For many of us, everyday computing involves using more than one computer — and sometimes more than one computer operating system. That can mean a lot of cables and a lot of switching between keyboards, mice, and trackpads, but there are now multiple hardware and software options for sharing a single set of input devices between multiple laptops or desktop computers.
The newcomer in this particular area is, of course, Apple’s Universal Control, which works with Macs and iPads. The keyboard and mouse (or trackpad) of one main Mac can be used to control up to two other nearby Mac or iPad devices, and you also get a limited amount of drag-and-drop support.
For everything to work, Universal Control must be enabled. From macOS System Preferences, this is done via Displays and Universal control† from iPad settings, you need to go to . to go General and AirPlay and Transferand switch on Cursor and keyboard† Once that’s done, all your devices should be close to each other, signed in to the same Apple ID, and connected to the same network.
Meet all these criteria, and if you move the cursor off the edge of one device, it should land on another (you can change the setup in Displays in System Preferences). If you only work on Apple devices, this is the option that probably makes the most sense: it’s built into macOS and iPadOS and doesn’t require much to install.
Mouse without limits
Microsoft actually has its own version of Universal Control, although you may not have heard of it: Mouse without limits is a “Garage Project” by Microsoft employee Truong Do, meaning they worked on it in their spare time. As you’d expect, it’s simple and only available for Windows, but it does the job.
To set everything up, install Mouse Without Borders on the computers you want to use it with, then use the security codes shown on each screen to connect over a local network. You’ll be asked to indicate how your computer screens are positioned, and then it’s just a matter of moving the mouse cursor from the screen edge to another computer to switch controls.
You can use any keyboard and mouse connected to all your computers as input devices here, and it’s more stable and reliable than you might think a side project would be. The utility works with up to four computers and supports additional features such as dragging and dropping files and copying and pasting text.
synergy has been around much longer than Universal Control and Mouse Without Borders, and it’s more comprehensive too, not least because it works on both Windows and macOS. The price starts at $29 for the basic edition, which covers you for three different computers: the computer with your main keyboard and mouse connected acts as the server, and the others are clients, as configured in the Synergy software.
Once Synergy can see all the computers — which should take seconds, as long as they’re on the same network — you’ll be able to see how your screens are laid out. Then it’s just a matter of swiping the cursor from the edge of one screen to another (as you might with multiple monitors) to change the computer you’re in control of.
Dive deeper into the Synergy software and you can set up custom keyboard shortcuts, which are very useful if you use Windows and macOS computers at the same time, and clipboard synchronization. Alternatives are available, including: ShareMousewhich works in a similar way: that’s free, but only for basic functionality on two computers, and subsequent prices start at $95.
Logitech, an established supplier of input devices, has its own solution for using one keyboard and mouse with multiple computers. It’s called Logitech Flow. You will find it available as part of the Logi Options software package, and as you might expect, you need Logitech peripherals for this to work.
Once you’ve connected your keyboard and mouse through the Logi Options software and installed the application on each computer you use, Logitech Flow works in a similar way to the other solutions we’ve covered in this list. Under the Flow tab on the mouse control panel, you can set how your screens and computers are arranged. Then you can switch devices by dragging the mouse cursor from the edge of one screen to another.
If you want, you can use a keyboard shortcut to switch between computers (click the Switch between computers choice). There’s a lot more to explore in the software, from being able to transfer files between computers to setting up custom keyboard shortcuts that work across all the platforms you use.
A Keyboard Video Mouse (KVM) switch
Your other option is to go the hardware route with a KVM (Keyboard Video Mouse) switch: your keyboard and mouse of choice plugs into the switch, and then all your other computers plug directly into the switch instead of the peripherals. A physical button or hotkey controls the switching.
The main advantage over the software solutions we’ve mentioned is that extra ‘V’ for video: you only need one monitor. You can hide multiple computers under your desk, while on the surface everything looks uncluttered and serene with one monitor, keyboard and mouse. It also means that if you have a high-end, expensive monitor, it doesn’t have to be limited to one device.
Some people prefer the hardware option so that they don’t rely on Wi-Fi connectivity and don’t have to deal with software quirks; others prefer to stick to an application and have no other device on their desk. KVM switches are available at the usual electronics stores, and depending on the number of connections you need and the type of connections, the cost can range from a handful of dollars to several hundred dollars.