A guide to setting up Remote Assistance

There are several reasons why you might want to either view a remote PC's screen across the Internet, or actually take control of a faraway computer. The most common need for remotely connecting to a PC is when you're trying to fix a less sophisticated user's system. Another reason is that you may simply want to access a desktop machine at work from home or from the road. There are several tools for accomplishing this, ranging from those that merely let you see the other PC's screen to those that actually let you control and even reboot it.

A bunch of third-party software and web service options do a great job of connecting you remotely to a PC, including the excellent (and free for non-commercial use) TeamViewer and the also excellent LogMeIn, and GoToMyPC. Some of these boast capabilities such as file transfer, video chat, and mobile apps that offer remote connection.

However, Windows actually has two built-in tools for handling this, one of which is Remote Assistance, and the other is called Remote Desktop Connection.

Setting up Remote Assistance is much easier, while Remote Desktop Connection is more of an IT chore, requiring knowledge of port forwarding, firewalls, and router settings. The Remote Assistance feature does let you see the screen, and also take control of another PC, and of course it's included with every Windows installation, so that's what we'll be using to make the connection for the purpose of this article.

Since most Windows users are still on Windows 7, I'll go through this process in that OS. Pretty much the same process works for Vista (in case you're still using that much-derided OS), and in Windows 8. Windows 8 actually offers a new-style (formerly known as "Metro") app for remote desktop connections, too, and it works on Windows RT as well as Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro.

Okay, so here's how to set up Remote Assistance in seven easy steps...

1.Make sure both PCs are on and connected to the net

Note that neither PC can be in a Sleep or Hibernate state, as well.

2.Enable Remote Assistance

Open the Control Panel, and type "Remote" in its search box. You could also right click on Computer and choose Properties, and then choose Remote Settings on the left panel. You'll open a Properties sheet with "Allow Remote Assistance connections to this computer" at the top. Make sure this box is checked.

3.Ask someone to connect

At the computer to be controlled, type "Remote Assistance" in the Start button's search box, and then click on Windows Remote Assistance. This opens the following dialog:

Click "Invite someone you trust to help you."

4. Send the invitation

Next you'll see three options for sending the invitation:

You'll notice that the last (and best) option, Use Easy Connect, is greyed out on my screenshot: This will be the case if both computers aren't using Windows 7 or 8, with some corporate networks, and if your router doesn't support Peer Name Resolution Protocol. When I connected to a public Wi-Fi network, the option became available. In any case, send the invitation to the user of the computer that's going to do the remote controlling. And Easy Connect lives up to its name: If it's available, that's the one you should use.

5.Guest connection

After the invitation to take control has been sent, the controller must start Remote Assistance just as in step 3, but choose "Help someone who has invited you." The first time you connect to a PC this way, you'll be asked to "Choose a way to connect to the other person's computer," with the choices being an invitation file and using Easy Connect. Choose the appropriate one:

Note that after the first connection, the controller will see a different set of options: The login icons for computers he's already connected to and a blank one labelled "Help someone new." On a repeat connection using a contact's icon, the dialog will show a progress bar with the text "Searching for contact…"

6.Accept connection

After the controller/guest has sent the request to view the host PC, the latter gets another confirmation. The controller/guest can then see the host's screen in a large window. He can view the other PC's screen to fit or at full size. Note that colour settings were dumbed down for this to work, so don't expect to proof those pro photos. On a not-so-great Internet connection, the redrawing of the screen can also be painfully slow. A big help once this connection is made is that there's a chat box for both users. The controlled PC also has Pause and Stop Sharing buttons. Settings let him choose or turn off bandwidth-conserving features like colour depth and window background. A fancy desktop wallpaper can slow down screen redrawing, so consider the dumbing-down options.

7.Request control

The next step is to take control. The controller-guest has a big "Request control" button at the top left. As with every step above, the user of the PC to be controlled has to confirm the request. One option here for the host/computer-to-be-controlled's response, besides the simple yes and no, is the "allow user x to respond to user account controls." For detailed support, you'll probably want to check that box.

And that's it. Remember, the next time you want to connect to the same user, you'll have fewer steps, especially if the host PC checks the option to add Easy Connect requester to his contacts. But bear in mind that this method always requires a request to be viewed and controlled, so you won't be able to connect to an unattended PC. For that, you'll need to use one of the third-party options I mentioned in the introduction to this piece, or Windows Remote Desktop Connection, which involves a more business IT–level setup.