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Using your laptop to create a home office

Written by  Mar 09, 2018

I’ve set up home offices in three different houses now, so I’m familiar with the problems. However, I’ve not used any of the desks that are currently available, so my advice will have to be somewhat general.

Either way, I know that you should start with a retractable, lockable tape measure, or similar device. Examples include the Stanley STA030696 and the Rolson 50565. Pretty much everything depends on measurements, and guesswork usually comes out wrong.

It’s certainly possible to work with a laptop on a kitchen table or an old-fashioned writing desk and pretend you have a “home office”. This is the sort of nonsense that you usually see in lifestyle magazines and on websites like Pinterest. The problem is that it’s hazardous to your health. Bad workstation ergonomics put you at long term risk of physical strains and injuries that, in my experience, need expensive physiotherapy to alleviate.


Kensington Modular Keyboard Platform with SmartFit (K60718US)

It’s far better to set up a home office that will both make you more productive and help you to stay healthy.

Of course, there are areas where not everyone agrees on the best approach. Still, try to get as close to the ideal posture as possible, while being prepared to vary things later as necessary.

Keyboard trays

To get the right posture, your feet should be flat on the floor, with your thighs and arms parallel to the floor, at something close to a 90-degree angle. (Some people prefer a very slight downward angle.) The tops of the keys should be at elbow height. Measurements will tell you how far above the floor your keyboard and the seat of your chair need to be.

You may well find that the top of your keyboard needs to be 60cm or 65cm high, while a typical desk height might be 75cm. For decades, the industry answer to this problem has been the keyboard tray.

Keyboard trays are usually retractable and slide in and out from under the surface of the desk. You can buy mounts to fit trays to most ordinary desks and tables.

The best keyboard trays may allow for variable height and positioning, and sometimes a backward keyboard tilt. Examples include the Kensington Modular Keyboard Platform with SmartFit (K60718US) and the KT1 and KT2 Ergonomic trays. Some DIY skills required.

If the keyboard is too high, you will have to raise the chair seat – an essential feature even in cheap office chairs – and add a foot rest to raise your feet.

Watch out for narrow keyboard trays as you will need enough space to move a mouse around. I haven’t found this a problem with compact keyboards, but a full keyboard with a numeric keypad could cramp your mouse space. If you move the keyboard to the left to compensate, you must also move your chair and your screen to the left as well.

Screen choice

Avoid hunched over laptop syndrome (Hols)
Avoid hunched over laptop syndrome (Hols) by making sure your screen is the right height.

The other key measurement is the height of your eyes when you are sitting in an upright, typing position. This fixes the height of the screen.

The top of the LCD screen (not the bezel) should be roughly level with your eyebrows. This may feel slightly uncomfortable at first, but it will discourage the slumping that leads to hunched over laptop syndrome (Hols).

This shouldn’t be a problem if the screen height is adjustable. If not, the traditional solution is to stick a couple of books under the stand.

When it comes to picking a monitor, you face a difficult choice of screen resolution. The industry has moved to 16:9 panels, so the standard for high-resolution screens is 2560 x 1440 pixels. If your MacBook Pro’s resolution is 2560 x 1600 (16:10) then you would have to pay silly money to match it. I’d go for a 24in Dell S2417DG or 27in Dell S2718D – both Quad HD or maybe say, a 30in Dell U3014.

But shop around. Asus, Samsung and AOC are among the companies that provide good monitors at reasonable prices, and the 24in Asus VS248HR is well worth a look at £119.97.


Microsoft Natural 4000

Keyboard types

Laptop keyboards are not ergonomic because you have to twist your wrists to align your fingers to the keys. Using a separate keyboard allows you to choose an ergonomic version: either a one-piece “comfort” model or a properly split keyboard. Using a Mac restricts your choice of ergonomic keyboards, and even when they work, they may have limited functionality.

However, the Microsoft Natural 4000 is a cheap, conservative option that is easy to adopt. The Sculpt is a better keyboard, slightly more of a challenge though.

Your options for split keyboards include the Black Goldtouch V2 and Matias’s USA Ergo Pro Low Force Mac.

You can start with the two keyboard halves as close together as you like, and increase the separation gradually as your typing adapts.

Keyboard tray desks

There is a vast selection of desks and keyboard tray desks on Amazon and at suppliers such as Wayfair.co.uk, which is an American company I’d never heard of. (They turned up in my searches.

Most people can probably manage with a simple trolley. These take up little space, and castors make them easy to move (handy if you need to fiddle with wires round the back).

However, you need space for two screens – assuming you use the MacBook Pro as a second screen – and a printer. If you have the space, an L-shaped corner desk might suit you best. The Songmics looks like a good choice, though HLC offers a cheaper option.

Of course, if you fancy a sitting/standing riser like the Songmics or 1home models, a simple (but not a high) table will do. These devices sit on top of a desk or table, so the keyboard may be too high for use when sitting down. If so, you will need to raise your chair, again, and perhaps add a foot rest.

Clearly, Amazon has a plethora of choice. Happily, you can filter your search results by material, so you may want to choose wood, metal, glass or whatever, to suit the rest of your furniture. You can also filter by supplier, in which case Songmics, Piranha Trading and SixBros have plenty of options.


Thunderbolt docking station

Quick exits

Your home office setup will involve plugging various things into your MacBook Pro, and unplugging them when you want to take it somewhere. The obvious solution is to buy a Thunderbolt docking station. Plug everything into the dock and you will only have to remove one Thunderbolt cable when you need to make a quick exit.

Docking stations provide a mixture of DisplayPort, HDMI, Ethernet and headphone connections. Most also have several USB ports that you can use for external hard drives as well as for mice, keyboards and printers. It’s an extra cost, but you will appreciate the convenience.

Also see: Dell XPS 13 (2018) UK Review: The best new portable laptop

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