How To Troubleshoot Your Friends’ Computers From Far Away

You're the computer whiz in your circle of friends and family, which means, inevitably, somebody is going to call for tech support. If you can't fix it in person, these are the best approaches we've found for troubleshooting from far away.

Photo by bigpresh.

With distance being a formidable foe, and without the ability to see the computer in question, there are limitations to what you can do. You can, however, get Aunt Sally's computer working again, regardless of whether you, or her, have a mastery of remote desktop software and command line codes. Here's how to break everything down, step by step, in Plain Joe English.

Your Tools and Your Limitations

Basic Communication

First things first: you'll need a communication method. The three available in most cases will be instant message, phone or Skype. It's easy to rely on instant messaging, but it is often the most inefficient — you'll spend a lot of helpful time waiting for messages to be relayed back and forth. The best idea? Ring them up, then put them on speakerphone, or use a headset so you can free up your hands for using the computer.

Having your own computer handy, and one running the same operating system as those in need, is crucial. Some people need to be talked through each step, and most people, if not all, will have questions along the way. This way, you can help them navigate to a tool that they may need, and tell them exactly where to get the program on the website. You'll also be able to tell them what to do and where to go with certainty, and they'll learn something, hopefully, for the next computer problem go-round.

Visual Screen Sharing

Skype offers a convenient combination of screen sharing and audio voice connection. There are several screen-sharing programs out there, but most people are familiar with, have installed or at least know of Skype. You may take your well-known remote desktop and VNC tools for granted, but people can be wary of downloading and installing programs they've never heard of before.

If the person being helped already has an account, great. If they don't have the latest version of Skype (4.2), help them download it, then tell them your Skype name. Once you two are talking, point out the "Share" option in the message box, and tell them to click on "Share Your Screen".

Now you can see exactly what they're doing, what's happening, and be able to talk them through the problem. Skype doesn't eliminate the phone completely, especially if the solution will require a restart at some point.

If the other party has a dodgy connection, or setting up Skype is going to be more trouble than it's worth, the tech-afflicted person on the other end can take print screens of things that aren't clear, or to show you the difference between what you're suggesting and what they're seeing on their screen. Luckily, "printing" a screen is as easy as hitting one key on most keyboards, and even Windows' default Paint application can accept Control-V pastes and save them as small JPEG files. Once they've got their screenshot, they can share it via IM, email, file-sharing service or Dropbox, if they happen to have that installed.

Keep In Mind: You Can Only Do So Much

Remember, you're still unable to get your hands on the computer in question, so you won't be able to replicate the experience of being right there to see, and explain, exactly what's happening. You can pretty much say goodbye to very advanced troubleshooting or deep dives into the guts of the operating system. It's possible to attempt things like these, but you run the risk of the person on the other end possibly botching it, only to be left with a computer that's even in worse shape than before. Just because forcibly uninstalling an application fixed an issue with no problems on your own system doesn't mean you should risk leaving the person you're helping unable to, for example, open Microsoft Word.

If you're on the phone for two or three hours, and still have trouble identifying the problem and/or applying the solution, chances are that there's more going on with the computer than both of you can know at the moment. Those types of situations require hands-on fixing, so be prepared to wave the white flag and know it's probably the best solution.

Those general tips will get you through most any remote tech support scenario, but let's dig into two common examples to show how it should work.

Scenario One: The Computer Is Being "Slow"

The most common complaint I've received from family and friends is that the computer is being "slow". It's also the thing I like to hear the least, because it gives me no specific information about what the problem is. In this particular case, you have to be detailed with your questions, so you can narrow down what the problem is. So when you're talking to the person on the other end of the line, it's important to qualify what "being slow" means. Chances are there's an easy solution to this one.

A few good questions would include:

  • When you start-up your computer, does everything take a long time to load?
  • Does it only happen when you open up a specific program?
  • Is surfing the internet slow? Does everything else run fine?
  • Last but not least, how many programs do you typically run after booting up, and what are they?

Here's what to do for the most typical answers:

Answer: Booting Up the Computer Is Slow

If startup is slow, you'll want to direct them to a program that cleans up startup application lists. My weapon of choice remains CCleaner. Not only does it offer this feature, but because it's a multi-useful tool for removing junk files on your hard drive as well (and a program they'll want to use in the future if they learn how to use it). You'll want to go through with them step-by-step as they open the program. Navigate to the Startup Tool, which is under the Tools tab, followed by the Startup option. Visual aids, like screenshots and screen sharing, will only help speed up this process and clarify any possible unknowns. Depending on how tech-savvy they are, you might have to do some tech-lingo translation and go through each item individually.

At this screen, you'll want them to disable (not delete) updaters, toolbars, and basically any programs that are unnecessary to starting up a functioning copy of Windows.

Answer: Browsing the Internet Is Slow

If the internet seems to run slow, ask them how many window and tabs they have open. If the answer is somewhere above 20, suggest browsing with fewer tabs open like the two-tab rule we've previously covered. Even better yet, if they're somehow still stuck on a version of Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer 6 or some equally antiquated browser, point them to Mozilla Firefox or even Google Chrome to speed up their experience. Another thing to consider is that their internet may also be just genuinely slow, which is something you can't help them with. Aside from suggesting to upgrade their ISP or buying a better modem, there's not much you can do.

Answer: They Run Too Many Programs At Once

Well, some computers can handle Windows Media Center, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, iTunes, Skype, chat, email, browsing through 37 browser tabs and editing a video file simultaneously easily. Some can't. If they're running too many resource-heavy programs at the same time on an old processor, tell them to stop. (Be sure to ask them the specs of their computer.) That's a hardware computer limitation that can't be fixed.

Scenario Two: "I Think I May Have A Virus"

If the person on the other end claims they are having virus problems, clarify what they mean. Is it just software popups or is it genuinely a virus? Even the slightest bit of popups can set someone on edge if they don't understand it, even if it's just a simple popup asking them to upgrade the software, or notifying them that their software trial has expired. Visual aids, here in particular, become very useful. (If it's a simple program popup, you should set their minds at ease and tell them what the problem is and why it's occurring.) But what if it's not a popup?

Answer: It's Really a Virus

To check if it's really a virus, have your family member or friend run their antivirus program on their computer. Obviously, if the program detects the virus, it will alert you and attempt to repair the problem. Sometimes it will require a system reboot so that the antivirus program can eliminate the virus from system processes.

In the event that the antivirus program is unable to fix the program, here are a few other tips. Try having your friend of family member boot into Windows safe mode, and run the antivirus program in that mode. Last but not least, you can have them boot into DOS and run a DOS antivirus program like F-PROT.

Answer: The Antivirus Is A Fake Alert Program

We've covered fake alert and virus programs like XP AntiSpyware before in the past, and the various tools to remove them, but the removal process is often complicated, tedious and laborious for these pesky buggers for even computer-savvy people. These programs masquerade themselves as antivirus programs, but really aren't. Wikipedia has a partial list of these programs. Encountering these type of rogue security programs in the wild are not fun.

Even with a step-by-step guide, and being able to fix the afflicted computer directly, we encountered difficulty in removing the malware. For luddites, it will be even more time-consuming, and potentially much more difficult. Solving this problem most likely requires more advanced techniques, such as registry editing. It's best to often leave this type of problem in the hands of a knowledgeable who can get their hands on the computer, versus a Plain Joe or Jane. Well, you can't solve them all.

It's going to vary case by case, and requires diligence and patience on both ends, but most problems that the average computer user runs into can be fixed, no mater where you and the afflicted happen to live. Lets us know your experience and tips in troubleshooting computer problems remotely in the comments.


Comments

    In regards to the "I have a virus" one, I find it much easier, if there are popups, to ask them what the pop up says. Is there a company name on the popup for instance. Then I just google the name and figure out whether it's a legitimate message or malware. Then it's much easier to provided specific removal steps.

    AVG Free, tho it works for most, it will not cover root kits.

    Since Microsoft provides Security Essentials for Free also and it is better software, I'd Recomend it to them if they do not have Antivirus, or are using a Free solution that can not handle all Viruses.

    If someone thinks that their copy of windows is not Valid for some reason, then I point them over to Panda Cloud Antivirus.

    I got the XP Antispyware or something like it in a popup the other day. I was running Ubuntu.

    While I agree with this article's tips, it's a little bit of a let given the title... I'm my family's tech support, I'm in Australia and they're in Ireland... bit of distance there and last time I was over I setup Skype for them and it all worked great... until I left the country and their kids played with the settings... now I'm lucky if I can get a video or even audio stream from them... Was kinda hoping I would get some more tools to try that I can get up and running remotely or with little interaction on their part so they don't get confused...

    Cheers for this article. Gonna help me (and hopefully a ton more people) :D

    2 quick tips for remote troubleshooting with a live user at the other end

    Teamviewer is an excellent and dead simple VNC type software to use. Small download and it doesn't even have to be installed (at either end) to work - just download and run. You will need some communication - like email or IM - to exchange the User ID and password to log in. Even when one end is on dial-up this program works well and is totally free for home/non-commercial use

    Less important that the above but If the internet clogged etc then try an alternate browser. Most novices use IE so download and install Chrome to help during the clean up

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