One Keyboard and Mouse, Two Computers

In response to my post about liveblogging an online conference, Stephen Downes asked about my workflow using Synergy. In this post, I explain some of the technical information about how Synergy works and the few minor issues I’ve had; in my next post, I’ll explain my workflow with Synergy.

Synergy is an open source program that works like sort of like a virtual KVM switch, except both computers use their own monitors. I guess that makes it KM instead (no video). It’s for people who keep two computers on their desk but want to share a keyboard and mouse between them. This is different from a dual-monitor setup, where you essentially just have a lot of screen space for one computer. I actually run both my laptop and desktop simultaneously, using both throughout the day.

Primary monitor on the left, laptop on the right

Synergy Features

I don’t like using my laptop keyboard and touchpad for working all day, so this really started as a way to use my full-size keyboard and regular mouse without having to plug anything in. Synergy works through your network connection, so there’s no hardware—it all just goes through the router in my home network.

Once it’s set up, it’s really easy to use. To switch focus from one computer to the other, just move your mouse off the side of the screen. I keep my laptop to the right of my desktop monitor (see the picture above), so moving the mouse off the right edge of the screen moves it over to the laptop. The keyboard controls whichever computer has focus with the mouse. You can also share the clipboard between computers; I use this all the time to copy a URL or bit of text from one computer to the other.

I don’t use this feature, but Synergy is cross platform. You could have a Windows machine next to an Ubuntu one and you could seamlessly share the keyboard and mouse between the two, according to the documentation.

Minor Glitches & Drawbacks

It did feel a little weird using Synergy at first; you have to get used to moving the mouse and it moving to the other computer. Sometimes I still slip up and move the mouse too far, then wonder why my typing isn’t showing up on the screen where I’m looking.

I haven’t had good luck using Synergy over a wireless connection, so I always plug my laptop in when I’m at my desk. The wireless just seems to be a little less stable of a connection, and I really notice even a second lag when I’m moving between screens often. I especially had problems when I was also using a wireless mouse, but that mouse drove me crazy all the time anyway.

The shared clipboard doesn’t always work for me, and I haven’t figured out why. I think maybe certain programs don’t like to share copied content. For instance, I often have trouble copying from Outlook, although sometimes if I paste the content in Notepad first I can get it to transfer to the other computer.

I recommend starting Synergy on the primary screen (which acts as the server)—in my case, my desktop— before starting it on the secondary screen(s)—the laptop in my setup. Sometimes it flips out a bit otherwise, although it usually can recover.

Certain sites and actions will temporarily disable Synergy. For example, while Gmail is loading, I’m stuck on that screen. Other websites sometimes have the same effect, so I probably wouldn’t use this if I was on a slow connection.

These issues are all very minor though; overall this has been a great program. If you use two computers, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Try it Yourself

If you want to try it yourself, you can just download it and follow the directions. If the documentation there isn’t enough, try these links for more info:

Follow Up

I wrote a follow-up post explaining my workflow with synergy.

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6 thoughts on “One Keyboard and Mouse, Two Computers

  1. No, I don’t think there’s a way to do that in Synergy. You can only type on whichever computer is active. You can share the clipboard so you can copy text from one computer to the other, but not simultaneously.

  2. Is it possible to use synergy to control both computers at the same time, i.e. textbox 1 is open on computer 1 and textbox 2 is open on computer 2 and you type something into textbox 1 and 2 at the same time without context switching?

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