Not That Simple

To those of you celebrating the Fourth of July and what remains of our civil liberties, happy holidays. Stay safe and sane.

I thought I’d give you a bit of a tech post for the occasion, because what could be more American than spending money on electronics? Remember, most retailers are having holiday sales through the weekend.

Note: I have not been paid for any of the comments below, nor will I receive any benefit should you run out and buy anything on my recommendation. That said, if the various manufacturers mentioned want to toss piles of cash in my direction, I’ll be happy to accept.

As you may have gathered, I did not wind up crushed beneath a pile of USB-C hubs and docking stations. As it turned out, my first test subject proved adequate to the task. You may recall that the goal was to connect two monitors, one with a VGA input and one with a DVI input to a thoroughly modern laptop which has only a single USB-C port.

I chose to begin my search with the j5create JCD381.

Note the symmetrical layout: two HDMI ports on the left, two USB 3.1 ports on the right, balanced around the network port. Symmetry may not be important in a device’s functionality, but it is aesthetically pleasing. There’s also a USB-C input on the end next to the cable. As that leaves the end unsymmetrical, I’ve chosen not to show it here.

The big selling point for the JCD381–aside from its cheapness compared to similar, larger docks–was that none of the ads I saw warned against using HDMI-to-something-else converters.

And it works fine with my converters (more on that later). It does not, however, Just Work. It is necessary to install driver software for the computer to recognize the HDMI ports. And, in a reversion to the Days of Yore, it was even necessary to reboot the computer after installing the drivers. I may be a fan of tradition, but that was a little too retro for my tastes.

However, drivers installed and computer restarted, I plugged in the cable and darned if both screens didn’t light up. A quick trip to the display settings made the biggest monitor the primary, and presto! Word processor in front of me, email to my left, and system monitor and other low-priority attention grabbers on the smallest screen where I’ll have to make a conscious effort to see them.

The JCD381 isn’t perfect. (You’re not surprised to hear that, are you?) This is not the dock to choose if you’re running a Mac. There are multiple reports that even after installing the drivers, you won’t be able to have different outputs on the two HDMI connectors. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of those reports, but they’re pervasive enough that I wouldn’t take the chance.

More significant to Windows users, the dock lacks an audio/headphone jack. That would have been handy and including one could have fixed the lack of symmetry on the cable end.

That, however, is a quick and cheap fix if you’re converting one of the outputs to VGA. Behold!

This is the Rankie HDMI-to-VGA adapter. Micro-USB port on the left to power it (and yes, it comes with an appropriate cable) and audio on the right. Eight bucks from that well-known purveyor of fine (and not-so-fine) goods whose name begins with an A.

Sure, I could have saved the eight dollars and just plugged my speakers into the computer’s headphone jack, but that would have meant an extra plug or unplug every time I moved the machine. Well worth the octodollar to have everything on a single cable.

There are other issues.

The USB-C input on the j5create box is a bit loose. If I accidentally move the dock when plugging or unplugging it, it can disconnect the power. Annoying, but not fatal, and I could probably find a way to anchor the plug more securely in the dock.

The dock does get hot in use. Not burn-your-fingers-and-set-the-desk-on-fire hot, but significantly toasty. Make sure it’s well-ventilated.

And, finally, the computer has lost track of the network port a couple of times. I’m still troubleshooting that one, but I suspect the problem is at the computer end–either a driver issue or a Windows bug–rather than with the hardware. Since the computer automatically falls back to Wi-Fi, I hardly notice. And the port comes back to life the next time I reboot the computer, so it’s not that big a deal. I’ll find a fix eventually, but it’s not affecting my quality of life right now.

So there you have it. Maybe not quite so simple that only a child can do it after all.

It’s So Simple…

Oh, yeah. It’s Thursday, isn’t it? Sorry about that. Got distracted by the Internet.

Actually, what distracted me was trying to figure out how to rearrange my computers. I’m trying to change my setup to make it easier to switch between working at home and working elsewhere. There were a number of reasons why I didn’t get much writing done in Sedalia–starting with the music, of course–and one of them was just the simple disruption of not being at my usual computer with all my usual tools.

The answer seems simple: set up my portable machine as my main writing machine.

But wait. This is computers. It’s against the law for anything computer related to be simple.

Or, in the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s so simple / So very simple / That only a child can do it.” Anyone got a child I can borrow?

If I’m working at home, I don’t want to use the comparatively small laptop screen. I want the big screens on my desk. Yes, plural. (A hint for the budget-minded: at any given price point, two medium-sized monitors give you more screen real estate than one big monitor.)

I like to have the document I’m working on directly in front of me on one screen. Then I put my research web browser on the same screen, but off to the side where it’s handy for looking things up at a moment’s notice*. And then I shove my email onto the second screen, where it’s out of my peripheral vision; that way it doesn’t constantly distract me, but it’s running, so it can use audio alerts to get my attention for important messages.

* Most recent mid-paragraph search: how much space would twenty pounds of gold take up? Hey, it’s an important plot point. I couldn’t leave it to fill in later, right?

Sure, there will be compromises in doing all that on the road. But I work at home more than anywhere else, so the goal is to tune the home experience for maximum efficiency, then scale it down for traveling.

The big gotcha, though, is that laptops aren’t really designed to connect to multiple external monitors. “Hey,” the manufacturers say, “it’s got a built-in screen and an HDMI port. That’s plenty.”

Not in my universe.

My laptop doesn’t even have an HDMI port. What it does have is a USB-C port and there are zillions of USB-C docking stations. Many of them even have multiple video outputs.

And that’s where I got distracted.

The most common combinations of ports are two HDMI or two DisplayPort. Next most common are one of each. VGA? Not so common. DVI? Hen’s teeth.

You know what’s coming, right?

My monitors are so amazingly outdated that they don’t have either HDMI or DisplayPort inputs. VGA and DVI all the way.

Which has never been a problem before. Every desktop computer I’ve owned for the past decade or more has had DVI outputs. HDMI-to-VGA and HDMI-to-DVI adapters are cheap and effective.

Every single docking station I’ve looked at has had warnings against using adapters. “They may not work” is the usual phrasing. That’s tech-speak for “It probably won’t work, but we want you to buy the product, so we’ll cover our posteriors with a maybe.”

I found one line of docking stations that have one DP, one HDMI, and one VGA output. I figured I could go VGA-to-VGA on one monitor and take my chances with an adapter for the other.

Then I saw the small print: if you use the VGA output, the DP and HDMI are disabled. Seriously!

I refuse to buy new monitors for this project. The ones I’ve got work perfectly well.

So, if you don’t hear from me or that kid you loaned me for a while, assume that we’re buried beneath an enormous pile of docking stations and video adapters, fruits of the search for the one magic combination does something mindbogglingly easy.