Utility software

Hands on with Remote Desktop for Google+ Hangouts

Family support technicians the world over gave a cheer about 18 months ago when Google released Remote Desktop, a free remote-access Chrome extension that let you support PCs from afar. While Google’s solution was helpful, it wasn’t perfect. Remote Desktop still required the non-techie on the other end to struggle with installing a browser plugin and deal with authorization codes. More often than not, you also had to make Skype video call or three to get everything working properly.

On Thursday, Google took a step closer to making remote support easier by integrating Remote Desktop into Google+ hangouts. Now, as long as the person who needs help can log on to Google+ and approve a hangout request, you can fix his PC in a few simple steps.

Getting started

To get started with the Remote Desktop feature, you have to add it using the View More Apps option.

To begin, you have to add the Remote Desktop app to Hangouts. Hover your mouse over the “View more apps” option on the left-hand side of the Hangout window. In the column that pops up, click the “+ Add apps” link and choose Remote Desktop from the next window that appears. Now, Remote Desktop will appear with the other apps on the left-hand side of the Hangout window.

Click the Remote Desktop app in the left-hand side of the Hangout window to start remote assistance.

Once you’ve got the app ready, someone can give you remote access to their PC with just two clicks and no software to install. Let’s say you’ve started a Google+ Hangout with just you and one other person—let’s call him Teddy. Click the Remote Desktop app that you’ve already installed, and then click through the on-screen instructions to offer Teddy some remote assistance.

An invitation lets users know that someone is offering to control their PC remotely.

Teddy will see a request pop-up on the bottom of his screen that says, “[Your Name] has offered to help you by controlling your computer.” Teddy will then have to click accept, and then accept again in another pop-up window that spells out in greater detail what will happen once he surrenders control of his computer.

After that’s done, you’ve got full access to Teddy’s computer allowing you to launch and install apps, make changes in the control panel, and even shut the PC down.

How it feels

Remote Desktop integration makes authorizing the feature immensely simpler than it used to be when you had to deal with a potentially confusing menu of options and 12-digit authorization codes. It’s also a good move by Google to explain in explicit terms what’s going to happen when someone gives you remote access to their PC.

While remote desktop access is easier to get up and running with the Google+ version, it also falls short in a few ways. The biggest problem is that you can’t maximize the support window to go full screen. Instead, the desktop session is limited to the size of the main Hangout video display window. That makes it nearly impossible to see what’s going on with the remote PC’s desktop since the working area is so small.

Taking the Hangout to full screen by tapping F11 helped a little bit, but it’s still not as good as having the remote desktop go full screen or at least nearly full screen, as you can with the Chrome extension. Perhaps if you were using a larger monitor, this limitation would not be such a big deal, but trying to get support done using a 12.5-inch display was difficult.

Remote Desktop also puts a small cancellation window at the top of the each user’s screen so either person can end the remote session at any time. The problem, however, is users doing the support can’t move their window. That meant the window on my PC often got in the way, reducing the working area even further. Entering a URL into Chrome, for example, was often blocked by the cancellation window.

I also found Remote Desktop in Hangouts to be much slower and less responsive compared to the browser extension. That may have been caused by connection issues or my test equipment, but I would caution you not to expect a zippy response with Remote Desktop inside Hangouts.

That said, adding a support feature to Google+ Hangouts is a nice addition that can come in handy in a pinch. Right now, it is best reserved for fixing quick problems like updating Windows or installing software. If you need to do something more intensive like analyze connection issues, configure a VPN, or do a hands-on training session with Windows 8, you’re better off using the Remote Desktop extension instead of Hangouts.

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