Sunday, July 15, 2007

Remote PC Support - Revisited

Just under a year ago, I was exploring ways to provide remote pc support to family members: UVNC + SC + Hamachi = Bliss?

The Problem

You know, family member calls you for help because their computer is doing something "weird" or need some guidance doing a feature. You try to walk them through verbally over the phone, but they are confused and what should take you say 10 seconds to do yourself is funneling over 35+ minutes of talk-time dollars into the telecom providers pockets. Wouldn't it be easier if you could just "remote-control" their computer from your own and move on? We do it all the time in enterprise help-desk support and it would be great if there was and easy and "safe" way to do it at home.

So I examined some "commercial" methods as well as Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection.

In the end I settled on a combination of UVNC, Single Click and Hamachi. It worked well, but had some drawbacks.

The "pro" was that I could be comfortably certain that the virtual network established between our two pc's was secure and our virtualization services would hook up over the Net since Hamachi established us with "static" IP addresses.

The "con" was that each time, I had to walk the users through installing Hamachi, then get the custom SingleClick.exe file for my IP over to them via the email systems and any virus protection that almost always quarantines the file. Then I have to set up a Hamachi network, get them to join and then make sure the servers find each other. Whew.

So after struggling again with this I decided t see if there was another easy way.

First, Some Contenders

My requirements were that the remote management solution needed to 1) run on Windows, 2) be available to my end-user over the web to download and install....without me being there, 3) easy enough for my non-techie Dad or Mom to follow my verbal prompts to get started, and 4) be as secure as I could find...realizing that as a non-coder I would have to take the service description and Web-feedback/review with a degree of trust, and 5) "free" is always good and appreciated.

CrossLoop - Simple Secure Screen Sharing - CrossLoop was the first service I found. It is free (for now?) and requires a download and installation on both the "host" and "target" pc. To set up a connection, you would have "mom" click the host tab, get the access code and provide it to you. Then on your machine, you click the "join" tab, and enter the access code and they link together using a secure 128-bit encrypted connection managed by TightVNC.

GoToMyPC - This enterprise favored solution has a lot going for it. Unfortunately it is not a "free" service, although you can try it for free for 30 days or so. This might help you get two pc's hooked up in an emergency, but unless you plan on spending some long-term $, not quite as helpful a solution for helping Mom or Dad out infrequently over the long-haul.

NTRconnect - NTRconnect offers remote access to your computer (Win or Mac) in both a Free or Pro version of service. The free version allows connecting of up to two computers with remote access and control, desktop sharing, access from Pocket PC's and 256-bit encryption and access. Again, a nice looking solution, but limited with the number of pc's that can be supported under the "free" version (though not time-limited like GoToMyPC) it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Fog Creek's Copilot - a fee-based service to remote-connect two PCs. Has a free-trial (2-minute session only), $ subscriptions, and $5 "24-hour day-pass" rate. You log in with your account information, get a invitation code and provide that to the "target user." Then have them browse to the website, enter the invitation code you gave them, and download/install the client tool and the two pc's are securely connected with a 128-bit encrypted connection session. Again, a pretty simple and secure process...just not totally "free" but the fact of $5 day-passes is a great option and makes it much more value-minded option for infrequent support needs. Worth checking out.

Techinline Remote Desktop - This is another remote access service that looks quite nice...however it is limited to a 15-day free trial period. Connections are managed via the "web" by having your Mom or Dad log onto the Techinline website and install the client application. They get an ID # they provide to you (over phone or email). Then you log in to the Techinline website enter your account credentials and install your own ActiveX control that makes this thing work. Then you enter the ID# Mom provided to you and the c128-bit encrypted connection gets established. Good to go. Here is a link to a Flash demo of the process: View a detailed, step-by-step demo. It fits the bill as being secure and easy...but the 15-day time "free" trial limit and additional $ for ongoing subscription may be too much for the occasional home-user support scenario.

LogMeIn - LogMeIn snapped up Hamachi a while ago which seemed like a good pairing. LogMeIn does offer a highly tiered variety of packages...including a LogMeInFree version which allows for remote desktop control, service hosting, and always on access. I created an account for myself. But here is the thing. I had to go to Mom's house, log in and download the LogMeIn software to her pc, install and configure it. Then I could go back home, log into the LogMeIn website with my account credentials and do a remote connection to her PC via my own (which worked very nicely by the way). Because the service can be set to run "real-time" on her pc, it is great (or not) for me to pop-on to her pc (regardless of her permission or knowledge) and do the support repairs. So I have real mixed feelings about this. Yes it is Free. Yes it seems secure. Yes it is "easy." I can set it to not be "always on" and tell her what to do to get it going so I can connect...but it just isn't as "secure" and geared for a spontaneous connection establishment (the first time) as I would like. I'm going to spend some more time with this tool and see if it grows on me.

My New Best (Remote Control) Friend: ShowMyPC!

And then I found ShowMyPC ... and it seems Perfectly Perfect! Even Mary Poppins might approve!

Described as follows:

This is an open source Remote PC access project, an alternative to subscription based sites like WebEx or GoToMyPC.

ShowMyPC uses SSH port forwarding mechanism using Open Source SSH client plink and VNC Remote access software. Users can use their own middle SSH server or use our Hosting plans. No registration, no logins, all open and free.

It is an absolutely free, single-executable-file remote control connection solution to work around issues such as system firewalls and non-static IP addressing that most home users now have to deal with.

Dad and I tried it out this morning between me here in Houston and him up in Tyler.

I downloaded the single executable exe file program on my pc. I pointed him to the ShowMyPC website and had him download it on his as well. No installation required. Double-click and run.

He launched ShowMyPC on his end on his computer.

He clicked the "Show My PC to Remote Users" button and ensured the "Give full control to users" was checked.

That generated an ID (password) code.

I launched ShowMyPC on my computer.

He gave me the ID (password) code over the phone.

(screenshots of the login process)

I clicked the "View a Remote PC" button on my end, and entered the code...and in a few seconds, his desktop was visible in a window on my monitor and I had full control over his machine with almost no lag-time (thanks to us both being on cable broadband).

I was able to show him what I was doing, install some software, check Office version number, uninstall older versions of Adobe and install the latest version of Adobe Reader 8. And in no-time, had him cleared up and up and running.

Easy-Peasy!

Can I be 100% certain someone isn't monitoring our connection? Well, no. Am I comfortable enough with the program and process to use it quickly and easily establish a desktop connection between my own and family/friend's computers to give them hands-on support? Yes...for that application I am for now.

Lifehacker also profiled this application a while ago: Remote Computing: Control another computer with ShowMyPC.com

If you really want to see what is in the single executable "ShowMyPCSSH.exe" file, use a tool like UniExtract to extract the packed exe into it's components. Then you can look at each of the individual elements and inspect them if that's your thing. You can also run it quite well in its "unpacked" form by running the "ShowMyPC.exe" file. Here are the links to the UltraVNC and RealVNC websites of which it uses components.

ShowMyPC - Highly Valca Recommended for Easy (Windows based) Remote Desktop Support of Mom and Dad's PC's.

--Claus

11 comments:

wes said...

Claus, Thanks for the very nice summary. I've tried all of them except for the ShowMyPC service, and in two minutes had it running between a couple of test machines. I had seen the post on Lifehacker, but it was your in depth review that got me off my butt to give it a whirl. Thank you, thank you, thank you....

Wes

Claus said...

Wes, you are very welcome!

I'm glad you found it as easy to try as I did.

Thanks for the kind comments.

selcuk said...

Microsoft sharedView.
Only needs MSN account (for 1 of the 2 parties)

Best solution..

stanemte said...

Our company is going to provide remote technical support to our customers.
We need to have a reliable and cost-effective remote support tool to satisfy our clients' needs and not to go bankrupt because of the high cost of the tool.
We wouldn't like to have something to be installed either on our or customer's side. After reading your post we've decided to use Techinline Remote Desktop and we're very happy with it!
Thank you!

Arregorn said...

You left me a blog comment, so I thought I would return the favor!

Thank you for the comment! I checked out ShowMyPC.com and found it quite interesting!

I would agree that ShowMyPC would be really handy when needing to remote into someone's computer (as opposed to having LogMeIn installed). I believe you found the "jewel" when it comes to instant access (via passcode) to a computer that you don't always need access to.

But, I didn't find it very useful in the type of environment that I need a remote control function. I did try to investigate the "Access My Home or Office PC. Beta!" link, but I was told "The free BETA program is currently closed for new users, please check back soon." So, I hit a snag with that one.

Regardless, I do appreciate you letting me know about ShowMyPC.com. I will most definitely start using ShowMyPC.com for those intermittent / random remote control needs.

Thanks again!

battery said...

a good read.

cancion said...

Claus, thanks for a great summary. I suppose I'm reading this a year or 2 a bit too late. I've checked out almost all of them but many of these don't exist or not supported anymore or don't go with Vista.
I've tried also UltraVNC several versions (found a complete list here: UltraVNC downloadBut when I run it the notification message pops up in the tray and is hard to see (at least my folks are struggling) any more advise on this?

Claus said...

@Cancion - You are very welcome. I cant believe it has been that long since I did that post!

Since then my hands-down recommendation for simplified remote-pc support for "average" users remains ShowMyPC.com.

I've used it on Vista to Vista, XP to Vista, Vista to XP without any issues ever.

My dad and in-laws can follow simple instructions to download/run it and in minutes I am controlling/fixing their system.

The only "gotcha" is that in Vista firewall (as with most) is that you usually get a security prompt asking if you want to allow the traffic. If you choose wrong (to not allow) you get blocked and it can be a mess to unblock.

That said it works like a champ, is free, and I've never had a bad connection attempt.

Cheers!

MikeFrizzi said...

I had a similar situation in that my whole family (on the other side of the country) needed help with PC related things and it was just going to be an endless conversation. So I went with remote access from Proxy Networks and after they figured out how to install it (easy for most, a real ordeal for them) I was up and running and controlling their PC in no time. This time-saving and efficiency is the true value of these programs, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Claus, if you revisit this subject you should try ScreenConnect. I found it through a simple google search after using LogMeIn Rescue for years. It is considerably cheaper than the competitors and offers the necessary features of remote support.

http://www.screenconnect.com/

Kevin Douglas said...

Yeah, I had a similar situation in, wherein, I needed to support my family on the other side of the country. I searched for various options but finally went with RHUB as it was easy to use and best part being; it has no download of any kind.