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Help Fix Someone’s Computer Using Google Hangouts’ Remote Desktop

A picture of a singed remote control

If you’re a ProfHacker, there’s a chance that you will get asked on occasion to help someone else fix their computer. That can be hard enough if you’re sitting next to the person—after all, you never know how their system is set up. But heaven help you if they’re asking you for to fix something over the phone. Trying to describe to someone what to type or click when you can’t see their screen is a Kafka-like exercise. I went through something like this recently, when trying to help a family member install Dropbox, a tool we love here at ProfHacker. In less than five minutes, I was reduced to a quivering jelly.

Fortunately, Google’s got your back on this one with . Their Hangouts, which they introduced two years ago with Google+, has recently added remote desktop capabilities. Hangouts is Google’s video calling service and in the company’s efforts to simplify its product line, it has been integrated into other services, such as Gmail, where it has replaced “Chat.” In my opinion, Hangouts has been the best part of Google+ as it lets up to 10 people video conference at once and it’s dead simple. I’ve used it for committee meetings, for planning workshops, and for class projects. I even used it with Mark, Erin, and two other colleagues to give a conference talk when only I could be present.

For some time, Hangouts has included the option to share portions of your screen or your entire desktop with those with whom you are chatting. But as I mentioned, they have recently added a remote desktop option. What this means is that not only can you see your friend’s computer screen, but you can also control their pointer with your mouse and type on their device using your keyboard. Suddenly, you don’t have to tell someone how to go to Dropbox.com and where to click to download the installer—you can just do it for them.

Remote Desktop is considered an app within Hangouts. What this means is that you will have to add the app before using it. Simply click “View more apps” in the lefthand column of your Hangouts window (red arrow below) and then click “Add apps” (green arrow).

Screenshot of Hangouts app installation

Choose the Remote Desktop option from the following page, and then you’re good to go. Once you’ve invited someone to a Hangout, you can click on Remote Desktop in the lefthand column to initiate that functionality. It will you to control the computer of the other person in the chat—once they’ve given permission, of course—or vice versa. It’s easy for either party to end the remote session and to return control of the computer to its owner.

There are naturally other remote desktop solutions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of our readers are at campuses whose IT departments use it for desktop support. But Google Hangouts provides the cheapest (free!) and easiest implementation I’ve seen to date. There is one potential flaw to using it to help all of your friends and relatives fix their computers, however: they will first have to sign up for Google+. Chicken → egg → chicken.

Remember, if all else fails when fixing someone’s computer, you can refer them to this handy flowchart from xkcd.

A flowchart for tech support problems.

Have you used the Remote Desktop functions of Google Hangouts? How else do you help people fix computer problems? What other Hangouts apps do you use? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Singed Remote / CC BY-SA 2.0

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