I recently stumbled across a great solution to one of my problems in an open source project called Synergy. The input device for my television which I use the most is a laptop which I have setup as a media server. I use it to stream Pandora through my stereo, or to watch shows from Hulu. Consequently I needed an effective means to control this computer without having to walk up to my laptop everytime I needed to fix something, or I wanted to skip a song on Pandora.
Synergy – Great media center remote control software
My initial solution was to use an iPhone/iPod touch app called AirMouse. I was very impressed with this application and found it to be far better than any of the other alternatives I had tried. I still highly recommend this App, but unfortunately I found that the 5-10 second delay of taking out my iPhone, waking it up, and then waiting for AirMouse to connect to the server on my computer just became too much of a frustration.
The next solution I tried was to use VNC to control my media center laptop from my MacBook which I almost always have on my lap when I'm in my living room anyways. For those not familiar with VNC it's a technology used to remotely connect to and access computers. I experimented with several different VNC configurations, but I always found them to be too heavy and sluggish, and they fell short of what I though the experience could and should be like. Fortunately I stumpled across Synergy.
Synergy is probably not for those without some tech savvy, and this is probably it's biggest failing. If you don't know what an IP address or Port are, then I'd recommend having your child, brother, sister, uncle, or whoever your family tech support is help you set it up. It is worth the trouble. What synergy allows me to do is to control my media center computer using the keyboard and touchpad of my MacBook. Seamlessly. The performance of the connection is so good that I feel like I am using a keyboard and mouse directly connected to my media center. I can even play games on my media center using this control without any noticeable issues. It also has some really cool features like the fact that the clipboard is shared between the two computers, so I can copy the URL from a browser on my MacBook, and paste it into an address bar on my media center.
You're probably wondering how much this magical software costs. This is another one of it's great features. It is both open source, and free. I highly recommend giving this software a shot if you're like me and frequently use a media center on your TV, with another laptop either on your lap or nearby on a coffee table. It may seem daunting at first to configure, but if there's sufficient interest I might write a tutorial on configuring it for this kind of use. For those using a mac Synergy itself only has a command-line client, however there is a GUI version called SynergyOSX which provides a GUI interface. I personally haven't used this interface so would be interested in hearing your experiences with it.
If anyone has found any alternative solutions to this type of problem let me know and I'll add them to this post!