Monday, January 3, 2011

Windows 7: Multiple Monitors, Multiple Computers: Possibilities

I planned to be using Windows 7 on two computers.  At the start, I had two monitors, each dedicated to its own computer.  I wondered if I could set up the system so that I could use both monitors for computer A, and could also use both monitors for computer B.  I also wondered if I could use monitor A to see what was happening on both computers A and B at the same instant.

My first search led to ads for KVM switches, but that wasn't what I wanted.  I did look into KVM switches at Newegg, just in case someone had invented a switch that would do everything.  But then realized I wasn't going to read through all those product descriptions to see if any of them had the possibilities I wanted.  A different search got closer to what I wanted.  Actually, it went well beyond it.  There were possibilities I hadn't even imagined.

One possibility was that of Synergy, which had originally been Synergy and then became Synergy-Plus and was now back to being Synergy.  It looked like the Synergy concept ws that I could have two or more computers, each having its own monitor, and I could have just one keyboard and one mouse, and would move among these computers simply by moving the mouse to the left or right, until it left one monitor and then appeared on the next.  No KVM switch; just move the mouse to switch computers.  The connection was by ethernet -- just get all computers on the same network.  They said you could also copy and paste between the computers.  But apparently Synergy wasn't entirely stable yet; that was their stated goal for 2012. For that reason, I decided I would prefer a KVM for now, if necessary.  Presumably a problem with the network would render all computers other than the server (i.e., the one to which the keyboard and mouse were connected) unavailable.  Bruce Tyson pointed out that there would also be a problem if the user wanted to access the BIOS of a slave or client computer during bootup.  It seemed like it might be a good idea to have a spare keyboard and mouse handy.  Another possibility:  Input Director.  This Windows-specific freeware application seemed to have the same concept as Synergy.  These sorts of programs seemed to have the same idea as a KVM switch that would allow one keyboard (e.g., that on a laptop) to take control of another computer even if it did have its own keyboard and mouse.

Bruce Tyson also pointed me toward web-based sharing services, Virtual Network Computing (VNC), and remote desktop software.  These apparently all were, or could be, variations of "headless" computing, where the keyboard, video, and mouse (KVM) are all connected to just one computer, which is then linked to others whose contents may display on that monitor.  He also noted that some monitors have dual inputs, which could be plugged into separate computers, but that the user would have to switch between them using buttons on the monitor.  That would prevent simultaneous viewing of two computers and would also be klunky in daily use.

It seemed that was one of the leading web-based services.  But when I looked into it, these appeared to be simply ways of accessing the computer remotely.  At $10/month or more, it was pricey.  LogMeIn and others seemed to offer good free alternatives.  I decided I didn't want a web-based service, even if it did exactly what I wanted, because it would be relatively slow and it would be vulnerable to anything that might go wrong with the modem, the network connection, etc.

According to Wikipedia, VNC was both platform-independent and remote-capable, and some versions were "optimised for Microsoft Windows."  A list of versions indicated that UltraVNC (free) was the most advanced mainstream version and was the basis for several others.  Current alternatives for connecting a few Windows PCs included EchoVNC (free), RealVNC (free+), SmartCode VNC Manager ($129+), SupportAnyPC ($149), TeamViewer (free), and TightVNC (free).  Among these, a RealVNC feature comparison page indicated that its free version was not compatible with Windows 7.  Wikipedia pages for the free versions indicated that RealVNC was similar to UltraVNC, but the latter had more features; EchoVNC differed from UltraVNC in being more firewall-friendly; Teamviewer was mostly for remote control of computers; and TightVNC likewise had spun off a firewall-friendly variant, RemoteVNC ($25 per computer), among others.  A Wikipedia comparison page, only in it formative stages at this point, named Skype, TigerVNC, and xpra as other free Windows-compatible remote desktop programs.  The Wikipedia pages just linked for those additions indicated that TigerVNC was a fork of RealVNC; that Skype was (of course) primarily for VoIP; and that xpra (currently a beta product) used an approach that differed from that of VNC; but it later looked like xpra was not for Windows.  For my purposes, the survivors of this discussion were EchoVNC, TigerVNC, TightVNC, and UltraVNC.

I looked at a Wikipedia page showing a comparison of Java remote desktop projects. I was not sure what this was about. The project that seemed most feature-rich at this point was WallCooler VPN, so I looked into that. This actually led to a page for Vedivi, which seemed to be in the business of giving people access to remote computers at a low monthly price.

Eventually I figured out that there are many remote desktop protocols.  VNC was one; Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) was a Windows-specific alternative.  There were others.  I eventually found a chart that, although officially for Mac, pulled together some of this.  Revisting the Synergy and Input Director webpages (above), I saw that Synergy was not a VNC project; I was not clear what type it was, and likewise for Input Director.  Supposedly Microsoft's own version of RDP was currently called Remote Desktop Services, previously Terminal Services; but when I went looking for it, I wound up in Remote Desktop Connection (RDC).  A search led me to a description that sounded like what I was looking for.  I wondered why someone would have bothered creating Input Director, with its Windows orientation, if this feature already existed in RDC.  I decided to start by trying to use RDC, to see what would happen.  That would be the subject of another post.