Cornell University Ergonomics Web

5 Tips for Using a Laptop Computer

  1. Un-ergonomic Laptops - the design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen are separated. In the early days of personal computing desktop devices integrated the screen and keyboard into a single unit, and this resulted in widespread complaints of musculoskeletal discomfort. By the late 1970's a number of ergonomics design guidelines were written and all called for the separation of screen and keyboard. The reason is simple - with a fixed design, if the keyboard is in an optimal position for the user, the screen isn't and if the screen is optimal the keyboard isn't. Consequently, laptops are excluded from current ergonomic design requirements because none of the designs satisfy this basic need. This means that you need to pay special attention to how you use your laptop because it can cause you problems.
  2. Laptop User Type - how to you use your laptop? Are you an occasional user who works on your laptop for short periods of time or are you a full-time user with the laptop as your main computer? Occasional users will have less risk of problems than full-time users. All users should pay some attention to how they use their laptop, but full-time users may have more problems.
  3. Laptop Posture - as indicated above, laptops violate basic ergonomic design requirements, so using a laptop is a tradeoff between poor neck/head posture and poor hand/wrist posture.
  4. Laptop dimensions - many laptops offer large screens (15" plus) and can work as desktop replacements (giving the viewing area of a 17" monitor). However, think about where you will most use your laptop to help you choose the best size. The larger the screen the more difficult it will be to use this in mobile locations (e.g. airplane, car, train). There are a number of smaller notebook and ultraportable laptops on the market. Consider issues of screen size and screen resolution. A small screen (e.g.12.1") will be useful in mobile settings, but if the resolution is high (e.g. XGA - 1024 x 768) make sure that you can read the screen characters and can easily use the input device to point to areas on the screen. The smaller the laptop, the smaller the keyboard, so make sure that you can comfortably type on a keyboard that may be only 75% the size of a regular keyboard.
  5. Laptop weight - if you are a mobile professional who will be frequently transporting your laptop think about the weight of the system. By the word 'system' I mean the weight of the laptop plus the required accessories (e.g. power supply, spare battery, external disk drive, zip drive, CD_RW, DVD, Blu Ray etc.). Many lightweight portables can become as heavy as regular laptops when you add the weight of all of the components together. If your laptop + components weighs 10lbs or more then you should certainly consider using a  carry-on bag that you can pull along.  If you want a smaller bag and can comfortably carry your laptop consider a good shoulder bag design (e.g. see  "The Perfect Laptop Bag" article 1, article 2).

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© Professor Alan Hedge, Cornell University, content last updated June 13, 2015