Real-time collaboration with Screen Sharing

New post in Brantlea Newbery’s ongoing series on productivity tools:

Building on my previous post about using Skitch to take screenshots to save time in communicating via photos and email, here I’m going to go a step further into real-time screen sharing. When you’re working remotely it’s an invaluable tool that saves time and facilitates collaboration between colleagues, friends, or family.

What it is: Screen sharing lets you see the see the screen of another computer without being physically in front of it; whether it’s in the next room, or on the other side of the world.

When to use it: Share your screen when you need to do interactive, real-time collaboration on projects: particularly visual ones like design and layout, or even writing. Have a presentation to give? No conference room necessary – there are some inexpensive and free tools that let you give presentations (à la Powerpoint , Keynote, etc.) remotely. My favorite use, though is providing friends, family, and even clients, tech support from miles away.

Here I cover three services but there are a lot more options on the market. I’ve selected these because of their popularity, ease of use, and cost.

Skype (Mac, Windows, Linux, iPad, iPhone, Android )

You’ll need to download Skype and sign up for a free Skype account if you don’t already have one. You can use it to make free computer-to-computer video and audio calls; it also works as a text chat application. The Skype application is easy to set up, I won’t go into those particulars but once you are up and running, it’s really simple:

  • Highlight the person you want to call then start a video or audio call by clicking the call icon.
  • Once you are connected; from the menu bar, go to Conversations>Share Screen. A window will pop up asking you to confirm that you want to share your screen.
  • The person on the other end will now see your screen in their Skype window. It’s much easier for the viewer see your screen if they select Full Screen mode; to do this the viewer can go to their menu bar and select View>Enter Full Screen (to exit Full Screen mode just hit the “esc” key on the keyboard.

That’s really all there is to Screen Sharing on Skype.  It’s very easy and it runs on every platform imaginable- including mobile devices.

You can share your screen with one user for free, to share with multiple users you need the premium account (a few bucks a month).

I have had very few problems with screen sharing and Skype. To prevent issues be sure that Skype is up to date; ideally everyone on the call should be using the most current version of the application too. Should you run into problems, the Skype website is really easy to navigate, they have loads of help topics and FAQ’s; if you can’t find the answer there you can search in their “Support Network” and chances are someone else has already experienced the same issue and you can find out how it was resolved there.

iChat (Mac OS 10.5 or higher, iPad)

iChat is slightly more difficult to set up and it is only available on the Mac but it has a major advantage over Skype – you can not only share  your screen, the other person can let you take over control of theirs. iChat  is really useful if you have to demonstrate, or even fix, something on the other users computer.

The iChat is an application is preinstalled on every Mac (in the new OS 10.8 Mountain Lion, it is now called “Messages”). Initially it was just for text chat but eventually it gained the ability to do voice, video, and screen sharing.

To use iChat each user needs login; there’s several options, one of which you probably already have either:

  • an Apple ID ending in @me.com, @mac.com, or
  • an AIM instant messenger account

If you don’t have either one, you can sign up for free versions of either Apple or AIM.

Alternately, you can use a Google Talk account; but it only works with another Google Talk account user. Here’s the tricky bit though- each party needs to have the same type of account- so either both parties are using their Apple ID (doesn’t matter if it is @me.com or @mac.com) or both are using their Google Talk account.

I’m going to skip straight to Screen Sharing; if you’re completely new to iChat, this video is a great introduction  and iChat has it’s own Help menu you can access from the Menubar.

To start a Screen Sharing session:

  • Check that Screen Sharing is enabled; from the menu bar select Video > Screen Sharing Enabled.
  • In the Buddy List, highlight the name of the person you want to share your screen with. Next, from the menu bar select Buddies > Share my screen with ___  or Buddies > Ask to Share ____’s screen.

There you go.  Now for some tips:

The cursor in iChat screen sharing can be controlled by either the “presenter” or the “viewer”; this can be helpful but it can also be very annoying if the viewer attempts to use their mouse to do something else on their computer. In a screen sharing session in iChat, the person on the viewing end needs to be prepared to just watch and not trying to work in another application simultaneously.

Monitor Resolution: It can be helpful to make sure that all the computers are using the same monitor resolution. I tried sharing screen with another Mac that had a lower screen resolution (theirs was 1280×800, mine was a larger 1440×852) and they saw nothing more than a white screen from me. It’s an easy fix: just make sure you are all using the same resolution.

If you are lucky enough to have more than one monitor, take note: iChat doesn’t allow you to select only one monitor to share. It will try to display both of your monitors, so your viewer only sees a very tiny version of the two screens. The easiest way to deal with multiple monitors is to turn off all but your main monitor (if you are the user doing the screen sharing-if you are the viewer and it is the other person’s screen that is being shared, it doesn’t matter).

Join.me (Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, Android)

When you need to share your screen to present to multiple users (usually for a presentation), try the free Join.me service; you can share your screen with up to 250 users with their free version. It’s probably the easiest of the three products I’ve described here if the other people you are presenting to aren’t already on Skype or iChat. The presenter needs to download the free join.me application to their computer but the viewer doesn’t have to download anything – they simply go to the join.me website and enter the numeric code you give them for your meeting. Here’s a short little intro video.

Join.me is on mobile devices  too – participants can join the meeting from a mobile device, for that they do need to download the app for their device from iTunes or Google Play.

General tips for all the Screen Sharing applications:

It takes a little bit of practice and patience; don’t wait until you have a deadline or an actual meeting to try it out for the first time. Call up a friend and have a little fun with it first.

Screen Sharing is essentially streaming video so expect a bit of a delay between users, it’s not completely real time.  The speed of your Internet connection makes all the difference: if you’re on a particularly slow Internet connection you will have more problems with a delay and picture quality.

About Brantlea Newbery

brantlea.newbery@gmail.com

www.brantlea.com

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