Saturday, 30 August 2008

CoolStand Laptop Stand Review - using laptop as a desktop

Here on the left is a freshly-unpacked CoolStand (just Google for nearest dealer - I got mine via a third party listed on Amazon.co.uk).

Below is a Dell Latitude X1 slotted in at the 'fully open' position (i.e. laptop fully open, CoolStand set with the 'scissors' position almost entirely closed.

This gives me maximal screen height - I plug in an external keyboard and mouse (OK, so there's a bit of 'desktop wiring clutter'... who cares?), and I get the best computer desktop posture for the money, as long as I sit upright. This is all part of my campaign for better laptop posture to alleviate the curse of persistent back pain, as blogged previously.

Personally, I would rate this CoolStand as "10/10": perfect. Cheap, effective, no fuss, trivial to set up, keeps the laptop cool, exactly what I expected it be, no surprises, and the only one I found that is infinitely variable in terms of the laptop sitting angle. I don't know how it copes with super-heavy laptops (though reviews elsewhere suggest it is fine with this). Also please note that MacBooks may be unsuitable for the CoolStand because you can't open the display fully flat the way you can with many PC laptops like the Dell in the photo.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Review of Logitech Ultra-flat Keyboard

I'm busily re-arranging my work environment so that my posture-killing and back-pain-inducing laptop sits on a stand and I can use an external keyboard and mouse. I picked up this keyboard via Amazon.co.uk - one-day delivery, pretty good! Normally, it's completely idiotic to buy a keyboard by mail-order... you REALLY need to test-drive these things... but if you're desperate, you're desperate, so what the heck...

UK keyboards are inherently brain-damaged in the first place, due to the fact that ENTER/RETURN key is one extra place further to the right of your little finger (in comparison with US keyboards). Generally, I've learned to live with that, though in the past I've gone to the trouble of insisting on US keyboard instead or even buying replacements. You then suffer with crazy '\', '~', and '£' layouts instead, but for day-to-day typing it's worth it. More on that another time... what is this Logitech Ultra-flat keyboard like?

Although TestFreaks.co.uk gave this keyboard 7.3 out of 10 (average of 34 reviews) and Amazon.co.uk reviewers gave it 4* out of 5* (average of 14 reviews), I guess I'm a little fussier.

Yes, it is cheap, stylish, and 'does what it says on the box' (what keyboard doesn't?), but I'm missing the combination of featherlight touch and tactile positive feedback that a great keyboard gives. So, if you're trying to blast along at very high speed, you can feel a little bit like you're stuck in molasses. Not good... it means that with this layout I've swapped back troubles for wrist/forearm troubles. Nevertheless, it is 'good enough' for the short term use I've intended. Maybe that's what 7.3/10 or 4*/5* actually means... fair enough! It means that I'll use it, won't send it back, am happy with 'value for money' (hey, it's cheap), but wouldn't recommend it to my best friends.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Laptops Considered Harmful

After (a) witnessing a colleague stricken down with a neck vertebra injury; (b) falling victim myself to a herniated disc (lower back); (c) informal observation; (d) judicious web searching; and (e) putting 2 and 2 together, it is now blindingly obvious to me (and many others) that long-term laptop usage is seriously bad for your posture, and hence your back, your neck, and your long-term health. But it's worse than you think, precisely because of the deadly combination of
  • the seeming innocence of it all
  • the ease with which that "5-minute email check" turns into 2 hours, unnoticed
  • the cumulative nature of persistent bad posture
  • how debilitating it can be when your spine is really affected
If you think of laptop usage as "just one more cigarette" instead of "just one more email" you'll get a glimpse of the magnitude of the impact. Why isn't this more widely reported? Actually, it is! We just don't notice it, because we love our laptops. For example, check out this report from the UK's Daily Telegraph:
Laptops are crippling millions with back problems

Booming sales of laptops have led to a surge in the number of computer users with back and muscle problems, experts have warned. Girls as young as 12 are being diagnosed with nerve damage caused by slouching over screen...

(Read the full story)

And the 2006 story, "Ergonomic Nightmare of the Week: Laptop Computers" in which the image at the top of this posting appears (thanks!):

Ergonomic Nightmare of the Week: Laptop Computers

Regular use of laptop computers in fact violates the Center for Disease Control’s ergonomics guidelines.

There are three main reasons why laptops fail miserably in ergonomic performance:

  1. The monitor and keyboard are attached. This means you are forced to crane your neck down to see the monitor rather than keep a neutral position
  2. The keyboard is too small, causing the elbows and forearms to pronate inward at an unnatural angle
  3. ...

(Read the full story)

Scare-mongering? Like I've said in my previous posting: Do the maths. DUH!

There are easy solutions (including laptop stands, that I'll be reviewing later).

Monday, 25 August 2008

Three golden rules

1. Learn to touch type: beg, steal, borrow a teach-yourself program. Do the maths: think how many hours you are going to spend in front of a keyboard for the rest of your life, and the productivity gain from typing 2, 5, or 10 times faster than you do now. DUH! I'll try to add some touch typing tutor reviews eventually, but for my money, KAZ overwhelmingly takes the prize for doing what it says on the tin ("Learn in 90 Minutes") with no-nonsense. (Disclosure: I know the guy who wrote it; BUT I only know him because I wrote an unsolicited rave review to the company after trying about 20 rival products, and we met afterwards!)

2. Sort out your desk: chair, keyboard, screen, the works. Do the maths: compare the cost of a decent back-friendly chair with the cost of repeated visits to the back-injury clinic, MD, physio, or chiropractor. DUH!

3. Forget about "just checking my email for 5 minutes": it's the well-known "gambler's fallacy" ("just one more bet and my luck is bound to improve"). Do the maths: what's the true average length of your so-called "5-minute" sessions? Time it! And set a quitting or a pause/break time... DUH!

Confessions of a keyboard junkie, and my credentials

 OK... I'll admit it, I've owned every gadget on the planet: Macs, PCs, PDAs, smartphones, webtablets, you name it. The good news is that I consider myself genuinely neutral about "which operating system", because I use them all, and simply don't care. Instead, I want to provide some long-term user reviews of various keyboards and related software from the standpoint of 'good practice' and productivity, and removing the dangers of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and a number of back pain and neck pain injuries that I see creeping up upon us all, especially caused by poor posture during laptop usage.
I'm motivated by the observation that a manufacturer trying to save a few dollars by using a cheaper keyboard is like Mercedes-Benz opting to install hard-to-reach gas pedals in all of its cars: how annoying would that be?
I'll cite my three strongest credentials (my conventional CV, much as I'm proud of it, is irrelevant to this activity, IMHO, so here's what really counts:
1. I've been a speedy touch-typist (80-100WPM) for over 40 years.
2. I'm a long-term users of the nerdiest keyboard on the planet: Das Keyboard (shown in the picture above... no labels!)
3. I have no allegiances: no employer allegiance (I'm retired, as you may have deduced from my 40+ years of typing experience), no operating system allegiance (I use them all as mentioned above), no form-factor allegiance (I use laptops, desktops, PDAs, phones, tablets, etc in different combinations), no brand allegiance (I use everything from low-spec clones to high-sped Big Brands).
4. OK, OK, so here's a fourth: yes, I've (very selectively) "read the literature".
Right... that's it for my first posting... I hope you find some value in what I've got to say!
Happy keyboarding!
-KM