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ISSUE 555: The high tech office- June 13 2000


Using a notebook computer doesn't have to be a pain

I like my notebook. That feeling must be shared because notebook sales continue to rise.

Notebooks are convenient, but they are more expensive than comparable desktop computers. And there are other, hidden costs as well.

With their smaller screens, keyboards and pointing devices, prolonged use of notebooks can lead to eyestrain and sore necks, shoulders and backs. The one-piece keyboard and monitor means that neither can be placed in the most comfortable position for long-term use.

Ideally, when typing, computer users should hold their arms at a 90-degree angle, bent at the elbow, while monitors should be positioned so users are looking slightly down at them. With a notebook, however, either the keyboard is raised too high or the monitor is too low for the ideal viewing angle. At best, users get to choose which part of their body they want to hurt.

Tiny pointing devices force users to stretch small muscles, which can cramp the wrists and forearms.

Most of us can do little if we're taking our notebooks on the road, though it's easy to pack along a full-sized mouse in the bag. When using notebooks at home, users have more flexibility. Most notebooks can be plugged into an external monitor, which is placed in a more optimal viewing position. (However, this can't be done with Apple's iBook, currently the best-selling notebook model. Shame, Apple!) Most models can also be used with a full-sized
keyboard and mouse, even without investing in an expensive docking station.

Take frequent breaks. Stop work for mini-stretch periods. Save your files, get up, move around.

While better designed than notebooks, desktop computer systems can also cause problems. Some of these can be minimized with proper placement of the keyboard and monitor, as well as (once again) taking frequent mini-breaks.

Check out replacement keyboards, mice and monitors. If you're spending a lot of time using these peripherals, make sure that you've got models you're com-
fortable with. Too many systems ship with cheap keyboards that typically provide soft, mushy feedback. In-
stead, give Lexmark's keyboards a try. This IBM spinoff continues to make keyboards with the solid
quality feel that were a hallmark of IBM's classic computers of a decade or more ago.

Microsoft sells its sci-fi shaped "Natural Keyboard." While carefully avoiding any health claims, the company does use the word ergonomic to describe the keyboard's unusual 3D split shape. While I can't swear that using this design is healthier, I like it. The angle between the two halves of the keyboard and the slope down the middle fits the way my hands naturally want to rest.

By forcing my hands apart, it makes me use something more like proper keyboarding technique, which has to be a good thing.

The original Natural Keyboard was very large, too high and wide to fit in many under-desk keyboard drawers. Newer models have been scaled down and are a better fit for many desks. The latest versions from Microsoft add a row of buttons along the top. The $99 Natural Keyboard Pro model adds 19 buttons for access to common Web browser functions, along with volume control and controls for the Windows Media Player. A set of three customizable buttons adds access to My Computer, the Windows Calculator, power-saving sleep mode or quick access to a couple of applications of the user's choice. There's also an option to turn off the obnoxious caps lock key.

After a short while getting acquainted with this keyboard, I found it more comfortable than conventional keyboards, especially for extended typing. However, I haven't found myself using the buttons at all. Microsoft offers a $69 version with fewer buttons and continues to sell the even more affordable Natural Keyboard Elite, which lacks the add-on buttons entirely. (The product line also feaures a couple of standard flat keyboards laden with the button
collections. But why bother?)

All these keyboards include both PS/2 and USB connectors. This makes them usable with most PCs and newer Macs. Though I suspect that the extra keys won't work on a Mac, one of these could be a real improvement over the mini-keyboard Apple is shipping with all its desktop Macs.

Wander into a store and try one


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan