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This post first appeared in the Mercury News

by Larry Magid

If you’re like most people, you probably have occasional problems with your PC, Mac or other devices. And while some people have the technical skills to solve these problems themselves, most people rely on help from tech support lines, tech repair professionals or tech-savvy friends and relatives.  In normal times, a friend or a professional might come over to diagnose the problem or you might bring your device to the Apple or Microsoft store, Best Buy or the local tech fixit shop. But these aren’t normal times. You’re probably staying at home and, even if someone was willing to come over and help, you might not want to risk having them there. And good luck reaching a company’s tech support department by phone. In good times they are often hard to reach. Now there may not be anyone there to answer the phone.

Fortunately, there are ways to diagnose and often fix many tech problems. In most cases, a problem that arises is based on a software issue, not a hardware failure, and software issues can usually be fixed by someone who knows what they’re doing.  Trouble is, they need access to your device to figure out what’s wrong and fix it.

Tools to the rescue to use only with people you trust

The good news is that there are tools that you can install now, just in case you need remote support. My friend Ed Bott wrote an excellent column for ZDNet, “Remote support essentials: 4 steps you can take now to keep friends and family connected,”  which is aimed at tech-savvy people to help them help their friends and family. Although inspired by Bott’s column, today’s column, along with a podcast I recorded with Bott, is aimed at folks who might need support.

Listen to Larry’s interview with Ed Bott

As with other aspects of dealing with the pandemic, the key is to be prepared in advance, just in case something goes wrong. Part of that preparedness is to call up friends or family that can help or, if you don’t have tech-savvy people in your life, contact an agency such as a senior center or neighbors on NextDoor or friends you know via social media. Having said that, it’s very important that you only give remote access to your devices to people you trust. The tools I’m about to mention give them access to all your files and software and make it possible for them to not only access information from your computer, but add software to it. In the hands of a scammer, it can be very dangerous.

Once you’re sure the person you’re dealing with is trustworthy, you then need to install software on your PC or Mac that gives them control and they need to install the appropriate software on their machine.

Bott recommends TeamViewer, a popular remote access tool used by corporate help desks. Although companies pay a fee to use it, the software is free for personal use. Bott did point out that there have been some cases where the company accidentally cut-off free access because it thought it was being used commercially, so it’s a good idea to have a backup program installed too. One option is Zoom conferencing software, which a lot of us are using now for video calls. The Zoom support center has a post that explains how this works.

Built in solution for Windows 10 on both ends

If both you and the person helping have Windows 10 computers, there is a built-in solution that doesn’t require any other software. Just type Quick Assist in the “type here to search” area in the lower left of your screen and then follow the simple instructions. It helps if you and the helper are talking on the phone. There are other tools that Bott explains in his article, but they’re a bit more technical so — if you need to use them — have your tech-savvy helper read that article and walk you through how to use them.

Troubleshooting smartphones

I’m not aware of any consumer level remote software to take control of a smartphone or tablet, but one suggestion is to use another camera-equipped device such as a housemate’s phone or the camera on a PC or Mac to show your tech-savvy helper what’s on the screen. You can do this by taking and sending a picture or setting up a remote video conversation via Facetime (Apple only), Google Hangouts, Zoom or WhatsApp, among other tools.

Turning-off and restarting often solves problems

Whether it’s a phone or a PC, many problems can be resolved by simply restarting or turning the device off and then on again. The same is often true with cable modems and internet routers. If you’re a novice, I would first try to get help from an expert, but if that’s not available, you could try turning things off, waiting about 30 seconds, and turning them back on. It doesn’t matter what order you turn them off or unplug them in but, when it’s an internet problem, start by turning on the modem or access device that came from your internet service provider. If you have a separate router, plug it back in next and then turn on any devices you’ve turned off. Be patient, it may take several anxious minutes for your internet to come back up, but unless something is seriously wrong or there is an outage from the cable or phone company, it should work after a few minutes.

Hopefully, you will never have to actually implement any of the advice in this column, except for my first suggestion. But do plan ahead to make sure you have the tools and procedures in place, just in case.

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