Painless Windows 7 remote troubleshooting

Whether you’re a professional tech support specialist or simply the go-to tech guru for your family and friends, you know how frustrating it can be to try to fix people’s PCs.

The task is even more difficult when you’re not physically sitting at the system you’re attempting to troubleshoot, and you have to rely on verbal explanations from a nontechie to figure out what is going on. The Problem Steps Recorder tool in Windows 7 resolves such issues and simplifies remote troubleshooting.

You know the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”? In this case, we’re dealing with an entire collection of pictures, so using PSR is worth exponentially more than that. PSR captures screenshots whenever someone moves the mouse or clicks it to re-create the events that cause the issue. The utility compiles the screenshots into an MHTML file that the user can then send to the person providing support so that they can see exactly what was clicked or typed, and how the system responded.

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To launch PSR, click the Start button at the bottom left of the Windows 7 desktop. In the search box, type problem steps recorder or just psr and press Enter. This opens a small window on the desktop with a fairly straightforward interface for recording events on the system.

Let’s say that someone–whether a coworker on a different floor of the office building, a staffer at a remote branch miles away, or your grandmother in Wyoming–is having difficulty connecting to a wireless network. You can’t isolate the problem over the phone, since the user insists that they are doing every step properly and following your guidance explicitly, but it just doesn’t work.

Direct the user to start PSR and then go through the same process they’ve been following that leads to the issue. While PSR is recording, the user can also click Add Comment on the PSR console and insert text notes to explain what is going on or to provide additional details.

After the tool captures the event, the user should click Stop Record on the PSR console and then tell PSR where to save the resulting MHTML file. To keep things simple and make the file easy to locate, I recommend placing it on the Windows 7 desktop.

As the beginning of the MHTML file explains, the user should review the contents before sending it off for troubleshooting to ensure that it clearly and accurately captures the events in question, and that it doesn’t contain any sensitive or confidential information. PSR simply takes screenshots and has no means of discerning passwords, account numbers, or other sensitive information that might be displayed at the time of the screen capture.

Once the user has sent you the MHTML file and it arrives in your e-mail inbox, you can open that attachment and view, step-by-step, the events that lead to the issue. One quick side note: Although many browsers support the MHTML format, it has not been standardized, so the PSR MHTML file may not render properly in browsers other than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

When you open the MHTML file, it will show the collected screenshots. Each screenshot is labeled with the date and time that it was captured, as well as some brief text explaining what is happening at that moment. PSR compiles the MHTML file as a single Web page, so you can scroll down through the screenshots; alternatively, you can use the Next and Previous links at the top right of each screenshot to navigate.

Some of the screenshot images may be a tad too small or blurry for you to read detailed text, but if you click on the screenshot it will display a larger version of the image, along with a magnifying-glass tool that you can use to zoom in on specific areas.

In our wireless-network scenario, for instance, you could review the screenshot where the user types in the WPA security key, and realize that they misread the key. Whereas the user is entering “7742415625”, the actual key contains letters as well. The key should be “77424lS625”–with a lowercase L in place of the 1 and an uppercase S in place of the first 5.

Voilà! Problem solved, and you never had to leave your desk. Granted, you could probably resolve this particular issue over the phone when the user tells you character by character what they’re entering for the WPA key, but this is just one example of how to use PSR. For more-complex problems, the bottom of the MHTML file also contains detailed information about the program versions being used, as well as the specific files and processes involved.

Remote troubleshooting is much simpler with PSR, but the real beauty of the utility is that you can also use it proactively as a tutorial or training tool. Think about some of the most common help-desk calls–problems connecting to the VPN, or adding a printer, or configuring e-mail. Rather than waiting for users to encounter such issues and call you for support, you can use PSR to record the proper way to accomplish these tasks, and develop a library of tutorial PSR files that users can refer to before seeking assistance.

Recording with PSR and working with an MHTML file is less frustrating than trying to troubleshoot over the phone–for both parties. Using Problem Steps Recorder can help support technicians operate much more efficiently, and it can significantly reduce the time and costs involved in going on site to troubleshoot and resolve issues, leading to more satisfied and productive users.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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