April 29, 2009, 10:51 AM — You would think there was nothing at all interesting about a KVM switch. But if you run multiple computers and need quick access to them, a KVM can prove very handy by letting you use just one monitor, one keyboard and one mouse to control two or more systems. And when you add access to peripherals like USB printers or external hard drives, you're reducing your printer and drive count as well.
If the money you'll save doesn't impress you, just think about how much smaller your carbon footprint would be with three fewer sets of peripherals running 24/7, not to mention the reduced physical footprint for smallish apartments or otherwise tight spots.
If you need any more convincing, meet Iogear's MiniView GCS1784 4-Port Dual Link DVI KVMP switch. It adds a "P" to the three initials; the "P" is for "peripheral" -- the device has a USB port through which you can connect and share printers or external hard drives. It also supports DVI-D video and 7.1-channel surround sound.
(By the way, don't let the astronomical MSRP of US$799.95 on the product page scare you -- the price dives down to $479.95 when you hit the "Shop now" button, and drops down to about $350 if you do a bit of online shopping.)
That's a far cry from the basic VGA available from my old KVM switches. It means big-screen monitor compatibility so you can play games in hi-rez, create and manipulate graphics, write while seeing several pages on-screen at the same time, and even watch HD video -- on a single display.
The buck stops here
I currently use four computers in my lab. One is exclusively for video (not TV) capture while the other three are multipurpose systems. One system uses a 30-in. Dell DVI-D LCD monitor, while the others have a mix of 24- and 22-in. displays.
Suppose I had instead hooked up the KVMP to the Dell monitor and retained only one 22-in. LCD for video capture. (Put your hands down, it's a theoretical.) I wouldn't have needed the two 24-in. displays, and the $350 Iogear KVM would have saved me about $500 in monitors. It might have also saved me about $70 in keyboards and mice, as well as around $180 in speakers.
Unlike most KVMs (except for some of the low-end two-port models), Iogear really does provide you with all of the required cables so you don't have to hunt down an electronics store in the middle of the night when you realize you're a few short.
The actual installation is just a matter of plugging things in. The hybrid cables have Mic and Speaker miniplugs along with DVI-D connectors. They also incorporate a USB cable that carries the keyboard signal (and communications from any peripheral attached to the MiniView's USB port) from the KVMP to your PC. If you have a full 7.1 audio system standing by, use the extra audio cables that Iogear supplies to make all the connections you need.
Because the cables are relatively thick, if you want to sit the KVMP in front of your monitor, you should give yourself about eight inches of space. Assuming you don't sit literally on top of your monitor, that shouldn't be a problem.
In theory, anyway, there shouldn't be anything really complicated about choosing which PC you want to use when multiple systems are attached to a KVM. On older KVMs, it was a matter of pressing one of four buttons on the face of the box. Simple? Yes. The downside, however, was that the box had to be within reach so those buttons could be pressed. Now, however, Iogear has endowed the MiniView with a few different control options.
For example, the MiniView uses your keyboard's Scroll Lock key as its trigger. Press the Scroll Lock twice and then press the Enter key, and you're switched to the next computer attached to the MiniView (or back to the first if you're at the fourth). But things can get a bit complex when you consider the totality of what the MiniView controls.
Press the Scroll Lock key twice, press, "K" and then press Enter and you only switch the keyboard, mouse and monitor. Substitute "U" for "K" and you only switch access to the USB section. Finally, substitute an "S" in that key sequence and you switch the audio.
(Why switch the audio? Suppose you're playing music on one computer and you switch to another computer -- but you still want to listen to what you were playing originally. Just use the appropriate key sequence to switch the audio source back to that first computer. Voila!)
If you're in a hurry, you can press the Scroll Lock key twice, the number associated with the port that particular PC is attached to (1-4), and then press Enter. That will get you there immediately. If you don't have the correct hot keys available (I'm speaking to you, Mac owners!), you can reassign the key selections. You just invoke Hot Key Mode and then run through a maze of possible key pairings you can use.
At a Glance
MiniView GCS1784 4-Port Dual Link DVI KVMP switch
Price (retail): Approx. $350
Pros: Supports DVI-D video and 7.1-channel surround sound, USB connectivity.
Cons: Longest included cable is only 10 feet; switching among computers can be complex.
You can still do everything manually -- with the silver "buttons" on the front of the MiniView's box -- but even here things get more complex. Press one of the four buttons, and the KVM function will advance, but USB and audio will not follow suit. Press the corresponding button twice and the audio will switch to the selected PC. Press a corresponding button for two seconds and everything will advance to the selected computer. Finally, press and hold Buttons 1 and 2 for at least two seconds, and the MiniView will start to autoscan (it stays on each PC found for five seconds). And you thought the combination lock on your high school gym locker was tough!
If you don't think you can learn all these combinations immediately, I would suggest that you download the manual from Iogear's Web site. It's a PDF document, and you can't blow it up large enough on-screen to actually be able to read its contents.
If you're setting up a multicomputer installation, a KVMP is the ultimate way to save money by sharing a single set of peripherals that you'd normally hang on each PC. The MiniView's 7.1 audio and DVI-D video connectivity, plus its low pricing compared with the cost of the peripherals it can replace, makes it an ideal contender for the task.
Bill O'Brien is a freelance writer who has written a half-dozen books and more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology, including Apple computers, PCs, Linux and commentary on IT hardware decisions.