Why I Switched to Using 2 Desktop Computers - The Dual PC Life (Part 1)
IntroductionI never thought that I would want to have two Desktop PCs for myself. I had traditionally used one Desktop PC to "do it all". Afterall, that's one of the benefits of a PC to begin with. You can spec it for entertainment, work and other usages all within 1 device. Prior to acquiring 2 Desktop PCs, I had a Gaming PC, a personal laptop and a work laptop. I don't really count the personal laptop because it is about 8-9 years old (as of this article's publishing date) and not very usable anymore. For the work laptop, I try to strictly keep everything work related on that since the equipment is provided by my organization. I don't like to use it for personal things as much as I can. So realistically, I had one usable computer for home. My gaming/primary PC was used as my "swiss army knife" where it could game, host VMs and do more. As we all know though, a swiss army knife can only do so much without showcasing its shortcomings. That is unless you're this guy, then a swiss army knife can do everything! Anyway, putting all your eggs in one basket inherently has a higher risk so separating them out can be a wise decision.
Troubleshooting saga... How this all beganIn about mid to late October 2018, I had begun experiencing issues that I couldn't quite track down. I was constantly getting BSODs with DPC_WATCHDOG_VIOLATION as the error message. This would happen while doing extremely simplistic things such as browsing the web or watching YouTube videos. This was confusing because I wasn't putting my system under any sort of extreme load and now it decided to stop working properly. Using tools such as Blue Screen View and Who Crashed, I was able to track it down to either the Windows 10 OS (ntoskrnl.exe) or Nvidia's graphics drivers (nvlddmkm.sys) / hardware. With that info on hand, I began doing what any IT Admin would do and dove head first into troubleshooting. I won't tell the full troubleshooting saga here to save you a hour long story, but here is a summary of what happened.
I went through all of the standard troubleshooting steps. Starting with drivers, then hardware additions/removals, hardware swaps and finally clean OS installs. The only lead I had was that removing my GTX 1080 allowed everything to function without issue. So a motherboard swap (or 3), a GPU swap (to a RTX 2070) and a dowsize to ITX later, I came to find out that it was Hyper-V all along.
I use Hyper-V in Windows 10 Pro to run various VMs for different purposes. Hyper-V was having some kind of conflict with my GPU (aside from a GTX 470 [now that's a trip down memory lane]) and built in PCIe WIFI card. I had been running Hyper-V on my main computer with the same configuration for the longest time without issue so I'm unsure why it all of a sudden decided to start causing issues. Ultimately, disabling Hyper-V was the fix until I could find out the true reason why it wasn't working.Overall this troubleshooting took me just shy of 2 months to finally figure out what was wrong which is rather frustrating. I basically had an unusable computer for that entire time because it would randomly BSOD and had zero consistency which was incredibly frustrating to say the least.
It was a long, annoying process all to find out that nothing was ACTUALLY wrong with my hardware in the end. But Hey! At least I downsized back to ITX in the process and got a minor upgrade to a RTX 2070 as well. Silver lining right?! At least that's what I'll tell myself to feel better.
The Next StepsAfter talking with one of my co-workers/friends about this situation, he had expressed interest in possibly going the dual PC route in the future when he rebuilds his setup. I have heard of and seen a few dual PC implementations before but I had never thought of actually using one for myself. After mulling it over for a while, I had fallen for his idea of having two desktop computers.
For me, one of them would be strictly for entertainment/gaming and the other would be for everything else (web browsing, Hyper-V, light duty tasks, etc). The gaming computer would be treated more like a gaming console. It would be a really clean slate meant to just play games. It would have game clients installed and a few basic tools if necessary. Although both pcs become more of a single-tasker in this case, each of them will perform their singular tasks the best that they can. For me, the major reason I like this idea is because of what happened to me with my months long troubleshooting session.
Another selling point is that with two devices, having issues doesn’t completely put me out of commission like I was with the saga of troubleshooting I dealt with. The obvious downside of this route is cost. There are some relatively cheap options out there but it really depends on what workloads you will be placing on the non-gaming PC. For me, I wanted something that had enough capacity to handle a couple of VMs without a large footprint and also have it be relatively inexpensive.
Enter the Intel NUC series of Mini-PCs. I have been aware of the NUCs basically ever since they first came out but I personally never had a use for one since they weren't designed for gaming. However, for my new dual PC situation, it ended up being a perfect option. The latest 2018 editions of the NUCs (Bean Canyon) use Intel 8th generation mobile processors which are a huge step up from the previous generation of CPUs. They now have much higher thread counts and processing power (4 core 8 thread). There are other manufacturers out there such as ASRock, Gigabyte, Shuttle and Zotac, but when it comes to connectivity options, the Intel NUCs beat out every other option. They come loaded with 10Gbps USB ports, Thunderbolt 3, WIFI and much more.
The NUC really is a complete package that's impressive for its price and size. Therefore, I jumped on it and bought one. A full list of my current hardware setup (as of this publishing date) can be found below before we deep dive into the Dual PC Setup review.
PC Hardware Setup
Dual PC Setup Review
So now it's time to get to the review of how this all works. Going into this, I knew that I would need to look at getting both a hardware and software KVM to make this solution usable. I wanted something that allows me to be able to easily switch my mouse and keyboard between computers without manual intervention. Although 95% of what I need can be handled with a software based solution, the hardware KVM is still necessary for a few reasons.
- If I need to switch peripherals to interrupt the boot process
- For if I'm only using one device
- If the software based KVM decides to stop functioning for some reason
Hardware KVM TestingFor the hardware solution, I initially ended up picking up a cheap USB 3.0 peripheral switch that is basically just a USB 3.0 hub with a hardware button that disconnects it from one of the PCs and connects it to the other one. This had been working fairly well but then I started experiencing odd issues with the hub after I had swapped peripherals between PCs multiple times. I was unsure if this is due to some issue with my Logitech gaming peripherals or perhaps an issue with using USB 2.0 peripherals on a USB 3.0 hub plugged into a USB 3.1 gen 2 port on the NUC (which is all that the NUC has). Anyway, for testing purposes I picked up a USB 2.0 edition of the same style USB peripheral switch to see if that made any difference.
With the USB 2.0 edition of the switch, things initially seemed to be working a bit more reliably when I went to switch between devices. When I disconnected the peripherals from one PC to the other one, Windows 10 "dinged" 2 times to indicate it has detected both the mouse and keyboard. With the USB 3.0 edition, that didn't happen. Instead it only "dinged" 1 time. However, it's still not all rosy. I experienced random mouse disconnects quite frequently with the USB 2.0 edition specifically when selected to the NUC. My mouse stopped responding within Windows but the mouse itself was receiving power. I ended up returning this unit as well and picked up a third USB 2.0 Switch to try. This time, a completely different style and brand to see if that would help.
Once again, I had unfortunately been greeted with issues. I began to further solidify the idea that it's something to do with the USB compatibility on the Intel NUC since for the most part all 3 of these USB switches worked completely fine with my Gaming PC. All of them were intermittent when the NUC was set to the active device. It probably has something to do with either the driver for the intel USB controller or the fact that every USB type A port on the device is a USB 3.1 Gen 2 port.At this point I was done returning USB switches so I decided to keep this 3rd unit.
Software KVM Testing
For the software KVM solution, I tested 4 different options.
Below you will find quick reviews of each of these programs based on my experience with them.
Mouse Without Borders
This was the first solution I tested and overall I was pleased with it. The setup process is dead simple and there is a reasonable amount of configurability. Locking the cursor to a device can be accomplished with a few different methods.
I would rate this similarly to MWB. The interface is a bit dated looking but the configurability is about on par with MWB.
Probably the least "feature rich" out of the 4 I tested. I didn't spend much time with it because I didn't really like much about it.
Overall, Synergy had worked pretty well but there have been a few times where I've had "odd" issues. In all cases though, I've found that the fix has been as simple as restarting the Synergy server and allowing the client to re-connect. I like that you can easily lock the cursor to a device with the Scroll Lock key, but the reliability of the connection has not been very good in my testing.
The Software KVM of Choice
I decided to stick with MWB. I tried Synergy for an extended period of time but the connection between my machines was very unreliable with version 1 of the software. It put a sour taste in my mouth for Synergy. Synergy version 2 has literally ZERO configurability as of the time of this writing so that was also not going to fly. They are trying to make it as simplistic as possible, but there are basically ZERO options for a "power user" to configure. Mouse without borders has been the most consistent and reliable for me. The only thing I wish that it had was a single key instead of a combination to enable/disable locking the cursor to a computer. It requires a shortcut of Ctrl+Alt+yourKeyHere to lock the cursor which works but I wish I could just hit Scroll Lock like with Synergy. Otherwise the software works perfectly well and even has native Windows 10 notifications built in for alerts.
Intel NUC Mini-Review
I plan on writing a complete review for the NUC, so keep your eyes peeled for that. For now I'll include some of my initial impressions of the NUC. I think that it is a very capable little machine. It runs my VMs without issue and provides everything that I want it to. The noise levels were a concern of mine but I'm happy to report that I don't find its noise profile to be an issue. It's about on par with a laptop for noise levels. I don't find this bothersome since I use a laptop for my work PC and have gotten used to hearing those small fans whir. That's about all I'll say for now but be sure to check back for a full review of the NUC coming in the (hopefully) near future.
After getting past the initial hiccups for both the hardware and software KVMs, I have grown to like having two PCs. The hardware KVM giving me trouble is annoying but I'm glad it doesn't happen all the time. I'm going to pursue find a solution to that problem. The software KVM is what really makes this a "livable" experience though. It just feels like I have two monitors hooked up to 1 computer which is something I definitely don't take for granted. If I was only using a hardware based KVM and it was consistently 100% reliable, it would be livable but not nearly as convenient as having the software solution. The ability to copy paste between sessions and several other creature comforts with the software KVM is what really sells me on this setup.
I am happy that I can have two separate devices for two separate purposes. I like that I'm able to simultaneously run resource intensive applications/actions without an impact to other applications like games. Having actions separated allows for better performance of each task. Overall, it just works (to quote Jensen Huang) and it works pretty well for my needs.
EDIT: Part 2 Is here: https://tech.brandonwhitehead.com/2019/04/why-i-switched-to-using-2-desktop.html
P.S: Part 2???
Without putting too many spoilers here... I'm on the edge of returning the NUC due to the incompatibility with the USB KVM. I wrote this story up before I had planned on doing that so expect a part 2 in the near future :)