Share Peripherals Between Laptops and Desktops

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A few years ago, my Dell Inspiron 3700 blue-screened right after I returned from a trip. I administered laptop CPR; no response. Suddenly, I faced multiple deadlines with no computer.

From that painful experience, I learned a valuable lesson: I needed a backup computer. I decided to use a desktop as my main computer in the office and a laptop for when I'm away, and to serve as a backup. Currently, my desktop is a Dell Dimension and my laptop is an Apple MacBook Air. I sync folders between the two automatically using Microsoft's free Windows Live Sync.

Recently, however, I've wanted to get more use out of my MacBook Air while in the office, especially for editing video in iMovie. I also wanted the Air to have the same ergonomic setup as my Dell.

So I tested three KVM (Keyboard Video Mouse) switches, which are designed to let you easily share the same keyboard, monitor, and mouse between two (or more) computers. The models I tested--two from Belkin, one from Iogear--work with both PCs and Macs.

Belkin's SOHO KVM Switch

Belkin's SOHO KVM switches come in many variations. The models differ by how many computers you can connect (two or four), which type of monitor input is supported (VGA or DVI), and which type of peripheral is supported (USB and/or PS/2).

I tested Belkin's SOHO KVM Switch that lets you connect up to four computers with DVI video. It also allows you to connect up to two USB 2.0 peripherals, such as external hard drives and printers. You can share one microphone and set of speakers between all your connected computers. The SOHO switch lists for $269 but can be found online for under $200.

I connected my Dell 20-inch flat-panel display, a USB keyboard, and a USB trackball into the SOHO's console. Then I used the SOHO's cables to connect my Air and Dell to the switch. Each SOHO cable combines monitor and USB connectors in one cable. A separate cable combines microphone and speaker connections.

The SOHO cables are color coded to match the console's buttons. The goal is to make it easy to connect peripherals properly to the console, and then to switch between computers by pushing a button on the console. For the Air, I used the SOHO monitor/USB cable with green connection screws; for the Dell, I used the cable with blue connection screws. Then, when I pushed the SOHO console button with the green accent, the keyboard, monitor and mouse switched to the Air. Pushing the SOHO console button with blue trim lets me use the keyboard, monitor, and mouse with my Dell desktop.

I had no trouble connecting my desktop PC and monitor using the SOHO's DVI-I output monitor connection cable. However, the SOHO's DVI-I output connector on the monitor cable was incompatible with Apple's Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter. Apple's adapter is required to connect a DVI monitor to the Air, but the adapter has a DVI-D input.

To fix the problem, Belkin sent me a DVI-I to DVI-D adapter ($14). A spokesperson said by late February the company would begin shipping SOHO KVM switches with DVI-D output cables, eliminating the need for the adapter.

Another potential disadvantage with the SOHO: It's by far the bulkiest of the KVM switches I tested. Be prepared to give the console and cables considerable desk space.

Belkin's Flip

The Flip is a more compact and stylish KVM switch (watch the video to see it in action). Like the SOHO, the Flip comes in multiple variations, depending on monitor type (DVI or VGA), the peripheral connection supported (PS/2 or USB), and if it offers speaker connections. All models support peripheral sharing between two computers, a Mac or a PC.

You switch between computers with a small, hockey-pucked shaped remote control or by using free Flip software, which must be installed on each computer that's sharing peripherals. Unfortunately, the remote control button on the first Flip I received didn't work. Belkin sent me a replacement KVM switch and remote, which worked properly.

The DVI version of Flip, which I tested, is the most expensive of the various Flip KVM switches. It sells for $109 and up online. I didn't have any problems connecting either the Air or the Dell to the Flip KVM switch, as I did with the SOHO.

Iogear MiniView

To share a USB keyboard and mouse between multiple computers using the SOHO or the Flip, you connect a USB cable from the KVM switch to a USB port on each shared computer. The net effect is that you're using only one USB port to connect two USB devices (keyboard and mouse). That's an advantage, given that many laptops have only two or three USB ports--and the Air only has one.

However, Iogear's MiniView Micro DVI-D KVM ($70 and up online), which is similar to Belkin's Flip, requires separate USB connections for your keyboard and mouse. Because I needed two free USB ports, one for the mouse and one for the keyboard, I couldn't fully test the MiniView on my Air. I had to choose between connecting a keyboard or my trackball.

However, Iogear's KVM switch includes a connection to share a microphone between two computers, which the Flip lacks. The MiniView is also the most compact of the three KVM switches I tested. And you can usually find it online for less than the Flip DVI switch. Iogear sells lots of other KVM switches, too.

Worth Buying?

If you might benefit from frequently using your laptop and another computer in your office, you should consider a KVM switch. Of course, you could simply use your laptop's keyboard, monitor, and input device. But to have a proper ergonomic setup for both computers, without having to invest in multiple peripherals, you need a KVM switch.

Of the switches I tested, the Flip will probably suit the needs of most laptop users. It's reasonably compact, stylish, and it takes up only one USB port on your laptop. However, if you need to share a printer between computers, you should consider the SOHO, with its support for sharing up to two USB 2.0 devices.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Multi-Megapixel Camera Phones: At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Sony Ericsson and Samsung announced camera phones that pack a lot of megapixels. Sony Ericsson showed a prototype phone, called Idou, a Symbian OS phone with a 12.1 megapixel camera with flash. It's due in the second half of this year. Samsung's Memoir has 8 megapixels, 16X digital zoom, and other camera features. It is offered by T-Mobile USA for $300 with a two-year contract and qualifying data plan (a $50 mail-in rebate is available).

PC World's Denny Arar provides more product news and weird-stuff sightings in "Mobile World Congress: A Reporter's Notebook."

Updated 3G Phones: In other smart phone news, HTC says it is updating the HTC Touch Diamond2 and HTC Touch Pro2. Both are 3G touch-screen handsets in eye-catching metallic colors mixed with chrome and black. Among the new features are Push-Internet, which enables the phone to automatically download favorite Web site information at specified times, so you don't have to wait for the sites to download.

Big Changes to Windows Mobile: With Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft is hoping to improve the user interface. For starters, the updated mobile phone OS will be more finger-friendly, with icons large enough to be clicked by finger on a touch screen. The revamped OS will begin appearing in phones around mid year. Check out a slide show of Microsoft's new mobile operating system.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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