Utility Check: Control Multiple PCs on Your Desk

By Joseph Moran | Posted October 26, 2011

When you have several computers on your desk, controlling them all can be a real pain. Leaving each system with its own keyboard and mouse takes a ton of space, plus it creates a confusing mess that virtually guarantees you’ll periodically find yourself working on a different system than intended.  

Buying a KVM switch (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) can simplify things greatly, but it still consumes extra space and requires numerous cables in order to physically connect to each of your computers.

Fortunately, there are utilities available that let you control multiple systems from a single keyboard and mouse over the network, saving you both money (prices for entry-level four-port KVM hardware models start around $50) and clutter.

Mouse without Borders

Mouse without Borders is a free utility courtesy of Microsoft developer Truong Do and the Microsoft Garage program (where company employees get together after hours to work on pet projects). The program, which runs on Windows 7, Vista or XP, lets you share a keyboard and mouse across up to four computers.

Installing Mouse without Borders (MwB) is a snap. Just install the software on your first computer, and you’ll get a 10-digit alphanumeric security code. Then install the software on additional computers, enter the security code and the name of the first computer at each one, and they’ll all be linked together through a TCP/IP connection.

Beyond MwB‘s capability to control multiple PCs through a single keyboard, it also supports clipboard sharing, and it can drag and drop files between PCs. Another nifty feature is ALL PC mode -- hit the CTRL key three times in succession, and subsequent keystrokes are replicated across every linked system. This can be a convenient way to simultaneously lock all your computers at the same time, and then unlock them the same way again later (provided they share the same password, of course). 

Synergy

MwB is Windows-only, but if you need a cross-platform option, there’s Synergy, which works on Windows 7/Vista/XP, Mac OS X, and four Linux versions -- Debian, Fedora, Red Hat and Ubuntu.  Synergy offers lots of configuration options, but it’s also somewhat more complicated to set up.

Synergy uses a client/server model where the server is the computer with the physical connection to your keyboard and mouse, and the other computers that will share access to those devices are clients.

Note: these steps are based on the most current beta as of this writing, which is 1.4.4. To use Synergy, install and run it on your server first. Then check Server (share this computer’s mouse and keyboard), and click the Configure Server button. You’ll see a grid with your server system in the center square.

Next, drag the monitor icon from the top right down into the grid next to your system to create an “Unnamed” computer, then double-click it, fill in the Screen name of a client computer (this will be its Windows/NetBIOS name) and click OK.

Now reposition the client computer’s icon in the grid so that it corresponds to the system’s physical position relative to the server (i.e. left or right, above or below), click OK, and finally, click Synergy’s Start button.

Now install and run Synergy on your client computer, choose the client option this time, type in the name of your server computer, and click Start. You should now be able to move the mouse from the server to the client computer, and when you do, your keystrokes will be transmitted to the client as well.

One of Synergy’s limitations is that the GUI interface is only available in the Windows version, so configuring the Mac or Linux versions requires use of the command line. Fortunately, there’s QSynergy, which adds the same GUI-based configuration to non-Windows platforms.

MaxiVista

A program called MaxiVista (for Windows PCs) is in a slightly different category than the previous programs. Like Mouse without Borders and Synergy, MaxiVista can share a keyboard and mouse across multiple computers, but it goes a step further by bringing video into the picture. Specifically, it allows you to use a networked laptop as a secondary display.

Unfortunately, MaxiVista isn’t free like the others. It costs $40, $50 or $100 depending on the specific features and number of secondary displays supported, but a trial version is available so you can put the program through its paces before buying.

Setting up MaxiVista is easy; install and run its server and viewer components on the appropriate computers, and you’ll be able to drag windows from a primary to a secondary display. One caveat with MaxiVista is that on Windows 7/Vista, you lose Aero visuals (effects such as transparent window borders, Windows 7’s taskbar thumbnails, etc.) while the program is in use. Another is that while the secondary display is great for general-purpose applications, the performance generally isn’t suitable for things like games and video playback.    

If you’d like to use an iPad as your secondary PC display, there’s a MaxiVista iPad app ($10) that does exactly that. (It has its own Windows utility, so doesn’t require the full-fledged MaxiVista software.)

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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