May 21, 2009

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Laptop control
Make your notebook a keyboard and screen
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

A few weeks ago, you read about remote access software, letting you control a computer that’s not at your own desk. While software is great, it relies on the remote operating system running properly. If it locks up, or if you need to access some of the bootup utilities on your PC, software won’t cut it.

It’s also not convenient to go hook up a keyboard and monitor every time this happens. Maybe you’re lucky enough to be in a data center with all the servers hooked up to a KVM (keyboard/video/mouse) switch. I’m not, so I’m always looking for a compact, convenient way to control an errant computer with no interface already attached.

Laptops are the obvious solution, but the hardware for accepting and switching to an outside video signal on a laptop screen is surprisingly expensive. The market is small, so it’s not built into your standard notebook.

A company called Epiphan Systems is aiming right at this market with the KVM2USB. It does just what its mashed-up acronyms imply: direct keyboard, video and mouse connections to your USB port. You then view your remote PC through Epiphan’s software.

Everything goes through a small external box. The monitor and mouse/keyboard PS/2 cables are combined into a single connector on one side; on the other side, a USB 2.0 cable. Old USB 1.1 just doesn’t have the throughput to display video in any sort of quality. There’s an AC adapter, but in most cases it’s not necessary—  it’s just there in case your computer doesn’t provide enough power to the USB port.

Epiphan says the external box is “roughly the size of a box of paperclips,” which is a measurement standard I’m unfamiliar with, but apparently it’s just short of an inch thick and four inches long, plus cables. It has ready-made drivers for Windows and Mac OS, as well as a development kit for Linux users. It’s not cheap, though — it’ll set you back $400.

For a little less — under $300 — there’s the SecureLinx Spider from Lantronix. It’s not really marketed as a laptop solution, but it’s certainly portable. Instead of USB, it reroutes monitor output and keyboard/mouse input to a network connection.

They setup Lantronix envisions is a bunch of these things on all the servers and PCs in a rack, all hooked up to a network switch. You access the PCs from some other PC on the network, or even over the Internet. You could also attach it to a laptop’s network port, and as long as you set your IP addresses on the laptop and the Spider to work together, bam, you have a portable KVM. Instead of client software, the Spider just requires a browser. Like the KVM2USB, it requires no extra power.

Both the KVM2USB and the Spider introduce a bit of lag and complexity into what should be simple — typing commands, controlling a cursor and seeing what you’re doing. If all you want is a compact monitor, keyboard and touchpad mouse setup, try the Portamon-12 from EarthLCD. At $439, it’s pricey when you compare it to modern LCD screens, but maybe the portability and stylish canvas and mesh bag is worth it to you. It’d be even nicer if it were built into a laptop case complete with battery so you didn’t need to plug it in, but that’s just me.