Cross-Platform KVM
April 6, 2007 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Hardware for a platform agnostic: KVM switching.

Three boxes:
i) Windows XP. The main desktop/development/work/business, heaviest use machine.
ii) Linux (Ubuntu). Older box with a big drive. Mainly used as a file server/backup and some programming. I'm not a Linux god, but getting into it more.
iii) Mac Mini. Media streaming and just for the fun of messing with it.

Is there a KVM solution that's affordable (under $200, say?), reliable, and relatively plug-and-play? Is this even possible without hours of pain with drivers and configuration grief? A wireless solution not essential, but an option.

I'm a software guy, and hardware tends to bore the pants off me, as long as it works I tend not to care much, so feel free to answer as if I'm an idiot. I'm not a gamer. Pointers to what I should be looking for or good resources to start reading up most appreciated, thanks.
posted by normy to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Froogle: Four-port USB KVM. You switch between computers by assigning a keypress combination, or using the default built into the KVM.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:14 AM on April 6, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, BP. I was under the (misguided?) impression that one has to be careful with KVMs across platforms. Will any old 4-port switch work, or do I need something more particular?
posted by normy at 7:21 AM on April 6, 2007

I used this Belkin VGA/USB KVM with this wireless keyboard/mouse set on a Mac mini, a Windows 2000 PC, and a Gentoo Linux PC, without having to install any drivers.

When I bought mine, plus 3 sets of cables, it came to around £200 ($400). But I see now that they have a combined USB+PS/2 one on sale for about £70 ($140), and the ones Blazecock Pileon links to seem priced similarly, so you should be able to do this for $200.

And now a little anecdote about USB and wireless desktop sets. At the time I found it hard to find a genuine USB keyboard (i.e. one that actually sent the keyboard signals over USB, rather than just being a PS/2 keyboard with a built-in USB hub). This may not be the case now, but it's why I ended up buying the wireless desktop set.

The only problem was that the KVM unit had a dedicated port for the USB keyboard, and a dedicated port for the USB mouse, whereas the wireless base unit just had one USB plug coming out of the base unit. There were a couple of weird glitches (can't remember what exactly) that seemed to arise from not having something plugged into both the keyboard and the mouse ports, so I ended up plugging the wireless receiver into the keyboard port, and a spare USB mouse into the mouse port (which then just sat under the desk doing nothing).

And I never could get the KVM keypress combinations to work under this setup, probably because it wasn't just a standard USB keyboard plugged into the special keyboard port.
posted by chrismear at 7:31 AM on April 6, 2007

How about a software solution? Try Synergy. I've used it on Mac/Linux, and others I know have used it on Windows/Linux.

It's much easier than flipping a switch - just move your mouse off the screen and the keyboard and mouse focus switch boxes.
posted by david1230 at 8:03 AM on April 6, 2007

USB is definitely the big equalizer, USB 2.0 preferably. You don't want to be using PS/2 mice with KVMs, it's always a nightmare.

The only thing beyond what's been said above is that you might want a KVM with DVI support, instead of VGA cables. Most monitors are going digital these days, and in a few years, VGA monitors will probably be hard to find.

I'm personally happy with my Iogear KVM, if you're looking for a brand recommendation. I run Windows and Linux, as well.
posted by knave at 8:05 AM on April 6, 2007

I bought this IOGear 4-port one last month, and it works great. I had no troubles getting it to work, which was a pleasant surprise. No drivers or anything. I'm using it with a Mac mini, a Thinkpad, and a generic last-gen Win XP PC. It's made to stack with the mini, if you want do that. It is much better than the cheap Belkin it replaced, which was flakey.

No DVI though, if you need that.
posted by smackfu at 8:10 AM on April 6, 2007

I second the synergy bit. I use it at work between my linux box/windows box every single day and it's lovely. Every once in a while i have to restart the service or something, but in general it's much more convenient than the physical KVM i have.
posted by escher at 9:36 AM on April 6, 2007

Keep in mind that Synergy is only a KM switch, not a KVM. You need a separate monitor for each system.
posted by smackfu at 9:40 AM on April 6, 2007

Synergy is amazing if you've got the desk real-estate for multiple screens. It even keeps your clipboard across machines. It's like the best parts of KVMs, and some of the good things about having multiple screens on one machine.

Now, if there was a dual screen capable KVM, then I'd really be in business.
posted by Freen at 10:02 AM on April 6, 2007

Wait, there are. Sweet.
posted by Freen at 10:04 AM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

One thing to note is that the Belkin KVMs I've used claim to switch by pressing scroll lock twice or pressing a button the the KVM. The scroll lock scroll lock combination has never worked for me when I have a Linux box attached. IIRC, it has something to do with how Linux deals with the pressing of Scroll Lock. It still works fine if you press the hardware button.
posted by advicepig at 1:40 PM on April 6, 2007

Actually, I don't use separate monitors. My monitor has an analog and digital input - I just use the digital input for my Mac and the analog input for my Linux box. But if you don't have that option, synergy won't work for you.
posted by david1230 at 1:42 PM on April 6, 2007

Can you get by with just using VNC? It's free.
posted by pantsrobot at 5:47 PM on April 6, 2007

Can you get by with just using VNC? It's free.

Free, but slow, laggy, terrible handling non-US keyboard input, and no handling of sound. Also, it's slow. And laggy. Don't use it if you don't have to.

Synergy is pretty sweet if you can get away with it (I usually can't). It's really the extra keyboards and mice that are the problem for me usually, not the monitors.
posted by blasdelf at 4:25 AM on April 7, 2007

Response by poster: Big thanks to everyone. Plenty for me to mull over here.

I tried VNC with a Win/Mac setup and found it annoying, so went with an Iogear 2-port for a while. It worked fine for a while, then started to sometimes 'forget' the keyboard was attached after switching. A would reboot cure it, but the hassle got old.

I don't have a lot of room in my home-office so a multiple-screen setup is a bit of a non-starter, but thanks for the idea. Synergy sounds cool for those it's a good fit for.

Think I'll spend some time this weekend reading up on some of the recommendations here. Thanks for all your thoughts.
posted by normy at 11:17 AM on April 7, 2007

nthing Synergy. I installed it at work and had 5 people in my cube that day wanting to get directions on how to do it. It's quite slick (and open sourced).
posted by jeversol at 10:37 PM on April 8, 2007

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