Of the many new features introduced in Windows 7, the humble Problem Steps Recorder was one of the least talked-about. At first glance, the application—which combines an automatic screenshot utility and a sort of low-grade keylogger—appears to be nothing more than a tool to make life a little easier for Microsoft’s legion of support personnel. Upon closer inspection, there’s actually much more to the Problem Steps Recorder.
For one, you don’t have to be a Microsoft support rep to view the files created by the Problem Steps Recorder, which means that if your clueless friend insists that his PC doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, you can have him record his actions, and tell him where he went wrong. Even more interestingly, you can use the PSR on your own machine to quickly and easily create illustrated, annotated PC tutorials.
The Problem Steps Recorder punctuates every click you make with a screenshot, showing the entire desktop. If you’re running at a very high resolution, or with multiple monitors, these screenshots will be hard to follow along with, so start by disabling your secondary monitor, if you have one, and lowering the resolution to something like 1028x764. Awful, we know, but it’s only for a minute.
In the tradition of all of Microsoft’s handiest utilities, the Problem Steps Recorder isn’t plainly visible in the Start menu. To run it, you’ll need to open the Run dialogue box by hitting Win + R, and then typing psr.exe (below, top). In a pinch, you can also search for PSR at the bottom of the Start menu.
The Problem Steps Recorder itself is pretty simple—just three buttons (above, bottom). You probably don’t need us to tell you that in order to begin your recording, you hit the Start Record button.
Now, simply perform the action that you want to illustrate. Try to do it as economically as possible; the PSR records a new screenshot every single time you click the mouse button, so any unnecessary clicks will make the final guide file longer, larger, and more complicated than it needs to be.
If you want to elaborate on what you’re doing at any time, or explain some onscreen element, click the Add Comment button in the PSR. You’ll be prompted to select an area of the screen, and a dialogue box will pop up that allows you to enter a comment (above). Doing this will create another screenshot in the final guide file, with your comment and the area you selected highlighted.
As soon as you hit the Stop button on the PSR, it will ask you where you want to store the .zip file it has created. Name it whatever you like, and put it wherever you want—this is what you’re going to share with the person who needs help. Email them the file or share it using a service like Dropbox.
Inside the zip archive, there will be just a single file, in the .mht format. Your system may not have a default association for .mht, but it’s just XML—you can open it with any modern browser (above). Explain to your friend how to extract and open the file (if only you could use the PSR for this!), and that’s it—an instant, nicely formatted how-to guide.