Introduction: Working With Multiple Computers (For Students)

Working with multiple computers can be very difficult. You never know what files are on which computer, you might run into problems with multiple version of the same file, and as a result, you could lose your files all together or at least have your life turned into a nightmare by multiple computer confusion. And if these computers are running different operating systems, you might think to just throw one of them out the window so you don't have to deal with the confusion.

But in this day and age, I've found that a multiple computer lifestyle can work very easily using only free software.

The first two steps of this instructable tell you how to set up Dropbox, a great utility for synchronizing files. Step 2 has a bonus tip on a cheap but good looking netbook stand. Steps 3-6 cover additional tools and methods you can use to make your polycomputational lifestyle even better:, Google Notebook, the "sharing" feature of Dropbox, and Synergy, for sharing your keyboard and mouse wirelessly between the computers.


Step 1: Grab Dropbox

First, get yourself to the Dropbox website and register yourself an account. You can easily and instantly get a no-nonsense 2 GB account. The internet is great.

You'll then want to download the Dropbox client. Downloads for Mac OS X, Windows, and Ubuntu can be found on the Dropbox homepage. My Eee runs Debian, but a quick trip to Google showed that, with the magic of free software, that was no problem at all. This site has instructions on how to get the client for Debian.

Now that you've got the client, let's make some folders.

Step 2: Make Dropbox Happen

The Dropbox folder created on your computer basically acts like any other folder, except every file has either a little check mark in a green circle or two arrows inside a blue circle. If you see a green check mark, it means that that file is synchronized with the file on the Dropbox servers. Every time you modify and save a file it will automatically synchronize the change with all the computers you have the client on, even being so thoughtful as to only bother uploading the bytes that have been changed, saving time and bandwidth. To be extra helpful, you'll always have a little icon in your menu bar / toolbar that lets you know what Dropbox's status is.

This isn't really much of a step as it's very self-explanatory. Just start saving files you want synchronized to a folder in your Dropbox. And that's it; you'll be taking advantage of the coolest part of Dropbox within seconds. All your files will show up on any other computers you have associated with your account, as well as being accessible from any computer via Dropbox's wonderful web interface. Included with this step are a few screenshots showing what my Dropbox looks like on my Mac, on my Eee, and on any computer via the web. Using Dropbox really changed the way I work; I made a little stand for my Eee out of the plastic covering of a 100 DVD spindle, which is very sleek and surprisingly stable. And, it keeps the power cord in place; I just throw the end of it into the inside of the spindle when I take the Eee. The only problem with this stand is that you cannot easily access the Eee's keyboard and mouse. But this shouldn't matter: Dropbox should prevent you from having to work on your secondary computer when your primary one is around, and if you really need to use your secondary computer, you can avoid having to touch it by hopping over to Step 6 and checking out syngery. I've included here a photo of this stand.

You can end your affair with this instructable here if you're satisfied, or you can go on for some information on additional programs and methods you can use to improve your multi-computer.

Step 3: Using (instead of Word) (or OOo) isn't perfect, but it's free and it works great for simple word processing. I have it installed on both my Mac and my Eee, and I find it more than enough to work with for writing essays and other simple tasks.

To make work on a Mac, you need X11, which should be available on your Mac OS X install DVD.

Another thing that helps me immensely is that you can set OOo to always save text documents as Microsoft Word .doc files. Yes, open standards like OpenDocument are always better and totally guilt-free, but the fact is that most people are running Microsoft Office and if you plan on sending your files to them, everyone's lives will be a lot easier if you're all speaking the same language.

Go to your OOo preferences, click the "Load/Save" category, and select "General." Go to the bottom of the window and change the default text document format to "Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP" (you can see what I'm talking about in the attached image). I was expecting there to be issues with formatting, but I have not run into a single one. It can even handle track changes, which is delightful.

As a student, having two computers running the same program is fantastically useful. When I'm at home, I can begin an essay, then walk out the door with my Eee and continue it wherever I wish. Plus, I can work on the essay on any computer with an internet connection and Microsoft Word, which constitutes about 95% of the computers I run into.

Step 4: Using Google Notebook (instead of a Pencil and Paper)

Additionally, if you're student, you'll probably want to take notes all the time. You could just take notes in a text document through OOo, but I prefer to use Google Notebook for its ability to organize your notes in a logical way. The only downside to this method vs. using OOo and Dropbox is that you can not work on your notes without an internet connection unless you save them to your computer. But internet access is almost everywhere, especially if you're on a college campus, so that can hardly be considered a shortcoming for this method.

Step 5: Collaborating With Dropbox

Another great feature of Dropbox is its built-in functionality to facilitate collaboration. You can create a shared folder using either the web interface or with your computer's file browser. To do so on the web interface, simply click "Share" and fill in the forms to create a new shared folder. In your file browser, right click on a folder that's in your Dropbox, and select Dropbox -> Sharing Options (which just takes you to the Dropbox website).

Next, enter the email addresses of anyone who wishes to partake in your folder. They will receive an email with instructions on how to access this shared folder. They can access it just like you can: either through the web interface or in their file browser using the Dropbox client.

There are endless possibilities for this feature. For example, I am currently working on music with a friend of mine in New Zealand, thousands of miles away from my native California, using a Dropbox shared folder to send songs back and forth.

Step 6: One More Thing: Synergy, for Unifying Your Desk

Synergy is a cross-platform application for using one keyboard and one mouse for many computers. It can be downloaded for free from SourceForge.

The synergy team put up a great guide on setting up their software, so I'll just direct you over there instead of putting the instructions all in here. It requires a wee bit of command line usage, but even a novice command line user shouldn't have much trouble, as it is a very simple program.

I have my Mac set up as a "host" computer, so if I want to, I just connect to it with the Eee and use my Mac's keyboard and mouse for both computers as if I were running multiple monitors. It even transfers the clipboard across the computers so you can copy from one and paste to the other.

A tip for Mac OS X Leopard users: For some reason, you can't run the synergy server the background on Leopard, you can only run it in the foreground, causing it to show its log in a terminal window and quit as soon as you quit Terminal. But you can get around this: if, when you start synergy, you use the command:
synergys -f &
which stills shows the log as if it were running in the foreground, but you can quit Terminal without stopping Synergy, which is nice to get it out of the way.

Alrighty then! I hope this instructable has made your life just a little more efficient and saved you some headaches about missing or inaccessible files. Dropbox is a fantastic tool and allows you to keep track of your important work no matter where you are. Have fun!