Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Troubleshooting with the family

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

No, you can’t touch the mouse while I’m doing this.

This past week I had to perform a task that most of you probably have to do from time to time, namely provide technical support to flummoxed family members. My mother noticed that her HDTV wasn’t formatted properly and my wife’s parents called to say that their iMac was intermittently failing to send email.

I don’t know how I would’ve handled these tech-support requests back in the day, but it would probably involve me smashing my cordless phone onto the top of my TV console out of frustration1. These days, though, there’s technology that can make the process of fixing your family’s technical problems slightly less frustrating.

My mom’s technical problem was especially tricky—some neighbors came over and pushed enough buttons on her remote that her cable box changed its output from 1080/HD to 480/SD. How they did this, I’ll never know. In the old days I probably would’ve told her to call the cable company or maybe ask a different neighbor for help.

But I don’t talk to my mom on the phone anymore—we use FaceTime. And so while I wouldn’t call it a stress-free session—my kids would probably describe it as the time when I shouted at my iPhone for five straight minutes—I was able to have my mom switch to her iPhone’s rear camera and show me what was on her TV as I suggested different buttons on the remote she could push. After somewhere between two minutes and a billion years, she managed to get to the menu of her DVR and switch the output resolution back to 1080p.

There would quite literally have been no way for me to walk her through that process before—with her describing her personal interpretation of what she saw on the screen (“it’s a box with little triangles”), me attempting to decode that back into something I could understand, and then suggesting various names of button labels that might be used on her cable company-supplied remote. But with FaceTime, we managed. She showed me the screen, then her remote, then the screen again. And she got her HDTV back.

Since my father-in-law’s problem was Mac related2, I could be a bit more direct with my troubleshooting. Though iChat was long ago renamed Messages, it’s still got a lot of iChat’s old features. After my father-in-law logged into Messages, I was able to select his account in the Buddies window and then choose Buddies > Ask To Share Screen3. Once he accepted on his end, we could hang up the phone—he could hear me on his speakers and I could hear him on mine—and I could use my mouse and keyboard to try and figure out what was wrong. I was able to dig into his Apple Mail preferences and reconfigure his SMTP settings so that his outbound email began to flow again

iChat/Messages screen sharing isn’t a new feature. It’s an old feature. But people forget that it’s there, and since it lets you control the other person’s computer, it’s a much more effective way of solving Mac problems remotely than via a game of telephone. (It’s also much easier to set up than something like a Back to My Mac screen-sharing session.)

If you’re not currently in the business of providing tech support to your entire family, I don’t recommend getting started with it. When you’re anointed as the person who knows about technology in your family, every family holiday can become an endless troubleshooting session. But let’s be honest, you’re someone who reads a site like this. You’re already that person. And if you haven’t considered using FaceTime and Messages screen sharing to solve problems, give it a shot. I can’t guarantee that you won’t still end up pulling out your hair, but you might at least have a little bit of hair left over at the end of the process.

  1. I’d also pull the buttons off my flannel shirt and kick the corner of my CD rack. But seriously, the ’90s were crazy! 
  2. Reader Brian Kohles wrote in about how he supports family with iOS, namely by using Reflector to connect their iOS device to their Mac, and then screen-sharing that. (Starting in Yosemite, you can do that even more easily with QuickTime Player, as I demonstrate here. Saves having your family download and pay for another app. —Dan Moren) 
  3. Yes, my in-laws have an old-school chat service (AIM) configured. Party like it’s 2009. But if you click Details you can also use iMessage to attempt to make a connection. 

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