On Windows-Mac Synergy (Or How to Kill 4+ Hours Saving Time…)

As I write this, I am happily going back and forth from monitor to monitor with my mouse – not unusual, as I’ve been using two monitors for a while now – the difference is that one is Windows 7, and the other is Mac OS. I move the cursor to the other screen, and I am instantly ‘in’ the other system.

It works by way of a free program called Synergy. It’s not the only screen sharing program of course (Share Mouse offers a free/paid version, and Input Director and Mouse Without Borders only work with Windows) but it is one of the most well-known. And because of my requirements (free, and Windows to/from Mac), it was the winner.

My needs were simple: Programming iPhone apps required some detailed Mac tinkering, but all my habits and “muscle memory” were Windows based; try scrolling a Safari browser window on the Mac, or do a copy and paste, and you’ll see what I mean (fortunately, there’s settings you can change for some of those things). Time is money, and learning a new Operating System for a programming task seemed like a real hurdle – not to mention giving up on all the familiar software (like my CorelDraw art software, and Windows tools like my Regex Coach) that I go to dozens of times a day when immersed in a programming project.

One option was placing two monitors side by side, using two keyboards and mice. Not good: Forget muscle memory for browsing, typing code fast on a shifted keyboard is a royal pain (move your keyboard just two inches over and see how well that goes…)

KVM? If you’ve ever used a Keyboard/Video/Mouse switch, they are a delight to work with. They let multiple computers share a single monitor, mouse, and keyboard by using a switch to toggle between them (I use a 4 port IOGear, which is a very nice yet inexpensive KVM switch). Unfortunately, switching between monitors is also a pain, hiding one screen when I go to the other (it is, however, great for test machines you rarely need to check on, or if you can’t spare that extra monitor…)

With Synergy, I can keep my Firefox browser open in Windows, edit art, write documents, etc., and there’s few disturbances in my workflow. For iPhone programming, I use the Mac. Going between them seamlessly gives me the best of both worlds, and made sense from a productivity perspective.

…Which made the several hours I spent configuring it somewhat ironic!

In the end, it wasn’t even Synergy’s fault, but mine. My Comodo firewall kept blocking inbound connections, even when I disabled it – I only later checked its logs and saw the Mac desperately trying to call in. The fix was to add the Synergy’s server .exe as a trusted application. Of course, this was after I turned off the firewall (thereby assuming it couldn’t be involved), researched how to add my Mac to my Windows 7 Homegroup (short answer – don’t), checked many, many web pages on Synergy setup and configuration, and of course rebooted both computers too many times to remember while I tweaked setting after setting (by the way, nothing is quite so infuriating as almost everyone online saying “it worked great right away” when mine didn’t).

The end result though makes the effort worthwhile (not enjoyable, mind you, just worthwhile). The program works in client-server mode, where one computer is the master, and the other is the slave. Together, they share the server’s keyboard and mouse, switching them when the mouse is moved between windows/monitors. The effect is very nice, and makes it much easier to “ease into” the Mac world.

Disadvantages? Clipboard transfer is limited to text and I believe bitmaps only, with no file transfer – but keeping a shared folder open on each desktop solves that issue (if you really need transparent file copy, apparently Share Mouse supports that).

Despite the pain installing, I heartily recommend it if you’re a Windows Power User looking to get ramped up fast in Mac-dom. Especially for iPhone/iPod/iPad programming, the combination of quick access to necessary new tools and your old Windows programs is a real productivity boost using Synergy. Set up a shared folder, and you’re good to go!

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