Laptop ergonomics

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For years, using a laptop meant putting up with an undersized screen, a puny hard drive, and an anemic processor. Not anymore. Today’s PowerBooks and iBooks are powerful enough to be used as everyday computers. But they lag far behind desktop computers when it comes to ergonomics.

For example, you can’t position a laptop’s display and keyboard separately to reduce your risk of neck or wrist injury. Trackpads and other integrated pointing devices compound the problem by requiring that designers position the keyboard away from the laptop’s edge, making the keys hard to reach without using the laptop’s built-in wrist rest. And if you’re not careful, the sharp edge on the front of newer PowerBooks can put even more pressure on the nerves, blood vessels, and tendons in your wrists.

Beyond these fundamental design flaws, the simple fact that laptops are portable can exacerbate their ergonomic hazards. Thanks to improved batteries and ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity, road warriors often end up working in places that make the average cubicle seem like ergonomic heaven.

Here’s some advice for minimizing all these dangers in the places most of us use our laptops: on desks, as desktop replacements; in the cramped confines of an airplane seat; and pretty much anywhere else, from a hotel bed to your neighborhood coffeehouse.

On a Desk If you’re using a laptop on your desk, elevate it so the screen is at eye level ( A ). Then plug in an external keyboard and pointing device ( B ) so you can type without strain.

Desktop replacement

Even if you use your iBook or PowerBook only at a desk, a laptop’s clamshell design is an ergonomic compromise. Place the computer on a stand to lift the monitor to the recommended height, and the keyboard will be way too high. Put the keyboard on your desktop where it belongs, and you’ll have to flex your neck to see the screen. So if your laptop doubles as your desktop Mac, consider getting a separate monitor or an add-on pointing device and keyboard.

Because monitors are much more expensive than keyboards or mice, you’ll save money by using the laptop’s LCD. To put it in the correct position relative to your head, elevate the computer so the top of the screen is at eye level, using a laptop stand such as Griffin Technology’s iCurve ($40). ( Click here for more on laptop stands. If your laptop’s screen is smaller than 15 inches, however, a 17-inch or larger desktop LCD or CRT may be worth the investment, especially if your vision is less than perfect.)

Whether or not you use a stand, you can overcome the limitations of the computer’s built-in keyboard and trackpad by buying plug-in replacements. USB-equipped PowerBooks and iBooks support a wide selection of mice, trackballs, and keyboards that run the gamut from conventional to exotic; choosing one is largely a matter of personal preference.

While you’re shopping, be wary of claims of ergonomic superiority. The only way to tell whether you’ll like a particular input device is by using it for a while, so shop at a store or an online vendor that has a return policy. If you routinely use a desktop Mac at another location, consider getting the same kind of keyboard and mouse for both so it’ll be easier to switch back and forth.

No matter what kind of keyboard and pointing device you use, make sure they’re positioned so that you can keep your back upright and your forearms and wrists straight when you’re typing and mousing, and that you don’t have to reach too far to use the pointing device.

In the Air When you’re flying, decide which you’ll be doing more: typing or reading. If you’re mostly typing, position the keyboard so you can keep your wrists straight ( A ). If you’re doing more reading, pile some magazines on your tray ( B ) to raise the screen to eye level.

Up in the air

PowerBooks and iBooks let you turn wasted hours into productive work when you’re flying. But unless you’re fortunate enough to own a private jet or can afford to always fly in first or business class, working on a PowerBook or an iBook at 36,000 feet can be challenging.

For starters, you’ll probably have to make do with the laptop’s built-in keyboard and display. That means you need to decide whether to optimize your laptop’s position for typing or for reading.

If your in-flight work includes heavy-duty typing, try to situate the laptop so you can keep your wrists straight and your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Depending on your height, that may mean putting your computer in your lap. If you primarily need to look at the screen, elevate the laptop by putting it on a stack of magazines on the tray table. Alas, neither position offers much room for a separate pointing device, although you may be able to perch a trackball on a wide armrest.

A window seat has many advantages when you’re flying with a laptop during the day. If you’re in control of the window shade, you can close it to reduce direct sunlight and reflections on your screen. And the darker your surroundings are, the more you can dim the computer’s backlight, saving precious battery life. (You also won’t have to worry about spilling soda on the keyboard when you’re passing a drink to your neighbor while bouncing around in turbulence.) But don’t turn the brightness down so low that you can’t read the screen comfortably, and do make sure to bring along a spare, fully charged battery in case the first runs out.

Whenever you’re using a laptop on a plane, don’t forget to take frequent breaks. Get up and walk around if you can; if you’re stuck in your seat, at least move your feet up and down to get the blood in your legs flowing. To avoid eyestrain, look away from the display or close your eyes periodically.

Casual use

Whether you’re doing late-night Web surfing in your hotel room or checking your e-mail at a café, laptops encourage bad ergonomic habits. Even the book in iBook and PowerBook suggests that it’s OK to curl up with a laptop the way you can with a paperback or a magazine.

All the ergonomic guidelines that apply to desktop computers—keeping your back, forearms, and wrists straight and putting the top of the monitor at eye level, for example—also apply to portables, but they’re harder to follow.

If you’re planning to use your computer for more than a few minutes, resist the temptation to work without back support. No matter where you are, you can usually find a straight-backed chair or other seat. Most hotels that cater to business travelers provide desks with power outlets and broadband Internet access.

If you must work in bed, sit with your back against the headboard or wall, and place a pillow under your knees. Above all, avoid placing the laptop in a position that forces you to swivel or bend your neck to the side to see the screen. Stands like Rain Design’s iLap ($50 to $70, depending on size) or the new edgeBlur surface ($144 to $149) can help by supporting the computer and insulating it to keep you cool.

Pay attention to ambient lighting when you’re deciding where to work. If you have a choice, pick a spot in which neither you nor the computer screen is directly facing a bright window, and turn off lights that could reflect on the screen. You also may reduce your risk of injury by adjusting the room temperature to your comfort zone and not sitting in a direct draft.

Future laptops

If trends in the rest of the industry are any indication, laptops will account for an ever increasing share of Apple’s overall computer sales, especially after Intel-based Mac laptops debut. Eventually, Apple may respond to ergonomic deficiencies in current laptops by designing modular computers with detachable screens, keyboards, and pointing devices, all connected wirelessly. Until then, following these tips will help you stay safe when you’re using your iBook or PowerBook.

Carrying in comfort

Don’t neglect ergonomics when you’re toting your computer around. Even the smallest Apple laptops weigh almost five pounds; throw an extra battery, a power adapter, a cell phone, and other digital gear into your bag, and you could be lugging close to ten pounds on your shoulder. Choose a bag with a wide, padded strap to distribute the weight, and switch sides often. If you do a lot of traveling with your laptop, consider a rolling case, but make sure that the pop-up handle is long enough that you don’t have to crouch to reach it. Backpacks are a good choice if you don’t need to reach inside too often.

[ Franklin N. Tessler is a radiologist and longtime Macworld contributor. He has been writing about computer ergonomics since 1994. ]

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