Laptop ergonomics are killing us. Here is what we can do.

What is wrong with laptops? Why do they need to be fixed?

Having recently purchased a laptop, I had not considered just how terrible laptop ergonomics are. Laptops were originally meant to be portable temporary devices, and the form factor of course limits the opportunity for ergonomics. Over time of course, they have gotten cheaper and ubiquitous. For many, a laptop is their main computer. The majority of people I have encountered and asked have never considered ergonomics. Relatively few people and workplaces consider ergonomics until they personally are in pain.

As I have almost exclusively used desktops for both work and at home, I have just realized how fortunate I am to have mainly used desktops these past couple of years.

laptop-positions

All 3 of these positions, needless to say, are less than ideal:

  1. The first position the laptop is raised on a table. That leads to the user’s arms being raised and outstretched. This leads to discomfort in the forearms, shoulders, and hands. It can also increase pressure on the neck and the back.
  2. One drawback of laptops is that they encourage use in places that are less than ideal. A laptop’s advantage over the desktop of course, is the mobility. In position B, the laptop is on the lap. It forces the user to look downwards, which can increase tension in the neck, shoulders, spine, and chest. This also can be bad because it can cause the laptop to blow hot air onto the person’s laptop and make the laptop run at a hotter temperature.
  3. Laptop is in the “most common” orientation that you find in offices. This surface, like in B is still too low for comfortable viewing. Hence, the person has to lower their head, which like in B can cause strain to the neck and back. The wrists are higher than the elbows, which means that they are resting on the edge of the workspace, which is far from ideal because it can increase the risk of injury to the elbows and wrists.

Over time, any of these positions can lead to chronic pain, such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Desktops of course are not perfect, but the potential for improvement is definitely better.

That is something that we need to all consider, especially because laptops are so common in our society today.

What other challenges are there? What is the solution?

If you go around the typical office, you will notice that it has not been optimized for laptop ergonomics. Neither has the typical home or for those who travel, hotels, despite how common laptops are. Let’s not even get started on aircraft seats in economy!

Chairs

Sitting itself is less than ideal. The problem is that the spinal cord’s optimal position is a slightly “S” shape, but when sitting, it is in a weakened “C” shape.

standing-vs-sitting

When standing, note the slight “S” shape of the lower spine. This position gives strength to the lower spine. It also ensures even pressure on each of the spinal disks.

When sitting, the spine has a distinct “C” shape which is not as strong. The shape of the lower spine when sitting, by contrast, has uneven pressure on the spinal disks and forces the muscles to adjust. The weight of your upper body is compressing on your lower back, forcing it to adjust. Over time, this can lead to health problems. This is known as kyphosis.

The first is to purchase an ergonomic chair. The problem is that most workplaces, offices, and places where people work with their laptops (ex: coffee shops, libraries, hotels), do not have ergonomic chairs.  Most chairs anywhere are not ergonomic. Neither is the famous Herman Miller Aeron chair. It is far too low. Don Chadwick, one of the Aeron’s designers acknowledges that it was a chair designed to a “next generation” chair. Some of the later Herman Miller products I believe are more ergonomic.

After doing some research, I personally recommend the Swopper Chair. The unique chair helps keep lower back strength with no back rest, promoting back strength. Other alternatives include the Bambach Saddle Seat, HAG Capisco, hybrid stools, perching, and some have recommended standing desks, although fatigue can build up with time.

Layout of the keyboard and touchpad

I have realized that most laptops are far from ideal for typing with. The small space that they have means that the laptops have to fit a keyboard within a small space. Plus, there is no standardization, unlike the 104-key desktop keyboards, which I very much prefer. Nothing in my opinion beats a good quality desktop mechanical keyboard. Topre is my personal favorite type of keyboard.

Needless to say, a keyboard is one of the most important things that you will interact with, as is the touchpad. I personally like to interact with a touchpad before buying to make sure that it is acceptably accurate. I pay very close attention to touchpad reviews when looking at laptop reviews.

Anyways, here is a good guide on how to choose the right keyboard for you. I also find this article about the best keyboard to be very interesting, although I strongly believe in having a 10-keypad because I work with numbers a lot. I also find that on my desktop and on my Precision laptop, I use the “calculator” button a lot. Perhaps that is because I am from an accounting background.

The Dell Precision M2800

The Dell Precision M2800 keyboard is very similar to the keyboard on my current laptop, the Dell M4600. The only major difference is that that the touchpad also has 3 rows on the bottom.

My current laptop, the Dell M4600 Precision, I feel that the keyboard is very good overall. There is always room for improvement though.

  1. I wish that the backlight was a lot brighter on the maximum setting. Dell’s Precision line should meet up with their Alienware line up to see what real LED backlighting on keyboards is like.
  2. The touchpad could be a bit larger. Luckily on the higher end Precision laptops, they are also very accurate.
  3. The touchpad coul be backlit.
  4. There is a bit of keyboard flex under heavy pressure

I think that a scissor layout and ideally with mechanical switches with a very bright backlight for the key caps would be the optimal layout. The keycaps individually would be double shot with a POM layer on the bottom and a PBT layer on top, ensuring that the keycaps never faded.

Buy a laptop stand and use a keyboard and mouse

I highly recommend buying a laptop stand for your laptop.

Not only will a good laptop stand help bring the laptop to eye level so that you do not have neck and upper spine strain to look down at your laptop, it will also improve the cooling ability of your laptop. Some models of laptops, especially business laptops have docking stations available, which offer extra ports and potentially extra battery life should you lose electricity.

Lenovo Laptop with Stand

Although I do put a very strong emphasis on having a good keyboard, I recommend that you also keep a full desktop keyboard and a mouse. It is far more productive to use a mouse than the laptop touchpad and a desktop keyboard will always be better.

Some thoughts

Buying an ergonomic chair may be expensive, but when you consider the costs in back pain later on life, I think that it can be a bargain by comparison! Likewise, when you consider choosing a laptop, choose one with a keyboard that you will want to type on and a touchpad with good accuracy. It will make your life so much easier.

To be honest, I think that this whole exercise shows that being skimpy on office furniture and on your choice of laptops could have consequences later in life, not to mention give you a laptop that you will hate using.

If you travel a lot with your laptop, I recommend that you carry with you a collapsible compact laptop stand with your laptop.

Other lessons that I have learned the hard way

After purchasing a laptop and using it for a while, a used Dell M4600 Precision which i found a deal on Ebay for, I have learned several key lessons outside of the normal advice that I would like to share. Not all of these are ergonomic related.

IPS and AMOLED displays are a must

The majority of laptops these days ship with an LCD technology called Twisted Nematic (TN). They have poor viewing angles and color reproduction. The only reason why they are used is because they are cheap. Their only real advantage is their fast refresh rates, and that is only useful in competitive FPS gaming and arguably, their battery life. The problem is that they suffer from very poor image viewing angle.

The whole point of a laptop stand is to keep the laptop display at eye level because otherwise, the laptop display at an off angle looks really washed out with a TN display. Actually, side by side, the IPS will have vastly better color reproduction and make the TN display look washed out anyways. That will be true even when you look at the display head on.

The problem is that with laptops, due to the lack of ergonomic furniture, you will often find yourself looking at the laptop to the side and at less than ideal angles. A TN display is terrible for that. Although I urge you to bring a mobile stand, I recognize that is not a practical solution for everyone.

Here is a fast overview of IPS vs TN:

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79r5rxS276Y[/embedyt]

Note the viewing angles on the IPS display and the superior color reproduction. Luckily, IPS displays are getting cheaper and more commonplace, but now there are good and bad IPS displays. You have to read reviews. A good IPS display will be a huge upgrade though!  This is another one of those cases where a good IPS display may be more expensive, but there are benefits elsewhere later in life in your health.

I should also mention at this point that AMOLED displays are coming to the market. They have outstanding contrast and viewing angles, but due to their costs, will be hard to get for now. I am also worried about the life of the blue subpixels.

I am currently looking into getting my laptop an IPS display, even though it has a pretty good TN display.

Get an SSD for your laptop

SSDs will make your applications load faster, your computer boot faster, and all around make your experience smoother. Nothing drives people insane more than waiting on a slow computer. An SSD is a huge advantage for day to day usability. They can also reduce the power consumption of a laptop somewhat.

You won’t need the fastest MLC SSD or a high end one. You just need a low end with with a good price per GB cost. I recommend a large SSD so that you can keep it at least 25% empty at all times.

Naturally, I recommend that you be careful with what you download, limit what programs start up, and only install the applications that you actually use. It is worth doing a clean install every now and then for your computer.

Encrypt your hard drive

I highly recommend that you encrypt your laptop.  They are designed to be portable, and thus easily stolen. A encrypted hard drive is your last line of defense against theft of your data.

For Windows, Microsoft has made it easy to set up Bitlocker Drive Encryption and when paired with an SSD, it doesn’t take that long to encrypt. I also recommend that you consider 256 Bit AES encryption. Linux has its own built in LUKS encryption system that you can set up.

Conclusions

More than ever before, I have become convinced that for those not moving, a desktop is by far the best option. Not only is it more ergonomic, but you are likely to get more powerful hardware at a lower price. Many of these suggestions can also be applied to desktops, such as the optimal chair.

I would like to emphasize again that a laptop is a compromise between performance and mobility. Performance and cooling capabilities are sacrificed for mobility. Naturally, for comparable capability on a desktop, expect to pay 2-3x as much on a laptop, sometimes more. The one thing that I had overlooked was that it was a compromise too in ergonomics. It is a limitation of the form factor and it would otherwise not be a machine that you could carry with you.

With these suggestions, I hope that fewer people in the future will have to experience chronic pain from less than optimal ergonomic situations. Remember, ergonomics is something that many people do not think about until they experience pain themselves. Prevention is the best treatment for ergonomic maladies. it is best to start now and mitigate the pain today!

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