Parents Drive Their Computers Like This
February 1, 2010 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Computer-illiterate mom has many, many small questions about her new iMac. I'm 2,000 miles away and spending hours of time explaining how to find her desktop to her. Is there a way for me to remotely control her computer?

Even though my mom has been using computers (PCs) for about twenty years, she's almost a functionally illiterate computer user. I'd always assumed that she knew what she was doing more or less-- hey, I get emails from her, she sends me jpgs, etc. For Xmas, my mom got a brand-new iMac w/ Snow Leopard, and I told her that I'd help her ease into it. Macs' interface is easy, I told her, this'll be no sweat.

That's until I learned that, after 20 years of computer use, she never knew that you could create your own folder, let alone rename it. She had never used a keyboard shortcut before, not even for copy/paste/print/save/quit, anything. She had never minimized a program window until tonight. Needless to say, these things get in the way of me explaining to her over the phone how to, say, watch a quicktime file using VLC, copying photos from her digital camera (or even finding the device in Finder), etc.

Basically, I wondered if there is any way for me (I'm on a MacBook w/ Leopard) to gain remote access to her computer. It would be a godsend to spend 15 seconds over the phone saying, "This is how you resize your program window," moving the cursor on her screen, and demonstrating. Is this within the realm of possibility?
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
It's easy easy to do screen sharing with iChat. You both need to set up iChat accounts (AIM is free unless you want to pay for MobileMe). I've used it with my mom with great success.
posted by 6550 at 9:28 PM on February 1, 2010

You may be able to use WebEx or GoToMeeting. Not sure if they support Macs sharing their desktop, but I've used both with Windows and it works great. They're marketed for people holding meetings (one shared desktop to many viewers), but many support organizations use them for helping their customers and it works great.

One of those two has a free trial, I believe. There are a number of competitors out there as well.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 9:32 PM on February 1, 2010

Team Viewer.
posted by Duke999R at 9:32 PM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can also reverse the desktop, but not control it, through skype. But I have to say, check out Fog Creek's "copilot" over at It is a for-pay service, but it is also dirt simple and 100% awesome.
posted by mhoye at 9:41 PM on February 1, 2010

This is built in. Look under system preferences->sharing (on your Mum's machine), and enable screen sharing. From your end, you'd go command-K, and then enter the address: vnc:// where the numbers are your Mum's IP address (just get her to go to to work that bit out).

The hard bit is that you'll have to get her to sort the port-forwarding on whatever kind of modem she has to forward port 5900 from the outside world to her local IP address.
posted by pompomtom at 9:53 PM on February 1, 2010

(oh, and of course you'd need to know her username and password).
posted by pompomtom at 9:53 PM on February 1, 2010

As someone in the EXACT same situation. I recommend
posted by Scientifik at 9:59 PM on February 1, 2010

iChat is totally the way to go. It's free and just works. I do exactly what you describe with my parents.
posted by ldenneau at 10:08 PM on February 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for these options-- I hadn't used iChat in years, and it looks like that will be the least painful.

iChat looks promising, but literally spent the last 20 minutes figuring out why, when she clicked on iChat, the top bar kept coming up as Firefox. She didn't know that whatever program you last clicked on/used was what shows up in the top bar; she'd click on iChat, go into GChat to tell me that she clicked on it, which was reverting the top bar back to Firefox. It's like a goddamned Abbott and Costello routine.

Will try iChat and the rest of these out tomorrow, when my patience is back. Thanks again!
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 10:15 PM on February 1, 2010

Copilot is free on the weekends by the way.
posted by mmascolino at 10:30 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

If she is relatively familiar with using PCs, why not get her one?
posted by k8t at 10:30 PM on February 1, 2010

Teamviewer all the way. She downloads it to the Apps folder, runs it and tells you the numbers. You do the same except put her numbers into yours and you have control of her computer. No fiddling with ports or ip addresses. Mac and Windows compatible.
posted by dozo at 10:31 PM on February 1, 2010

Response by poster: k8t, she never really liked using them. The main reason for the recent switch is that she's had a string of PCs totally crap out on her recently (two desktops and a laptop). To be fair, I suspect it had way more to do with her internet use / malware situation, but at least Macs are a bit more idiot-proof in that respect. Even though she's still totally hamstrung on this computer, she absolutely loves it. I mean, she never asked me computer questions until now.

If for some reason I can't get the iChat thing going, I'll try Teamviewer-- sounds like a good solution. Thanks!
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 10:46 PM on February 1, 2010

LogMeIn Free. Been using it for years for my parents and in-laws. So easy, my (barely computer literate) mother even uses it to access her business computer when she's not in the office.
posted by platinum at 10:58 PM on February 1, 2010

Apple Stores even host classes precisely for this purpose: to instruct people how to use their new Macs. They may even be free.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:25 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I third the LogMeIn Free suggestion. It's certainly helped me with playing tech support with my mother (and a bunch of my less-than-techie friends).
posted by kentk at 11:51 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, your tale of Mom just discovering minimizing an app or making a folder reminds me of a certain friend of mine, who is retired, and who never really used computers until the past 15 years or so. He uses Microsoft Word a lot, since he still does some freelance writing from time to time. Years ago, when I was helping him transfer files from an older computer to a new one, I discovered that he never really got the hang of opening and closing separate documents in Word; rather, when he was ready to write a new letter or article, he would simply add a new page to this document that he had created quite a while ago, and then simply print just the current page he was on, if he needed a printout.

Um, no. That's not how you're supposed to use it.

But you know what? Even though it sounds crazy, it worked for him, somehow. I tried to explain that opening up a new document for each letter or article would be a better system, but I think my explanation may have confused him.

Hopefully he's figured out a more efficient system these days—otherwise that original document must be up to 400 pages by now. :-0
posted by kentk at 12:01 AM on February 2, 2010

I do Mac support / training for a few people via iChat Screen Sharing and it works well as long as the connection speed is up to it. I am a lecturer so I have developed infinite reserves of patience when it comes to teaching ;-)
posted by i_cola at 4:02 AM on February 2, 2010

TeamViewer as already mentioned above. It is free for personal use. She just has to start up the client and give you the session ID and password and remember not to close the program. Whether she switches to GChat to do it is immaterial. Once you get that session ID and password as long as the program is running you can get in and take control (as long as she doesn't try to grab the mouse and keyboard while you are working -- I recommend chatting over the phone rather than trying to chat).
posted by rocketpup at 6:06 AM on February 2, 2010

Response by poster: Heh kentk, for some reason an eScroll sounds kind of cool!

And nthing what everyone said about the computer classes-- I've suggested it, she wants to do it but just hasn't found time in her schedule yet. Up until now I think she'd been calling Best Buy (where she'd bought her previous computers) and just peppered them w/ whatever questions she could.

Thanks again, everyone-- will try some of these out throughout the week; one of them is bound to work!
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 6:17 AM on February 2, 2010

Copilot is free on the weekends, and I've used it successfully with my family (my dad is exactly like your mom. Until this past summer, he didn't know what the right mouse button was for; no worries on a mac, though!). I've connected from my mac to my dad's pc.
posted by bluefly at 7:18 AM on February 2, 2010

We did this via iChat with my inlaws. After being on the phone with my father-in-law for nearly an hour, trying to figure out how the Powerpoint presentation he had been working on for the last four hours could have "disappeared" (my inlaws' theories: I typed too fast on the computer the last time we were there, which probably jammed something; the computer put the new file with all the changes somewhere other than where my father-in-law saved it and only showed them the old file; the computer was infected with a file-disappearing virus), we got on iChat and commandeered their desktop to solve the problem. Which was that my father-in-law had been "saving" by choosing "Save As" and then, when prompted with you "Do you want to save this as?" box, HE CHOSE "NO." After every slide he worked on. For four hours.

When we went to visit the next weekend, my seven-year-old took him aside and said, "Hey, Grampa? Just so you know, if you actually want to SAVE a file, when it asks you do you want to save this file, you have to say YES!"
posted by mothershock at 8:49 AM on February 2, 2010

+1 Copilot. It's basically a specially configured VNC where they take care of the configuration for you. It'll also punch through any firewalls that may exist.

Your mom just has to visit the site, punch in a code & download and run the program. Hopefully she can handle that much...
posted by MesoFilter at 11:46 AM on February 2, 2010

Just a caveat about iChat: Internet Sharing has to be disabled on both computers for iChat video or iChat screen sharing to connect - no idea why. But check it first and save yourself an hour of sorting out why something that should (and usually does) "just work", doesn't.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 3:04 PM on February 2, 2010

PS: 2nd-ing Teamviewer, especially if either of you is behind a NAT router.
A couple caveats about TV, too: It will start Safari on her machine when you end the session. No harm done if she knows to expect it and quit it. Also, if you take the option to suppress her screen background to improve screen-share performance, it will select no-background on her machine and won't restore it after the session. You'll get a phone call...
posted by TruncatedTiller at 3:09 PM on February 2, 2010

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