BOOT CAMP 359 (11/01/05)



The next time your PC throws a hissy fit, as inevitably it will, you may be lucky enough to have a knowledgeable friend or an expert on hand to help sort it out in person. Unfortunately most PC users do not have that luxury but Windows XP has a little-known facility, called Remote Assistance that permits another XP user (Home or Pro versions) to connect to the ailing PC, to help diagnose and hopefully solve the problem.


There is only one fairly obvious proviso, which is the sickly PC must be able to boot to a more or less useable state and connect to the Internet (preferably broadband, though it will still work -- albeit slowly -- over a dial-up connection), or a local area network (LAN). This tends to limit the scope of the facility to non-Internet related Windows configuration problems, email settings and more general software difficulties, nevertheless it can be extremely useful, especially for those living or working in remote locations or where hands-on help may be difficult to arrange. It’s also a good way for experienced Windows users to teach novices and newcomers the basics or walk then through an unfamiliar item of software.


It is incredibly easy to use and once a Remote Assistance connection has been established the remote ‘helper’ will be able to see the remote PC’s desktop on their monitor screen and take full operational control, via their mouse and keyboard. They can send files to the PC and there’s a built-in ‘chat’ utility that allows the two parties to exchange text or voice messages.


Clearly there are security and privacy implications in allowing this kind of unfettered access to a PC but Microsoft has incorporated a number of safety features, including password protection, and a ‘time-out’ setting that disables Remote Assistance after a pre-set period, so subsequent connections cannot be made without agreement.


Before you use Remote Assistance for the first time it is a good idea to discuss the problem with your helper to give then an overview of the disorder and an idea of what to expect. If necessary it should also be made clear which areas of the remote PC are off limits. Finally you will need to arrange a mutually convenient time to make the connection so that you are both online together.


When you are ready the first step is to enable Remote Assistance on both PCs and this is done by right-clicking My Computer, select Properties from the drop-down menu and click the Remote tab. The helper needs to check ‘Allow Remote Assistance invitations….’ whilst the helpee should tick the box marked ‘Allow users to remotely connect to this computer’.


Step two and the person seeking help should go to Help on the Start menu and under ‘Ask for Assistance’ click ‘Invite a friend to connect…’. This starts a simple Wizard that asks the user to choose between Windows Messenger and email for establishing first contact -- if in doubt use email and enter the helper’s email address. If you like you can also type in a short message then click Continue. The next stage has the option to change the expiry time for a Remote Assistance session (the default is 1 hour) and create a password. This is highly recommended; once set it has to be sent to the helper, preferably by phone or a separate email message. When that’s done click the ‘Send Invitation’ button, sit back and wait.


Shortly afterwards the helper will receive your email message, telling them that you are seeking their assistance, with an attachment labelled MsRCincident. The helper then clicks on the attachment icon to Open and this starts the process. The helper is then asked to enter the password and a few moments later the remote PC’s desktop will be displayed inset in a window on the screen. It may be necessary use the ‘Scale to window’ or ‘Actual Size’ buttons to see the whole screen (probably still showing the Help menu).


A chat window also appears for live text messages, if both PCs have a microphone a two-way audio link can be established as well. Other icons on the Remote Assistance desktop permit the helper to send files to the remote PC, such as a replacement for a missing or corrupted driver, a software patch, diagnostic tool or a cleaner utility to remove a virus or spyware infection.


After than it’s up to your helper to investigate the problem, using their mouse and keyboard they can do almost anything from the remote PC, from delving into Window’s setup and configuration screens to launching and using programs. If at any time you feel uncomfortable about what is happening you should break the link or ask them to stop what they are doing. You retain full control on your machine at all times and can carry out operations, such as connecting or unplugging peripherals etc. that the helper is unable to do.


Next week – Service Pack 2 Revisited





A program or data file that tells Windows how to communicate with a particular piece of hardware, like a video adaptor, modem, printer, web cam, USB Memory Stick etc.



A program or file intended to fix or work around a problem in a software application



Period after which Remote Assistance is deactivated and can only be re-enabled by mutual agreement, using password authentication



Remote Assistance may not work if one or both PCs are behind a Firewall, if so they should be switched off for the duration of the session. PCs on a network may require permission from the Administration before Remote Assistance can be used. If you use Remote Assistance regularly, with help from the same person, then you can save time by clicking ‘Save Invitation as a File’ (on the opening page of the Remote Assistance wizard), and the next time you use it just attach the file to an email message. One final point to watch out for, whilst you are controlling a remote PC you will using the other user’s mouse and keyboard settings, which means you may accidentally encounter unfamiliar keyboard shortcuts, or reversed mouse buttons, if they are left-handed.


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