Dear Lifehacker, I'm about to head off to school for a few months, and I'm the tech-literate one in the family. My parents depend on me to fix their computer problems and set up new things they want to use. What application can I use to connect to their computer from school and work on it when they need me that requires little to no setup on their part?Signed, The Prodigal Son
Dear Prodigal Son,
We feel your pain — sometimes being the tech-savvy person in the family comes with a host of responsibilities you never knew you signed up for. That said, there are plenty of utilities that can help you connect to your parents' computer when you're away from home.
You didn't specify whether they had a Mac or a PC, so we'll look at tools that support both. You also mentioned that you wanted a tool that required little to no setup on their part, so we'll exclude tools that require port forwarding or router setup on their end that they'll have to configure or troubleshoot before you can connect remotely. Let's take a look at a few of your options:
TeamViewer is a free (for non-commercial users,) cross-platform, easy-to-set up and use remote desktop solution that will let you connect to your parents (or any) remote computer, transfer files if you need to, and manage that system remotely without worrying about setting up port forwarding on your parents router.
The app doesn't allow you to connect directly via a browser. However, it does require that your computer have the TeamViewer application on it and the remote system have a TeamViewer plugin installed as well. The plug-in is an easy install, and once it's set up you can start a remote support session by directing your parents to the TeamViewer web site. There, they'll get a session code and password that you'll use to connect to their computer. Type in the code and password, and the app will launch a remote desktop session.
TeamViewer supports Windows, Mac and Linux, comes in a portable version that you can take with you on a flash drive, and supports iOS and Android devices for remote management as well.
LogMeIn comes in two flavours, LogMeIn Free and LogMeIn Pro. The free version will probably meet your needs here, and allows you to connect to your parents' computer quickly and easily with little to no intervention on their part. You can have them sitting at the computer while you troubleshoot, or you can log in in "background" mode, which lets you work with their system without disturbing them. You can even set up wake-on-LAN to wake up your parents' computer so you can troubleshoot on your own time.
You'll need to walk your parents through installing a plug-in on their computer, but once it's installed, you can log in at any time by going to LogMeIn.com and entering your username and password. From there, you'll see the computers you have access to, and you can log in to any of them with your local account for that system. LogMeIn is probably the easiest remote management solution to get set up and running with little effort and configuration.
If you're away from a computer yourself and you get the call that there's a problem you should look into, LogMeIn Ignition allows you to connect from an iOS or Android device (for an additional $US29.99). LogMeIn is great for remote control and troubleshooting, but if you want to transfer files, print remotely, or take advantage of background mode, you'll need to pay for LogMeIn Pro, which is about $US69.95/year.
GoToMyPC from Citrix is another simple, browser-based remote management solution that doesn't require much setup on either side. Again, you'll have to walk your parents through installing the GoToMyPC client on their computer, but it's a straight-forward install that shouldn't be much of a problem. Once installed however, you can log in to their computer remotely through a web browser on any PC.
Once connected, you can transfer files, print remotely and synchronise clipboards (so you can copy/paste data across computers) with the remote computer. GoToMyPC supports Windows and Mac OS, and while it's easy to set up, it's only free for a 30-day trial, after which it'll set you back $US9.95/month or $US99/year.
Options that Require Setup
All of these tools are best if you don't have access to your parents' computer prior to leaving for college, and you want the most painless way possible to give yourself remote access while you're at school.
If you do have access to your parents computer before you head off for university, you may consider setting up VNC, which is completely free remote management for Mac, Windows and Linux, but does require that you set up port forwarding on your parents' router (if they have one), change the default port that VNC operates on, and lock down the connection with a username and password. Additionally, you'll have to install the VNC server on their desktop and the client on yours. VNC is a great, completely free option that gives you a way to connect directly without a middleman in the way. Also, there are dozens of different VNC applications, so you can pick one that works on your OS and works best with your connection. However, VNC also means that if you have trouble connecting, you're on your own figuring it out -- there's no support line to call if you or your parents have problems. If you want to go that route, here's a guide that can help you get set up.
Alternatively, you could also try Quick Screen Share, which doesn't give you remote control, but it does let you see what your parents are seeing, and you can walk them through troubleshooting with them as your remote hands. It's in beta though, so keep that in mind when you try it. It's free, and doesn't require any installation at all, assuming both systems already have Java installed on them.
We know that it can be tricky finding a good, easy way to help your family out of a technical problem when all you have is a phone to help you understand the problem they're having. With these tools, you should be able to log in and see what they're seeing, or at best, log in when you feel like it to make sure their system is up and running, patched up, and in good order. Good luck!
PS: We know that these aren't the only ways to connect remotely when family calls because of their computer issues. What's your favourite way to connect to a friend or family member's PC when they call you for help? Share your tips in the comments below.
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