Microsoft's web-based remote-access tools let you quickly fix Windows problems on far-away PCs. PC Advisor outlines how to use them.

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

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

Remote Assistance

With Remote Assistance, you can provide safe and secure tech support for distant PCs. Unlike many other remote-access tools, Remote Assistance doesn’t open up a Windows PC to the web so that any outsider can connect at will. Your friend in need must initiate the Remote Assistance request and approve the incoming connection.

This tool first appeared in XP, but its features have evolved in the transition from XP to Vista to Windows 7. In Windows 7, it’s accessible via Help and Support, ‘More Support Options’, Remote Assistance. To find the utility in an earlier version of Windows, click ‘Help and Support’ and run a search for ‘Remote Assistance’.

Once Remote Assistance is running, the utility lets them choose how to send a request for help. In Windows XP, the options are limited to an instant message and email.

In Windows 7, they can also use Easy Connect to establish a relationship between two Windows 7 computers. Subsequent sessions can then be connected via Remote Assistance instantly.

The email option launches their default email client and creates a message asking for help; it also provides a file attachment that you will use to connect to their machine. In XP and Vista, Remote Assistance prompts them to create a password that you’ll need in order to gain access; Windows 7 creates its own password.

After you receive and click on the attachment, you must enter the password to connect to the remote PC. Your friend will now see a prompt requesting their permission to establish the incoming connection, warning them that you’ll be able to see everything on their Windows desktop.

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

Remote Desktop Connection

If you find it necessary to connect with a remote system regularly, use Remote Desktop Connection. This versatile tool lets you control any remote PC. It’s particularly valuable if you need access to servers or other critical systems.

To use Remote Desktop Connection to connect to a remote system, the PC must be configured to accept such connections.

In Vista or Windows 7, right-click Computer and select Properties, or open Control Panel and select System. Choose the Remote Settings link in the left pane. In Windows XP, right-click My Computer, choose Properties and select the Remote tab.

The Remote Settings control panel lets you allow remote systems to connect with that PC. Administrators automatically have access to all systems whose Remote Desktop Connection is turned on. If you’d like users who aren’t currently administrators on a particular PC to be able to connect to it using Remote Desktop Connection, add them here. Once the system has enabled Remote Desktop Connection, the utility will provide you with 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 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 PC, unless you saved the connection credentials from a previous session on that PC.

Windows Server 2003 and 2008 allow multiple simultaneous connections via Remote Desktop Connection, but desktop systems allow only one connection at a time.

Unlike Remote Assistance, Remote Desktop Connection doesn’t let the local user see what’s onscreen. A person sitting in front of the PC will see the screen blacked out while the Remote Desktop Connection session is engaged. If they log back into the system locally, the session will terminate; when you use Remote Desktop Connection to troubleshoot a PC, tell the other person to sit back and relax while you do your thing.

Problem Steps Recorder

Windows 7 comes with a very helpful tool called Problem Steps Recorder. This can document, automatically and step by step, the actions that led to or created a computer problem. The recording can then be sent out to tech support or a tech-savvy friend, enabling them to review precisely what happened and where things went wrong. This should help them to find a solution.

This is incredibly useful for several reasons. First, PC users are often unable to identify the exact problem, and tech support may have trouble recreating the behaviour they describe. Although Windows Remote Assistance enables both parties to see the desktop at the same time and to work on the problem simultaneously, tech support rarely use the troubleshooting tool.

Since it’s easy to send Problem Steps Recorder sessions as an email or a file attachment with an instant message, no-one needs to be left hanging on the phone or at the other end of a remote-assistance connection while the issue is resolved. Having access to a visual recreation of the problem allows tech support the freedom to resolve the issue offline and at a time when they can devote their complete attention to it, and subsequently pass on the solution to the frustrated user.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its usefulness, Problem Steps Recorder is not shown in Control Panel or 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. A simple console will appear, with options for starting or stopping the recording, and for adding comments.

Problem Steps Recorder sessions are not videos; they consist of a collection of annotated screenshots. The utility compiles the resulting session into an MHTML file, which is viewable only in Internet Explorer.

The tool can also be used to create tutorials for complex or confusing tasks, thereby educating users and pre-emptively avoiding potential problems.

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

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