ALTOM: Maybe laptops should come with safety warnings

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Tim Altom

My laptop always has seemed to me like a friendly sort of machine. Granted, it’s a Lenovo, so its appearance suffers by comparison to the sleeker Dells and Apples of the world. It’s an unrelieved black and seems a little uninspiring, but it’s been my willing companion when putting numbers through the centrifuge or springboarding me out into cyberspace.

But I’m a little warier around the thing after reading up on all the ways it can bite me.

I’ve long known about the heat problem, of course. Media outlets for years have filled news holes with articles about how laptops shouldn’t be used on a guy’s lap. Internal working temperatures for laptops tend to be higher than for more open units, up to 150 degrees. Experiments have shown that the high temperatures so close to the male genitalia lowered sperm counts, possibly permanently if the laptop usage were frequent enough.

Heat is also a factor in the notorious laptop battery explosions and fires from years past. Today’s laptops are much less prone to such catastrophic end-of-life announcements, but the fear remains, especially if the machine is indeed on one’s lap.

Now experts are complaining about more mundane problems associated with the laptop design itself. My laptop at home is attached to an external keyboard, mouse and big-screen monitor. But when I travel, it collapses down into the standard little clamshell of cramped monitor and keyboard. Suddenly I’m working in an environment shrunken to the confines of the typical coffee-table book.

That is where much of the risk occurs, according to the experts. Portability trumps ergonomic safety. The Cornell University Ergonomics Web (ergo.human.cornell.edu) notes that laptop (and notebook) design is inherently bad ergonomically. If you get the screen where it should be, the keyboard is in an unhealthy place, and vice versa. In effect, you get a choice between injurious neck and head positioning, or unhealthy wrist and hand angles. The ideal situation is to carry a separate keyboard and mouse, but that brings its own problems, as we’ll see.

Positioning is made even worse by using the machine in places that aren’t built for business posture. Occasional users just out for a latte and an e-mail visit likely won’t notice any problems, but road warriors can begin to suffer over time by not having the right back and neck angles.

According to Cornell University Ergonomics Web, if you must sacrifice ergonomic safety, optimize your wrist and hand position and let the neck position end up where it will. The neck muscles are bigger and more robust and therefore won’t suffer damage as quickly as the hands and wrist, whose joints are considerably more delicate.

Position the laptop for the most neutral hand position possible, meaning the most natural one. Let your hands droop onto a table and you’ll see what I mean. The wrist wants to be in a straight line with the forearm and at an angle to the keyboard. My biggest problem with small keyboards is right here. My wrists get unnaturally swung inward on a small keyboard, eventually leading to pain and irritation. At home, I use an ergonomic keyboard that is bent in the middle. It lets my wrists fall naturally. But it’s a bulky thing, nearly impossible to travel with.

Heat and cramped quarters aren’t the only risks, according to Cornell. Transportation can bring additional problems. The sheer weight of the unit is a consideration when toting it. A lot of us use notebooks now that cut down on weight, but a good many of us can’t do without the larger screen and have to carry a somewhat bulkier and heavier machine.

Add all the extras that are often carried along with the laptop, like external keyboards and mice, storage devices, extra batteries, and maybe even a projector, and the load becomes potentially hazardous to back, shoulders, neck and knees over time. Cornell recommends buying the best bag you can find for the job, but doesn’t specify which one.

Recommendations can be found in several places, including About.com’s Mobile Office Technology section (mobileoffice.about.com). About.com recently assembled a reader’s list of preferences in bag brands, luggage and several other things of interest to the traveling technology user.

The readers’ recommendation for a laptop bag brand? Slappa (www.slappa.com). A peek at its Web site reveals why. As an example, Slappa offers a line of bags with a specially designed section that permits you to keep the laptop in the bag while it’s being scanned by airport security. At $119, it’s not cheap, but travel folk know that cheap stuff is not to be trusted to airlines.

Travel on in safety, ye intrepid one. As for me, I swear I just heard my laptop growl at me, so I need to rustle up a whip and a chair.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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