Just Flip It

Want to share phone, modem, fax lines, printers, monitors, keyboards, USB devices and just about anything on cables in your office or home office without constantly unplugging them or setting up a network? If everything is in the same room, you can perform miracles in minutes with switch boxes, starting at about $10.

Manual switch boxes sit on the desktop with a dial on the front that you turn to A or B (there can be more letters). Depending on how you’ve plugged in your cables, you can dial to select: which user gets a resource, such as a printer, or which resource you want, such as the printer or the scanner.

There are switch boxes with all types of ports — often parallel (for printers, scanners, tape drives, etc.), serial (for modems, etc.), RJ-11 (phone), monitors, and now USB devices. In a small office, where there may only be two separate phone lines and no multiline phone, an RJ-11 switch box may be the most useful — not for incoming calls, but for instantly changing your normal one-line phone from using the voice line to what’s normally the modem line when a fax is tying up the voice line. At another switch box on another desk, you might switch the fax machine from the voice line to no line, when you don’t want the fax to answer and don’t want to crawl behind the desk to deal with plugs.

There are also automatic switches, especially for printers, where software comes into play. Tip: Whenever possible, get “reversible” switch boxes, so that you can use them for two devices now and two people later, or vice versa, because you will use these boxes for different purposes over the years. Unfortunately, in the automatic arena, reversibility means a lot more money. And read the fine print if you’re buying for a laser printer: Proper shielding and grounding for laser printers drive up the price but, unlike reversibility, they’re not optional.

Here’s how to start flipping around:
After you get the switch box with the right type of ports, decide what you want to happen when the dial goes from A to B to C, etc. Does control of one printer pass from person A to person B to C? Or does one user move from A (the printer) to B (the scanner) to C (the plotter)?

Label those letters in front and back of the switch box with the correct people or device names, then plug cables in back of the switch box, and hook them up to the things you just named.

In the Input/Output (I/O) port, you’ll hook up the thing that remains. If you hooked up devices, it’s time to hook up the one user. If you hooked up users, it’s time to hook up the one device.

That’s it. Remember to cut a few calories to make up for the lost exercise.