Whenever I think of a KVM switch, my mind turns to those archaic hardware A-B switches that used to allow you to hook up a parallel printer to two computers. Yes, these were the days before WiFi, high-speed Internet, and USB hubs. A KVM switch isn’t quite that archaic – it’s actually short for “keyboard, video and mouse”, and is a still-relevant device that lets you hook up one keyboard, mouse and monitor to multiple computers.
You can always buy a KVM switch for pretty cheap these days, or if you really want to save some time and money, there are a few software solutions you can use to operate two PCs with just one mouse and keyboard. The most common is a Remote Desktop style solution, like various remote control programs like WebEx, or mobile apps you can use to control your PC from your phone.
The other solution – the one I actually prefer – is the simplest and the most useful. That is, a program that allows you to simply glide your mouse over to the side of the screen where the screen of your other computer is situated, and the cursor will magically slide off of that computer’s screen and onto the other one, almost like you’re using the mouse and keyboard on a single computer!
3 Programs That Will Replace a KVM Switch
In this article, I’m going to cover three of the best applications available that will let you use two computers with a single mouse and keyboard, without very much hassle at all. That requirement is important because it actually forced me to shy away from reviewing Synergy, after I spent nearly an hour trying to get it working on my two laptops without much luck at all. You’ll see how the programs I review below take under a couple of minutes to install, and barely five minutes to set up before you’re up and running.
The first application that’s well worth mentioning is ShareMouse, which is probably the easiest of the three programs to set up and run. Simon mentioned ShareMouse briefly, and his article was actually the reason I decided to give it a test drive. The first bonus point is the fact that you don’t have to install a separate install for the server or the client PC. It’s one install for either. Once installed, it shows up in the taskbar as an arrow icon.
Hover over the icon to see how many other PCs on your network are set up with ShareMouse and ready to use along with this installation.
On each PC where you install it, you can set up security features and network settings so that sharing out control of that PC can remain secure. But, one feature I really like more than the security options is the fact that you can set it to dim the screen that you’re not currently using.
It’s not only a good reminder of your active screen, but it can also save the battery life of the other computer, if it’s a laptop.
Another awesome feature that isn’t always included in many remote access applications is the ability to easily drag and drop files or clipboard contents from one desktop to another.
Under Monitor Manager is where you can configure how your monitors are physically located next to each other. You can drag and drop the screens anywhere at all. So, if you place monitor A underneath monitor C, then you’ll need to drag your screen down off the bottom of screen C to get the cursor onto screen A.
Keep in mind that the free version of ShareMouse has some limitations. You can only use it with two computers and only two screens, and you can’t use it with a domain controller on the network, or on a machine with a server OS. I actually made the mistake of running it on two laptops, where one had an extra screen attached, and the software timed out after a couple of minutes. However, if you stay within the rules, you can use it for free, without time limits.
Unlike the other two applications I’m reviewing here, this one is more along the lines of a VNC viewer. It allows you to use the mouse and keyboard with the other computer, but instead of sliding your mouse over to the other screen, the software displays the other computer screen on the screen you’re working on. It also requires that you install either the server or client installer file, depending whether it’s the PC where you want to control, or the one you want to view.
Making a connection is extremely easy. You just have to know the IP of the computer where you’ve installed the server software, and from the viewer PC you can just type the IP address into the connection name field and the IP address field.
LiteManager offers plenty of settings that you can use to customize the behavior of those connections, such as removing the wallpaper from the desktop you’re viewing, enabling or disabling clipboard sync (just like ShareMouse), blanking out the server screen, so no-one at that PC can interfere with what you’re doing, and more.
It’s definitely very flexible software, considering that it’s free. Once you’ve set up the connection, you’ll see a small icon in the Viewer software showing the remote screen. All you have to do is open it up and you can either take control of the remote screen, or just switch it over to view mode and watch whatever the person on that computer is doing.
Similar to many other remote control applications, the control icons are located at the upper center of the screen. Here you can switch between view/control modes, copy clipboard data, or even take a video of the remote screen activity.
If you prefer the VNC flavor of controlling the remote computer – keeping the screen view on your “control” computer’s screen rather than sliding the most over to the other computer screen, then this software is for you. It’s probably the best solution if the computer is located far away from your control computer and you still want to make use of it remotely.
Second to ShareMouse, I think Input Director is my second favorite KVM switch alternative software. It’s fast and easy to set up – one install gives you an application that you can configure as either the Master or Slave application. Run the slave on as many other PCs on your network as you like, and you can use the one keyboard and mouse across all of them.
Configuring the placement of your screens isn’t quite as pretty as ShareMouse, but it does the trick. Everything is done by IP address, making setup across all the systems you want to control a piece of cake – much faster and easier than the like of Synergy, which is just a pain in the neck to deal with.
In seconds, I was connected between my two-screen laptop and a second laptop set off to the right. You know when the keyboard and mouse control is switching over to the other system because as you approach the edge of the screen, the cursor changes to this rippling effect.
That tells you the software senses that you’re in the “transition” zone. Keep moving off the edge of the screen, and in less than a second you’ll be controlling your other system as though it was the very same computer. Very cool stuff, with lots of potential applications.
Have you ever used these or any other KVM alternative applications? What’s your solution? Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below!
Image Credits: Robert Freiberger Via Flickr