How to Turn Single PC into Multiple one.Transforming Home PC into Universal Center of Work and Entertainment

You'll admit, that every family ever happened an issue when one family member needs to use a PC for work, but other members want to play games, watch TV or videos, using preferably device with a big screen and loud sound, not satisfying small tablet or smartphone. Well, it's not a problem if the family has multiple PCs, set-top boxes, or other gadgets, but it's an economically and “ecologically” preferable solution when all required tasks will be done by an already existing PC. The solution above also has other benefits, which we will describe below. Every middle-level PC has much more capabilities than high-level set-top boxes or media players or so-called smart TVs. Meanwhile, PCs has the ability to add new features during their lifetime by often not expensive hardware upgrade or by installing any required software.

So, how to implement this solution? I'll show this by example, which you may customize to satisfy your needs.

Our single “Central PC” system unit contains Home Theater PC (HTPC) case and is located on a shelf under the TV. It has middle-level hardware configuration (core i7/16Gb/ssd+hdd-4Tb/Gigabit Ethernet), and you may be assured that everything will work fine on a much slower PC unless you'll want to play hardware-intensive games. Next, we use special “magic” software, which we will describe later. With the help of this software, our PC is divided into two fully functional independent workplaces with different user accounts and separate peripheral devices. The first user account and corresponding workplace are configured as “desktop PC” for work and study. It uses its own display, mouse, keyboard, headphones, webcam with microphone, and printer. The second workplace is configured as a universal and powerful media center and home cinema, which supports all existing audio and video formats and works with a number of connected devices, such as big TV, 5.1 audio system, game joysticks, remote control, and even smartphone with the tablet.

Well, modern GPUs have at least two outputs: DVI and HDMI. We use DVI to connect a display, and HDMI to connect a TV. Our display is pulled on the desk, which is located in the same room as HTPC. The display is connected to GPU output with 5 meters DVI/HDMI cable, which is wired under baseboard together with powered USB cable. USB cable is connected to a 7-ports USB hub, located on the desk together with the display. USB hub holds all other USB devices: keyboard, mouse, headphones, printer, etc. Due to the “distant” relative location of system units and workplaces, we obtain additional benefits:

1) the desk got more free space, which was earlier occupied by a system unit;

2) complete silence, because of the absence of coolers' noise neither at the desk nor at the sofa.

USB-repeaterUSB-HUB DVI cable

So, our “desktop PC” workplace has its own keyboard and mouse, but how to control a media center workplace? It turns out that media center could be controlled with comfort multiple ways by:

а) infrared (IR) remote control;

b) smartphone/tablet;

c) keyboard and mouse of “desktop PC” workplace;

d) any other manipulator (keyboard, joystick, etc.).

I mainly use IR remote, smartphone, and wireless joysticks for games.

In order to control with IR remote, we should have two of them. First is the ordinary PC remote control with an IR receiver. The simpler is better, ex.: this – advanced models could have a drivers' compatibility problem with the software, described later (ASTER). The second remote is universal learning remote control. I chose “chunghop rm-991” which could be trained to support up to 6 devices. In our house, it is used to control almost every device: TV, audio system, air conditioner, ventilator, our media center workplace, and even electrical sockets. Furthermore, it is really strong, it survives after almost a hundred falls.

 PC remote controllerUniversal remote
Ordinary PC remote control Universal learning remote control

Well, our first IR remote, despite the IR receiver, is used only for the training of our second universal remote. To do this, we should select first “device” (button), which we will use to control our media center workplace, and then use the selected profile to train general buttons (ok, exit, off, arrow keys, etc.). See the user guide of the remote for details. Next, we could put aside our IR remote, but embed their IR receiver into the system unit by connecting it to the internal USB port of the motherboard and put out IR “eye” outside of the system unit. Also, we should train some buttons of the selected profile of our universal remote to control TV, audio system, or receiver, in order to set volume up or down or to change inputs. This also could be done by training our universal remote to learn “native” remotes of devices we want to control. If there are buttons unused by a controlled device left, then they could be trained to control other IR-controllable devices. As a result, we obtain a central remote to control all the houses.

The next most important is somehow make it possible for our single system unit to work as two independent PCs (desktop PC and media center) in such a way that while one user work on the desktop workplace, for example using Photoshop, another user should be able at the same time to play a video game or to watch movies at the big screen on media center workplace, throwing himself into a sofa. It's time when an interesting software, mentioned before, will help us. This software is ASTER by IBIK.

 ASTER websiteHere is a short description from the official website: “ASTER is a program (and only a program!) which allows creating a few workplaces on the base of a single PC. ASTER is a multiseat software for Windows XP/7/8/10. ASTER does not use any thin clients and terminal stations, i.e. ASTER is analog of such multiseat programs, as MS MultiPoint, SoftXpand, Betwin, Userful, etc.”

I’ve tried other pure-software solutions, but I’ve chosen ASTER, which appeared to be an optimal combination of the setup simplicity, functionality, and cost. And what’s more, it shows itself very stable during the long period without any “crash” or “freeze” for 6 years! The recent version of ASTER supports Windows 10 and has a more user-friendly interface than the previous version, which supports Windows 7. By the way, it could provide up to 12 workplaces. It’s good to reserve for future use. Over time, I plan to create an additional “side” of my central PC – a smart home controller. But it’s subject for the other article. Note, that ASTER is an advanced multi-user system, that’s why it’s not freeware. But it costs not so much with a respect to containing features. Also, it’s offered a fully functional 30 day trial period, during which you could evaluate all advantages of the ASTER.

Let me in two words describe the essence of the ASTER setup. See the user guide for detailed instructions with step-by-step guides and screenshots.

So, there are main steps to be done:

  1. Create two user accounts of the Windows operating system, for example, “Comp” (for desktop PC workplace) and “TV” (for media center workplace), both with administer permissions. The TV user account should be set to log in without a password.
  2. Choose “Extend these displays” in the “Multiple displays” section of the display settings.
  3. Install, and set up ASTER to create workplaces according to the user manual:

Assign everything we need to our “desktop PC” workplace (“Comp”), for example, first display 1.1, keyboard, USB headphones, mouse, etc.

In the same way, assign other devices to our media center workplace (“TV”). In our case, there would be a second display 1.2 (TV), external or internal sound card, IR remote. The latter could be displayed as another keyboard, and in order to detect whether the keyboard is real or it’s an IR remote, just press any key on it, and the image of the corresponding device will be surrounded by a blue frame in the ASTER window. Detailed instructions are available at the “Indicating Devices” sub-section of the “Setting up ASTER” section of the ASTER User Manual. )

Device assigning itself could be made by simply Drag & Drop images of corresponding devices to desired workplaces.

 Device assignment

The purpose of this article is not a detailed description of the software, so we assume that the reader could figure out with software setup using a number of manuals available on the developer’s website and videos from YouTube. For example, this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7EEFaRgzqk and this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7azYHID1Psw or more detailed (in Russian) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yomf3cqzHoY

We will move forward. When ASTER setting up is done, we need to enable ASTER auto-start and then reboot our PC. After reboot, we will have two separate and fully functional workplaces, which work independently from each other.

Now beginning our media center workplace configuration. We could transfer our primary mouse and keyboard between workplaces by pressing Ctrl+F12. This way we could work with convenience at the second workplace “TV” during install of all additional software and configure everything required to transform our “second” PC into a fully functional media center, HTPC.

In order to make it work, we should install a few additional software and place their shortcuts to auto-start directory of our “TV” user account, which is: C:\Users\TV\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup)

It is important to install applications using a “TV” user account

First additional software: KODI – is a free and open-source cross-platform media player software, which we use to implement HTPC functionality. Kodi's graphical user interface allows users to manage and play videos and music from PC local storage, optical disks, internet, or local network. Official website ishttps://kodi.tv/

KODI SoftwareKODI (XBMC) provides a convenient user interface to work with audio, video, and photo content, supporting almost every file format and codecs. It’s really convenient to control it from an IR remote. I set up an auto-start of this software for a TV user account. And after PC boots up and I do switch TV input to PC HDMI, I see a full-screen media-player interface and, with the help of IR remote, I can choose what music, movies, photos, etc. to play. The same way as it does with smart TV, but with a huge difference: Kodi support much more features, a computer speed is enough to play videos up to 100Gb and even in 4K video format if GPU and TV support it. Also, Kodi made it possible to play files in almost every format and codecs. Moreover, it’s always possible to add more supported formats by install recent codec packs and adding any additional features with “Add-ons”(https://kodi.tv/addons). Consider browsing this source of boundless creativity.

Second additional software: Ultimate Mouse Lite –to be able to control “second PC” from Android smartphone or tablet.

Steps to make it work: а) Install the application to smartphone:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.negusoft.ucontrol
b) Install desktop agent software to PC (TV workplace): http://www.negusoft.com/index.php/ultimate-control

Ultimate Mouse Lite App

This software also should be set up to auto-start at the “TV” workplace. It adds the possibility to transform smartphone or tablet into fully functional touch-pad and keyboard with Cyrillic in order to control our PC number 2

With the help of this software, I could easily launch a web browser with any website, watch any film, movie, or online video, lying on the sofa at the same time.
Exclusively for YouTube, I use a better approach: set up Chrome web-browser to start at full-screen with the opened page https://www.youtube.com/tv#/surface?c=FEtopics&resumeThis page has “Link TV&Phone” settings. The connection is easy and guarded by entering code numbers. This approach makes it possible to start playing movies directly from the smartphone’s Youtube application, as convenient as from the smart TV.

Let’s summarize. “TV” workplace auto-start contains the following basic applications: 1) Kodi 2) Chrome 3) Ultimate Mouse

Optionally It’s possible to install additional software. For example, AutoHideMouseCursor is a small utility that hides the mouse cursor after several seconds of inactivity and brings it back when the cursor starts to move. This is very useful when watching videos in third-party browsers because It’s not needed to move the mouse cursor to the screen borders.

Above we listed the very basic applications and settings required to implement two-in-one work of PC as desktop and media center. Of course, we have many more additional components and automation helpers, which are constantly improved. After all, PC doesn’t require a complete change to improve it infinitely to whatever you wish or require.

Finally, I personally use the suggested configuration for many years and everything works accurately and without any issues. I didn’t find any noticeable disadvantages during these years. Maybe except that, It’s non-portable and old school. Also, It’s required to use long cables. Those, who need more compact and mobile variants, may build more elegant solutions with control via network and any kind of core element, for example, laptop or smartphone with Chrome cast or Apple TV or Smart TV with NAS storage.

But I prefer power and flexibility. Ability to increase capabilities at any time. And to solve any task, even very specific. After all, a PC can do almost everything. I like that I can choose 30Gb film on the torrent tracker, sitting in the car on my way home. I could start downloading it to my home “supercomputer” with a single click from my smartphone. And then upon arrival, I could watch this film with maximum quality and high-end audio. The use of other tools to obtain the same results is more complex and expensive.

Oleg Manko