Not Lame, Protip, Shopping

Maximizing Your Digital Life with A KVM

11/07/2020

With COVID I wanted to actually start using the computers I own to their maximum potential. Taking stock of what I actually had and what I was actually using had left me disappointed. Every day I sit in an office with 3 powerful desktop machines and a corporate sponsored Macbook Pro – and just two desks. The workflow wasn’t making sense anymore and I was unhappy getting to these desktops with VNC and the one with the best video card doesn’t even have Remote Desktop (Windows 10 Home, that it came with, doesn’t support becoming a Remote Desktop host).

Of all my COVID purchases this has to be my favorite one. I’ve purchased a home gym, a car, and a quarter of the items on Amazon. Just before the pandemic started though I made two key computer purchases from MicroCenter – an Acer refurb serving as a Debian powerstation and a Powerspec gaming PC with a sweet AMD setup.

In the past month though, I’ve finally setup my two desks with two KVMs and have a third ready for other projects.

This has literally changed my life.

If you are like me and sitting at two desks with four computers, this is the solution. I was able to bridge the gap at the standing desk very quickly with the cheap CLK KVM I found. When I shopped for a KVM in the past to solve the problem I have at the other desk I was perplexed by the options. I wanted to cover my needs and it seemed that by shopping for them I was easily pricing myself out of the market.

Because I thought I had to buy a quality device (well of course you should) I was hesitant to even try a KVM at home. I’ve used them in the office before, but haven’t dared to think my computing needs were important enough to solve them this way.

At one desk I have a Macbook Pro, as mentioned, that I don’t love but I have to use every day for my career. And at this standing desk I also have the aforementioned Powerspec gaming PC. I’m not sure how this became the ultimate gaming and work station but I think it was the natural overflow position available when the Powerspec found it’s home (that fateful day I made that spur of the moment purchase).

This worked well most of the time but the gaming PC wasn’t seeing any action. When it did, it was a hassle to setup. It was just two cables to move over, two I could move effortlessly most days. Two cables that proved challenging for the wife and kids though. The PC has two HDMI outputs and the one that’s obvious isn’t the one on the video card. This meant when people switched it over it didn’t work and no one understood why.

At my other desk I had my tried and true Windows 10 Pro machine I had built with my Vegas Wedding money. Daily I logged into it, beat it up and hosted Plex from it. Beside it was the cheap refurbished Acer desktop that was running as a power Debian “powerstation”. The Windows machine was getting all the focus in the room and the Debian machine wasn’t being used to it’s potential. It’s beautiful desktop was only seen over VNC, and Plasma was stunning. I also had to bridge the gap here and stop using Windows 10 as my daily driver. While I love Windows 10 and it’s utter slickness (compared to previous versions of Windows), I was using this machine to record OTA broadcasts and serve up content to my friends and family with Plex.

Shopping I Go!

The CKL HDMI Dual Monitor KVM – Supports two USB HID inputs, audio in and out and data over HDMI to solve for cable management. With hotkey support you can change inputs with a fast double-middle-click

There I was with four computers and two desks. Two expensive keyboards, two amazing mice, and what I saw as a huge ace in the hole – four stunning monitors. There was only one thing to do, buy a KVM and extend my digital life to the machines I spent the money and time on.

This time I took a different approach. Instead of pouring over NewEgg listings and trying to find the best technical device I went back to the tried and true method of trusting Amazon reviews. After a fear searches I was able to narrow my results down to dual monitor KVM switches and found our (four) star – the CKL HDMI Dual Monitor KVM for the low entry point of just $114.

I was very suspect despite the positive reviews. How could this cheap device settle my dual monitor needs, support the variety of devices and operating systems I have (including Raspberry PIs) out of the box and not suffer from major shortcomings? It surpassed my expectations very quickly.

The Raspberry Pi Test

The first thing I wanted to try wasn’t hooking up the gaming PC and the workstation – that would come later. Instead the first thing I wanted to try was the promise of dual monitor Raspberry Pi 4 computing. While owning the 8GB PI4 for almost a year, I’ve never set it up to two monitors (though I would rather hook the PI4 up to two televisions). At the Windows 10 station I did exactly that, leaving my Debian powerstation sitting as just a simple home automation server for the time being.

While I was eventually disappointed in and abandoned the Pi-as-a-desktop because it’s still too slow – the KVM supported the Raspberry Pi without any issues. I was surprised because the KVM itself uses a different style of technology and instead of passing the HID (mouse/keyboard) input over a USB cable it encapsulates the data in the specialized HDMI cable that comes in the box.

Thankfully when I moved on from that short lived dream the Acer and Debian supported the KVM all the same (or rather, they saw the devices as standard and pass through devices and didn’t care about the KVM itself). Today this desk is the Windows 10 Pro vs. Debian/Plasma station where they battle out the right to be used (and Debian wins, as I write this in Linux).

All Work and No Play

Then it was time to setup the work machine, which was going to be a hassle. The gaming PC took to the VPN without any problems at all but the Macbook fussed and complained a little before finally getting itself figured out. At first I made the fatal mistake of working an entire week and not gaming, which never actually tested the switch or the underlying setup. Then I found out after a weekend of gaming that OSX thinks it knows what’s best for your monitor, input and power setup.

Eventually it just started to “just work” – much like Steve Jobs had promised. There were a few mornings where I had to dig out the laptop, open the lid, mash the buttons to get it to wake up from sleep but those days are gone. Now somehow the computer has realized it’s docked and setup to a dual monitor display (with an optional USB-C to HDMI adapter). Now I can go from playing World of Warcraft to working hard at my job in seconds.

I highly encourage any avid computer user to double down and just commit to finding a KVM that works well for them and their needs.

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