Two Computers, One Keyboard and Mouse with Synergy

[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

The odds are good that there are multiple computers in your life. You might have a laptop along with a desktop computer in your office or at home. Or (like me) you might have an outmoded computer at home that could still be useful but which isn’t your primary machine. Or maybe you run a NASA launch center, or wish you did. If you have multiple computers, chances are you’d like to use them at the same time. For me, when I recently built a standing desk in hopes of avoiding undue health risks, it made sense to make a space both for my laptop and extra monitor and for an old Ubuntu desktop. (Yes, it’s pretty nice screen-real-estate-wise, if not good-taste-in-furniture-wise.)

The big problem* with using multiple computers  is switching between keyboards and mice. This will drive you nuts about 10 seconds after you try to do it. That’s where Synergy comes in.

Synergy is open-source software that lets you share a single keyboard and mouse on multiple computers. You install the software on both of your computers (actually, as many computers as you want). One of the computers is set up to be a server, which shares its keyboard and mouse with the other computers, which are set up as clients. Synergy works with Windows, Macs and Linux, and it has a settings manager which is fairly straightforward. You’ll have to figure out either the names of your computers on the network (e.g., mullen-mac.local) or your local IP address, but Google can help you with that.

Synergy settings
Synergy settings

Once you have Synergy set up, you can move the mouse from one computer to the next. The keyboard control follows the mouse, so that you can type on either machine. It’s not flawless,** but I’ve found that it works well. You’ll quickly realize that your computers use different shortcuts (e.g., copying is Ctrl+C on Windows and Linux but Cmd+C on Macs) but you can change your settings if you really want to go all in.

As a bonus, Synergy shares the system clipboard between the two machines. Copy on one computer, paste on the other. You won’t even realize you’re doing it.

Do you use multiple computers at the same time? What software or hardware do you use?

* The other big problem with using two computers at once is synchronizing files, but ProfHacker favorites Dropbox and Spider Oak have solved that.

** If you have trouble getting the scroll wheel to work properly, try this fix.