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Improve Your Work-at-Home Computer Setup

Lugging your laptop around for 8 hours a day may not be the best solution

Man sat on bed surrounded by computers

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En español | To help quell the spread of COVID-19 — the deadly disease that still hasn't crested in the United States — more than 310 million Americans now are urged to stay at home.

Yes, almost 95 percent of the U.S. population is being told to shelter in place for the time being. For those who can do their jobs from home, the directive could be a major adjustment.

If you are one of those working from home, chances are you were told to tote your laptop home from the office and how to get into your company's computer system remotely but little else. We're here to help get you to the next level if you're having trouble concentrating in a crowded house or getting eyestrain from your tiny screen.

Experts often suggest a dedicated place to work instead of lugging a laptop to the kitchen table or typing on an iPad while propped up in bed.

The best solution is to have your own work area with a closed door, which should help keep you in the zone and free from everyday distractions. If that's not available, try to find a quiet and comfortable spot with good lighting.

Get video, audio up to snuff

If you're stuck at home without your official company computer, you'll find that most basic applications — email, web browsing, word processing — don't require a lot of horsepower. So you probably won't need to buy anything new unless your PC or Mac is so old that you can't play solitaire.

Woman talking with female colleague from a video call

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If your computer doesn't have an integrated webcam for videoconferencing, you can order an inexpensive external one online that plugs into an available USB port. Another option for videoconferencing is your smartphone, which likely has a camera.

Think about how you might want to prop up the phone during long meetings, such a leaning it against a small stack of books. Or if you have a vertical charging dock, even for another phone model, it also may hold the phone upright.

Don't try to plug it in, just prop it up. Or look around the house for a small easel that is holding a family photo or palm-sized piece of art so you can repurpose it temporarily.

If you do a lot of talking, a hands-free microphone headset is recommended for comfort, convenience and sound quality. Next-best option: If you have earbuds with a microphone that you use with your phone, those also can be set up to work on your computer by plugging it into the headphone jack or connecting via Bluetooth if they're a wireless pair.

For either, you'll need to test the setup with a coworker to make sure you can hear and be heard. Most computers will be able to sense that a new device has been plugged into the audio jack. But if not:

• On Windows machines, type Sound in the search window of the system tray that's often in the lower left corner of your screen and choose Sound settings. Or hit the Windowskey on your keyboard | the Gearicon for Windows settings | System | Sound.

• Macs have audio information under the Apple symbol | System Preferences… Sound.

• On Chromebooks, click on the system tray that many people keep in the lower right corner of their screens. You'll see a small icon, probably a picture of Headphones, that appears beside the volume slider only when the system has multiple choices for output. Click on it to see the options.

Options to upgrade

Should you need a computer, you'll have to decide on whether you want a Windows, Mac or Chrome operating system; laptop or desktop; and which brand.

Because you'll be mostly on your own while you're at home, stick to what you're used to or find out from your bosses what platform they would prefer you to be on. The software you need for work might dictate what operating system you require.

A laptop is portable, so you can easily move it around your home. Laptops already are the most popular computers in the country, with more than three-quarters of both home and commercial users relying on them, according to Belmont, Massachusetts-based Daniel Research Group.

But a desktop will have a bigger monitor and keyboard, and you can upgrade components, such as a better video card or more storage, over time.

On brand, stick to a company you've had a good experience with or ask a friend. Before you buy, ask retail or online stores about their return policies in case you don't like what you bought.

Add on to your laptop

You can turn a laptop into a full workstation.

A usb hub

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You can attach a more comfortable keyboard to a laptop even though it already has one. A separate keyboard will have larger keys and allow you to position it however you like on a desk or table.

An external mouse instead of using your laptop's built-in trackpad is recommended for ergonomic reasons. Some mice are wireless, while others will need to be plugged into an available USB port.

Running out of USB ports? You can buy a hub in a store or online that lets you plug several devices into one USB port on your computer. USB 3.0 hubs are faster than 2.0 but still compatible with devices that were developed earlier.

Similarly, you shouldn't be stuck squinting into a 13- to 15-inch monitor. You can add an external one to the laptop's HDMI port or, on older PCs, the VGA port.

The toughest part of all this is studying your computer's built-in ports so you'll have the correct cable to connect your monitor to your computer. You may need an adapter that converts, say, a VGA male cable end into a USB connector. At least these adapters aren't expensive.

Set up a dual monitor

If you have the room on your desk, falling monitor prices have spurred business and home users to look at dual monitors.

Graphic designers, video editors and animators have long used two monitors, one for their “palette” and the other for their “canvas.” But other businesses also are adopting two monitors to increase productivity.

Some like this setup for added convenience, such as having email open on one screen while working on a document on the other. In case you have never sat in front of two monitors, when you swipe your mouse across one screen and toward the second, the cursor continues onto the second monitor after it reaches the edge of the first.

Make sure your computer supports dual monitors, then hook up the second monitor. To make sure that it's not mirroring your laptop screen, fine-tune your display settings:

• On Windows computers, type Display in the search window of the system. Or hit the Windows key on your keyboard | the Gearicon for Windows settings | System | Display.

Under Select and rearrange displays, drag each display to arrange them; click Apply. If your display is plugged in but not showing, click the Detect button to try to locate it. Then scroll down to Multiple displays | Extend these displays.

• On Macs, click on the Apple logo | System Preferences… | Displays | Arrangements. You will see the screens your computer has found, and you can click and drag them to the way they are arranged in real life. Make sure that the Mirror Displays box is unchecked.

• On Chromebooks, click on the time in the system tray at the bottom right of your screen | Settings | then the name of your external screen. Choose Extended Desktop and click and drag each monitor's position until it suits you.

Other monitor options

You might be able to use other devices you have around the house, such as a tablet or spare television, as a second monitor.

Saving money makes this something you might want to try, but a tablet screen is generally smaller than a computer monitor. Unless you have a spare 4K TV, reading text clearly so close to the screen might be hard on your eyes. If the TV is older, it might not render motion smoothly.

To try it, apps like Duet Display and Air Display 3, both $10, turn your iPad into a second monitor. While not quite as good, a free tool called Splashtop Wired XDisplay for Windows and Macs also works with Android devices.

If your laptop or desktop has an HDMI port, you can connect it to a TV. You likely will have to play around with the display settings to find what makes you most comfortable.

Make Wi-Fi more efficient

Ethernet cable on holographic background

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You’ll want strong and reliable Wi-Fi when working. You might need to move a little closer to the router or install a “mesh” system to broaden the range of wireless internet in your home, especially for larger or older homes with concrete walls.

If you’re working near your router, a wired connection is the ideal for better speed and reliability. For that, you’ll need to plug an Ethernet cable into your laptop or desktop.

If you don’t have a virtual private network (VPN) through work to remain anonymous from hackers and trackers, you might want to consider a subscription to a VPN service. Understandably, the experts at VPNPro.com say VPN use is up 35 percent since the start of the pandemic.

Back it all up

It doesn’t really matter where you want to back up your work — a free cloud service, external hard drive, USB thumb drive or what have you. But you need to be proactive about backing up your important files regularly to minimize the damage if hit with a cyberattack, hard drive malfunction, power surge or other threats.

As Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Make a schedule to back up documents, irreplaceable photos and home movies — just in case.

For other protection, use a webcam lens cover when not video chatting, or stick a Band-Aid or a couple of pieces of tape over a laptop lens, install good cybersecurity software, and never click on suspicious links or attachments in email. Your home setup may not be as secure as what’s at the office, so remember to take extra precautions.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, “Tech It Out,” aims to break down geek speak into street speak.

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