person using a laptop getting assistance by someone pointing at the screen
No bigger challenge to your patience than the words: “What did you do just now? I want to learn!” John Schnobrich via Unsplash

Every family, workspace, and even friend group has one. That one person officially anointed by a higher tech power as “The IT Master.” If you’re familiar with diving behind your parent’s couch to get their Wi-Fi working or spending endless hours trying to de-infect a virus-ridden laptop at work, we’re sorry to break the news… it’s probably you.

As you begrudgingly prepare for the next time someone asks for your “techxpertise,” know there are certain apps and platforms that allow you to help from a distance by viewing, or even controlling, other devices over the internet. So whether it’s your parents’ aging laptop or your partner’s smartphone, this is a good way to save yourself some time and more than a couple of headaches.

Alternatives for desktop computers and laptops

chrome remote desktop screenshot
Printer not working? Check the settings yourself no matter where you are with Chrome Remote Desktop. You won’t be able to give it any of that sweet, sweet magenta ink from far away, though. David Nield

One of the easiest ways to access another Windows or macOS computer remotely is by using the free Chrome Remote Desktop, which comes as an add-on to the Google Chrome browser. First, you’ll need to set it up on the computer you want to access (maybe add this to your to-do list for when you’re at your parents’ house for Thanksgiving).

Follow the Get Started link from the Chrome Remote Desktop page on the web, then choose Set up remote access to install the necessary software on the machine you’re currently using. Once that’s done, click Turn On to enable access: just give the computer a name and enter a PIN code for extra security.

The next time the person you’re helping out needs a hand, they’ll have to go to the Chrome Remote Desktop page and click Remote Support, Get Support, and then Generate Code. They’ll see an access code on their screen, which they’ll have to give to you (over the phone or in a text message). On your end, you’ll have to type the code on this page to get connected.

Once the link is established, you’ll be able to see the other person’s desktop through your web browser and use your mouse and keyboard on the other computer as if it were your own. The connection will last only until either you or the person on the other end breaks it. If you’re not on a computer, you can also connect from your Android phone or iPhone.

teamviewer on macos screenshot
Don’t give control of your laptop to just anybody. TeamViewer uses an ID and password to secure a connection. David Nield

An alternative option is TeamViewer, which is also free for personal use. Download the program from the website and install it on the computer you want to access. When your friend or relative needs help, they’ll need to open up TeamViewer, where they’ll see an ID and password to allow remote control access.

As with Chrome Remote Desktop, you’ll need to enter those two pieces of information into TeamViewer on your computer to establish the connection. Type the ID number in the Partner ID box, click Connect, then enter the password to open the other person’s desktop and gain control over it. You can also open a chat or video call window via the Communicate button on the toolbar if the person you’re helping needs to give further instructions or details.

TeamViewer also has apps for Android and iOS, and you can use them to remotely connect to another laptop or desktop computer from a mobile device, though everything is harder to see on a smaller screen.

TeamViewer is slightly more advanced than Chrome Remote Desktop in terms of extra options (like the ability to transfer files) but you might prefer the simplicity of Google’s tool. Whatever you pick, they’re both free and straightforward to use.

When the problem is mobile

screen recorder for ios screenshot
Recording what’s happening on your phone might not solve the problem, but it will help you identify it. David Nield

TeamViewer and Chrome Remote Desktop let you access a Windows or macOS computers remotely through desktop and mobile devices, but they don’t let you connect to someone else’s phone or tablet.

If a friend or relative is having problems with their smaller screens, you’ve got a few options, but the best choice will depend on the specific problem at hand. One strategy is to have the person you’re helping make a screen recording of the issue and send it to you to review. iOS comes with a built-in screen recorder you can access from the Control Center (drag down from the top right corner and hit the Record button). If you can’t see the icon (a circle within a circle), go to Control Center in Settings, then tap Customize Controls and make sure Screen Recording is in the top list.

Android doesn’t have a built-in screen recorder, but you can get a third-party tool to do the job. Just about the best we’ve come across is AZ Recorder, which is lightweight, easy to use, and free. You can pay $3 to remove the ads, but they’re not that intrusive.

az recorder for android screenshot
Android doesn’t come with a built-in screen recorder, but AZ Recorder will do the job well. David Nield

Once your “client” has captured video on iOS or Android, get them to tap the Share button. They’ll find it either in Photos for iOS (the arrow out of a box icon, bottom left) or Google Photos for Android (the less-than symbol, bottom left) to transfer the clip. Once you have it, you can review it and hopefully diagnose the problem.

Sending a video is quick and easy, but it might not be enough. Another option is to use Skype for Android or iOS, which lets you place audio or video calls to other people and then share your screen with them. Just tap the video button on the main call screen, followed by Share screen.

You won’t be able to control the other person’s phone—Apple and Google are understandably reluctant to allow apps that can take over a device in this way—for security reasons—but you can at least see what the problem is as it’s happening.

Sometimes, though, the very problem is that the affected device is frozen or won’t even turn on. In these cases, you may want to use a second device—another phone, tablet, or laptop with a webcam—to run a live feed so you can see what’s happening.

For this, you can use the FaceTime app built into iOS, or the Google Duo app that comes with Android phones. Any app that allows video calls will do.