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Get a Little (Technical) Help From Your Friends

By Joseph Moran

I'm frequently called upon to provide technical support to friends and family. Trying to diagnose and solve an issue solely over the phone — especially with a non-techie — can have a low likelihood of success and is often an exercise in frustration for both parties. Things are so much easier when the person called upon to help can see, or better yet, control, the errant computer.

Fortunately, Vista's Remote Assistance feature makes this possible. Once you set it up, you can use Remote Assistance to invite a knowledgeable friend, family member or co-worker to access and interact with your computer, greatly improving the odds of actually finding and fixing the problem.

You Are Cordially Invited

To enable Remote Assistance on a Vista system (the feature is available across all versions of the OS), right-click Computer from the Start Menu, select Properties and then click the Remote Settings link. Under the Remote tab, check Allow Remote Assistance connections to this computer.

By default, Remote Assistance will only let someone view your desktop but not interact with it. When you click the Advanced button and then check "Allow this computer to be controlled remotely," you can also allow the person assisting you to take control of your system. If this gives you pause, don't worry. The control isn't automatic. You must request and grant it on a case-by-case basis.

By default, invitations expire after six hours, but you can adjust this as desired. Click OK to close the configuration windows, and you're ready to create a request for assistance.

To send out a call for help type "remote" (sans quotes) into the Start menu's search box, launch Windows Remote Assistance when it appears, and then click "Invite someone you trust to help you." If you use e-mail software like Outlook or Windows Mail, choose the first option, Use e-mail to send an invitation. If you use Web-based e-mail, choose Save this invitation as a file.

Irrespective of which method you choose, the next step is to create a password (minimum six characters) that your helper will use to respond to your invitation. This password isn't sent along with the invitation (that would be a security risk), so you'll need to provide it separately. After choosing a password, your e-mail program will open with an invitation message you can customize and send, or you'll be prompted to save an invitation file that you can then attach to a Web-based e-mail message.

When you create an invitation, a Windows Remote Assistance window will appear and wait for an incoming connection. You can get it out of the way by minimizing it, but don't close it by clicking Cancel, as your helper will be unable to respond.

Help Is on the Way

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After your e-mail invitation is received, the recipient can respond to it by saving and then opening the attached file. The file name will either be RATicket.MSRCIncident or Invitiation.msrcincident, depending on how it was sent. In either case it should automatically be associated with Windows Remote Assistance.

After the password is entered and the connection established (this can take a few seconds), a window will appear on your system asking whether you want to allow access. If you say yes, your desktop will then be visible to your helper, who can help direct you to a solution. If you want to make things even easier, you can let your helper control your system. Your helper can click a "Request control" button, which will display a new window that prompts you to allow or deny the control request.

While your system is remotely controlled, you will be able to view everything going on, and you can disable control any time by clicking the "Stop Sharing" button. If you don't plan to stick around to watch, it's a good idea to check the box labeled "Allow to respond to User Account Control prompts before allowing access" before granting control. Otherwise, if a UAC prompt is triggered, your helper's screen will go black while the system waits for a response from you.

While remote assistance is taking place, you can click the pause button at any time, use the chat feature to communicate via text with the other party or send a file. Once it's no longer needed, either you or your helper can end the assistance session by clicking the Disconnect button or pressing the ESC key.

If you have trouble establishing a Remote Assistance connection, make sure your router is running relatively recent firmware and that its Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) feature is turned on. If you're using a software firewall other than Vista's built-in one, you may need to configure it to allow connections from the Remote Assistance application, which is msra.exe.

It's worth mentioning that your Remote Assistance helper doesn't necessarily need to be running Vista. XP may also work, although some features won't (like the pause feature) and the connection is more likely to be successful with Vista because it does a better job of communicating through the Network Address Translation (NAT) used by router firewalls.

So the next time you've got a technical problem that needs fixing (assuming the problem isn't a lack of Internet access) calling on a friend and Vista's Remote Assistance can be a quick and hassle-free way of solving it.

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
For more help, check out the PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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