Make a remote access device for calls, photos and more

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How to make a computer setup suitable for the elderly or infirm.  Something that’s simple ‘turn on and it’ll work’ and needs little or no action by the recipient or their carers.

Bill Chubb wrote to us with his solution for keeping in touch with his wife in a nursing home.  His email resonated with us because we have a similar issue with a dear friend, Claude, who is now hopping between hospitals and nursing homes.

There’s many of us who like to keep in touch with grandparents or parents who have all manner of trouble with technology. Even before lockdown, it was hard to setup a simple computer for someone not tech savvy or not able to manage online tasks.

Here’s Bill’s story then we’ll explain how to make a similar device yourself.

“ My dear wife Jan is a complete technophobe. Before she went into care I had major problems with mobile phones. She kept losing them but only wanted a basic phone to make/receive calls and no bells or whistles. Latterly it became increasingly difficult to find her a non-Smartphone with the most elementary functions. Jan has been in care since the spring of 2018 and I used to visit her 2/3 times each week and occasionally take her out to our daughter’s home to interact with grandchildren and other members of the family. Due to Covid-19 the care home closed to visitors at the beginning of March after which I was able to speak by telephone to Jan about twice each week. Of course, she has no comprehension of what’s going on in the world, or to herself when she, too, caught the dreaded virus along with several other residents in the home. At that point the home also stopped allowing residents to use the walkabout phone due to sanitising problems. After discussion with the manager of the care home I thought about trying a remote-controlled device.

For this exercise I bought the most basic Windows tablet; a Fusion5 Tablet computer through Amazon with 2GB RAM, 64GB Storage, Dual Cameras, HDMI, Bluetooth, Windows 10 S.

I installed Zoom and Skype and, finally, TeamViewer which is set to load on start up. Many years ago I used to swear by Hamachi but that has been absorbed into LogMeIn and is, in my view, no longer as user-friendly.

Staff in the Home are rushed off their feet so it was crucial that the use of the device required minimal third-party intervention.  Keeping it charged and turning it on – that’s it.

I got one of the tech-savvy Care Home staff to input the Wi-Fi password and ensure the tablet is kept charged. Now, when I want to see/speak to Jan I phone the home and ask a member of staff to turn on the tablet and plonk it on my wife’s lap. I get a TeamViewer pop up telling me it’s online and away we go.

Problems

I still work part-time and have two devices in my home-office; a Samsung R730 laptop which works extremely well despite being almost 10 years old, and a Microsoft Surface Pro 5 which is superb and which I use most of the time.

Connecting via TeamViewer is no problem. When I tried to connect to myself on Zoom, however, I got dreadful feedback/interference and could hear my voice repeatedly and my wife heard me in a sort of “delayed” stereo! Connecting my wife to our daughter and grandchildren and bringing others into a Zoom call is no problem provided I don’t try to simultaneously join them on the same video call. I tend to use the Surface device and may experiment by trying to remote-control Jan’s tablet to bring me into a Zoom call on my trusty Samsung laptop, perhaps in another room.

When I want to have a one-to-one with my wife I’ve found starting a meeting using TeamViewer’s Instant Video Call works well.  “

The aim

The aim is a device which can simply be turned on, then the remote person can control the device to turn on Zoom, Skype etc, view through the camera, show photos on the device screen etc.

All anyone with the device just has to look at the screen and talk.

  • Have online calls with video.
  • Show photos. Setup a screen saver or gallery of changing photos. The photos can be changed remotely.
  • Show messages – put them in Word or an image then show it on the remote screen.
  • Play TV or movies that appear on the remote device.

Bill has the device on when he wants to talk with his wife. It might be possible to have the tablet always on, standing on a table and plugged in, displaying photos or videos.

Forget Apple and Android

You’d think that an iPad or Android tablet would be ideal but not really.  Neither system has good or any remote control options.  Sure, iPad’s etc are easy to use but we need something that can be turned on and then totally controlled from afar.

Apple locks down iPad’s from remote access, probably as a security measure.  Remote Control is limited.  It’s a similar story with Android devices.

Product suggestion: there’s a market for a software package that can be combined with an Android device to make the device totally remote controlled. A remotely controlled iPad would need a major iOS revision from Apple.

Maybe Mac laptop

A Mac laptop is a possibility but expensive and there’s no touch screen.  TeamViewer is one remote access package which is available for Windows and Mac.

Chromebook?

Chromebooks have remote access features however they require permission each time via an access code.   Client access to other computers is possible from a Chromebook.

TeamViewer is available for Chromebook but for screen-sharing only, not full remote control.

Windows tablet is the way to go

Windows comes with remote control technology like Remote Desktop, it’s part of the Windows history as a system managed by administrators.  Remote Desktop is often used in organizations to control servers or staff computers from a distance.

Those remote access tools combined with third-party tools can be used to make a tablet or small laptop that’s totally controllable from afar.

With the right setup, the Windows tablet or laptop can be configured to boot up, connect to Wifi and be immediately available by the authorised remote person.

The setup isn’t hard. Long experience means we’ll suggest a ‘belt and braces’ approach with multiple access options.

What Windows device

Almost any cheap Windows tablet or laptop will do running Windows 7, 8.1 or 10.

The hard drive doesn’t have to be large, unless you’d like to store a lot of photos or videos on it.

A touchscreen is advisable but not essential.

Bill’s 2GB RAM device is the absolute minimum for Windows and he admits now that 4GB would be a better choice.  Windows S (the scaled down version of Windows) should be OK but there’s the possibility of programs not working or Windows features not available on the ‘S’ release.

We’d suggest 4GB RAM minimum for any Windows device and full Windows.

A more expensive option is using a tablet with both Wifi and its own mobile broadband connection.  That could be setup to work even if the Wifi isn’t available, but check the mobile reception in the room first.

Remote Access software

There are various remote access software options available.  You’ll need one that runs when Windows starts up so that even the Windows login screen is available remotely.

The service also has to work through firewalls and network address translation (NAT) on modems. In other words, the device must be accessible from anywhere on the Internet.

No remote access service is 100% reliable (aka Murphy’s Law) so we like to install more than one service, just in case.

Remote Access terminology

Before we go any further, a little note on terminology for remote access – the Host and Client.

Host

The device or computer being controlled is called the host.

Windows computers can be setup to act as hosts, in other words to be remotely controlled.  There are security, firewall and NAT issues to contend with.

Microsoft’s in-built Remote Access / Remote Assistance isn’t suitable for our purpose. It needs explicit permission on the device for remote access and can’t automatically work past modem NAT’s.  It’s possible to configure a modem to allow access to a device on a local network but that’s beyond the scope of what’s needed in this case.

Client

The computer that you’re working from and controlling the host is called the client.

Windows comes with Remote Access client software.  Mac computers can download Microsoft Remote Access client from the App Store.

 

Bill used TeamViewer which is very good and free for personal use.  Setup TeamViewer on the host device and enable it to load on start-up without a password prompt. It’s also possible to restart the host after, for example, doing a bit of maintenance. The host can be shut down by the client but will require someone to turn it on again when required.

Google Chrome browser has a remote access option.  We suggest setting that up as a replacement service and set the browser to start automatically on login.

There are various paid remote access services available, if you wish.

As another emergency option, enable Remote Desktop host from System Properties | Remote | Remote Desktop | Allow remote connections to this computer then select the users who can login.  If there’s a problem, you can ask someone with the host device to click Start then type ‘ Remote Assistance’ to find the option ‘Invite someone to connect to your PC …’.

Other software

Install several video conferencing options.  Zoom and Skype, perhaps even Teams and Google Meet so that you can quickly switch to whichever calling option works for others.

Windows has a screen saver that displays photos from a selected directory.  Load that directory up with family photos etc and let it run when the device is idle. You can change the photos anytime using the remote access or sync with photos folder with a cloud service.

Load the device with some favorite music or videos that can be played remotely for entertainment or background.

Any software can be installed remotely but it’s easier and faster to do the setup on the device in the first place.

Test, Test, Test

Before handing over the device to the nursing home or home, do a lot of testing to make sure the device works reliably and you’re familiar with the steps necessary.

Try restarting the computer from completely off to make sure it opens with remote access available.

Test the Internet access to ensure the host device works from a different Wi-Fi network. It’s not enough to just test the host and client on the same Wi-Fi network.  The modems and Internet are a big stumbling block for any remote connection. Give the device to a friend or neighbour, get them to start the device and connect to their Wi-Fi network.  See if you can access the host device from your home network.  Bill sent the device to his daughter, five miles away, so they could test over the Internet and even between different ISP’s!

Test different clients too. It’s often possible to remotely control from client software on not just Windows but also Mac, iPad, Android tablets and even smartphones.

Thanks to Office Watch reader, Bill Chubb for sharing his story and working with us on the general advice.

 

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