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iChat: The Little Application with Super Powers

One of the hidden gems on every Mac sold over the last half-decade is iChat. Many people think of iChat as Audio / Text / Video chat only. And while iChat does all three of those things very well, there is a less documented feature of iChat that should put it at the top of your list of tools for helping other Mac users.

If you are anything at all like me, you are the person who everyone comes to when they have a Mac problem or question. Friends, family, and sometimes total strangers (referrals from one of the two groups above) will telephone or email me when a problem comes up that they cannot seem to find an answer for. While I am always happy to help anyway I can, it’s not always feasible to drop whatever I am doing to drive to their house, or spend three hours on the telephone walking them through the process. Does “Okay, what do you see on your screen right now?” sound familiar to you? Yeah, been there, done that.

iChat, in many of these situations, acts like a superhero. The feature is called Screen Share, and while there are multiple applications and services that allow you to share screens with other users, iChat is unique in that it is standard on any Macintosh running Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) and has no hidden cost associated with using it.

You can use iChat with your MobileMe account, but a free alternative is to sign up for America Online’s AIM service, and use your AIM account with iChat.

Once you and the person you need to help are both signed on to iChat (and providing the problem they are having does not preclude them from getting online) and that you are both on each others “friends” or “buddies” list, you can begin screen sharing.

At the bottom of the iChat window is an icon that looks like two rectangles overlapping. Click and hold this icon, and you will see the option to either share your screen, or ask to share their screen. In the picture below, I would ask to share Rick’s screen.

Bottom of iChat's window

While Screen Sharing, you can even chat via audio, so there is no need to even use a telephone.

Now, with them sitting in front of their own computer, you can take over and fix the problem for them. (Explain what you are doing at every step, so that they will learn to fix it themselves next time!) Be sure to tell them not to touch the mouse or keyboard, and it’s just like you are sitting in the same room with them.

I have found Screen Sharing in iChat to be a huge timesaver, and a great opportunity for my friends, family, and clients to quickly get the help they need when they need it. It puts iChat in a different class of application: a multi-functional tool that should be on every Mac users must-have list.

iChat, under-appreciated by some, loved for its superhero time saving abilities by those in-the-know.

Rocket Yard Contributor
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  • My brother and I shared screens and he was able to help me set up quite a few things on my new mac. I am loving my new mac and it was quite helpful for the screen share so he could set things up for me. It is great to do with ones you don’t mind sharing your stuff with.

  • While you can use iChat to chat with Yahoo users, I don’t know if it also supports screen sharing with them or not. Of course, the screen sharing feature is Mac only, so anyone you want to screen share with only needs Mac OS 10.5 or later, plus iChat, which they should have for free.

    Thanks, Stana!

  • Doesn’t AIM support other chat clients? So, can I chat using iChat with someone who’s using Yahoo Messenger and still utilize the screen sharing option?