda, I got an email saying I had won the TouchSmart 600 last week.

janetalkstech-won-hptouchsmart-600.png

To say I was excited would be an understatement. πŸ˜› I have had some good luck online. Cases in point:

  1. Winning a license for Camtasia 6.0 (worth $299) via Gottabemobile.com’s contest in 2008 which involved making a video about why I needed/wanted Camtasia 6 and leaving a comment that pointed to the video I had created. The odds were in my favor because there were 4 video entries and whether you like it or not, if contests are decided by editors, they like to see some effort put into your entries! Did my video blow you away? Probably not, but compared to the other entries, I looked pretty good. I did make a follow-up video that was not so painful. πŸ˜€
  2. Last year, I participated in Swoopo.com for the first time and won an auction for my current laptop (HP dv7-3080us) for ~ $250. The retail price of this quadcore laptop is around ~$1400. To put things into perspective, my former (now hubby’s) laptop cost that much, but it’s specs are laughable compared to this current notebook. I digress, but I clearly scored a scoop with Swoopo that, much to my chagrin, I haven’t been able to recreate. This is why gambling is bad, kids. Don’t do it. πŸ˜›

So winning the HP TouchSmart 600 has been my biggest coup so far. I would peg its true worth at ~ $1200 versus the stated $1500. Who’s cares? I’m just thrilled to have won it and all that matters is this: HP makes good products. They’re well known in the blogosphere for their phenomenal giveaways and I’m glad they selected Chip Chick for hosting this giveaway. Now, I have possession of an entertainment PC that I didn’t have before. πŸ™‚ My hubby & I have already chunked our bulky entertainment center (made of wood), the 40lb TV, the old 100lb speakers, the VCR player (don’t ask. lol), the DVD player and temporarily shelved the PS2. Our living room looks great with the extra stuff moved out of the way as the HP TouchSmart is poised to become the defacto TV & entertainment spot. I do have an interesting sidenote.

First impressions about its specifications: This is in NO way looking this $1200 gift horse in the mouth, but I thought it bears noting. Nearly all online contests state that the “Approximate value of prizes may vary.” In my case, there was probably ~ $300 difference from the reviewed model which I don’t care about, but in the interest of documentation, I wanted to write about. The HP Touchsmart model reviewed by Chip Chick had a BluRay player. The eventual model I received (HP Touchsmart 600-1000t) has player for CDs/DVDs only. Update: I also noticed that this model (TouchSmart 600-1000t) lacks HDMI input. Luckily enough, my laptop (dv7-3080us) *can* play BluRay discs so I definitely don’t miss this feature although I would definitely swap out players if I could. The side-effect of missing BluRay playback on this model of the TouchSmart 600 is that HP could skimp on the graphics card installed in the PC.

On the outside packaging, I read it had “integrated” graphics and I inwardly winced thinking of the Intel graphics from my 2005 HP desktop PC. Thankfully, I was happy to note that it had an Nvidia Graphics card (Gefore G200) with 256MB of video memory and an Nvidia chipset (hence the use of the “integrated graphics” term). Putting this into perspective, my laptop’s video card has 1GB of video memory with BluRay Playback. I’ll speculate that this lower-end graphics card was put in because it didn’t need BluRay playback. The WEI score supports my suspicion as it was the ‘weakest’ link with a WEI rating of 5.3. It will be interesting to chronicle the computer’s performance. So far, I’ve had 1 incident where the screen ‘froze’ and didn’t respond to my taps while playing one of the games (Garden Pond) from the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7.

First impressions about using it as the TV replacement: I gravitated to using Windows Media Center over the HP’s custom Live TV tile in the TouchSmart software. The main reason: using the remote control while in the TouchSmart 3.0 software repeatedly brought up the Windows Media Center. This meant that to bring up things like the guide or info with the Live TV tile meant leaving the couch to do so. It’s just a small inconvenience, but enough to make me stick to Windows Media Center for now. I would actually recommend using Windows Media Center for TV watching because it’s much more mature than the Live TV tile and I prefer WMC’s method of navigating through Channels and upcoming shows. The 23″ screen is more than adequate for our TV watching needs and the sound emanating from this thing is actually better than my old TV’s! Now, I’m no audiophile, but I generally use my husband as the yardstick for audio stuff and his verdict: it sounds rich. Sold!

First impressions about using Netflix app on the TouchSmart software or Windows Media Center: Windows Media Center wins this hands-down. Main reason: Netflix software on the TouchSmart 3.0 interface is only set up to playback movies that are in your “instant queue”. This means you must already have a movie “playlist” and the Netflix app dutifully plays those movies. However, the Netflix plugin for Windows Media Center has more capabilities i.e. you can browse the Netflix library and add movies for watching. You aren’t limited to items in your instant queue and can search movies based on genre. Perhaps with time, there’ll be more improvements to the Netflix app on the TouchSmart 3.0 software.

First impressions as a desktop computer replacement: Doing a dollar-for-dollar comparison (and based on this model’s specifications), you’re better off getting a desktop/flatscreen LCD combo for less than what this TouchSmart costs. Of course, you’ll be trading space and convenience for more computing power. This TouchSmart will be great for places with lobbies i.e. nearly all establishments where users do casual browsing, document editing, etc. It’s great for eye-candy too. For me, the primary selling points would be: TV replacement, BluRay playback (which this model lacks), and Touch capabilities. Text entry with the onscreen keyboard is a fun experience. I discovered that hovering above the letters was enough to trigger the surface. For instance, hovering above the letter A with your fingertip would cause the letter A to get entered into your textbox. This is possibly by design because it should theoretically help with text entry. Windows 7 is so smart and I’m discovering little things like pinching a webpage in IE 8 will zoom out! The built-in speech recognition in Windows 7 (Home premium) is actually pretty good and I spent ~ 1 hr going through the training, but I don’t forsee using my voice to command the PC because the error rate (at this point) is 50%. Error rate = issuing a voice command / recognizing the voice command . I’m Nigerian by birth so it probably detects my accent. Still, it’s nice to be lazy and yell “close that” to close the current/active window. πŸ˜› I have the speech recognition set to listen for the phrase “start listening” in order to start issuing commands versus having it on all the time or manually activating speech recognition.

First impressions on the bundled games: The standard games for Windows 7 are available for the TouchSmart 600. With the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7, there are ~ 4 applications that are geared for being played through touch (Microsoft Surface Globe – like Google Earth, Microsoft Surface Lagoon – a screensaver, Microsoft Blackboard and Microsoft Garden Pond). The only missing item from the Touch Pack on the HP Touchsmart is Microsoft Surface Collage. The next set of games are HP games powered by WildTangent. I’m deeply mistrustful of WildTangent (see the “Wild Tangent” Wikipedia page) so I haven’t attempted playing any of the HP games. I haven’t heard of any companies making games that take advantage of computers like the TouchSmart. If you are out there, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. Surely, there is a market for this in the Windows world. I mean, the iPad just came out and now has thousands of apps yet the TouchSmart (the posterchild for the future of Windows 7 touch computing until the HP Slate makes its debut) doesn’t. It makes me wonder about Seriously, I’m not installing any applications on this computer that aren’t touch-aware. That would be stupid because I’ve got my laptop for that!

In a nutshell, this latest device in our household is a huge help & relief to have. I wasn’t kidding in my contest entry when I said the TouchSmart would become the centerpiece for entertainment at my home. My husband & I are huge Netflix fans and I like my TV stations. In 1 fell swoop, the HP TouchSmart has simplified my life. That’s the best thing about this computer. Look out for my next post (with pictures!) about my feelings about the HP TouchSmart after the giddiness of owning for a 1 day has worn off. πŸ™‚