Ergonomic Tips to Choosing and Using Laptop Computers

Peer Reviewed
Modern laptop or notebook computers are small, portable devices with the computational power of desktop systems. Sales of laptop computers now exceed those of desktop systems and this trend will continue. However, all laptops currently sold suffer an ergonomic design flaw; the keyboard and screen is connected. This means that when the screen is correctly adjusted for neck posture, the keyboard is wrongly positioned and vice versa. This same problem faced the earliest personal computer designs in the 1970s, and since then all desktop systems have separated the screen and keyboard. So what can be done to make the use of laptops more ergonomic and to protect you against other problems with this technology, such as the weight and heat of the laptop?

Work Pattern Decisions
As a laptop user your first decision has to be about the duration and intensity of use of the laptop. If you are an occasional user who uses your laptop for less than 1-hour per day you probably don't need to be concerned, but if you are a full-time user you should attend to the following ergonomic considerations.

Work Posture
Using a laptop is a tradeoff between poor neck/head posture and poor hand/wrist posture. If you are an occasional user you should sit in a comfortable chair with your laptop in your lap to allow the most neutral wrist posture, and you should tilt the screen back to minimize neck flexion.

If you are a full-time user you should put your laptop in front of you on your desk so you can see the screen without bending your neck. This may require that you elevate the laptop off the desk surface with a stable support surface or laptop holder. Then use a separate keyboard and mouse, properly positioned for greatest comfort. If your laptop has a small screen you might also want to use a separate larger monitor as well.

Laptop Dimensions
Many laptops offer large and wide screens (15-17" plus) which give you a viewing area equivalent to a 17"-19" monitor. However, a large screen means a large body and the laptop might be heavy, bulky and difficult to use in confined spaces, such as on an airplane. Think about where you will use your laptop, how often you will have to carry the laptop and choose the best size to meet your needs. The advantage of a larger laptop is a bigger screen and keyboard but, at the expense of easy mobility. Small notebooks or ultra-portable laptops offer advantages. For example, they are lightweight and make being mobile easier. However, smaller devices mean smaller keyboards and screens. Always check out the laptop size to make sure you can read the screen and use the keyboard.

Laptop Weight
If you plan to frequently transport your laptop, think about the weight of the total system, which includes the weight of the laptop plus the required accessories (e.g. power supply, spare battery, external drives, etc.). Sometimes when you add the weight of all the components together a lightweight portable with external drives can weigh almost the same as a larger laptop with internal drives. If your laptop plus components weigh about 10 pounds or more, then you should consider using a pull along laptop bag.

Laptop Heat
Laptops produce heat and unless the laptop is well-ventilated it can overheat and crash your hard drive. A hot laptop is uncomfortable to use in your lap and the heat from some laptops can be enough to cause superficial skin burns, even through clothing. Also, researchers have found that working with a laptop positioned on the thighs significant elevates groin skin temperature and long-term repeated exposure to a hot laptop used in the lap may reduce fertility, especially in teenage boys and young men. Various cooling pads designed to reduce this problem are available and should be used if this is the main way that you use your laptop.

Updated on: 09/07/12
Boyd M. Peterson, DC
This article covers basic information about laptops. If additional information is needed, an Occupational Therapist should be able to help address individual concerns or problems with laptop use. If you are a full-time user, it may be helpful to take frequent short breaks and stretch and move around.