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Help Is Just an Internet Connection Away

In the third installment of our series on remote access, we provide step-by-step instructioon on how to get or give technical help in Windows XP or Vista with Remote Assistance

by Joseph Moran

In the third and final installment in our remote access series, we'll take a look at Windows' Remote Assistance feature, a handy way to get help with system problems from any friend, relative and so on with an Internet-connected Windows PC. Remote Assistance will let others see your Windows desktop — and if you decide to allow it, control it as well — to help troubleshoot and solve technical problems.

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Receiving or providing technical help via Remote Assistance can be more efficient than doing it in person and much more effective than trying to muddle through issues with someone over the phone. Using Remote Assistance won't always be feasible (it won't do much good if your system doesn't have Internet access, for example) but, in most cases, it's a useful tool for resolving general operating system and application problems, or even certain hardware issues as well.

Remote Assistance works a lot like the Remote Desktop feature we discussed two weeks ago, but it's not limited to specific versions of Windows — you'll find Remote Assistance in all versions of both XP and Vista. One caveat is that it's not always possible to successfully establish a Remote Assistance connection when either party — but especially the person requesting help — accesses the Internet through a router that uses NAT (Network Address Translation). Of course, pretty much everyone connects to the Internet via NAT routers these days, but the good news is that as long as the router in question also supports Universal Plug and Play (UpnP), it should work fine with Remote Assistance. (UPnP allows a Remote Assistance to work through NAT by automatically opening right TCP/IP ports and making sure the connection makes its way through to the correct PC.)

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For the greatest likelihood of success with Remote Assistance, the router of each party should support UPnP. Most routers purchased over the past several years do, but if yours doesn't you may be able to add UPnP support by upgrading to the latest firmware. Depending on the connection method (we'll outline those in a moment), one party having a UPnP-compatible router may be all you need to get Remote Assistance to work; but if neither party's router does UPnP, you probably won't be able to use Remote Assistance.

Getting Started

Before you can use start using Remote Assistance, you need to make sure it's enabled on your system. In Windows XP, click Start, then right-click My Computer, click Properties and then select the Remote tab. Make sure there's a check next to Allow Remote Assistance invitations to be sent from this computer.

Next click the Advanced button and also make sure there's a check next to Allow this computer to be controlled remotely. This will give you the option of allowing the person helping you to control as well as view your desktop. Below that, you can (and should) change the amount of time that invitations remain open from the default 30 days to something much shorter, like one day. You can also set it to be as brief as a few hours or even minutes.

To enable Remote Assistance in Windows Vista, click Start, right-click Computer, click Properties, and then select the Remote Settings link under Tasks in the upper left. From there the procedure is much like it is in XP, except that when you click the Advanced button you'll notice that by default invitations will only remain open for six hours and you have the option to specify that only those with Windows Vista or later will be able to respond to your invitations.

Calling for Help

When a technical problem arises and need a helping hand, RA offers you two main ways to get it. The first is to issue a request via the Windows Messenger service (Windows Live Messenger in Vista), and the other is to do it through e-mail. One of the benefits to using RA through Windows Messenger is that a successful connection requires only one party to have a UPnP router, since Remote Assistance benefits from the already-established Messenger connection. On the other hand, both you and your helper must be logged into Windows Messenger, which requires that each of you have an active Windows Live ID (or an older Microsoft/.NET Passport) account.

To issue an RA request in XP, click Start, then Help and Support, then Invite a friend to connect to your computer with Remote Assistance, then Invite someone to help you. From there the Use Windows Messenger box will let you highlight the contact you want (assuming they are online), or sign onto the service if you haven't already done so. Once you select a contact and click Invite this person, they'll immediately be notified them that you are requesting assistance.

An alternate method is to issue your request from directly within Windows Messenger — just right-click your contact and select Ask for Remote Assistance. In Vista, you can ask for help directly from Windows Live Messenger by right-clicking the contact name, then choosing Start an activity, and then Request Remote Assistance.

When the person you want help from isn't online, you can still issue a request via e-mail for them to receive and respond to later (this will require both parties to have UPnP routers). To issue an e-mail invitation in XP, after selecting Invite someone to help you enter an e-mail address and click Invite this person.

A short wizard will prompt you to provide your name, a brief message, define an invitation expiration period (the setting we modified earlier only applies to Messenger-based invitations) and specify a password the recipient will use to respond to the assistance invitation. Creating a password is extremely important, since the invitation will be out of your control once it's sent.

For the same reason, you should double-check the e-mail address you enter. After you enter all the information and click Send Invitation, Windows will use your installed e-mail application to send an e-mail with the invitation along for the ride as an attachment. Be sure to inform your helper of the password you chose, either via a separate e-mail or by phone — for security reasons, it's not included as part of the invitation.

If you use Web-based e-mail instead of an e-mail program, you can still send out a Remote Assistance invitation by choosing the Save invitation as a file option located just under where you enter an e-mail address. This will allow you create an invitation file (RAInvitation.msrcincident) that you can e-mail via the method of your choice. In fact, you may need to go this route if you use a non-Microsoft e-mail program like Mozilla Thunderbird, because the Remote Assistance e-mail option may not work properly with non-Microsoft mail clients.

To issue an e-mail Remote Assistance invitation in Vista, click Start, All Programs, Maintenance, Windows Remote Assistance, and then click Invite someone you trust to help you. This will give you options similar to XP described above, and you will be able to either automatically send an invitation through e-mail or create a file attachment to send manually.

Making the Connection
Your helper can respond to your invitation either by clicking Accept in Messenger or opening the attachment if it came through e-mail. Shortly thereafter, you'll see a dialog box informing you that someone's trying to connect to your computer and asking if you want to allow it. Within a few moments of clicking "yes," the connection should be established and your helper will be able to see your Windows desktop as if they were standing over your shoulder. On your end, a small control panel will appear that will allow you to communicate with your helper via text or voice (the latter in XP only).

A Remote Assistance connection always starts out in View Only mode, which as the name implies means your system can be seen, but not touched. Your helper can click a button to request control your system, but it won't be granted until you again confirm that you want to allow it. If you do, you'll be able to watch as your helper controls your system, and immediately retake control at any time by hitting the ESC key.

When you want to end the Remote Assistance connection entirely, just click the Disconnect button (your system may appear to freeze for a moment but should become responsive again within a few seconds). If you need to conduct another help session later, you can re-use an e-mail invitation as long as it hasn't expired.

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.


For more help, don't forget to try one of our PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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