While running enough machines to heat your home is greatand really it isthere are practical problems with controlling several machines. In a perfect world, you’d have enough cash and desk space to fit a separate monitor, keyboard, and mouse for each machine. Even then, though, you still have to move around to the respective terminals to actually control your bevy of hardware.
If you do have the money, you might be able to splurge on all the extra hardware at home. In a business environment, a server room filled with machines, you’re not going to be wanting any extra monitors putting out heat, either.
A remote control and administration tool like VNC, which is free, will give you a certain level of control over a PC remotely. While adequate in some situations, VNC isn’t really useful if you want total and responsive control over a system. There’s a lot of lag with VNC, impeding games or any kind of detail work. Don’t get me wrong, I love VNC; it’s just limited in what it can do. This is where a KVM switch comes in, offering up full console control over multiple machines with no limitations.
Given so many of you use multiple machines, and likely in situations where VNC or other remote admin tools aren’t appropriate, we’ve rounded up a handful of four-port KVM switches for you. Each has been run through the gauntlet, scrutinized, compared, and otherwise abused to determine what’s good, what’s not, and what’s best for your needs.
KVM stands for keyboard, video, and mouseessentially what you control your PC with. The basic premise behind a KVM switch is to allow you to control multiple PCs with the same keyboard, monitor, and mouse combo. Plug all the keyboard, video, and mouse ports on your PCs into the switch, hook up a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and you’re ready to go. A switch lets you choose which machine you want to control, and switching between PCs is quickly executed with the touch of a button.
That’s basic KVM functionality, but often KVM switches have additional features and functionality to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s meet the competitors.
The Linksys ProConnect Compact is the smallest, lightest and simplest switch of the four we’re examining. It’s also the most oddly laid out. The cheapest of the bunch, the ProConnect Compact seems to have had portability in mind. How important portability is for a KVM switch, however, I’m not sure.
The ProConnect’s most striking feature is its unconventional layout. Rather than placing the keyboard, video, and mouse ports on one or two opposing edges of the unit, the console and PC ports are spread around three of the unit’s edges. The fourth edge holds the switch button, with status lights coming in on top of the unit.
While the unique layout certainly makes the ProConnect Compact easy to differentiate from its competitors, it doesn’t actually work any better. There’s a reason why the other three switches we’re looking at stick to having the ports and buttons on only two opposing edges: it’s just better that way.
With the ProConnect, you need adequate clearance for cabling for three sides of the unit rather than just two. With five sets of cables running out of 3 edges, things can get crowded, and a little messy. This odd cable arrangement makes putting the model on a desk top much more complicated, and you’re going to need extra space for all the cabling.
The button and light placement for the ProConnect are also rather problematic. It’s simple enough, with a single button and a solitary indicator light for each PC, but the bizarre layout makes even this setup more difficult to use than it needs to be. Because the switching button is on one edge of the unit and the lights indicating which PC is being controlled are on the top, you need a view of the top of the unit and access to the side with the button. Linksys would have done far better here to have either the button on top or the lights on the edge; separating the two makes operation more cumbersome than it should be.
Construction-wise, despite its light weight and all-plastic outer shell, the ProConnect is solid. While it won’t survive a car running over it, it should take the requisite abuse of a server room or home office without a problem. Being the lightest and smallest, it’s also the most portable, as its Compact suffix hints. The unit does lack rubber feet on the bottom, but sliding was surprisingly not an issue. Because of the model’s odd layout, the opposing sets of cables actually do a fairly good job of anchoring things in place. Fully loaded, slippage isn’t a problem.
The ProConnect is the quietest unit of the bunch because it doesn’t beep when switching between machines. Honestly, I didn’t mind the lack of noise, since there’s always a visual confirmation of a switch when the monitor changes over to the next computer.
The ProConnect supports the standard set of hot-key functions (select, last/next, and autoscan). These hot-keys allow you to switch between machines with simple key combinations that alleviate the need to reach for the switch to switch machines. These hot-keys make up somewhat for the ProConnect’s troubled button placement, as machines can even be selected individually. A hot-key combination can also be used to invoke the ProConnect’s three second autoscan. However, the ProConnect doesn’t have an on-screen display.
The ProConnect will take monitor resolutions up to 1920×1440 at 85Hz. There was no noticable loss of visual quality visible using the ProConnect with either of the monitors we tested.
In the end, the ProConnect Compact has good functionality, but an awkward design ultimately holds it back from being more practical.
D-Link’s entry into the KVM field is its DKVM-4. The DKVM-4 follows a more traditional KVM switch layout than the Linksys model, and it also comes with a power adapter to keep things running smoothly. Its all-metal case is supported by rubber feet to prevent the unit from being dragged around by sets of weighty cables, and everything seems solid enough. The cables needed to connect the DKVM-4 to your PCs, however, presented a bit of a problem. While both the Linksys and IOGear KVM switches use female monitor ports, the DKVM-4 is all male when it comes to monitors. This nonstandard approach is a bit disconcerting, since it limits the cables you can use. However, the required cables from D-Link are half the price of those required for the Linksys and IOGear. Price-wise, it’s not so much of a bad thing after all.
Setup of the DKVM-4 is just as simple as with the Linksys ProConnect, though much cleaner because of its traditional KVM switch layout. With all but the controlling keyboard and mouse cables coming out of the back of the unit, the DKVM-4 fits unobtrusively on a desk, with its status LEDs and switch button easily accessible on its front edge.
All the usual bells and whistles are here: hotkeys, an audible cue when switching between PCs, and autoscan functionality. The DKVM-4 is on the lower end in terms of screen resolution, as it only supports 1600×1200. Unless you’re running a massive monitor and are really greedy when it comes to desktop space, this limitation probably won’t be an issue. However, it is worth mentioning as both the Linksys and IOGear units support up to 1920×1440.
All in all, the DKVM-4 is standard fare when it comes to KVM switches: it works, doesn’t have any glaring problems or missing features, and isn’t overly expensive. With no quirks or frills, the DKVM-4 is a solid entry.
The first thing I noticed about the MiniView was the weight of the boxit’s pretty heavy. Upon opening the box, I quickly discovered why: while the other switches in this roudup require you to buy your cables separately, the MiniView comes with four sets of cables right out of the box. Big bonus points to IOGear here, as it really just makes sense to bundle the essential cables with the KVM switch itself.
Of course, the weight isn’t from the cables alonethe MiniView itself is a pretty beefy unit. Mounted on large rubber corners, the all-metal unit feels like a brick when compared to the lighter Linksys ProConnect. While I didn’t try, for obvious reasons, I’m sure you could drop this off your desk several times and not have anything to worry about. With the large rubber corners, it might even bounce back up.
Following traditional KVM switch layout, the MiniView has its control keyboard and mouse ports in the front of the unit, with all other ports coming in at the rear. As we saw with D-Link’s entry, this arrangement is much cleaner on a desk or work area, and allows control of the unit’s buttons and view of its lights from one side. Taking a look at the front of the MiniView, you’ll notice a few things lacking on the other switches.
First, the MiniView has two lights for each PC terminal instead of just one. An orange light is lit if there’s a PC plugged into the corresponding port, with a second green light illuminating whenever that PC is selected. Alone, this is a pretty nice feature, but IOGear takes things one step further and turns each set of lights into a button controlling that PC. Instead of there being a single button that you use to cycle through the connected PCs, there are four buttons that you can use to select any PC instantly. Initially, I figured this more of a novelty feature, but I found myself using it more and more.
The MiniView also has the standard KVM tricks up its sleeve: hotkeys, a five-second autoscan feature, and trivial installation. IOGear mentions the MiniView’s “Video Signal Enhancement” for supported resolutions up to 1920×1440, but side by side, I couldn’t tell the video quality apart from the other units reviewed here. The other units lack explicit video signal enhancement features, but their quality was the same on both a 17″ Trinitron and a 19″ NEC AccuSync 95F.
Like D-Link’s DKVM-4, the MiniView gives an audible cue each time you switch between connected computers. I’m not really sure if this is a necessary feature. It would be nice if the beeps could be disabled via a switch or hot-key combination, because the beeping gets a little annoying.
Not having heard much about IOGear before this review, I’m thoroughly impressed with their MiniView. With all the little extra features and included cables, they’ve clearly done their homework here.
Belkin Omniview USB
Belkin’s Omniview is quite a different breed of KVM switch, but I’ve lumped it in with the rest of the bunch anyway. The Omniview is really about more than just KVM. In fact, it should probably be called a KVMU switch: keyboard, video, mouse, and USB. That’s right, USB. Including USB functionality in the day of USB mice and keyboards was a smart move on Belkin’s part.
Other than its USB functionality, the Omniview is a fairly standard KVM switch. The Omiview follows the traditional KVM switch layout, with lights and control ports (in addition to USB ports) mounted in the front of the unit. It’s all-metal construction is solid and anchored nicely with rubber feet. The Omniview does require some extra juice from the included power adapter, which I didn’t expect. I thought it would be able to draw sufficient power from the USB ports it’s plugged into.
Unlike traditional KVM switches, the Omniview requires special cables. These cables replace the keyboard and mouse plugs with a single USB plug and nicely simplify connection and wiring. Installation is a little more involved, as plugging things in requires a brief installation routine for the USB device. The driver installations took care of themselves, though.
The Omniview has all the usual suspects when it comes to features, with audible beeps for switching, four LEDs up front to tell you which PC you’re controlling, and a nice on-screen display. There’s autoscan as well, and it’s actually adjustable. While not essential, it’s nice not to be tied down to an arbitrary switching timeframe. Unfortunately, the Omniview’s display resolution only goes up to 1600×1200 at 75Hz. This isn’t really a problematic limitation for most, but I would have liked to see higher resolutions on principle.
Hot keys also make an appearance with the Omniview, but they will only work with keyboards plugged into the unit’s PS/2 port. Because the switch monitors the PS/2 port for hot key triggers, any keyboard that bypasses this port will bypass the hot key functionality. This is a bit of a sore point for those who want to use their MS Natural keyboards as USB hubs. But since the Omniview is essentially a USB hub itself, with four ports rather than just two, Belkin can be forgiven.
This USB funcationality might seem like a gimmick, but it’s pretty useful. USB ports are great for things like digital cameras, scanners, printers, media readers, and so on. However, the Omniview’s reliance on USB for connectivity with machines does create a huge problem for users lacking USB support in their OS, namely those running Windows NT 4. If you’re running all NT 4 machines, you’re up the creek when it comes to USB, and the Omniview can easily be crossed off your list. However, if you want to control both NT machines and those running other operating systems with native USB support, you’ll be cursing Microsoft a little more than usual.
Speaking of OS-level support for USB, the issue of DOS support comes to mind. While DOS is all but gone with the release of Windows XP, it’s still useful for utilities like Partition Magic and Ghost. Fortunately, many BIOSes will let you use USB keyboards, even under DOS. However, if you don’t have USB keyboard support turned on in the BIOS, you may have to plug in a PS/2 keyboard in order to use the BIOS menu to turn it on.
The Omniview doesn’t come cheap. It’s by far the most expensive unit in the review, and that doesn’t include the high price of the required proprietary cables. However, the USB functionality is tantalizing, and might be worth the price for some.
How they stack up
Before we draw our conclusions, it’s worth mentioning that there are other four-port KVM switches offered by Linksys, IOGear, and Belkin. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to include them all in this round-up. Linksys has its normal ProConnect switch, which adheres to the traditional KVM layout. IOGear has a four-port switch that supports USB. Belkin has non-USB models, as well as models that support audio switching.
As for the switches we’ve tested, the IOGear MiniView SE is undoubtedly the best straight-up KVM switch of the bunch. Though it weighs in at $50 or more than its competition (not counting the Belkin Omniview USB), this price inclues a set of four cables not included with the other units. Personally, I don’t see why all the units don’t include at least a couple of cables out of the boxa KVM switch is pretty useless without at least two computers to control.
Not only does the Miniview have the best value with bundled cables, but all the functionality is there as well. Missing only an adjustable autoscan timeframe and USB support, the MiniView packs in everything the other KVM switches have to offer, and even offers a few extras of its own. The fact that it looks pretty cool doesn’t hurt either.
While the D-Link DKVM-4 has decent specs and a reasonable price, it just can’t compete with the value and extra features offered by the MiniView. Even with the cheaper, nonstandard cables, the MiniView still squeaks under the DKVM-4’s price, and it does pack those few extra features. Still, the DKVM-4 is a solid, capable KVM switch.
Moving onto Linksys, I can’t deny that the layout of the ProConnect Compact really irked me. While it didn’t slide around my desk, I had cables running all over the place that just got in the way. The smaller size and lighter weight might make the ProConnect Compact more portable, but I’m not seeing a lot of portable applications for a KVM switch. In terms of its actual functionality, the ProConnnect Compact hangs close to the others. Unfortunately, the competition is just better designed for real-world use.
The odd man out in this comparison, but for good reasons rather than bad, is Belkin’s Omniview. With its USB support, the Omniview easily differentiates itself from the competition. As cool as USB functionality is, though, it’s not without its problems. The problem with OS support is a little annoying; my Windows NT 4 server sat unused while I was testing the Omniview. I don’t know whether to blame that on Belkin or Microsoft. The USB functionality also comes with a hefty price tag, for both the unit and needed cables, so that’s something else to consider.
So which of these KVM switches is best for you? If you want USB support and are prepared to pay for it, the Belkin Omniview is great. For four machines, though, it will end up costing you well over double what the IOGear MiniView SE will set you back. Those who don’t need USB can’t go wrong with IOGear’s MiniView SE. The MiniView’s combination of functionality, value, and useful little extra features easily set it apart from the crowd.