I use two different computers, each with a different operating system, to do my stuff. Actually, I use five, but only two where I would ideally like to switch between them while I’m using them. I’ve experimented with some solutions, so I can offer some advice.
The first bit of advice is this: Maybe don’t do this.
If you have multiple monitors on one or both of the two computers you would like to share, then you are probably taking up a lot of desk space. More to the point, the two dimensional, but really, one dimensional, range over which your monitors are spread is probably so wide that you can’t really use two computers with one keyboard and mouse without have some sort of super chair, a very long neck, and an extension build onto your arm. Maybe what you really need is two desks near each other with a computer on each one.
The USB fix.
But, maybe you still want to do this, to use two computers with one keyboard.
I want to do this in part because the only keyboards I really like are large and tend to cost close to $150, such as a full size Tactile Keyboard for a Mac, the Avant Stellar keyboard (which is very hard to find these days), or a cheaper Linux friendly Mechanical Feel Gaming Keyboard, such as this one which is on sale dirt cheap at the moment though I’ve not used this exact one so I’m not sure if it is any good. I like the big tactile keyboard sitting there with my favorite mouse, and I just want to sometimes use one computer, sometimes the other computer. I’m willing to shift the keyboard and mouse one way or the other by a foot or so on my desk, and I don’t change back and forth on the fly, just going to one computer for an extended period, then switching to the other computer for an extended period.
For this, you want a USB switcher such as the UGREEN USB Switch Selector. I use this one. You plug a USB mouse and a USB keyboard into it, and then run one USB cable to each of your two computers.
There is a button you press to switch computers. If you read the reviews you’ll see people complaining that the switch is not instantaneous. It isn’t, but for this particular use case it need not be. It is pretty fast. There are four USB inputs, so you can put more devices on the switch beyond just the keyboard and mouse, and if you do, that may slow down the switching more. Point is, this works fine for changing which computer you have keyed up, as it were, and it is not an expensive or difficult to implement alternative.
The Synergy Fix: Attempt one unhappy
There are multiple software solutions that allow two computers to use one mouse and keyboard by having one computer be the “server” and the other the “client,” so as your mouse moves from the screen of one computer to the other, both the keyboard-computer link and the mouse-computer link “seamlessly” changes.
I reviewed all the solutions for this and settled on Synergy by Symless. I then tried out version 1-point-something, which happened also to be on sale at the time, so I think it was less than $20. (Yes, this is not open source free software, but not everything is!)
I didn’t like that solution, and eventually uninstalled it. That is when I bought the USB switch. It was too slow. The performance of the mouse on the host computer was affected, and slowed down. So, as I moved the mouse across the screen, mouse-over events (when you move the mouse of a button or window or something) slowed down and sometimes stopped the mouse. Moving to the other computer was sometimes jumpy, sometimes didn’t work. Setup and re-setup when things went wrong was off. In order to make this work I actually had to keep a keyboard and mouse (in my case, bluetooth, small, and out of the way so no biggie) hooked up to the client computer in order to get that computer out of sleep mode, locked screensaver, or address issues on startup before the Synergy server-client thingie started working, or to fix the Synergy client server.
The advantage would have included the possibility of copy and past between computers, but in this version that was quirky and having that option on seemed to slow it down even more. (Note, your network may matter in how well this works, see below.)
The Synergy Fix: Attempt two pretty happy
But then Synergy 2.0 came out and it was good enough to prompt me to write it up and suggest you try it. Now, for me, I had already bought Synergy 1-point-something, so the upgrade on an extended black friday sale was $12. For you it will be closer to $50, but they guarantee satisfaction.
The upgrade and set up was not flawless or seamless but it did eventually work. I think I still need the second keyboard and mouse set up, but again, that is just a bluetooth setup stashed off to the side. If you are a multi-computer, multi-monitor level operator you have this hardware around anyway.
The mouse seems to behave perfectly normally and cut and paste between computers is fine. With the earlier version, the keyboard stalled unacceptably often when using Synergy and typing into a browser or editor or a text editor. I find all things that interfere with typing to be unacceptable because because I am a writer. Also, I can really notice the slowdowns or stuttering, again, because banging stuff out on the keyboard is what I do. I will not tolerate a software solution that messes with this.
Under the current system, the server computer (in this case a Linux computer) works flawlessly when typing. I see a small amount of hesitation every now and then on the client computer, a Mac, but this mac is slow and old, so I can’t be positive it is because of Synergy. The amount of slowdown is minimal.
At the moment, this means to me that I can use Synergy just fine, and I still have the USB switch noted above hooked up. So, I can change the keyboard via USB when I need to for extended typing.
Indeed, the last 134 words were typed in BBEdit over on the Mac, with acceptable performance, and in a moment I will copy it and paste it over to the post you are reading, being created in Chrome on the Linux computer.
Here we go.
There, that worked.
(Note, to use both a Linux or Windows computer AND a Mac, you will have to deal with some ctrl-alt-whatever keyboard issues, but I’m sure you can handle that.)
In short, I recommend all three of the above outlined solutions, in some sort of combination. Over time, one or two will settle out to be what you usually do. The main point is this: If you previously used Synergy version 1-point-whatever and were not happy, try Version 2, it is way, way better and actually quite nice.
One thing that might help any Synergy or similar system is to fix up your network better. Right now, both computers are communicating with a router via wireless. Never mind why, I know, it is not ideal. I intend to try to get a router in the same room and hook both computers to the built in switch, hooking that router out to the Internet via wireless. This will allow the Synergy system to be much more directly connected between the two computers, I assume.
In all the above I speak only of two computers and one set of keyboard and mouse. There is a lot more you can do than that, including multiple computers and multiple mouse-keyboard options. Since I’ve not tried any of that and don’t know exactly what is possible or what, if possible, is acceptable in terms of performance, I’ll remain silent on it.
If you have multiple computer use cases where you’ve tried stuff out, please let us know about your solutions and problems in the comments!