What is a KVM Switch?
Have you ever wished for an easy way to control 2 computers from a single keyboard/mouse/monitor? If so, you’ll need a KVM switch. Short for Keyboard-Video-Mouse, KVMs have long been used by technicians and ordinary users alike who need access to multiple machines from a single “console”.
In recent years, the proliferation of USB mice and keyboards has all but eliminated the older style PS/2 connections that we were so accustomed to on PCs. In turn, KVM switches have recently changed focus to support USB devices a lot better, particularly since USB is not a direct, dedicated connection for these kinds of devices. What this means is that most USB KVM switches are somewhat dumbed-down in the way they go about switching. While PS/2 KVM switches typically work immediately after switching between computers, USB KVMs usually make you wait a few seconds while they tell computer 1 “I’m unplugging this keyboard and mouse”, and subsequently tell computer 2 “I’m plugging this keyboard and mouse into you”.
Not only is this annoying, but it can result in some pretty unpredictable behavior, especially if you need to be in the BIOS settings page of a PC, in the Windows Recovery Console, or heaven forbid, in DOS. While most Mac users probably wouldn’t care about this since OS X is pretty quick about recognizing a USB device, I’d wager that many people using a Mac with a KVM do so because they have another PC they need to control with it.
Do I need one?
In my case, I use KVMs quite a bit. Both at work and at home, I have a workstation where I need to connect to PCs to either prep them for deployment or do repair work on them. I need an easy way to share my monitor/keyboard and mouse between my main machine and customer machines. As such, I’ve had the displeasure of going through quite a few KVM switches trying to find one that is usable. I’ve been through high-end Belkin Omniview, low-end Belkin Flip models, Hawking and Tripp Lite switches, all with limited success. But just recently a friend recommended that I take a look at offerings from a company called IOGEAR.
USB Emulation – a feature every USB KVM should have.
IOGEAR is building quite a reputation for well-made, well-engineered products, and its KVMs are no exception. One of the things IOGEAR has going for them is that they have a patent on “USB emulation” technology. This technology basically puts an end to the constant disconnect/reconnect of USB peripherals when switching. Instead, it tells both machines that the devices are still connected, and just redirects output between the two machines upon switching.
That technology was the major selling point for this particular unit, which is otherwise an also-ran in terms of functionality. The GCS632U is a relatively low-end 2-port KVM otherwise, with a price to match (I paid about $30 for it on NewEgg.com). It features built-in 6’ long cables, support for a USB keyboard, mouse, 15-pin VGA connector and speakers (provided that they use the standard 1/8” audio jack). Operation couldn’t be easier. You simple attach the cables from your mouse, keyboard and monitor to the KVM (DVI is supported via an adapter, purchased separately), then connect your two computers to the cables that extend from the unit. Switching is done via hot key, so you’ll never have to physically touch the switch (it can be left on the floor, or placed in a convenient, if unaccessible, location).
Easy switching via hotkey
By default, the GCS632U uses the Scroll Lock key on your keyboard to switch between machines, but since Mac keyboards don’t have a Scroll Lock key, you can easily remap that hot key to another. Tap the Scroll Lock key twice and the GCS632U will instantly switch to the opposite machine, with no wait. If you happen to be in a low-level OS on one of the other machines (like BIOS or DOS), you don’t need to worry about losing your keyboard control just because you switched. While the IOGEAR claims compatibility specifically with Mac, Windows, Linux and even Solaris, the GCS632U should work with just about any OS that supports USB.
In my testing, I’ve found the device to be very stable and error free, providing it’s set up correctly. I make mention of the set up, because I did suffer from a moment of stupidity when I accidentally plugged the keyboard into the mouse port on the KVM and the mouse into the keyboard port. Fortunately, tech support at IOGEAR is very quick to answer (no wait!) and had me sorted out in about 30 seconds (even if they did get a chuckle at my expense).
So, in short, if you’re looking for an easy way to control 2 computers from the same console, you can’t go wrong with this unit. At the bargain price of just $30, it blows away its competition with the patented USB emulation scheme it uses. Highly recommended.