by Gina Trapani
Grandpa called from Florida, and he needs your help uploading pictures to Yahoo! Photos. When you call him back it's impossible to tell what's going wrong. If only you were looking over his shoulder - except he's states away.
Almost a year ago I wrote a tutorial on how to remote control a computer over the internet using a VNC (Virtual Network Computing) server and viewer. Well, talking Grandpa through the server installation is not an option. However, UltraVNC Single Click is a small, standalone server you can email Grandpa that he can run in - you guessed it - a single click. Here's how to set up a Single Click VNC server that will let you remote control Grandpa's computer over the internet with no configuration on his part.
Warning: This tutorial requires some comfort with networking concepts and VNC. If you haven't already, check out How to remote control your home computer as an introduction to how VNC works before you try this out.
What you need
- 2 Windows computers. Grandpa must have a Windows PC and so must you. 
- An open port 5500 accessible from the internet. Grandpa's mini server is going to initiate a connection to the viewer listening on your computer. Before you get started, make sure port 5500 on your computer's IP address is reachable. If you're behind a router or firewall, open up that port to allow access. See also: how to access a home server behind a firewall.
How SingleClick UltraVNC works
In a normal VNC server/viewer setup, the viewer contacts the VNC server to log in and remote control it. With SingleClick Ultra VNC, the opposite happens: the server is pre-configured to contact a viewer at a specified IP address, as shown:
The advantage here is that Grandpa (the person running the server) doesn't have to worry about opening ports on his computer or firewall - since the server makes the call out, the connection can happen regardless. The onus is on the viewer (you) to have an open port.
Set up your mini, standalone VNC server
Your mini VNC server starts with a plain text file that contains its configuration. Here's where you specify your computer's IP address and viewer port.
Create a new text file called helpdesk.txt and copy and paste the following into it (or simply download a copy here to start with):
HELP DESK - Grandpa, double click here
-connect 123.456.789.0:5500 -noregistry
Let your favorite granddaughter
Ultravnc PC support
Establishing connection ...
I'll try for 5 minutes
If it doesn't work, this software will remove itself
from your system.
Warning! Your desktop is now visible remotely.
You can break the connection any time
by using the close button.
In the line that reads
-connect 123.456.789.0:5500 -noregistry, replace 123.456.789.0 with your computer's current IP address. (If you don't know it is, visit WhatIsMyIP.com.)
Save helpdesk.txt and add it to a zip archive, called, say, helpdesk.zip. Now, visit the Ultra VNC SC server creator. Enter username foo and password foobar and upload your helpdesk.zip file, as shown:
The creator will package together all the necessary VNC server files and let you download the resulting helpdesk.exe, as shown:
Now, before you email that bad boy to Grandpa, you've got to get your viewer ready and listening on port 5500 as you specified in helpdesk.txt. Download the full-on UltraVNC package and install it. From the Start menu, launch the Ultra VNC Viewer (Listen Mode) which will wait for any incoming connections from Grandpa.
Finally, email Grandpa the helpdesk.exe file. (Let him know it's coming, what it's called, and that he should never run executable file email attachments unless you're calling him and telling him it's coming.) When Grandpa launches helpdesk.exe, this is what he'll see:
(For demonstration purposes, I added a background image and "logo" file to spice things up a bit. Here's more info on how to do that, as well as set up encryption for the connection.) Tell Grandpa to double click where it says "Grandpa, double click here" and the server will initiate a connection to your listening viewer.
All goes well, you'll load up Grandpa's desktop on your own - and you can help him figure what what's going wrong in Yahoo! Photos. (Click to enlarge.)
If you do regular tech support for friends and family, keep an helpdesk.exe file around for repeated use, or customize it for your own stay-at-home PC support business.
How do you help your friends, neighbors, in-laws, parents and grandparents with their computer problems? Let us know in the comments or to tips at lifehacker.com.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, needs easier ways to help solve friends and relatives' computer problems. Her semi-weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Wednesday and Friday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Geek to Live feed to get new installments in your newsreader.