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How-To: Remotely Support Your Parents with Screen Sharing

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We’ve all been in the situation. Your mother calls you with a computer problem and you know it’s going to take at least an hour to walk her through the steps over the phone. Then she yells at you when you sigh out of frustration.

If you have parents who use Macs then these calls happen less often but they still happen and usually at the worst time. This is how I use iChat and Snow Leopard’s Screen Sharing app to remotely control my parents computer and quickly solve their dilemmas.

Apple’s Screen Sharing is based on VNC and it is very powerful. Generally to remotely control a machine, you need to configure the host machine and open ports on the firewall. The genius behind Apple’s solution is that they use iChat to initiate the session and no other configuration is necessary. If you can talk them through setting up iChat for their account, you’re home free.

Of course you’re going to need a compatible iChat account such as a .mac, AIM or Gmail account. I use Gmail since it’s free and my parents raised a frugal son. They also have a Gmail account so we’re on the same page as far as chat providers go. If you’ve never used iChat with them before you need to help them setup their account. Apple has made this pretty simple but if you can do it in person it’ll be easier on everybody. Next time you’re over, quickly setup iChat with their info so in the future you can get right into it.

The bonus of using audio and video to help them makes this a rather pleasant experience. If you have the hardware, get a video chat going and start the magic. When you’re in iChat, make sure you see them in your Buddy List. If not, do the following.

  1. In iChat logged in under your Gmail account, add them as a buddy.
  2. If you both have a video icon, start up a video chat. You can also do an audio chat or just talk to them over the phone.
  3. Now request to take control of their screen by going to either the Buddies menu or the Start Screen Sharing icon in iChat.
  4. They will see a request dialog similar to this where they can Accept or Deny your offer.
  5. After they accept your Screen Sharing request, you now have control of their machine. Fix their issues and they will think you’re a god.
  6. When you’re finished you can end the Screen Sharing session by clicking the iChat icon in the menu bar and selecting End Screen Sharing.

This is such a great tool that you have try it out to see how slick it is. I thank Apple for making such a perfect solution. No opening ports on their router or third-party software to install. Just a clean simple solution utilizing something you probably already use with them. Give this a try the next time you get that dreaded phone call and I promise you’ll be thankful.

25 Responses to “How-To: Remotely Support Your Parents with Screen Sharing”


    Now that I have your attention, this is the only thing that you need to do to set it up on your parents’ mac (Tiger, Leopard and SL):

    1. System Preferences->Sharing->Check off Screen Sharing and WRITE DOWN THE ADDRESS (it should be something like ‘vnc://somename/’ This can also be done using their IP address. It is advisable to install a VNC password under Advanced as well. (under Tiger, if I remember correctly, you have to activate Remote Management or Login for Screen Sharing to work)

    2. On your mac (Leopard or SL; doesn’t work on Tiger) go to Finder, press Apple-Shift-G, and type in /System/Library/CoreServices/
    There you will find ‘Screen’. Make an alias to it on your dock by dragging the app into your dock and now you have it easily accessible when you need to remotely connect to your folks computer.

    3. Connect to your folks mac: Start ScreenSharing app -> type in ur folks’ IP address

    After activating screen sharing on the remote mac, in Finder press Apple-K. Here just type in ‘vnc://IPadress’. This is equivalent to using the ScreenSharing app and much faster.

    Note that a Tiger can be a remote system but never a host using screen sharing.

    The advantage of this approach over the author’s: No need for gmail, ichat, or some buddy creation, which ur folks may not understand or want to do anyway. Disadvantage, you have constant option to remotely manage ur folks’ mac, which they might not appreciate as you could snoop around.

  2. Another vote for TeamViewer – the free, for personal use version allows Mac-Mac, Mac-Windows & Windows-Mac connections. It breaks thru firewalls and is extremely easy to setup. I even walked my mom thru setup.

  3. iChat screen share is very buggy for me. I’ve tried it with 3 or 4 different people and never been able to get it to work. It always either crashes or ends up not being able to connect, even though the invitation is sent and accepted.

  4. I have tried to use both iChat and the full Remote Desktop to do support work for my stepdad’s mom and unfortunately due to her terrible internet connection it only works about 15% of the time. Wish they would hurry up with that broadband stimulus package so rural people could finally get some decent internet service. Haven’t tried using VNC yet mainly because I worry it would be too complex for them to setup.

  5. iChat screen Sharing is definitely handy. Another Apple specific method (if you have MobileMe) is to use Back to my Mac.

    If you create an account on the machine with your MobileMe credentials entered, Back to my Mac works even when another user is logged in.

    Going one step beyond, plugging in MobileMe credentials into an Apple router makes it possible to configure it from anywhere. Really handy way of being able to do remote firmware upgrades and other maintenance tasks.

    Overall, MobileMe has been worth the price now that I use it for both supporting family members with Macs, and using some of the syncing features on my personal machines.

    • hkiphone

      I was about to mention this too. And you only need one account:
      I setup my Time Capsule to enable MobileMe (TC > Manual setup > Advanced > MobileMe) with my account.
      I then setup my iMac to do the same (Settings > MobileMe > login, > BackToMyMac turned on)
      Now, on my Powerbook 12″ at work, I login with the same MobileMe account as above, and once on the internet, Finder will show my iMac on the left panel, under Shared Computers. Once clicked on it, I can see Login As, and Screen Sharing. Once you enter the credentials (preferably that of your admin account), you can browse the entire contents of the mac via Finder and copy it locally, or screen share just like iTunes… but with no need for remote user permission :P

      One other option for those toting iPhones/iPod Touches is to use an app called RemoteTap. Works similar to the free MochaVNC, but I find that app stuggles on the 1920×1200 resolution of the iMac. RemoteTap (US$5) only displays the bitmap part of where you’re looking at, so the resolution is irrelevant. Plus, it can remotely wake up your iMac (I think this may be dependent on a) using an AEBS or TC, and b) your mac running Snow Leopard, as I recall an update allowing wireless LAN wakeup calls). Lastly, RemoteTap works just fine over wifi connection from my office to my home as long as you run a plugin (useful for those with dynamic IPs). It’s abit harder to control via iPhone, obviously due to screen size, but for viewing what my wife’s doing wrong and guiding her via the work phone, its a godsend!

    • Nope, just one MobileMe account needed. I’m not sure what limits might exist in Back to my Mac, but I have access now to my 4 machines, 5 Airport units, and 4 family members machines with a single account.

  6. A great solution that I use regularly is Adobe’s free ConnectNow (

    It allows you to create an account and then simply send the person you’re helping a link. Once they install a very light (and cross platform) plugin, you can do screen sharing and take control.

    Very handy. Very free. Good stuff.


  7. While this solution appears to work wonderfully – some parents are even incapable of setting up chat and don’t want walk through these steps. Thats why I like to install on their computer. It sits silently until I have to break in. :) Then I don’t need permission and she can just let me fix the problem while she waits.

    • @Micah, I agree. I use (the free version) with great success. It just always runs in the background and anytime, day or night, I can connect to my parent’s computer and work out a situation for them. In fact, I just got off of such a session less and 30 minutes ago, where I was called on to resolve an error. I love it.

      iChat’s feature does look pretty cool, with the exception of having the person on the other end have to “approve” you to take over.

    • Peter Kennedy

      I use logmein quite a bit. It’s great if you’d like to control another computer without the other person there to authorize the screen-share but If you’re going to install logmein, you may as well set up the iChat app.

      iChat vs. LogMeIn:

      * iChat provides faster and more stable screen-sharing
      ~ this is because it’s a native Mac app
      ~ LogMeIn uses a Java-based browser app which is sluggish

      * iChat allows for easier communication during screen-sharing
      ~ with iChat, during screen-share both parties can communicate via chat as you work to a resolution.
      ~ with logmein, you are usually required to use the phone. technically, you could open up a notepad or something to communicate between both parties but that’s just a workaround

      * LogMeIn allows for iPhone control through LogMeIn Ignition
      ~ there is no iPhone control through iChat (Apple, this would rock. you listening?)

      * LogMeIn allows for cross-platform control while iChat only allows screen-sharing between Macs.
      ~ Skype would work in this case

      * LogMeIn allows for control of another Mac or PC without the host user needing to be present. iChat requires authorization before screen-share can commence. Technically, if you want to completely take it out of the hands of your folks, you can use a script activated via Twitter or the for authorization. Sorry I don’t have an exact link. But I’ve seen this done before…

      e-mail me @ [email protected] if you have any more questions.