We've all been there - two different screens and keyboards on the desktop, either because we need a PC and a Mac, or because we're setting up one PC while getting work done on the other, or even because one's networked and the other is not.
Of course, KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switches have been around for a good while, but have tended to be a bit expensive for personal use. That is changing now, though, with the arrival of low-cost KVMs aimed at the growing band of 'computer jugglers' in business and at home.
One such device is Belkin's Switch2, a small device designed to connect two computers, and provided with a remote control to make it easier to switch between them.
Like much other off-the-shelf gadgetry these days, it comes sealed in one of those rigid clear plastic cases that are a right pain, because to open them you need either a sharp knife, in which case you risk slashing yourself, or sturdy scissors, when you risk slicing the box's contents instead.
Inside is the main cable assembly, including the triangular KVM base itself, into which are moulded the two sets of connector cables. These are different lengths - about 60cm (2ft) for the first system, and 1.8m (6ft) for the other.
Belkin does several versions of the Switch2 - which sells as the Flip in the US - and this is the USB model. Each system gets a cable which breaks out into three plugs, one each for VGA, USB and audio, with an audio extension cable included for those laptops which have their speaker sockets located in odd places. There is also a PS/2 version of Switch2, though that is PC-only.
The USB version simplifies connection by only supporting USB keyboards and mice - because of course it means you can connect both via one USB socket on the computer. It also means Switch2 can work with any USB-compatible computer, including Macs and PCs running Linux.
None of the Switch2 versions support direct DVI connections, although you can use a VGA-DVI connector at the monitor, just as you could with VGA direct from a PC.
The final item in the package is the remote control. This too plugs into the KVM base and is a simple push-to-toggle switch coloured yellow on one side and green on the other, and with a yellow/green light to indicate which system is active.
Installing the Switch2 seems simple, but of course few things are really as simple as they ought to be. The first task is to make sure that your chosen USB keyboard and mouse work with both the target computers, and that alone can cause problems with some PCs. For example, our second machine was an old Compaq Deskpro which simply would not boot without a PS/2 keyboard present - it lacked the BIOS setting to tell it to ignore the missing keyboard "error". However, once we plugged a PS/2 keyboard in it booted OK, and then we could swap to using the shared USB keyboard instead.
So you power both the computers up, and connect all the peripherals and the remote control to the KVM base. When you now connect the Switch2 cable to the first system, it recognises it as a keyboard and mouse. Once that's done, connect it to the other and the same process occurs.
Flipping from one system to the other normally switches the audio over as well. That's a bit of a nuisance if you're playing music on one of them, say, so Belkin also offers downloadable utility software that lets you flip only the video or only the audio. You can also use it to define a hot-key sequence to flip between systems, instead of using the remote - although of course this only works in both directions if you install the software on both machines.
There's a couple of nuisances, however. First, the Switch2 didn't appear to pass through the monitor's plug & play capabilities, so neither Windows PC we tested it with could see that the monitor was a widescreen LCD with a maximum resolution of 1680 by 1050. Instead, they saw a 'default monitor' supporting standard non-widescreen settings such as 1600 by 1200.
There was a workaround, which was to plug the monitor directly into each system, let it recognise and set it up properly - or as close as possible - and then save those settings, but it wasn't ideal. With Ubuntu Linux, the problem was slightly different but was solved by digging through the help files and forcing the system to run its monitor customisation program. Interestingly, Ubuntu actually detected the KVM, listing it as a Flip.
Secondly, flipping's not instant - there is a delay of around three seconds after pressing the remote, and on one of our systems (though not the other) there was a further perceptible delay before we got control of the mouse and keyboard as well.
Overall though, this is a useful and compact device that worked well once set up. Given its price, it's a cheap and easy way of getting some desk space back, or of putting a second PC to work.
A cheap and simple entrance into the world of KVM switches.