Like a lot of people I know, I provide Mac technical support for family members. I persuaded my mother-in-law to buy a Macintosh based largely...

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Like a lot of people I know, I provide Mac technical support for family members. I persuaded my mother-in-law to buy a Macintosh based largely on the reasoning that free tech support from me would be close at hand. (Some would say I walk around with a sandwich board that reads “Macintosh” on one side and “TiVo” on the other.)

The problem is that she lives in Southern California, so I can’t just pop in when she has a technical question or her Mac is misbehaving. In the past, we had to troubleshoot over the phone, which, if you’ve tried it, can be frustrating:

Patty would have to describe to me what she saw onscreen, reading every error message or menu list to enable me to build a mental image of what was going on. Often, in an attempt to be helpful, she would click through dialogs and jump ahead of where I thought she was, causing confusion for both of us. Things would be so much easier if I could just sit down at her computer and get to work.

Now, I can.

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When I visited Patty a couple of months ago, I performed a full-service tuneup of her Power Mac G4: made a full backup of the hard drive, installed Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, and installed Netopia’s Timbuktu Pro 8 (www.netopia.com/software/products/tb2/mac/).

Timbuktu Pro enables me to connect to her machine over the Internet, view her screen in a window on my computer, and control the Mac as if it were sitting on my own desk. I can see the error messages she’s seeing, and most important, fix the problem directly.

I can also simply observe her screen without controlling the cursor, as well as copy files to her computer, share the contents of our clipboards (for example, if I want to enter a URL in her Web browser without retyping it) and participate in text chats (though we use iChat for communicating electronically).

Before I go too far, though, a number of variables needed to be in place for this to work. No. 1 is broadband Internet access. Although Timbuktu Pro features an option to dial up a computer over the telephone line, it can be painfully slow.

When controlling the Mac, Timbuktu Pro essentially sends lots of pictures of the other person’s screen, which takes a good chunk of bandwidth. You can speed the display by reducing the number of colors sent (even over broadband, I limit the connection to grayscale instead of the millions of colors that she sees) and set the background image to a solid color, which helps a lot.

Another variable was that Patty has just the one computer attached to her DSL modem, and therefore her Mac has its own static IP (Internet Protocol) address given by her Internet service provider. I can tell Timbuktu Pro to connect to that address, much the way I’d put her house’s street address on an envelope to be mailed.

You can run into problems if you’re connecting to a computer that has an IP address assigned by a router or wireless base station. In my house, my AirPort Extreme base station owns the one IP address that was assigned by my ISP, and it in turn allocates a different block of addresses to the computers (like my PowerBook and my wife’s iBook) that connect to it. Those addresses aren’t accessible from the outside world. To extend the analogy above, it would be like addressing an envelope to “Living Room” instead of a street address.

Getting around this problem isn’t trivial. If I’m at the office and need to troubleshoot something on my wife’s iBook at home, I can’t just enter the IP address that the AirPort Extreme assigned, because that works only when I’m connected to the same network.

In my case, the solution was to map the port that Timbuktu Pro uses (407) to the iBook’s IP address (launch AirPort Admin Utility, click Port Mapping tab, click Add button, and specify that port 407 goes to the Mac’s IP address).

Now, when I want to connect to the iBook from the office, I use Timbuktu Pro to connect to the static IP assigned to the AirPort Extreme, which then routes me to the iBook.

Unfortunately, I can’t guarantee that this will work for everyone, as there are lots of different network configurations. Another method is to set up a secure tunnel from the client computer to your computer, but I wasn’t able to try that route. (Instructions can be found at www.macosxhints.com/article.php?story=20050222062346277.)

What’s important is that controlling a Mac remotely is possible, even if it takes some assistance from your ISP or a more network-savvy friend. Instead of spending a couple of hours on the phone trying to visualize what’s on my mother-in-law’s computer, I now fix problems (and even manage her backup software) directly in a fraction of the time.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.