Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Logitech G15 and KVMs - The final word

Logitech G15 and KVMs - the final word

I was so pleased when the G15 first came out. I wanted input devices that would make me more productive at work, and the G15 macro key setup (G-keys) fit the bill perfectly. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the on-board LCD display was useful for displaying the date and time. Overall the G15 is a great business keyboard.

I have never used the G15 at home, because I have a multi-PC setup. This means I have the dreaded KVM in between my input devices and my PCs.

I live by my KVM, for many reasons. I don't know when it became acceptable to wait 15 minutes for a PC to boot, but somehow it did. With the KVM, at least I can switch to a different PC while I'm waiting for a machine to reset itself from the inevitable memory leaks, hung processes and general deterioration that affects all Windows machines sooner or later.

I also routinely have my PCs running in the background, doing different jobs. Usually I like to parcel out the I/O and hardware interrupt intensive operations to a different machine than my main workstation, to avoid slowing me down so much. Burning DVDs, uploading and downloading files, copying and moving gigabytes of data, these all go on in the background on a different machine. I need to check in from time to time, hence the KVM.

Of course, I've always wanted to use the G15 at home. The G-keys are sexy, and not because of the name. They allow you to launch programs with a button. Nothing else does this. All other 'macro' keys just punch out keystrokes - they won't launch programs or shortcuts.

At work, I had these set up for Lotus Notes, Word, Excel and my CAD programs. I also had shortcut buttons to my documents, the documents hosted on the network server, the departmental repositories, and other common locations. I even had a macro set up to skip the mandatory, ever-annoying, no-you-cannot-eliminate-it e-mail spell-checker dialog box that popped up for virtually every email I ever wrote. The increase in productivity was considerable. I saw it every day while watching my co-workers fumble for desktop shortcuts using the mouse.

Add in a Logitech MX Revolution mouse (purchased separately) and you have a highly capable input system.

Alas, my KVM is PS/2. Of my five PCs, one is Windows 2000 (don't ask) and so PS/2 seemed easier on that box too. USB KVMs didn't really exist when I set up this system.

There are advantages. PS/2 works on every box, new and old. Plus the keyboard hotkey - ScrLock - ScrLock - # - allows instant switching between boxes. No muss, no fuss. I switch fifty times a day, at least.

Still, the G15 was calling me. And I missed the functionality. Not to mention the sheer geekiness of that oversized in-your-face techy-looking this-aint-your-mommas-keyboard.

So my quest for a KVM began... and went on and on. Everyone has the same questions, but the answers are inconsistent at best.

So here's the deal:

THERE IS NO KVM THAT WILL WORK PERFECTLY WITH THE G15. That's it. Period, full stop, finis, end of story, bye-bye, thanks for coming.

If you Google enough, you will find forum postings that say otherwise. (Yes, Tiffany the Girl Gamer, I'm looking at you.) But they are wrong. Or mistaken, if you're being generous.

Maybe I'm just a stauch old traditionalist, but to me, perfectly means PERFECTLY. No caveats, limitations, provisos or fine print. You can't have something "work perfectly except for", "work perfectly but", or anything like. PERFECT means just that. And somehow a lot of people have missed the point on that one.

(To be fair, my current KVM does not work perfectly. Being an older device, it doesn't emulate my LCD monitor correctly, leading to strange effects if I background reboot a machine. So it's 95% correct, but it's not PERFECT. And I don't claim it is.)

To be sure, there are several KVMs that will work with a G15. But NONE of them will work PERFECTLY.

The KVM makers are in a no-win situation with the G15. And, I assume, the revised G15, the G9, and any other keyboard (or mouse) that has unique or special features only available through specific drivers.

KVMs usually have keyboard emulation. This means the KVM 'impersonates' a keyboard to all the connected PCs. As far as the PC is concerned, a keyboard is plugged in all the time, regardless of how the KVM is switching the actual keyboard around.

If the KVM-makers install keyboard emulation on the keyboard port, the end user gains the ability to boot PCs in the background, (usually) switch the KVM using hotkey combinations, no need for USB re-enumeration when switching, and (sometimes) use the keyboard in BIOS.

However, the keyboard emulation can't possibly emulate the special features of the G15, which are the G-keys and LCD panel. Or any other special features for any other unique keyboard. Seriously, how is the KVM maker supposed to know how these work? So having keyboard emulation is not perfect.

Leaving out the emulation means the KVM just passes through the raw data - in effect, the KVM stops trying to translate what the G15 is saying. This turns the KVM keyboard port into a generic USB port like any other. Voila, the special features work!

But wait, you've lost something. Since the KVM doesn't impersonate a keyboard any more, the keyboard is only connected to one PC at a time. So, when you switch, it's just like you've unplugged the keyboard from the first PC, and plugged it in to the second PC.

What happens? Well, the second machine will take a few seconds to recognize the new USB keyboard, enumerate, and start using it. So there's a switching delay.

Plus, you can't use hotkeys. The KVM is no longer 'watching' the keyboard port, so it can't 'see' hotkeys. Switching must be done using whatever physical buttons are present on the KVM box.

Third, you can't background reboot a PC. If you reboot a PC while the KVM is on a different box, the rebooted box will not see a keyboard. It's not there to see - the KVM has connected it to a different computer. Beep, beep, "No keyboard present" error.

In the end, it's simple. On one side, you have hotkeys and background reboot. On the other you have the LCD and G-keys. That's it.

Similar problems exist for special mice. The KVMs have mouse emulation too, which screws up special features for a lot of mice.

So, what does one do with all of this? Well, there is obviously no point in following through with attaching a G15 unless it works as a G15 - you'd be just as well off getting a $10 generic keyboard. If you didn't care about the special features you wouldn't be reading this.

To get special features, you must give up keyboard emulation. This means no hotkey switching, no background reboot, probably a short delay when switching, and inability to use the keyboard in BIOS on some machines. That's the deal, take it or leave it.

So, how to get around the keyboard emulation?

There are some KVMs that don't have emulation period. Unfortunately, they don't consider that a feature, and often don't explicitly say they lack emulation. If you can find a KVM without emulation, you're probably OK.

No KVM I've seen allows you to disable keyboard emulation if it's present. That eliminate the keyboard port as an option.

There are KVMs that allow you to disable the mouse emulation. The Aten KVMs, in particular, have this feature. So, you can disable the mouse emulation and plug the G15 into the mouse port. If there are only two input ports, this means the mouse has to go into the G15 USB ports, which might or might not work.

The last option is the one most people use. Get a KVM with a USB 2.0 hub built-in, and plug the G15 into one of the hub ports instead of the keyboard port. The generic hub port will not interfere with the G15. Naturally, all the caveats above apply - no hotkeys, no background reboot, probably no BIOS operation, and a few seconds of delay when switching the G15 from machine to machine.

After Googling, you will find all the reports say "It works perfectly except for the hotkeys" or something like. Leaving aside the utterly irritating insanity of these statements, these people are almost always plugging the G15 into a hub port.

Note that the same principles apply for sophisticated USB mice. I haven't tested any, but I expect my Logitech MX Revolution will have problems with the mouse emulation on the KVM getting in the way. Disabling or avoiding the mouse emulation will be necessary to enable the special features of the mouse. Leaving the emulation on will allow background-reboot machines to 'see' a mouse, but will block any special features. Again, disable the emulation, or use a generic USB port instead.

Note that many KVMs with USB hubs can switch the hub ports independently of the keyboard/mouse ports. A lot of people get tripped up by this, and switch the mouse while leaving the keyboard behind. They always complain the switch isn't working right. RTFM before you get your back up on this one!

Finally, it is prudent to only use KVMs that have their own external power supply. The G15 takes more power than a typical keyboard, and some bus-powered KVMs are not up to the task. This is doubly true if you also have a power-hungry mouse - such as many wireless types - or power-intensive USB peripherals on the hub. Symptoms of insufficient power include total loss of function, random operation, or loss of use of another device (such as the mouse) when the G15 is plugged in. These all stem from not having enough power to run all the devices at the same time.

My recommendation: Get a KVM with an external power supply and a USB hub. Try disabling the emulation on the mouse port and plugging the G15 in that port first. If that works, try plugging the mouse into the G15.

If the G15 doesn't operate on the mouse port, or if your model KVM doesn't allow you to disable the mouse emulation, put the G15 on one of the generic USB hub ports. Plug the mouse in wherever it works best.

I personally am going to try an Aten KVM. It's the only brand that I know of that allows you to disable the mouse emulation. IOGear devices are theoretically re-branded Aten KVMs with a 'G' prefix on the model number, but if Newegg reviews are to be believed, the quality on the IOGear is sometimes spotty. If I feel like it I'll post my experience here.

A couple of final gotchas: When setting up the system for the first time, you may need to install the G15 and/or mouse drivers before installing the G15 and/or mouse itself. This means you may need another USB or PS/2 keyboard and mouse for the initial setup. You might also need a PS/2 keyboard for use when the machine breaks and you need to access the BIOS. As machines differ, YMMV.

You will also have to set up the KVM so that the panel buttons are physically accessible and reasonably convenient to use. After all, those buttons are the only mechanism by which you can actually use the KVM to switch.

[Addition]: I did not use the Aten. Instead, I set up a regular old PS/2 keyboard and mouse on my existing KVM. For my main workstation, I attached a Logitech G13 keypad (awesome device) and Logitech MX Revolution mouse (awesome mouse) directly to that PC via USB.

This means the G13 and MX Rev. only work on my main station. I use the 'backup' PS/2 mouse for operating the other workstations.

I've also been trying out Teamviewer for remoting my other 3 stations. Works fairly well, but it isn't quite a replacement for the KVM. When the secondary PCs get busy - say, when the damn antivirus software takes over the entire system - remote control solutions become sluggish or inoperative.

I've had the G13 for some months now and highly recommend it if you need a supplementary keypad. It does everything the G15 does, including real program launching shortcuts - not just the keyboard emulation / keystroke macro garbage that so many of these devices do.

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