Providing PC support remotely to family and friends

I take the role of “computer-problem-fixer” in my family very seriously. 🙂 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.



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 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 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 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. 😛 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:
    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:

    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:

  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. 😛 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 on setting up remote desktop does a great job of giving you a detailed walkthrough on using remote desktop. Good luck! 🙂


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).


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! 🙂

10 reasons to upgrade to Windows 7 from XP or Vista

So, I’ve gotten a lot of comments in person about whether or not Windows 7 is worth the upgrade. 50% of those inquiries come from disgruntled Windows users and the other 50% from completely non-technical users (*cough* my husband and father-in-law *cough*). So, this post is for those two categories of people.

  1. If you’re still on Windows 2000 or Windows XP: there are way too many reasons to switch. If you want details, please check out Paul Thurrott’s review of Windows 7. If there is a particular application that’s keeping you tied to Windows XP, there is XP mode available for free on Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Ultimate for you to use. If you are worried about drivers being available, Windows 7 supports an astounding number of devices and if it can’t find your device, there are built-in tools such as the troubleshooting section to help find a solution to your issue. Are you worried about speed? Suffice it to say that, Windows 7 has been re-engineered to be less of a system resource hog than Vista was and is actually kinder to older hardware. Those reports of Windows 7 being installed on Netbooks is real and should provide encouragement that Windows 7 is really easy to use! I’d really hate for you to be tied down to XP when 7 is heads and shoulders over XP and Vista!
  2. If you’ve managed to grok the weird system that Vista was and you’re uncomfortable with learning yet-another-system, my advice to you is this: At $29 for a student license to upgrade to Windows 7 Professional, the performance improvements on Windows 7 alone should make 7 worth your time. Windows 7 isn’t too much of a visual overhaul as it is an under-the-hood reworking of how Vista made use of your computer’s resources. Here’s a little ‘caveat’ if you will about why Windows 7 is a speeddemon on *my* laptop:
    • When I purchased my HP laptop (dv9700t) in 2008, I went for above average components like the Intel Penryn Core 2 Duo processors, an Nvidia 512MB 8600M graphics card and 4 gigabytes of RAM because I had done my research about the minimum requirements for the optimal functioning of Vista. So when Windows 7 came out, my computer’s specs were obviously more than qualified to run Windows 7 without a hiccup.
    • My point: if you purchased a computer in recent years (2008 or even late 2007), running Windows 7 is not going to cause any slow down in your productivity. If your desktop is over 5 yrs old, you could really benefit from the hundreds of deals out there on electronics.
  3. If you are unsure about how to go about getting the best bang for your buck, here are some sites I use to bargain-hunt on the web:
    • This site has been around on the web for a while. It’s a great way to get wind of gadgets that are hot and feel free to waste hours browsing their website.
    • This site is a money-saver for me because everytime I find something I like on the web, I *always* search RetailMeNot to see if there are any coupons that I can use to save an extra $50 or $5 off.
    • This site has been a staple of mine for years. Again, if you find some toy you like, make sure you check this website for the same item in case they have it on sale for less.
    • This site is another new contender on the block, but it can be a hugely useful website during times called “Woot-Offs” where they can sell high end items for cheap or bags of crap (literally) for cheap as well. This is a staple of mind that I check daily because each day offers some new tech. toy.

With that, I bid you adieu and happy hunting! 🙂

Optimizing your Windows operating system with built-in tools

I have this tendency to install programs on my computer and after a day or two, I change my mind and uninstall them. Since not all programs are efficient at removing their tracks/traces from my computer, I resort to manually hunting down rogue files and then using Norton Utilities to do the rest of the work. I chose Norton Utilities over Iolo or TuneUp because right or wrong, I feel that since Norton makes a very capable internet security application for the Windows operating system, I would take my chances with Norton’s tips for optimizing their computer versus a company that touts an 800% increase in Windows 7 bootup times” *cough* Iolo *cough* If there’s one thing I would upgrade to Windows 7 for, it’s for the decreased bootup times. I can’t tell you how much faster it is because I am not a time-clock pusher. Go to one of those tech. review sites for that. However, in real people speak, it’s fast enough that I don’t have to get coffee before sitting down to start working with the computer.

In my experience, the best way to make sure your Windows installation stays free of cruft is to do the following:
1) Make use of the built-in system cleanup tool. Seriously. On XP, Vista and now Windows 7, there is utility called “Disk Cleanup” that lets you remove everything from old system restore points, debug data dumps to temp files (where things like cached pages are stored). To get to the Disk Cleanup tool, press the Windows “Start” key and type “Disk Cleanup”. Windows Search is very efficient and the chances are high that it showed you “Disk Cleanup” entry before you completed your search term.
2) Uninstall crap you don’t use: If you are like me, you have 2 of each kind of program. 🙂 For instance, I’ve got 2 OCR programs currently installed (Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional and I.R.I.S. Professional 12 (which, by the way, sucks majorly so don’t waste your money buying I.R.I.S. OCR). Why on earth do I need 2 image editing programs (I’ve got GIMP and Adobe Photoshop CS3 installed) or 3 photo cataloging applications (Adobe Bridge CS3, Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Live Photo Gallery)? I’m clearly guilty of the sin of keeping programs around that I don’t make use of a lot. You will save on disk space if you just honestly come clean with yourself first and remove duplicate programs.
3) Disk problems: Sometimes, the file system structure gets corrupted especially if you run programs that bleach the free hard disk space or partition your hard disk. Typically, you can sort out disk errors by rightclicking on your C: drive icon under “My Computer” and selecting “Properties”. Then, you’ll want to click on the tab called, “Tools” and select the “Check now” button under “Error Checking.” An alert box will pop up and ask you to scan your file system for errors as well as fix & repair said errors. Ideally, you want to have both options checked. Then, Windows should inform you that you will need to schedule a disk check because “the files that need to be changed are currently in use.” This disk check (chkdsk) will happen when you boot up your computer. Simple, right? not so fast. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen even after you tell the computer to schedule a disk check. No matter how many times you restart your computer. Trust me on this one. What to do?

  • I rebooted in safe mode (I think it’s the F8 key).
  • I logged in as an Administrator
  • I clicked the “Windows” key and typed “cmd”. Rightclick to start commandline tool as an administrator.
  • Run the following command: chkdsk /R
  • The chkdsk /R flag basically tells the computer to fix any file system errors and it implies (obviously) that you are scanning the file system for errors. If all you want to do is scan your file system, then type in chkdsk /F

You don’t have to take my word for any of this. If you are skeptical about typing in commands from a internet stranger, then ask Windows for help. What do I mean? For almost all commands you type into the commandline tool, if you put the word, “help” or “/?” after your command, you will get a list of options that are associated with that particular command. And *that’s* how I know the difference between the /R and /F flags. 😀

Cheers and I hope this helps someone who is trying to figure out how to get Windows 7 or Vista to run a disk check when it won’t do it on its own.