By Joe Moran

Most of us have someone–usually a close friend or family member–to turn to for help when a computer problem has us stumped. Of course, that person often isn’t available to look at your system live and in person, and troubleshooting problems over the phone can be an imprecise and frustrating affair.

Since Windows XP, Remote Assistance has provided a handy way to get or give a helping hand from a distance. But some tweaks to Remote Assistance in Windows 7 can make getting help–or giving it–easier and more convenient.

Easy Connect

In previous versions of Windows, the primary way to initiate a Remote Assistance connection was by creating an “invitation” file with info on how to find and connect to your system, and sending it to your helper via e-mail. You can still use invitation files in Windows 7, and if your helper is running Vista or XP, you’ll have to. However, if both parties have Windows 7 in common, a new feature called Easy Connect can speed up and simplify the connection process considerably by eliminating e-mail as a conduit.

To request remote assistance in Windows 7, search for “assistance” from the Start menu, then run Windows Remote Assistance. (If you prefer a no-keyboard method, click Help and Support, Ask, and then Windows Remote Assistance.) After you click Invite someone you trust to help you, you’ll see Easy Connect along with the two e-mail-based invitation options. Choose Easy Connect, and within a few seconds you should be looking at a Windows Remote Assistance window displaying the 12-character password needed for access to your system.

This automatic password generation is another new- to-Windows 7-feature, and it occurs whether you use Easy Connect or old-school invitations. It forces you to use a strong password, lest you be tempted to use “password” or something similarly pointless like you can in Vista or XP. Although the password is displayed in ALL CAPS, it isn’t case-sensitive, and the shading is simply there to make reciting the password to someone less error-prone. (Hint: Right-clicking the password will give you the option to copy it for pasting into an e-mail or IM message.)

Once your password is on-screen (If you see getting anything else, skip to the troubleshooting section below) your helper can connect to your system by running Remote Assistance on their own system–albeit with the Help someone who has invited you option–which will launch a window that prompts for the password. Once the two systems are linked, Remote Assistance works pretty much like it does in previous versions of Windows; your helper will be able to view your desktop, and with your permission, control it as well.

Easier Connect

After you’ve successfully established a Remote Assistance session with someone via Easy Connect, connecting to that person in the future will be simpler still. The next time you run Remote Assistance you’ll see a list of people you’ve previously connected to. Select a name and the Windows Remote Assistance window will launch, and when your helper connects to you–by picking your name off his or her own list–you’ll be connected without having to see or enter a password because the one from your last session is cached. This subsequent-connect feature only works when your helper is using the same computer they were on initially.

No-So-Easy Connect?

When Easy Connect works, it works like a charm, but depending on the configuration of your system or network, you may get an error message or notification that Easy Connect is not available. In some cases Windows 7 will offer you the option to run an Easy Connect troubleshooter, but I’ve found that it seldom leads to a solution, or even a clear explanation, of the problem.

Easy Connect uses Peer Name Resolution Protocol (PNRP) to dynamically identify, locate, and connect to remote systems behind the NAT (Network Address Translation) routers underlying the majority of home networks. For its part, PNRP communicates over IPv6, or more specifically, Microsoft’s Teredo protocol, which tunnels IPv6 over IPv4.

One thing that might impede an Easy Connect link is if your router doesn’t support UPnP, or simply doesn’t have it enabled. Even if the router passes on both counts, it might still pay to check for a firmware update, because they sometimes address subtle UPnP implementation bugs.

You can also try configuring the router to forward PNRP’s port 3540 (UDP) to your PC, and/or creating an exception for this port on any software firewall you’re using. (Windows 7’s built-in firewall should do this for you automatically.)

Also, “virtual” network adapters–the kind you often get with VPN utilities or virtualization software like Parallels, Virtual PC, VMWare, etc.–tend to prevent PNRP from properly associating to your physical network adapter. If you encounter problems with Easy Connect, you’ll want to temporarily disable any virtual adapters you have running. (To see the list, search for “network connections” and select View Network Connections.)

You can check PNRP status on your system by running netsh p2p pnrp cloud show list from a command line. If the item named Global_ shows a status of Active (rather than Virtual or Alone), then PNRP, and thus Easy Connect should be in good shape.