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Coming in to dock

Beware of pitfalls as you embark on your data odyssey. 5_14_1001.xml hed: Coming in to dock dek: Beware of pitfalls as you embark on your data odyssey. blurb: Beware of pitfalls as you embark on your data odyssey. number of pages:1 by Matt Lake

The travels of computer data have a lot in common with Homer’s “The Odyssey.” According to Greek legend, Odysseus took 10 years to return home from the Trojan war, enduring dozens of trials, including Scylla and Charybdis–two forces that sucked ships to disaster if they came a little too close. With Windows PCs on one side and Macs on the other–and portable computers and networked desktops in the mix–trying to bring the data home is a pretty perilous business.

The characters in my own personal data odyssey are a Windows and a Mac desktop, and at any given time, a couple of other systems (laptops and others) may come in. Space is limited-the constraints of my desk dictate that only one monitor, mouse, and keyboard can fit comfortably. And very large quantities of data must be shared-sometimes coming from other people’s computers. This is not an unusual problem for computer consultants, but the three solutions I came upon were out of the ordinary.

Sittin’ at the dock

Unless you happen to have more than two hands, one keyboard and mouse is enough–and almost nobody has desk space for more than one monitor. But if you have four computers, what can you do? Plug them into a KVM (keyboard, video, and mouse) switch, of course. Screw in your monitor cable and plug in the keyboard and mouse, and the KVM acts as a hub for all the input and display activity for all your computers. This lab tool is coming out into the mainstream as more people use laptops and multiple computers, and the Avocent SwitchView MP I tested recently is one great example of the genre.

The SwitchView MP connects directly to any SVGA monitor and PS/2 style mouse and keyboard–and lets you share them between four computers. The MP part of this KVM’s name stands for multiplatform, since the computers in question can be Windows PCs (using either standard PS/2 or USB keyboards and mice), Sun workstations, or USB-enabled Macs. Some KVM cables are thick, hydra-like monsters with PS/2 and monitor connectors at both ends (Raritan’s SwitchMan line, for example, uses these). But Avocent’s box uses tidy 25-pin connectors (the same size as a parallel port), so that only one end of the thick cable has multiple connectors. Another plus is that it can accommodate different platforms and connectors. Laptops with one USB port can use it for keyboard and mouse connections through the SwitchView MP. And if you use Sun or USB-based Mac computers, the box hooks up to these systems, as well.

To use one set of input devices and one monitor on a different computer, you either punch the button at the front of the SwitchView MP or punch a keyboard shortcut (hit Ctrl twice, press the letter assigned to the computer–A, B, C, or D–and press Enter). With a brief flicker, the monitor shows a new desktop, and you’re ready to go.

Sure, you pay for the privilege of reducing desk clutter–the hefty $399 price tag for the KVM switch and $35-$40 per cable can add up. But when desk real estate is at a premium, it’s very liberating to remove three monitors and keyboards from the equation. And when you add up the cost of buying and running multiple monitors, it can be a money-saving purchase, too.

… and drive bay

When the 100MB to 240MB of portable storage space provided by Zip or SuperDisks aren’t enough, look to the $99 Addonics Combo Hard Drive instead. This kit lets you share any 3.5-inch hard drive (or internal Zip or magnetic optical storage) between systems using any of four interfaces: PC card, USB, Firewire, or internal IDE connections. The drive’s internal mounting cradle fits inside any computer’s 5.25-inch drive bay, letting you slip hard drives in and out of a computer at will.

The base kit doesn’t come with any actual hard drives (though vendors such as Storage USA do resell the kit with bundled hard drives in various configurations). You slip a drive into the casing, attach the power and data cables, and it’s ready for data sharing. Using USB or a PC Card (aka PCMCIA) connection, it’s a snap to plug it into Windows Me, 2000, or even XP systems.

No drivers are needed for this setup, though there’s a disk with drivers for earlier Windows versions, as well as flavors of Mac OS, Linux, and Solaris. In minutes, I was dragging files to and from a couple of old hard drives, and reformatting them at will. The only disk problem was with a hard drive that had previously been the primary drive in an old PC–its jumpers were set accordingly, and the computer refused to recognize two master drives. Fortunately, it’s easy to reset the jumpers on a hard disk, and there are instructions in the Combo Hard Drive’s documentation.

The Combo Hard Drive’s trump card is its versatility. When it’s used for mounting IDE drives internally, it’s a fantastic backup device that can be used by drive-mirroring software such as ReZoom (reviewed in this column in March 2001) or for secure storage. Used externally, it’s a fast and convenient means of shuttling large amounts of data between different types of computers. You can even share data among different computing platforms such as Mac and PC, so long as each system can read the format (and if they don’t, DataViz has the solution in programs I also reviewed in this space).

The downsides? The casing in which you put your hard drive has external connectors and jumpers, so it can slip into a drive bay. This makes it look a little untidy when it’s used as an external storage device. And when used externally, the drive casing needs an external power source. And although $100 will get you a kit, you’ll only get one interface cable (your choice of USB or PC Card)–and if you want the FireWire version, it costs an additional $50.

Ultraportable storage

Of course, a multigigabyte hard disk is overkill for many users. If you need to shift data in increments of 1MB, 32MB, 120MB, or 240MB between PCs and Macs, Addonics Pocket SuperDisk 240 works better. It’s literally pocket-sized–as thick and long as two CDs, and an inch narrower–and has a short built-in USB cable that snaps neatly into its side. It requires no external power, and can handle regular 3.5-inch floppies and Imation’s SuperDisks in 120MB and 240MB sizes.

In my tests on Windows Me and 98 systems and on an iMac, the device plugged in and worked right away. Drawing its power from the USB port, it was able to handle swift data transfer (about the same rate as an internal floppy drive on one laptop system). And as with most SuperDisk drives, it can format floppy disks four times faster than a regular floppy drive can. And perhaps the most impressive thing is that, using a special compression utility, it can actually cram 32MB of data onto a regular floppy disk.

There are a few minor downsides to the device. Its handy built-in USB connector is just great for laptops, but at six inches long, it’s not great for desktop systems with USB ports at the back. And since it needs to draw five volts from the USB port to work, it won’t work when plugged into unpowered USB hubs (such as the ones on keyboards). There is a longer USB cable in the box, but it fits into a proprietary socket on the drive. This means that in some cases, you’ll be groping around behind a PC for a free USB slot whenever you want to use it. Still, that’s a small price to pay for such a cute and useful device. The only real caveat is that it’s so small, it might get buried under all the other stuff on your desk.

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