Laptop Ergonomics for Mobile Professionals

The New Year is a great time to get yourself organized and make virtuous resolutions. It's also as good as any to face an unpleasant fact: Your notebook is not your friend. Yes, it helps you be productive. But here's what happens when you're using a laptop on the road: You tilt your neck down to look at the screen. Meanwhile, you bend your wrists in order to type on the keyboard. And you do this for hours--in hotel rooms, airplanes, conference rooms, and other places not exactly known for proper ergonomic set-ups.

"Laptops are inherently unergonomic--unless you're 2 feet tall," is how physician Norman J. Marcus put it recently in The Wall Street Journal.

What can you do about it? Read on.

At the Office

When you're working at home or at the office, you've got a lot more control over your ergonomics. Some essential tips:

Attach an ergonomic keyboard. In the mid 90s, I was diagnosed with tendonitis caused by poor ergonomics and too much typing. An ergonomics expert recommended I switch to the M15 split keyboard, which was branded by IBM and Lexmark, an IBM spin-off. The idea is that a split keyboard minimizes strain on your hands and wrists, because you don't have to keep stretching to reach the keys in the middle of the keyboard. Trust me: This isn't marketing hooey. I faithfully used the long-discontinued keyboard with good results for years.

I recently switched to the Kinesis Freestyle Solo ($99), which is available for PCs and Macs. The Solo's keys are quiet (unlike the clackety-clack of the Lexmark keyboard) and comfortable to press. I've tried other ergonomic keyboards, such as the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 ($25 and up), but the Freestyle Solo is the only one I recommend. Yes, a split keyboard takes some getting used to--but it's well worth it.

Get a trackball. While you're upgrading your ergonomics, stop fooling around with a mouse. The ergonomics expert I consulted steered me toward trackballs. They're easier on your hands because you don't have to grip them, as you do a mouse. You just move the ball gently with one or more fingers and click a button. I recommend the Kensington Expert Mouse ($85 and up), which despite its name isn't a mouse but a trackball.

Add an external monitor. Unless your laptop has a 17-inch screen, I'd recommend attaching an external monitor of at least that size. Be sure to position it properly; check this diagram to see what I mean. Dual monitors give you productivity benefits, too. You could have your e-mail open on one screen and your Web browser on another, saving you from having to jump between them. For tips and suggestions on setting this up, read Steve Bass's "Dual Monitors, the Only Way to Go."

Dell makes good-quality, reasonably priced displays, such as the UltraSharp 2208WFP, a 22-inch widescreen model. Recently, you could buy a refurbished LCD for $209, compared to $289 for a new Ultrasharp. Dell periodically offers discounts on new displays, however.

On the Go

Admittedly, your ergonomic choices narrow when you hit the road. But you do have options.

Call your hotel. Ask your hotel's concierge for specifics about in-room ergonomic desk and chairs. Some hotels that cater to business travelers are paying more attention to ergonomics. The Wyndham and Hilton Garden Inn chains, among others, offer ergonomic Herman Miller office chairs and desks in guest rooms.

Pack an external keyboard. If you'll be doing a lot of typing in your hotel room, consider bringing your keyboard (and trackball, if you've got room). Some external models, such as the Atek OnBoard keyboard, are specifically designed for travel.

Elevate your screen. If you use an external keyboard, elevate your computer's screen so you don't have to bend your neck to view it. You could prop your laptop up on your suitcase if necessary.

Keep on Clicking

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Apple Netbook Coming Soon? Rumors abound: Apple is planning to unveil one or more netbooks soon. It's predicted such a device would cost over $500 and would tap into the iTunes App store for most of its software.

Palm Opens Apps Store: Palm just opened an online store where you can buy and download software directly to your smart phone. The store has over 5,000 applications and games. Palm operates one store for its Windows Mobile devices and another for the Palm OS.

Refurbished iPhone 3G Units: AT&T is now selling refurbished iPhone 3G units. The black 8GB model is $150; the black and white 16GB units are $250, a savings of $50 in either case. You'll have to sign up for a two-year contract to get those prices, however.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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