Trying to help a less-knowledgeable friend or family member solve computer problems can be very frustrating — especially if you can’t sit with him or her in front of the PC. It can be slow and awkward merely explaining the steps you’d like the other person to perform to diagnose and solve the problem.
The best approach is to control the distant computer remotely — with the owner’s consent — during the problem-solving session. That way, you can directly manipulate the machine while explaining what you’re doing over the phone.
There are a variety of services and software that allow such remote control. Tools for doing so are even preinstalled in obscure corners of the Windows and Macintosh operating systems. But many are too complicated for average users — even those with enough knowledge to help solve common problems. Others cost money, or require you to establish an account with a service, or are aimed mainly at folks seeking unattended access to their own remote computers.
This week, I tested a remote-control product designed specifically for collaborative help sessions solicited by the person seeking help. It is free, simple and can be used without setting up an account. And it also has an added dimension: If you have a problem and lack a tech-savvy friend or relative who can help, the company that makes the software maintains a directory of thousands of geeks who can help you, usually for a fee.
The product is called CrossLoop and can be downloaded at crossloop.com. It currently works only with Windows computers, but the company plans to release a Macintosh version in a few months.
To use CrossLoop, both you and the person you are helping must download and install the free program, a quick and simple process. When you run the program, you are invited to create a free account, which allows you to track your sessions and rate people who help you. But there’s a clearly marked Skip button that permits you to use the program with all of its features even without an account.
The software has a very clear, simple interface. It consists of two large tabbed sections: a grey one labeled Share for the person whose machine is to be operated remotely, and a green one labeled Access for the remote operator, called the “helper” by the company.
For security reasons, CrossLoop doesn’t allow its users to gain control of unattended machines. The process must begin with a person at the remote machine clicking the Share tab. That click generates an access code that is different for each remote session. The person seeking help then gives that code, usually over the phone, to the helper. The helper then clicks on the Access tab on his or her PC, and types in the code. The person on the other end must confirm that he or she wants to go ahead. Only then is the connection opened.
Once this process is complete, the helper sees a large window replicating the desktop of the remotely controlled machine, and can control that PC using his or her own mouse and keyboard. The helper can even transfer files to the remote machine.
On the other end, the person being helped can be passive or can share control of the computer. At any time, the person being helped can disconnect the session or limit the helper to just viewing the screen rather than controlling it.
The company says that it keeps no record of any of the sessions and that its software encrypts all communication between the two computers involved.
I tested CrossLoop in two scenarios. In one, I used it to help my friend Alan configure his new copy of Microsoft Office to save files in the older Office formats. The remote-control session worked fine, although Alan’s Internet connection was so slow that there were long delays in seeing changes occur on his screen.
In the second scenario, I hired one of CrossLoop’s listed consultants for $25 to clean up a Sony laptop I own that was running sluggishly. He spent over an hour deleting needless programs and removing others that were unnecessarily set to launch automatically. He carefully consulted me by phone to make sure he wasn’t cutting anything I needed or wanted. Again, I considered the session a success.
The only problem I saw in my tests was that when helping someone with a Vista machine, you may have to temporarily disable a security-warning feature called User Account Control, which pops up frequently and cuts off the connection.
CrossLoop eventually hopes to make money by charging the paid consultants in its network a fee. But it doesn’t guarantee that they are effective or honest, and merely relies on the ratings of others who have used them. It is theoretically possible for such a person to steal your data or plant malware on your computer.
Still, if you are helping a friend or relative with a PC problem, or are willing to trust a well-rated stranger to give you help, CrossLoop is a simple, effective way to do the job.