COVID-19 Survival Guide: work-from-home devices for developers

Ryan Thelin
Jul 24, 2020
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After the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, as thousands of companies across the world issued mandatory work-from-home orders, you may have suddenly found yourself in need of a home office space.

For many developers, this home-to-office transition was a steep and unexpected change. Developers like you are having to overhaul their setups amid the chaos of the crisis in order to stay productive.

Having an effective set up is a lot about tending to the needs of your body. Working from the couch isn’t a long-term solution. So, today we’re going to go over furniture and devices you’ll need to keep coding comfortably all work-week long.


Today we’ll cover



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What a developer needs in an office chair

The most important attribute to consider when choosing your chair is long-term comfort. You’ll likely be sitting for hours at a time, so you’ll need a chair that keeps your body relaxed and supported to avoid painful strain on the body. Below we’ll break down some key elements to look for when choosing your rolling throne.


Lumbar and Spine Support

Finding a genuinely comfortable and supportive chair can be difficult as many chairs call themselves ergonomic without explanation.

As a simple rule, look for chairs that press the lower back into a slight inward stretch. This encourages good posture by straightly aligning your spine and reduces the instinct of slouch after coding for several hours.

Also, look for chairs that feature a full back from the pelvis to the neck. Many office chairs will cut the backrest around the mid-shoulder, which, while comfortable for short periods, can put a strain on the shoulders and upper spine.


Material - Leather or Fabric

The staple of any good office chair lies in the upholstery. Especially in these hot summer months, material choice is crucial for comfort.

While leather has traditionally been the standard, many experts now recommend a more breathable material such as fabric or mesh. For developers, a breathable material will help you stay cool and comfortable for hours without heat build-up.


How Padded is too Padded?

For seat padding, it can be hard to know how comfortable an office chair will be for an extended sit by a test-sit alone. A good rule to stick by is that you should look for a chair with enough padding that you cannot feel the hard underside.

Ergonomic Armrest Setups

Armrests are essential. Typing without armrests can cause severe pulling on the shoulders and wrists. The ideal armrest is long enough to allow the elbows to sit at a 90-degree angle while also being low enough that it doesn’t take all of your arms weight. Too much weight on the armrest is a good indicator that it’s pushing your arms and shoulder up into a harmful position.


Buyer’s Quick Guide

  • Lumbar support forcing back into slight curve
  • Backrest over the tops of the shoulder
  • Fabric or mesh material for breathability
  • Just padded enough that you don’t feel the chairs underside
  • Armrests that arms rest lightly on and keep arms at 90 degrees

How and Why to Choose a Mouse:

As with armrests, using a mouse over a trackpad can alleviate a lot of the stress in the wrist. The reason is simple: long term wrist health is all about keeping the wrist as flat and in-line as possible.

But trackpads require the wrist to be in a slightly raised position in front of the user rather than in-line with the forearm. This slight elevation can lead to some serious wrist and forearm strain!


Trackball: Odd or Awesome?

Mice, while better than trackpads, can also cause wrist injuries if used incorrectly. If you want to minimize the danger of wrist injury, consider getting a trackball mouse. While it may look like a mouse in a funhouse mirror, it can actually save you some serious pain as you work.

This is a mouse that remains stationary, with the user controlling the pointer by rolling a ball on the mouse’s side with their thumb. The trackball enforces good mouse habits by keeping the wrist and forearm in a healthy position.

Many developers swear by trackball mice for easing wrist tensions while still allowing easy horizontal movement for selecting code and precision.

Look for a mouse with a high Dots Per Inch (DPI) if trackballs aren’t for you. This indicates that it has a higher pointer sensitivity, so you’ll minimize arm movement and reducing strain.

DPI will usually be listed under the product specs, or you can also find mice that have adjustable DPI in its setup options.


Buyer’s Quick Guide

  • Place mouse so wrists are flat and in-line with forearm
  • Trackballs are best for wrist health
  • High DPI mice reduce twisting and movement in the wrist and forearm

Keyboards: Parsing Fact and Fiction

The keyboard is likely the most used device in a developer’s office, but with so many claims and buzzwords, it can be hard to know which device is best. Ultimately, keyboards come down to personal preference and familiarity, not ergonomic splits and pads.

Some keyboards are even better for certain programming languages. First, let’s start with those dos and don’ts that we know to be true.

Wrists should be parallel to the floor, so a keyboard that is flat to the desk is ideal. While many keyboards have the option to slant up and point away from you, it’s best to avoid these. They actually force the wrist into a raised position that is strenuous when coding at heavy intervals.

As our second and final truth, look for keyboards with keys that are easy to press and don’t stick. The effort required to push stiff keys will build up over the course of a 500 line Python file, leaving knuckles and fingers sore. The tiniest movements overtime will cause strain you don’t notice until it’s too late.


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The Myths: Mechanical vs Membrane

Some argue that mechanical keyboards should be ruled out as stiff, but this is not necessarily true when looking at keyboards of the same quality and age.

Well made mechanical keyboards offer the same force needed as a membrane keyboard of the same quality. In the end, this distinction is down to preference and what you’re used to typing on.


Ergonomic/Split-Keyboards vs Standard

In the last 10 years, split keyboards (2-part keyboards split down the middle) and other ergonomic keyboards have started to pop up on the market.

Producers claim that their product will end developers’ wrist pain. In reality, there are no concrete studies that prove these devices can help developers across the board.

There is more evidence to suggest that negative slope keyboards (raised towards the user and lower toward the top) take weight off the wrists, but this is complicated by other claims that say this pressure restricts blood flow via inflammation.

Overall, this is once again a case where personal preference prevails; if you have a keyboard you like that is flat and responsive, there’s no need to switch.


Buyer’s Quick Guide

  • Flat keyboards are best as they keep wrists parallel to floor
  • Look for highly responsive keys to avoid finger and knuckle fatigue
  • Choose a keyboard you like and are comfortable with, ergonomic hand positions are more important that a fancy sloped keyboard

Key Monitor Specs and Distances

Monitors are a huge part of your life as a developer, but it can hard to know which is best. rather than offering a particular product, let’s look at which specs and distances can help you make the right call.


PPI

When looking for a monitor, a developer should prioritize first a monitor’s pixels per inch (PPI). Width comes second. Low PPI displays use a large monitor to maintain standard resolution, like a 27-inch monitor that only supports 1020 x 1980.

The slightly blurred visuals of these displays increase eye fatigue with close-attention operations, like reading tightly packed code segments. Stick to monitors above 100 PPI for the best eye comfort.


Screen Width

For programming, screen width is invaluable as it allows you to view multiple windows at once. Many developers are now turning to ultra-wide displays (larger than 25 inches wide) for this reason. Their cost, though, ($1000+) makes them infeasible for many developers.

You don’t need to invest in a massive monitor to be productive. To get a similar workspace, you can use a side by side dual monitor setup with each screen angled toward you. Buying two monitors for this dual-screen method will often be cheaper than buying a single ultra-wide.


Optimal Monitor Placement

  • Monitor should be positioned to have your eye-line midway between monitor center and the top, usually about 2-3 inches.
  • Screen should be arms-length away from eyes
  • If using dual monitors equally, place them side-by-side, slightly facing you in a “V” shape so no neck movement is needed to see either
  • If using a primary and secondary dual monitor, place the primary in front of you with the secondary roughly 30 degrees to one side.

HDMI Restrictions

Make sure you check your HDMI cords before buying a new monitor! Single-link HDMI cords come in two types, HDMI 1.0 which supports resolutions up to 1920x1200, and HDMI 1.3 which supports all resolutions beyond that.

Make sure to use an HDMI cord fit for your monitor resolution to avoid limiting your image quality.


Buyer’s Quick Guide

  • High PPI is the priority, look for PPI higher than 100
  • Width is second priority, dual monitors and ultra-wides are helpful to track multiple windows and tabs
  • Dual monitors will be cheaper and provide similar width to ultra-wides
  • Ultra-wides are more expensive but come with new features like curved screens
  • If using HDMI, get the type which supports your monitor resolution: HDMI 1.0 for 1920 x 1080 or lower and HDMI 1.3 for anything greater than that.

Best Desk Height and Width for Coding

Most factors are personal preference when choosing a desk, such as material or storage space. Choosing the correct height and width, however, is essential to ensure bodily comfort and organization that meets your needs.

In most offices, the industry-standard desk height is 29 inches (73 cm) from floor to tabletop.This, however, is best suited for somebody taller than 5 foot, 10 inches.

The best, most adaptable solution, then, is to use an adjustable desk that ranges from at least 25 - 30 inches from floor to tabletop. Try out different setups in this range to see which feels best.

As for width, look for a desk at least 50-60 inches across to ensure you can comfortably fit an ultra-wide monitor or two reasonably sized monitors as we discussed above.

Width, of course, will largely depend on the size constraints of your living space. If you do not have much space available, prioritize your body’s position over your monitors. It’s more important that you have enough space to move and sit ergonomically.


Buyer’s Quick Guide

  • Look for an adjustable desk with a range of 25 - 30 inches
  • 50 - 60 inch desk width is best for dual monitor or ultra-wide setups
  • Prioritize personal space over desk space

Wrapping up

These times are uncertain, and many large companies are changing their policies to favor work from home situations for the long-run. This means that home offices may stay as our workplaces for months, even years to come.

Whether just replacing a few items or overhauling the whole office, I hope this guide has helped you along the way by sharing what your fellow developers look for when building comfortable and efficient new home offices.

Happy upgrading and stay healthy!

WRITTEN BY

Ryan Thelin


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