Wanted: Monitor IN, keyboard/mouse OUT

  1. I have an arcade cabinet, connected to a computer running MAME via a JPAC adaptor. During the BIOS boot screen, the display is too garbled to read. That used to be fine, because it just booted with no problems. Now, however, it displays some kind of (unreadable) error message. Experience with other PCs was enough for me to guess that it was telling me to “Press F1 to enter SETUP, or F2 to continue” – and indeed pressing F2 does let the boot process continue. Really I need to plug a proper monitor in so that I can see what the error message actually is – but as I don’t have a spare, lightweight monitor just hanging around, I keep pressing F2 instead.
  2. My girlfriend’s company has a headless Linux server. This runs fine for months on end, but just occasionally it has a bit of a moan if we reboot it, and requires us to dig out a monitor and keyboard to plug into it so that I can get it going properly again. It’s a pain when that happens.
  3. Where I work we have an old KVM switch. It was bought when we only had four servers to let us switch between them. Now we have eight servers, and not enough sockets on the KVM switch. Usually that’s fine, as the servers are accessed remotely. But occasionally something goes awry, and we end up fishing around the back of the machines in order to swap one of them onto the KVM switch – or bypass it altogether and plug the monitor directly into a server.

What these three real-life scenarios have in common is that each of them requires a monitor (and possibly keyboard and mouse) to be plugged in. In each case actually bringing a monitor to the machine in question is awkward. What I need is a small portable monitor, keyboard and mouse.

The thing is, I already have a small, portable monitor, keyboard and mouse (well, a trackpad). The problem is that they’re all part of my netbook. They’re all connected directly to the motherboard, and there’s no way to intercept that connection. I have a small, portable, battery powered monitor… but no monitor input connection. I have a small, portable, battery powered keyboard and trackpad… but no USB output from them.

Here’s my suggestion for any netbook (or notebook) manufacturers who happen to stumble across this page: Create a netbook with a second power button and a USB-B port. That second button wouldn’t boot the normal OS, but rather it would turn the VGA output into an input, and would route the keyboard and trackpad data out of the USB-B socket. Bonus points if there’s an option for hard drive on the netbook to also get exposed via that USB connection. You’ve just created a PC administrator’s dream machine.

Load up the hard drive with diagnostic tools and head out on-site with your netbook, a monitor cable and a USB cable. In one handy package you’ve got a fully working computer, plus a portable monitor, keyboard, mouse and USB hard drive.

It’s not an entirely new idea. Firewire-enabled Macs have been able to boot into so-called Target Disk Mode for a while now. In this mode the whole computer just acts like a very expensive external hard drive. For getting data from an old machine to a new one, it’s great. As a support tool, however, it’s not as useful as exposing the monitor for external input.

So now that we’ve got the “Target Mode” button on the machine, let’s take it to the next logical step. What about switching to Target Mode while the netbook is running its normal operating system? It’s a trickier proposition – perhaps the disk would only be available in read-only mode, and there would need to be some way of persuading the netbook OS that the peripherals haven’t all been unplugged (or that it shouldn’t behave as though they have). The benefit of this mode is that our friendly PC engineer can easily switch between the machine he’s fixing, and a working netbook with an internet connection – invaluable if he needs to look anything up or ask any questions on forums or support sites.

All that is marvellous if you’re the sort of person who goes round fixing other people’s machines all the time. But there would also be a benefit to your normal everyday netbook user. Consider plugging your netbook into your desktop machine and booting into Target Mode. Now you’ve got an external monitor to put your email or IM onto. You’ve also got a simple means of accessing your netbook’s hard drive so that you can easily put files on it that you’ll need when on-the-go. There’s no particular reason why other peripherals on the machine couldn’t be exposed in this way – so you can use your netbook’s webcam, bluetooth adaptor, and so on.

A mode like this is easily worth an extra £50 to £100 on the price of a netbook to your average DIY computer technician, depending on what exactly it offers. I just hope someone reads this article who’s in a position to make it happen – I’ve got a sickly MAME cab waiting for either your product to come out, or for me to become less lazy. I know which I think will happen first.

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