How to use remote-access software
We all know the scenario. You’re sitting happily at home watching TV – or perhaps at your desk in the middle of the day – when suddenly the call comes in: “Something’s gone wrong with my computer.”
You can try to diagnose the problem over the phone, but this can be agonising, especially if the person seeking your support isn’t particularly technical.
So, what can you do? Your first instinct might be to hop in your car, head over to your (hopefully grateful) friend or family member’s house and take a look for yourself – and sometimes that’s true.
Before you set off, however, it’s worth checking whether you can resolve the problem by using remote-access software. This approach won’t be much help if the PC won’t switch on, or if it’s been disconnected from the internet.
It also won’t help you diagnose hardware problems, such as a dodgy monitor cable or a dying battery in the mouse. In many cases, though, the ability to give a PC a once-over from afar, and to make any necessary configuration changes, can save you an awful lot of time and travel.
Remote-access software: Windows Remote Assistance
The good news is that there’s a remote-access tool built into Windows. The Remote Assistance application lets you connect to another user’s computer over a network and view and control their desktop without the need to install anything. (Don’t confuse this tool with the Remote Desktop Connection application: this opens a new user session on the remote PC that is displayed only on your screen, making it rather less useful for collaborative troubleshooting.)
Unfortunately, home networks aren’t normally set up to accommodate this type of connection request by default. In order for you to connect to a remote PC over the internet, your supportee’s router must be configured to forward incoming connections on port 3389 to the PC in question, and it may also be necessary to configure any local security software to permit the connection. All of this may be daunting for a family member to configure if you haven’t set it up in advance. You’ll also need to know the external IP address of their router, which again they may have difficulty finding and passing on.
For simplicity, therefore, it’s common to use third-party software that uses a central server to broker connections between computers. Since every PC opens its own outbound connection to this server, routers and firewalls don’t get in the way – and if a remote PC is online you can connect to it by simply clicking on its name, rather than having to worry about its network address.
Remote-access software: TeamViewer 9
There are dozens of remote-access tools available, but the majority are paid-for. That’s because remote-desktop access is useful not only for ad hoc personal assistance, but also for professional support and administration.
One such system is TeamViewer. As the name suggests, this is primarily designed as a business tool, and it supports online meeting features as well as straightforward desktop access. Pricing for the basic package starts at £439 inc VAT, rising to £1,769 for a fully featured corporate licence.
Generously, though, the publisher also makes the service available free of charge for private, non-commercial use. In some ways, it’s overkill – you don’t really need its online meeting features, management interface and so forth – but you can certainly benefit from its business-class uptime, rock-solid connections and premium features such as remote audio, remote printing and file transfer.
It also works on OS X and Linux PCs, and apps for Android, iOS and Windows 8 let you view and control a connected computer from a phone or tablet, so you can check up on a remote PC even when you’re out and about.
Once you’ve installed TeamViewer on the PC you want to control, you can configure it to start with Windows automatically, so it should always be available. In addition, there’s a TeamViewer Host client that runs as a Windows service, so you can connect even if no-one’s logged in to the PC. If you haven’t had a chance to preinstall the software, you can direct your family member to download it from the TeamViewer website in a few clicks; they can then give you access by simply reading out a randomly generated ID and access code.
Remote-access software: Chrome Remote Desktop
If you’re looking for something lighter, Chrome Remote Desktop might be the system for you. It’s developed and published by Google and is completely free – the only prerequisite is that you have to use the Chrome browser. Although the back-end server installs as a regular application for Windows or OS X, the viewing client installs as a browser extension; when you connect to a remote view on the remote system, it opens up in a browser tab.
Once the extension is installed on more than one computer, you can open a remote-assistance view – or a new remote desktop session – by simply opening the Chrome Remote Desktop app in your browser and entering the PIN you set previously. Since it’s based in the browser, you can use any system that runs Chrome, including Linux PCs, Chromebooks and Android devices. You can also kick off a remote-assistance session from within a Hangouts session – making it a hassle-free option for those who stay in touch via Google services.
Chrome Remote Desktop is a simpler tool than TeamViewer, but it supports remote audio if both client and server are running Windows. In addition, it allows clipboard sharing, so you can copy from one PC and paste into another.
We have one caveat about Chrome Remote Desktop: in our tests, we were unable to connect to a remote PC from behind a company firewall, while TeamViewer hooked us up effortlessly. So, if you like the simple, browser-based approach, it might be worth taking Chrome Remote Desktop for a quick test drive before deciding whether or not to rely on it for emergencies.
Remote-access software: OnlineVNC
In some cases, when the call for help comes, it may not be possible to install the requisite client software for remote troubleshooting – for example, you might be using a corporate PC that has been locked down to prevent you from installing applications.
However, even in a situation such as this, it’s possible to gain access to a remote PC. One solution is OnlineVNC, a browser-based system that uses Adobe Flash to display the remote desktop.
The server itself is a regular Windows application (it runs only on Windows), so you’ll need to install it in advance or talk your friend or family member through the process of installing the server. Once this is done, however, you can connect to a remote PC from any Flash-capable browser.
A word of warning, however: remember that, if you’re using a public PC, it’s possible that someone might be running spy software to monitor and record what you’re doing. If some unscrupulous type were to get hold of the credentials needed to gain direct remote access to your friend or family member’s PC, they could cause all sorts of trouble. With that in mind, consider changing passwords after connecting from an untrusted client.
Remote-access software: how to use set up TeamViewer
Step one: The TeamViewer website offers several installation packages to suit different platforms and usages, including Mac, Windows and Linux options, as well as mobile apps that can be used to connect to a remote host while you’re on the go. The full Windows download is only around 6MB in size and provides all the features you might need.
Step two: Don’t worry about advanced settings unless you want to set up remote printing. Do remember, however, that TeamViewer is only free for personal, non-commercial use. If you want to use it to help you work from home, or to offer remote support for money, you’ll need to pay for a licence – or pick a different remote-access tool.
Step three: Once the software is installed and running, the window above will open. To connect to a remote PC, you need the remote operator to supply you with their nine-digit ID and password as shown here. Once you connect, you can store the remote computer’s details so that you can reconnect with a single click next time.
Step four: The View tab on the remote desktop includes a menu bar that you can use to adjust parameters such as window scaling and audio options. The floating window at the bottom right lets you open a chat session with the person sitting at the computer, capture a screenshot of what you’re doing and more. It’s also where you end the session, by clicking X.