Mac HelpMate: Cool (Free) Tool for Mac Maintenance & Troubleshooting
April 13th, 2007
Before I begin, I feel obliged to mention that I am in no way unbiased when it comes to the program this column is about, Mac HelpMate. I've known the developer, Dean Shavit, for quite some time, have been a beta tester for him, and use his program daily in my consulting business. In fact, I'm not sure that I'd have a consulting business without Mac HelpMate (you'll hear more about that shortly). Furthermore, Dean has never charged me a penny for a valuable Mac HelpMate Professional Edition license, which my partner Pat Fauquet and I use every day to assist our consulting clients by remote control.
I wanted to make this full and complete disclosure of my biases before I said a word about Mac HelpMate. That said, I think Mac HelpMate is one of the greatest Mac maintenance, diagnostic, and troubleshooting tools ever invented, and you can't beat the price -- it's free.
But wait...there's more...Not only is Mac HelpMate chock full of excellent free features, it also includes the best zero configuration remote control screen sharing software I have ever used. And while that feature isn't free, if you're a working Mac consultant I think you'll find the pricing for this feature quite reasonable.
OK. So that's the big picture. Now I'm going to delve a little deeper into both flavors of Mac HelpMate. First I'll show you just some of the cool things it does in its free mode. Then I'll show you how the screen sharing mode works and explain why we are so happy using it with our consulting clients all around the globe.
By the way, the Mac HelpMate software is the same for both modes of use. In other words, the software you download and use for free is the exact same software we use for consulting. The only difference is that the subscription version has its screen-sharing component enabled while the free version does not. Oh, and the subscription version can have a custom main screen graphic as I'll show you shortly.
Let's start with some of the cool stuff you can do with Mac HelpMate in its free mode.
Rather than waste a lot of time and energy restating the obvious, I'm going to let Mac HelpMate pretty much speak for itself, so here comes a series of screen shots that pretty much explain it all, starting with the Diagnostics menu:
As you can see, this one little menu offers all kinds of useful information for troubleshooting. But wait; there's more! The Optimize tab offers three handy functions: Repair Disk Permissions, Repair OS 9 Permissions, and Update Prebinding. There's no picture of it because it's only got those three options.
Next is the Clean tab, which offers more than a dozen useful housekeeping functions including cache cleaning routines, a preference validator, a quick way to trigger Mac OS X's daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance scripts, and more:
The Prefs tab lets you change a bunch of Mac OS X's hidden preferences with its “Toggle the following” menu expanded:
The Disk tab offers more useful options:
And last but not least, what may be the most useful tab of them all, the Auto tab, which lets you schedule most of the functions in the Optimize and Clean tabs so they execute automatically. Sweet!
So that's a quick look at much of what Mac HelpMate can do for you for free.
By the way, of course I'm aware that there are other fine and free programs that can do many of the things Mac HelpMate can do. TinkerTool and Onyx come to mind but I know there are others, too. I don't mean to take anything away from them – they're great programs that I've used for many years. But I don't know of any other program that packs so many useful features into a single handy application.
Before we move on to the screen sharing/remote control side of Mac HelpMate, I'd be remiss if I didn't caution you that some of these routines may have unintended and possibly unwanted consequences. So might I suggest you not run a routine unless you understand fully what it does. For what it's worth, the Mac HelpMate application help pages are unfinished, but many of the functions are explained in the portion that is done which can be found at http://www.machelpmate.com/help/more.html.
Mac HelpMate Subscription (i.e. paid) Mode
The professional subscription mode gets you the zero configuration screen sharing service that lets you take control of your client's computer screen. The zero configuration part is key -- it means that even if your client's computer has a firewall, router, NAT, or port forwarding -- Mac HelpMate works flawlessly.
Here's how a typical remote control troubleshooting session with a client works.
After setting up an appointment, we call the client at the appointed time. For what it's worth, we use Skype (http://www.skype.com) for both incoming and outgoing calls and have not only saved hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars but have also been deliriously happy with it.
Once we're on the phone together we ask the client to download the customized version of Mac HelpMate from my Web site (http://www.boblevitus.com/Tech/HelpMate/HelpMate.html) if they haven't already, then launch it and choose Remote Support from the Get Support menu as shown.
After a few seconds the Remote Support window appears with the User Name and Password already typed in. The client clicks the Share My Screen button in the Share tab to begin the session.
As soon as they've done that I click the Control tab in the Remote Support window. The client's computer name appears automatically (20-inch-iMac: P6IWXS83:57616 in the figure below) so all I have to do is click Start Control button and in a moment I'm controlling the client's computer remotely. .
That's all there is to it. At this point we politely ask the client to remove his or her hands from the keyboard and mouse, and take over their Mac (or PC, for that matter). In the figure below I'm controlling the computer named “20-inch-iMac.local.” Its screen appears on my screen in a window, and my mouse and keyboard control it.
In the figure above, the client (my wife Lisa) has been having trouble with her Colin's Classic Cards game quitting unexpectedly, so I've opened her Home/Library/Preferences folder and am about to move all of the appropriate preference files from the Preferences folder to the Desktop. If that fixes the problem for her, we're done. If not, I move the preference files back into the Preferences folder and start looking for another possible cause.
It really is that fast and simple. We love it and so do our clients. In the old days we had to limit ourselves to clients an hour or less away from our homes/offices. Today, with Mac HelpMate Pro, we're able to work with clients all over the globe as easily as we once worked with our local clients. We have clients in most states and at least 10 foreign countries. That rocks.
By the way, if you're thinking you can do the same thing with free software such as Chicken of the VNC, good luck. If your client uses a firewall, router, NAT setup, or even DHCP, which the majority of our clients use to connect to the Internet, it may not be so easy to make a connection. And you'll almost certainly have to ask your client to make changes to their network configuration, which is something we try to avoid.
There is one last thing: When I first decided to use remote control software to support clients in faraway places, Mac HelpMate hadn't been invented yet. The only option I could find that was remotely similar (pun intended) was a hosted service called eCare, from Netopia. We used it for around a year and let me tell you, it totally sucked. Not only did it cost a LOT more than a Mac HelpMate Pro subscription (over $1,800.00 a year to be precise), but when Tiger came out, it took Netopia over 4 months to update eCare to work with it. And yes, that meant that for over 4 months we had to turn down work from every client who was running Tiger. What was even worse was that Netopia didn't seem to give a damn that they were destroying my business. We wrote, called, and e-mailed repeatedly and all they would say is that, “the engineers are working on it and we expect the issue to be resolved soon.” Needless to say, as soon as Dean offered us Mac HelpMate we cancelled eCare immediately.
So there you have it. Because of Mac HelpMate Pro we have the ability to work with clients all around the world as easily as we work with clients in our neighborhoods. We've used it for hundreds (maybe even thousands) of client sessions and unlike eCare, Mac HelpMate has always worked exactly the way it should. Furthermore, Dean and his team are constantly updating and improving it, so I am not the least bit worried about it breaking when Leopard ships. (On the other hand, if we still used eCare I'd be terrified right about now.)
If you're a Mac consultant, you owe it to yourself to look into Mac HelpMate Pro. For everyone else, the free version is chock full of useful features for maintaining and troubleshooting your Mac.
Mac HelpMate is free for personal use, though donations to help fund development are gladly accepted. The Professional and Enterprise Editions, which include the superb zero-configuration screen sharing component, are available by subscription with prices starting at just $600/year.
For more information or to download your free copy, visit: http://www.machelpmate.com.
And that's all he wrote...
Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.
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