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My notebook is killing me

PC World

June 14, 2000
Web posted at: 11:08 a.m. EDT (1508 GMT)

(IDG) -- Do you sleep on a bed of nails? Walk on hot coals with bare feet? Splash on alcohol right after shaving?

Probably not. But if you use a notebook computer you've probably spent hours working in awkward, uncomfortable positions and thought little of it. But consider this: Typing on a kitchen table, conference room desk, or airline seat-back tray puts the wrong kind of stress on your hands, arms, shoulders, and neck. Keep typing like that, experts say, and you risk developing a repetitive stress injury.

Still, in today's work environment you need a notebook. Fortunately, computer makers are working on new ways to ease your pain. In the meantime, you need to be aware of potential hazards and how to avoid them.

Portables are popular


Portable PCs have come a long way. In the mid-1980s, for instance, Compaq Computer's early "luggables" looked and felt like a door-to-door salesman's suitcase. The current generation, however, ranges from slender subnotebooks weighing three or four pounds to powerful, hefty systems with large screens and almost full-size keyboards (some weighing up to ten pounds).

A notebook's portability makes it an attractive alternative to desktops: You can work where and when you need to. A variety of styles and choices, along with lower prices, have made notebooks more popular than ever. In 1997, 14.2 million portable PCs were shipped worldwide, according to International Data Corp. Nearly 20 million portables were shipped in 1999, a figure that's expected to jump to 35.3 million units in 2003.

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Meanwhile, computer-related injuries continue to be a pain. Each year, 1.8 million workers develop typing-related injuries, with more than 600,000 workers forced to take disability leave, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration surveys. Such injuries cost $15 billion to $20 billion a year for workers' compensation and $30 billion to $40 billion in other expenses, such as medical care, according to OSHA.

No major studies have focused on notebook computers and the potential for injuries, says Dr. Marvin J. Dainoff, director of the Center for Ergonomic Research at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But that doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist. "Portable computers were designed for short-term use, yet they've turned into continuous-use tools. And that's a real concern," Dainoff says.

So what's the problem?

When it comes to ergonomics, notebooks have many inherent design problems, says Deborah Quilter, author of The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book. Here are a few of the ergonomic pitfalls Quilter and others cite:

CRAMPED KEYBOARDS: To save space, vendors often make keys smaller than those on standard keyboards; the pinched configuration can strain typists' hands. Prolonged typing on cramped keyboards over time could result in a repetitive strain injury.

SMALL SCREENS: Some notebooks feature 15-inch LCD screens, which are only a bit smaller than the viewable area of 17-inch CRTs. But other models, particularly subnotebooks, have 13-inch or smaller LCDs. Some of these small screens offer resolutions of only 800 by 600, which means you have to scroll more to view a document. Those extra mouse clicks and hand movements accumulate stress on fingers and hands.

UNCOMFORTABLE POSITIONING: Proper body posture when typing is a key to avoiding injuries. But the proximity of a clamshell-like notebook's keyboard to its display forces users to assume the position of a human question mark. Quilter notes the Catch-22 of notebooks: If you place the notebook screen at eye level, the keyboard is too high. If you put the computer at the correct typing level, the screen is too low. Pick your poison: Either way, you're overstressing your body.

AWKWARD POINTING DEVICES: Typically, notebooks offer either a trackpad or eraserhead pointing device instead of the mouse most users have grown accustomed to. "Those input devices haven't been perfected like the mouse has," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of the Gartner Group's mobile computing division. "They're not as easy to move the cursor with." The result: Added stress on your fingers, which can lead to at least temporary soreness.

WEIGHTY TRADE-OFFS: The lightest notebooks weigh a manageable three to four pounds, yet have the most uncomfortable keyboards and screens. Desktop replacement notebooks feature more comfortable keyboards and displays, yet their weight of six to ten pounds can cause back, shoulder, and neck injuries when carried. Either way, there's an ergonomic price to pay with notebook computers.

What you can do

Portable computers don't have to be painful. If you're planning to be a regular notebook user, consider the following:

TYPE BEFORE YOU BUY: Keyboard comfort can vary widely. Type for at least several minutes on a notebook in the store to test comfort. If that's not possible, buy online only if you can get a full refund. You can also search product reviews (see "PC World notebook reviews," link below) for mentions of ease-of-use and comfort.

DOCK IT: Ergonomic experts recommend docking stations or port replicators. A docking station facilitates plugging external devices such as mice, keyboards, and other external peripherals to notebooks. That way you can avoid the ergonomic pitfalls of notebook use and still get the portability benefits.

USE KEY COMMANDS: Notebook trackpads and eraser-type pointing devices are very stressful to your hands, says Quilter. Whenever possible, use key commands, shortcuts, and drop-down menus instead, she recommends.

TAKE STRETCH BREAKS: To some degree, taking regular breaks from typing can help offset lousy ergonomics, Dainoff suggests. "If you stand up and stretch now and then, you'll have fewer problems," he says.

JUST SAY NO: From an ergonomic standpoint, typing on a cramped airline seat for hours is about the worst thing you can do, according to Quilter. A better idea: Don't do it. Take printouts of work if you must and make pencil edits. Otherwise, just read or rest. "Travel is stressful enough as it is," Quilter says. "So take it easy. You'll feel better when you get there, and you'll be more productive in the long run."

Some help from notebook vendors

Notebook makers have a mandate to sell systems that are portable, powerful, and affordable. Ergonomics are a lower priority, partly because there's only so much vendors can do given the design limitations. What's more, today's notebooks represent a "mature" product design, says Gartner's Dulaney. Designs aren't going to change dramatically in the future.

Nonetheless, several leading notebook makers say they have added or are planning to add ergonomic features. So if you plan on buying a new notebook in the near future, here are some features to look for in your next purchase:

A HIGH-RESOLUTION SCREEN. More pixels on a page reduces eyestrain and puts more information on screen at one time, according to Zita Cassizzi, director of marketing for Dell's Inspiron notebook computer. Dell's Inspiron 5000 and 7500 notebooks offer 1400-by-1050-pixel resolution screens as an option. Higher resolutions result in less scrolling, saving your fingers and hands from overuse. It also minimizes head movements and so can reduce neck discomfort over time. Of course, all other things being equal, higher resolutions also add up to smaller text and potential eyestrain for the less-than-eagle-eyed.

ENHANCED SCROLLING. Some notebook makers have added dedicated buttons to reduce the clicking required to scroll within a document. IBM's ThinkPad notebooks, for instance, include an Internet Scroll bar to streamline Web page navigation. Similarly, IBM's TrackPoint, the standard pointing device on ThinkPads, includes a button that lets you scroll vertically, horizontally, or omnidirectionally without clicking on an application scrollbar, according to David Hill, manager of design for IBM's Personal Systems Group. By minimizing scrolling, you're reducing your risk for developing an RSI.

ADJUSTABLE SCREENS. Notebook makers are tight-lipped about specific upcoming product plans. But several analysts say they have seen prototypes of notebook computers with height-adjustable LCDs. Such computers would let users raise the screen and assume a more ergonomically correct typing and viewing position. "In the next 18 months, we'll see more than one vendor come out with a laptop that has an adjustable-height screen," according to Gerry Purdy, president and chief executive officer of Mobile Insights, a market research firm.

ERGONOMIC DOCKING STATIONS. As an alternative to adjustable screens, Compaq says it is exploring a notebook that can be opened to 180 degrees (so the screen is parallel with the keyboard) and dropped vertically, instead of horizontally, into a docking station, according to Jeff Groudan, director of portable product management for Compaq Computer's Armada notebooks. Such a docking setup would raise the notebook's display well above an external keyboard, enabling you to assume a more comfortable typing position without the need for a separate monitor. But you might not be able to wait for these features before you need to use a notebook. In the meantime, if you must take a notebook on a plane trip, carry it on a wheeled cart instead of making your back and shoulders do all the work. Tuck the computer under the seat in front instead of the overhead bin. Take frequent stretch breaks when typing on a seat-back tray or other surface not designed for work. And when you're back in the office, plug the notebook into a docking station.

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PC World notebook reviews
(PC World Online)
Top Web sites for ergonomic info
(PC World Online)
Essential ergonomics
(PC World Online)
Perfect posture
(PC World Online)
Is your PC a pain in the neck?
(PC World Online)
Microsphere offers ergonomic treat
(PC World Online)
Springy keyboard may reduce hand pain
(PC World Online)
Is your computer crippling you?
(PC World Online)

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
The Typing Injury FAQ
Compaq Armada
Dell Inspiron
IBM ThinkPad

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