An Excellent Monitor, AND a great KVM Switch into the Bargain

Now that so many of us are working from home, new challenges arise in our study or home office. Many will be forced to use two computers – our own, and a computer provided by our employer, because it has a prescribed or controlled operating environment, or connectivity or tools installed. Unless you’ve got a really big desk, or actually like typing on laptop keyboards – does anyone? – it’s going to get very crowded if you need to have separate external keyboards and mice for both machines, so I’ve commonly used KVM (Keyboard / Video Mouse) switches in the past – of varying levels of sophistication.

Some older KVM Switches, more sophisticated and generally more expensive, worked very well – and let me explain what I mean by “worked well”. The most significant characteristic of a KVM switch is how it manages the status of display for each computer when the computer is not selected. From recent experience, most modern, less sophisticated KVM switches effectively “disconnect” all of the devices they provide to each computer, when the switch is directed to another computer.

So, consider what your computer does, when you:

  • Disconnect a Display
  • Disconnect a Keyboard
  • Disconnect a Mouse

Generally the Keyboard and the Mouse don’t present too much of a problem. However the display is another matter. I work with both Windows and Mac OS computers, and both will re-arrrange applications and windows as displays are removed. This is hardly an ideal scenario, because when you do return to the computer again, the windows you were previously working with, will all have been re-arranged. This is particularly frustrating if the display you are sharing between two machines, is one of your larger displays. The windows or applications that were on that display will have “scampered” onto the other displays on each of your machines, each time the display gets disconnected from the machine, and you’d need drag them back.

So, these less sophisticated KVM switches can be frustrating to work with. I began searching for a better answers:

  • More sophisticated KVM switches – they exist, but they’re often expensive. They try to overcome this issue by maintaining the facade that the now disconnected display is “still there”
  • Using Remote Desktop – Rather than use physical connectivity, use software and network connectivity. This would work in some situations – Microsoft Remote Desktop for Mac OS is very good, and I’ll use it wherever possible. BUT for my current situation, it doesn’t work because of the network isolation imposed by the destination Windows Workstation I need to connect to
  • Displays with Integrated KVM switches – This last option only came up later in my research, but immediately looked very promising. I found details of how a particular monitor allowed coordinated connectivity of both Display and USB connectivity that could be switched together to provide KVM-like switching.

I will state up front, that I do not intend this to be an advertisement for Dell – I suspect other vendors have displays with the same capabilities – it’s just that I happened upon the range of Dell UltraSharp monitors with these features, and will describe the one I got – I’m not suggesting I did a comprehensive survey to determine the best one – but this one stood out as one that would suit me, and provide the functionality I needed.

The display I ended up purchasing was the Dell UP2716D Monitor – a 27″ UltraSharp Monitor – http://Dell UP2716D Monitor – a 27″ Ultrasharp Monitor

Some of the key features this display provides are:

  • 27″ IPS Panel Display
  • QHD 2560 X 1440 Resolution
  • 1000:1 / 2000000:1 (dynamic)
  • Premium Panel Coverage, with 3 Years NBD Panel Exchange
  • HDMI Inputs X 2
  • DisplayPort X 1
  • Mini DisplayPort X 1
  • USB 3.0 Hub
  • USB In X 2
  • Height, pivot (rotation), swivel, tilt

In relation to the KVM capability, the key points here are that the display is deliberately designed to accept concurrent inputs from two computers. The switching from these two computers can be managed by the OSD menu.

BUT, even more importantly the switching between the two computer sources can be software controlled.

  • Dell provides a Windows based tool Dell Display Manager that allows Keyboard Sequences to be defined to switch from the current source to the other source – You’ll note I emphasise Windows based – Dell does not provide a Mac OS equivalent, so they’ve dropped the ball there somewhat.
  • There is a Mac OS based Dell Display Manager, but for some unknown reason this particular model is not supported by this tool – even though it seems to support both Intel and Apple Silicon Macs? Very curious? And I will be lodging further enquiries with Dell about just why!
  • There is however an open-source alternative that provides the equivalent functionality for Mac OS called ddcctl hosted on GitHub – ddcctl: DDC monitor controls for the OSX command line. There’s one downside to this great utility. It works beautifully on my powerful Intel based iMac, BUT, the caveat is that it does not work for Apple Silicon Macs – yet – the original author has called for help to work out just how to make this work, so perhaps this will be made to work.

Just to summarise, the key advantages that this wonderful Dell Ultrasharp monitor provides are:

  • It is an excellent, high-resolution display, and a pleasure to work with. I absolutely love it.
  • It provides a very good KVM capability, and importantly, while a computer isn’t selected, the computer does not consider the display is absent, so windows don’t rearrange, which makes working across two machines so much easier.

I should point out that the computer does recognise that the keyboard and mouse have been removed, but that never seems to cause any issues in the same way that the constant adding and removal of displays does. There are probably a number of other Dell models that offer similar functionality, and as I noted above, no doubt other vendors provide similar capability, but having had a number of Dell UltraSharp displays in the past, and having alwasy found them excellent, I had no hesitation in choosing this model.

Although a relatively expensive solution, it provides an excellent, and very effective KVM solution, and being able to change input sources using Keyboard sequences, it’s one I’m very happy with.

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