How complicated is it to have two computers at one desk?
May 13, 2020 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Like many people, I'm now working from home full-time. I'm in a small apartment though, and looking for ways to optimize space. I have a work laptop and a home desktop.

Right now, I have my work computer set up on my dining room table. My setup here includes:
- Thinkpad laptop
- Docking station
- Keyboard
-External monitor

I have a desk, which currently has my 'home' computer. I like to keep my work and home computers separate, but I'm hoping to find a way to fit them both on the same desk. My 'home computer' consists of:
- desktop tower (under the desk)
- mouse
-external monitor

Is there a way I can move my laptop from the kitchen table to my desk and share the same mouse and keyboard as my home computer? Maybe even the same monitor? (Though I'm OK with having two monitors on the desk.)

I've read this article but got a bit lost. Should I order a KVM switch?

Appreciate any help or ideas anyone has. My tech skills are not the greatest.

posted by Pademelon to Computers & Internet (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you want to be able to quickly switch between your home computer and your work computer? If so, then a KVM switch may be a good option. If you don't, it's probably overkill.

Assuming you don't need to switch quickly, here's what I do in your case:

1. Plug all of your USB things (i.e. keyboard, mouse, webcam) into a USB hub; in my case, it's into the USB hub built into my monitor.

2. Run the cable from the USB hub to whatever computer you're currently using.

3. Run a video cable from the docking station to whichever monitor is your favorite.

4. Run a second video cable from your desktop tower to another port on your monitor.

Then, when you want to switch, you just need to A) switch the USB cable to which ever is the "active" computer and B) change the input setting on your monitor to select whichever computer you want to look at.

Note that, if you don't have the ability to run your keyboard and mouse through a USB hub (i.e. if your monitor doesn't have one or if you don't have the appropriate cables), that's fine, but then you'd have to switch 2 cables rather than just one.

This would probably get annoying really fast if you were using both computers for the same project (or if you were switching back and forth several times a day), so that situation might warrant a KVM switch.
posted by Betelgeuse at 9:36 AM on May 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It's not worth a kvm solution. They just do not work very well for home use in my experience.

I'm using a 56" Ikea table with one of these dual-monitor clamp mounts for my two work monitors on the right-ish side (my laptop sits under those, up on a helper shelf, and then my keyboard is between that shelf and me) and a single clamp stand with a second desk-sitting monitor under and a keyboard on the leftish side.

I should take a picture. My desk is a wreck, but I'll see what I can do.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:49 AM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

If everything's on your home network you should be able to run remote desktop software to hop from on to another. I have a work-provided PC sitting on my desk and I'm sitting with my personal laptop on the sofa. I can remote desktop to the work PC and do what I need to from that window. The work desktop doesn't even need a keyboard or monitor. So long as it's on the network and remote desktop is enabled for my account there I'm golden.

You may run into trouble if your work PC has to establish a VPN connection that redirects all traffic through the VPN ( essentially cutting off access to your local network ) but that may or may not be an issue for you.
posted by roue at 9:52 AM on May 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I use chrome remote desktop to connect to my work laptop. I leave it plugged in and set to not sleep on close it and it just sits in the corner all the time.
posted by noloveforned at 10:00 AM on May 13, 2020

I used a KVM back in the PS/2 & VGA days. It was fine. In the USB & HDMI age, OTOH, I think the hub solution Betelgeuse mentioned is probably cheaper and will work just fine. It does assume that your desktop's USB ports are in a convenient location, though.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:09 AM on May 13, 2020

Best answer: Okay, my desk is SUCH a mess I feel like it poorly advocates for this as a system, but I promise it works great. The green box is my personal desktop bits, the purple is my work stuff.

The helper shelf over my main keyboard (draped with a towel and my hidden post-its) is a key part of the system - my bullet journal goes there, and I also use that as a work shelf for craft projects and other non-work projects. The shelf to the right is nice but not necessary. The cart underneath is extremely helpful.

The height of the monitors over the desk is weird at first, but as long as you aren't extremely short or don't sit extremely low in your chair it's actually nearly eye level, and I can stand during meetings and such and still see just fine.

Tabletop is Ikea Linnmon with the cheap legs.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:22 AM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Unless your workplace is really friendly to you modifying your software and settings, please don't go reconfiguring your work system for remote access from your personal system. And vice versa - don't type anything into a work system that you wouldn't want work to have access to.

Your monitor probably has at least one DVI and one HDMI input. They're effectively the same technology, so you can get adapters to go from one to the other if you don't have exactly what you need as far as outputs.

What I would recommend is plugging the docking station into one input on monitor and your PC into another and get a simple USB switch for the keyboard and mouse. My experience with inexpensive KVMs is that the video part is the biggest headache. Solve that by just changing the inputs on the monitor.

Some people that I know solved the problem by getting a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse that has multiple receivers and can change which system it's sending to and then using the afore mentioned monitor input switching. That requires that your work system be configured to allow USB devices to be plugged in, which is generally but not always true.
posted by Candleman at 10:29 AM on May 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

I have your exact setup with very similar hardware, and I do pretty much exactly what Betelgeuse describes and it works fine. I switch the USB cable over every morning, and in the evening I switch it back and that means I've come home from work and can play Destiny. During the day my work laptop uses the keyboard, monitor and mouse that would normally be devoted to my gaming tower, which probably makes it feel special because the keyboard and mouse are all glowy.

But this really only works seamlessly if (a) your monitor has a USB hub built in and (b) your monitor can support two different video inputs and switch between them either automatically or by hand. If you don't have those features, or don't know what they are, feel free to MeMail for details.
posted by The Bellman at 10:51 AM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you want a simple out of the box solution you can get a mouse and a keyboard with logitech flow.

In the simplest version your keyboard just has three buttons on the top left (1,2,3) and the mouse has a single button by the thumb that lets you toggle between inputs. Press the button you want to control the computer you want. With slightly more software installation you can make it so the mouse pointer auto flows between screens, if you want. I have it running now on a mac laptop and an ancient windows 7 laptop that I use for video calls only, and it works like a charm - fast switching, etc. The keyboard and mouse together maybe cost me $70.
posted by true at 11:01 AM on May 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have my work computer (a MacBook Pro) driving two external monitors and its own display. One of the monitors, shared, goes and my keyboard and mouse go into a USB KVM. My home computer goes into the KVM. It can also switch audio, but I don't use that feature.

I have 0 issues with this set up. Switching can be done either by pushing a button on the KVM or by an unlikely key sequence which is easy to generate and is changeable. I don't know how it will work with a dock, but probably not an issue. If you're interested memail me and I'll send you the make and model or post it in the thread later.
posted by plinth at 11:18 AM on May 13, 2020

A KVM will do what you want. I have used this set up at home for close to 20 years. Just make sure that all the connection son both computes will be supported.
posted by tman99 at 11:24 AM on May 13, 2020

I plugged both computers into the same monitor and use the monitor's buttons to switch between sources. For the keyboard and mouse I bought a logitech keyboard and mouse that connect via bluetooth to up to 3 devices, so I can hit buttons on them to switch back and forth.
posted by kbuxton at 11:40 AM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I pretty much do a variation of what Betelgeuse and Bellman do - I have my own desktop and work laptop sitting on my desk, both plugged into my one monitor (desktop via DP, laptop via HDMI). Each has its own mouse that are currently sitting next to each other on my desk (I work with some programs that have long load/save/update times so I'll browse on my home computer while my laptop is working on that stuff). At 8am, I unplug the keyboard from my desktop and put it in my laptop, and I do the opposite at 5pm. My monitor has a button on the bottom to switch inputs from HDMI to DP.
posted by LionIndex at 11:42 AM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another way to do KVM without any extra hardware is by using a project called Synergy (or Synergy2)

This started as an open-source project that fell into neglect but has been revived and it looks like there are now commercial offerings that claim to improve the installation and operation experience. I used to use the OSS version, I don't know if these new versions are any better.

When it works, it works really well. You set up one machine as the 'server' and it has the keyboard and mouse. In this case I would use the desktop tower as the server. Then the laptop would be a client and, when it's working right, the desktop mouse slides right over onto the laptop screen and now your mouse clicks and keystrokes are sent to the laptop instead of the desktop.

The magic is that it also works between various flavors of computer (Mac, Win, Linux) so you can drive disjoint machines in one workstation. If you've brave, give it a shot.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:12 PM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I use Synergy across a Win10 desktop and linux laptop, it works quite well most of the time (occasionally it gets desynced or something and you just have to restart it). If you don't really want to use both at once, but instead have to occasionally poke something on the secondary machine, you could just set up a VNC server on it and remote-desktop in. I use TightVNC.
posted by axiom at 1:44 PM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

They just do not work very well for home use in my experience.
My experience is exactly the opposite. The one thing I do occasionally run into is typing my 'home' password into my work laptop's lock screen, or (way less often) the other way around. Even with utterly different lock screen images as well as Linux KDE versus W10; it's simply a muscle memory issue: "this is my home keyboard, so < tapperditaptap >" (argh, blast, soddit). Apart from that there's nothing to complain about. After a recent Windows update the work laptop even correctly recognises the screen configuration; it used to be that I would need to power off and reboot when taking the laptop home where going back to work it didn't.

Setup: two 21" screens with DVI and VGA inputs. 4 channel dual head DVI KVM switch. Three 'home' computers, all twin DVI outputs, one work laptop with two DP outputs via a docking station, and DP-DVI converter cables. USB keyboard and trackball. The VGA inputs on the screens are hooked up to something else entirely that I rarely ever need to use.

On my work laptop I now even have more screen real estate than at work, as the way everything is positioned allows me to have the laptop screen open, while at work that would be rather awkward. Work laptop is physically connected to a 'guest' LAN port on the VDSL modem so that it's kept separated from everything else. I had no problems hooking up the keyboard and trackball, but I had been using them (a second set) at work already, so no surprises there. It also allowed a webcam and a pair of USB speakers to be connected, which was slightly more surprising.
posted by Stoneshop at 1:46 PM on May 13, 2020

Yeah, Synergy is the way to go.

I have both high end Mac and PC machines, and both a LG UltraFine 5k (for the Mac) and a ASUS RoG IPS UHD (for the gamin') display on my desk. My fancy keyboard and mouse is plugged into the PC, and I use Synergy to move between the displays as if they were one shared desktop. Cut n Paste even works between them.

My experience is exactly the opposite.

Well, you have a pretty old style setup (DVI! VGA! USB!), so not surprising the KVM works well, they were designed for how things worked way back then. These days there is going to be HDMI, Bluetooth, Display Port, USB-A, USB-C, Thunderbolt, or likely different combinations of all of that used by each system.
posted by sideshow at 1:53 PM on May 13, 2020

I highly recommend using Remote Desktop as opposed to hardware solutions. I have dual-monitors on my home computer, and my preferred keyboard and mouse plugged into my home computer as well. My work laptop sits on my desk, and is closed.

When I want to work, I launch Remote Desktop and remote into my work laptop. Microsoft's Remote Desktop protocol is excellent, and can use both screens on my dual-monitor setup. I can seamlessly switch back and forth between my work and home computers.

If I want to use my work laptop in another area of the house, I just disconnect the session on my home computer, take my work laptop wherever I want to go, and open it up, and log in. Simple as that.

I would definitely recommend using Microsoft's built-in Remote Desktop over VNC, Chrome Remote Desktop, or any other third-party solution. The only disadvantage is that you need to have the appropriate privileges to log in via Remote Desktop. If you don't have admin privileges, or can't get yourself added to the list of users that can log in via Remote Desktop, that's when I would turn to Chrome Remote Desktop or a third-party solution.
posted by vitout at 1:58 PM on May 13, 2020

Well, you have a pretty old style setup (DVI! VGA! USB!)
VGA is basically unused, and the work laptop has DisplayPort (and VGA!). Then, nearly every current computer, except those hipstertax things coming out of Cupertino, still has USB of some sort and keyboards and mice may well be wireless but are even then still using USB dongles.

The monitors at work, just a few years old, have VGA, DVI, HDMI and DP inputs.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:05 PM on May 13, 2020

Best answer: I used to have two computers and one monitor, and used some sort of switch to go between the computers, but it ended up being a hassle and worked properly about half the time, IIRC. But that was almost 15 years ago and they may be much easier to operate nowadays.

Currently, I use two monitors for my laptop because one of them is a tablet monitor for art and design (front and cable-spaghetti back, with bonus empty cat traps) and they're set up on a dual monitor arm so I can swing one out of the way if I'm not using it. They're both on in the picture because I just got off work, and I spent the day with the Remote Desktop on one monitor and my personal email and websurfing on the other.

My husband's dual-computer work/personal setup: front and back. Since his personal desktop is an iMac, he needs to have it on his desk*, so he installed my old single monitor arm and mounted the monitor he uses at work on it, plugged his laptop in, and just opened the laptop up underneath the monitor so he could use its keyboard. (He also says he could close the laptop and just put his work keyboard on it, but he's fine with the setup as it is.)

* Until Friday, when his new monitor is scheduled to appear, at which point he's moving to my old Macbook for his personal computer. It's the grey monolith standing up behind the yellow cable in the front picture, so it's off of his desk. He's considering getting a dual monitor arm like mine so he can get the new monitor up off the desk and make it even cleaner.
posted by telophase at 3:59 PM on May 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Again, I would caution against installing software or reconfiguring remote access on a work computer unless explicitly granted permission to do so. Both of those introduce significant security risks and can lead to getting fired or unwanted managerial attention, especially these days. Trust me, if you're working for an organization with a moderately capable security team, they can detect both of those, and they're just as tired and demoralized as everyone else right now. Don't get on their bad side.
posted by Candleman at 9:32 PM on May 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I’ve used the Synergy fork Barrier and after a little setup it worked very nicely.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:59 PM on May 13, 2020

N-thing Logitech's Flow tech. It works very well if all devices have bluetooth. Not absolutely sure it works with a dongle, but it's functionality would be worth shelling out for a $20 bluetooth card for the tower.

I once had to wrangle between 3 laptops; bluetooth synched the three different channels to each laptop, turned on Flow, and I'd mouse seamlessly across all three screens. iirc, the external monitor on one of those laptops (as part of window's display settings as "extended display") fit in seamlessly.

The best thing is that it can even copy & paste (highlighted text, actual files) between computers through bluetooth - albeit at bluetooth speeds - between the different machines (I think that there's a buffer-based cap, but it never ran across it, knowing that there was one).

At first, it was kind of spooky that "my" mouse on my machine can now take over the pointer of another machine.

Huge fan of the Logitech flagship MX mice, but I think this is available on other models now. As much as I love my two S2, I lust after the 3.

Have not experienced the keyboard version though.
posted by porpoise at 11:35 PM on May 13, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for all the answers. There's a lot to digest. I really appreciate it.

To answer Candleman, I am not looking to modify my work computer or do anything without permission. This company is very flexible and open to adaptations for a better home work environment and IT is very good at working with employees.

My main issue is saving space, especially with the keyboard. I don't want to have two keyboards if I can avoid it. I'll also have a look at the ports on the monitors -- it would be nice to have them connected to both computers. Would I need software for that or just an additional monitor cable? (Assuming I have additional ports).
posted by Pademelon at 5:31 AM on May 14, 2020

Just another once upon a time Synergy user. I had 3 desktops covering Mac, Windows, Linux and you just move the mouse across all three monitors and the keyboard followed. Pretty seamless. If you were going between *NIX boxen there's x2x that does the same thing.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:16 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Would I need software for that or just an additional monitor cable?

Just an extra cable. Most modern monitors will have at least two digital inputs (usually HDMI and DVI) and probably still has a VGA input (older and less good quality). Use digital ones if you have the option.
posted by Candleman at 7:14 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think every monitor I've owned in the LCD era has supported multiple inputs in some form or another. More recent ones even have multiple HDMI ports instead of just having one port per connector. So, yup, most likely the only thing required here is a second cable. Though to be sure we'd have to know what ports your monitor actually has.

I'd only bother with a dedicated (KVM or software) solution if I planned to switch between computers multiple times in a short period. If it's a "work" vs. "home" situation, I'd just invest in a second monitor cable and switch the plugs around at the beginning and end of my work day.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:10 AM on May 14, 2020

Best answer: I'd only bother with a dedicated (KVM or software) solution if I planned to switch between computers multiple times in a short period.

If the monitor(s) offer the dual inputs you need for connecting both computers so that you're left with only having to switch an USB hub with the keyboard, mouse and maybe some other gear from computer A to computer B and back then a simple US$20 USB switch will take care of that. Saves replugging USB cables, which tend to require three tries to plug in correctly and aren't known for their robustness and longevity.

Even when the free inputs on the monitor(s) don't match the video ports on the laptop, there may be converter cables/dongles to deal with that, like DP to DVI or HDMI. However, those aren't guaranteed to work for every setup, or may require whacking the video configuration on the laptop. My work laptop came with one (DP->DVI) so I could see that it worked, and I just needed a second one to drive both my screens.
posted by Stoneshop at 11:21 AM on May 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and if you're fine with having two monitors on your desk, you could (if the laptop and the video card in the desktop support it, and both monitors have switchable inputs) set up the lot so that both can have a dual screen desktop. It's different from having a single large screen in that you can open a reference document or webpage, click 'full screen' and it does so within the monitor it's on. Then on the other monitor you open the document you're working on, and when you click 'full screen' they're more or less neatly side by side (except for the monitor bezels), not fighting for space on a single screen.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:43 PM on May 14, 2020

Response by poster: I want to say a huge thank you to everyone. This was incredibly helpful. Special thanks to those who uploaded photos of their set-ups and also the products they used. This has been a huge barrier for me and working through all your answers helped me make some decisions.

I've ordered the dual-monitor clamp mounts Lyn Never mentioned, as well as some monitor cables and a USB hub. I am really glad to know about the Logitech flow mouse and keyboard - I'm still considering that in case I'm not happy with the USB hub solution. I just have a particular aversion to bluetooth/wireless devices (don't like having another thing to charge) but it seems to have great reviews so keeping that idea as an option.

I am just so grateful for the help.
posted by Pademelon at 3:17 PM on May 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

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