Like many TR readers, I often find myself called upon to aid friends and family members with their technical problems. I'm usually happy to oblige. My liberal arts education has given me few other useful skills, and besides, when I am done troubleshooting, I sometimes get pizza.
Providing phone-based support is tricky, though. There's nothing quite like trying to troubleshoot over the phone to make you wish you were in a dark alley somewhere, taking a vicious beating. That would be less painful. If I want to help out a friend without spending the time and effort it would take to write my own OS from scratch, I really need some form of remote control software.
Windows XP and later editions include Remote Assistance, a rudimentary remote control application. This software, while useful in a pinch, requires that the connection be initiated by the person you are trying to help. Depending on their level of technical know-how, this process can actually be somewhat tedious.
Professional versions of XP, Vista, and Win7 let systems host a Remote Desktop connection. In terms of offering tech support, though, it should be noted that your mother who uses the Internet primarily to check movie times is unlikely to be using more expensive or business-centric editions of Windows. Another caveat with Remote Desktop is that you must know the IP address of the host system. In my experience, both Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop can be blocked if routers aren't configured to accommodate them. If you thought talking your grandmother through updating her virus definitions was frustrating, wait until you have to ask her to enable port forwarding on her router so you can connect remotely.
Remote control software is helpful if I want to check in on my own PC, too. When I'm at a friend's house or away from home for an extended period of time, being able to access my own PC from anywhere is great—whether I need to grab a file I forgot to put on my encrypted thumb drive or perhaps to fire up uTorrent to start downloading all the Linux ISOs and public-domain music that have made The Pirate Bay so popular.
I have found LogMeIn to be an indispensable, free alternative to other remote desktop access software. A small LogMeIn applet needs to be installed on each computer that you wish to connect to, but in my experience, this initial inconvenience is very quickly outweighed by the easy remote access that follows. The software is compatible with versions of Windows dating back to WinME; though if someone you know is still using ME, they have a serious problem that cannot be solved by any amount of remote troubleshooting. A slap in the face might be a good start. LogMeIn also has a Mac version compatible with OS X 10.4 onwards.
Both free and various pay versions of the software are available. I am incredibly
cheap savvy when it comes to spending my own money, so I inevitably opt for freebies when they're available. In choosing to pay nothing for LogMeIn, I sacrifice remote sound, remote printing, and other, more esoteric features. In spite of those omissions, the free version is still a perfect fit for basic use. The sign-up process is quick and painless, and anyone handy enough to be counted on for computer help—or geeky enough to need remote access to his own PC—should have no trouble grasping it. Unsurprisingly, the website makes a strong effort to steer you toward one of the fee-based tiers. However, if you persist in selecting the free version, the site automatically offers a two-week trial of the pro version—not a terrible idea, since no credit card number is required, and the trial automatically reverts to the free version after expiring.
Once logged into your LogMeIn account, you are greeted with the following screen, which lists of all the machines tied into your account, as well as various places to change your account settings:
The My Computers screen lets users select the PC they wish to control. The prominent green "Remote Control" button is only visible beside the computers that are currently online.
Once you have clicked that button and entered the User Name and Password for the remote PC, you are logged in and ready to take control. At this point, any number of options can be tweaked.
The toolbar that appears when "Options" is clicked provides quick and easy access to screen resolution, color quality, and other settings you might want to dial down if you're working with a slow connection. I have tested this software over some relatively pokey Internet connections and still never experienced sluggishness.
If you click "Preferences" in the left-hand column, LogMeIn gives you an opportunity to lock down the security settings further.
I found the "Personal Password" setting to be of particular interest. With it enabled and a password entered, the next time I connected to the PC I was greeted with this screen:
Presumably, the pull-down menus serve to defeat keyloggers that might be installed at nefarious Internet cafés. Password protection could also serve as a temporary stop-gap should you walk away from an unlocked PC without logging out of your LogMeIn account. A knowledgeable interloper could probably disable the personal password prompt, but this should definitely help stymie casual snooping. In any case, it's nice to see LogMeIn offer effective yet relatively unobtrusive safeguards like this one.
LogMeIn addresses all of the major concerns I have with the various versions of Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop packages offered with Windows. Regardless of the network of routers, switches, and firewalls between me and a host PC, LogMeIn has always connected flawlessly. It also eliminates the need to know your IP address, something that makes a spur-of-the-moment remote connection to your home PC much more feasible. In addition, there's no question that the broad OS support is a boon to anyone dealing with dated or home versions of Windows or helping out a Mac user.
All in all, I think LogMeIn is a great solution for remote access, provided you are willing and able to do the initial setup of the host software on each PC. Microsoft does offer some serviceable tools in this area, but the router issues and Remote Desktop hosting limitations have caused me to convert to LogMeIn.