Tools of the trade: Monitor Arms

Ergotron LXSitting in front of a computer display all day long does not do wonders for your health.

Things are made considerably worse if that computer display is of the notebook kind. Laptops in general are ergonomic nightmares putting your body into all the wrong positions. First, you need to look down all day long, then to make matters worse, the keyboard is attached directly to the screen forcing you to find the least bad compromise between positioning your arms and hands correctly and getting the screen into a semi-comfortable viewing position. Unfortunately no good compromise exists and you will over time do both your upper extremities and your neck/ back/ shoulders in. If it feels a little uncomfortable now, trust me, it’ll hurt a few years down the line.

Desktop computers are much better in that regard, allowing you to independently adjust keyboard, mouse and display. Unless you are using an iMac of course. Its aesthetics-over-function design has led everybody’s favourite industrial designer, Johnny Ive, to give it a stand that is far too low to allow you to view it comfortably. Such a shame because his Luxor Junior-inspired second generation iMac featured what must surely have been the best built-in monitor arm ever.. Oh Johnny..

When it comes to ergonomic Macs then, it’s a choice between the Mac Pro (my choice), the Mac mini (also my choice) or the newish VESA-mounted (stand-less) iMac.

On this type of setup you can not only choose your own (non-glossy if you want it to be easy on your eyes) display(s), but also adjust its height, distance from your eyes and inclination to your heart’s content.

The “ideal” viewing position is usually said to be at least 30cm (circa 12 inches) from your eyes, with the top-most row of pixels level with your eyes. A very slight forward tilt to the monitor is also said to be beneficial.

I find that advice to be fairly close to what I find comfortable myself, even though it’s better still to slightly raise and lower the display every now and then.

Monitor arms allow you to reach this position very easily and make adjusting it much less painful, though even the best monitor arms are not quite as good as the one on that second generation iMac. Monitor arms also free up space under the monitor and make for a much tidier setup over all.

I personally own several Ergotron LX Desk Mount Tall Pole mounts and they are great. They can be fixed directly through a screw onto your desk and once installed are much steadier than their admittedly much cheaper counterparts. They are sturdy and easily set up correctly and can be adjusted within a very large range of distances and heights. Moreover they work great in multi-display setups.

I’m fairly tall (6 feet 4) and I find that having the display slightly higher than is usually recommended is most comfortable for me. Most monitor arms do not stretch high enough for me and the Ergotron LX’s tall pole to which the arm itself is attached allows for raising the displays as high, and indeed higher than is comfortable. Anyway it’s better to have more range of adjustment than you need than to have just that little bit too little.

I also use a sit/ stand desk in my home office and unfortunately even the tall pole version of the LX, does not go high enough to cope with the standing position.

In theory, you shouldn’t have to adjust the height of the screen at all when your desk goes into the standing position. When you are sitting at your desk, you are holding your upper body completely straight just as if you were standing! Or at least that’s what the theory says.

In practice, my merely-human body isn’t candle straight at all times but likes to move around, lean forward, then back, etc. When I stand up I find that the screen is too low for comfort and it needs adjusting upwards. The Ergotron LX Sit/Stand Monitor Arm gives you jumbo-sized adjustability and takes even heavy weight monitors. I originally got those for my twin 30″ Apple cinema displays that showed their age through their ludicrous weight. One of them now has my Dell UP3214Q 4K display monitor on it, while the other supports a Dell UP2713HM; both awesome displays in different price ranges and weight categories.

Designed to be used to easily lift a monitor from a sitting to a comfortable standing position without the desk itself moving, the sit/stand version of the Ergotron easily deals with the comparatively small task of lifting the monitors that extra bit higher. The sit/stand version is clearly overkill but in a good way. It’s much more stable and paradoxically moves much more easily with even heavy loads. Not cheap but highly recommended, even in combination with a sit/stand desk.

Monitor arms seem like an indulgence to most people, but the cost of an ergonomic setup is dwarfed by the cost of wasted productivity and the inevitable medical bills that accumulate after a decade or two of full time screen-based work. For a home-based full-time IT professional like myself there really should be no hesitation in splurging out on a proper setup.



OrthoMouse Review


My interest in ergonomic hardware was triggered in the late 1990s when I contracted a bout of tendonitis while writing up my PhD, working full time as a Research Assistant and starting out with concurrently.

Nothing focuses the attention more than pain and the prospect of ending your IT career before it’s even started. I made a lot of changes both to how I work and the environment that I create for myself to work in. In those years, “human factors” were beginning to become a big thing and the awareness of Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) was rapidly growing.

Back then, I learned to type using the dvorak keyboard layout, got myself a “proper” ergonomic keyboard (Kinesis Advantage), dabbled in voice recognition (a lot of my thesis was dictated into Dragon NaturallySpeaking) and tried pretty much every pointing device out there.. settling finally on the FingerWorks iGesturePad which has become the grand daddy of the iPhone (and as rumors have it the iTablet/ iSlate, etc.).

Since the late 90s, while ergonomic design has entered the main stream, there have been few ergonomic products of particular note and the companies specializing in such gear seem to have fallen on hard times. RSI, while it hasn’t gone away, has gone out of fashion.

It was in that context that when I came across the “Ortho Mouse” I jumped at the opportunity to test one. Here was a product that seemed to break the mould of computer mice and promised some real health advantages.

The “unboxing” of a new piece of kit has become a bit of a review ritual these days. With Apple’s products this is of course usually a special treat. You feel like you’re getting a boutique item presented to you and even companies such as Wacom have started doing a nice job.

Ergonomic gear usually falls flat on its face in this department. Usually it comes straight from its Chinese factory cardboard box filled with little “chips”. In a word, the experience is more “organic food produce” than “Cartier watch”.

The OrthoMouse doesn’t come in a cardboard box but in a nice looking but much maligned “rigid plastic clamshell” package. I usually hate those things because it’s impossible to get the product out of it without cutting yourself somehow which kind of is the point given that it is first and foremost used as an anti-theft device. Luckily, the OrthoMouse doesn’t fail at this first ergonomic hurdle. The packaging is only held in place by the pressure on its rim and comes open very easily without having to apply more than a gentle push. So don’t open it with box cutters, knifes or scissors!

Just in case, you do come across more “traditional” clamshell packages, here are some safety tips for opening such packages (try the can opener technique).

The packaging itself is quite nice, not up to Apple standards, but it does a good job of explaining the main benefits of the product, looks good and it even let’s you put your hand on the mouse to get a “feel” for it before buying it.

Once opened the package contains the mouse, several plastic shells that can be used to adapt the mouse to your hand size and form along with a mini-CD that contains the documentation and some instructional videos. There are three plastic “prolongers” for small, medium and large hands and two “upper adapters”. I’ve got small hands, so I put on the small prolonger and that seemed quite nice already (I like “puck” style mice anyway).

Connecting the mouse to your Mac is as simple as attaching it to the nearest USB port and the default settings are just fine.

My first impressions were very positive. The mouse fits well into my hand and it rests in the typical “vertical mouse” relaxed neutral position with zero tension in your hand.

With “normal” mice (Mighty Mouse, Magic Mouse, Microsoft mouse, Mac “puck”, etc, etc.) the palm of your hand lies pretty much flat or “horizontally” on the mouse. This seems intuitive until you try a “vertical” mouse where your hand is the “handshake” position.

This position is much more comfortable to work in and leaves your forearm and wrist in a neutral position avoiding much of the discomfiture that often ends up in tendonitis and carpal tunnel injury.

What is noticeable to a long term vertical mouse user is that the OrthoMouse isn’t fully “vertical”. Meaning you have to rotate your forearm a little bit towards the body after all. This intrigued me at first but a quick look through the manual revealed that the grip mimics the traditional hand writing position where the thumb and the index finger hold the pen in a pincer position. I can’t vouch for whether this is better than the “vertical” position advocated by vertical mice, but it certainly feels “right” and gives you a feeling of precision that is sometimes absent in vertical mice.

The next thing that is noticeable is that there is no scroll wheel or little trackball, etc.. instead the OrthoMouse uses two micro-switches on the side of the mouse that you activate by moving your thumb up and down. Moving your thumb up will scroll upwards, moving it down will scroll down. The scrolling continues until you release the switch by moving your thumb back into the middle. The desired speed is selected through the number of clicks: clicking once and holding will result in a very slow scroll, clicking twice and holding results in a “normal” speed and beyond three clicks you get into fast territory. This sounds a bit odd, but in practice feels quite comfortable and intuitive. There’s also no problem with accidentally hitting the switches with your thumb; your thumb rests quite comfortably on the body of the mouse and it takes no effort to keep it there. The switches are responsive and take little effort to activate.

The OrthoMouse is a three button mouse and the third button rests just under the top of your thumb, which can be usefully mapped to Exposé. The two main buttons lie in the entirely intuitive index and ring finger positions and the buttons extend all the way from the knuckle to the tip of the fingers so you can use the entire length of your fingers to click. The microswitches again are of good quality and produce a clearly audible clicking sound.

The body of the mouse features high-grip textured surfaces across most of its surface and is made of a light weight plastic material. This doesn’t exactly give it a quality feel (our brains tend to associate heavier as being better) but it does help with the ergonomics by minimizing the effort required to move it across your desk. Even on a less-than-optimal surface the mouse also slides very easily and the tracking and sensitivity are good. The manufactures have even gone the extra mile and provided an “ultra-flexible” cord that “minimizes resistance to displacement”.

I can vouch for the result being vastly superior to the Apple “Magic Mouse” which on the hotel table (velours top!) that I wrote this on had huge problems with its tracking. The OrthoMouse worked just fine.

Having now worked with the mouse for well over a month, it has become my preferred input device. It’s comfortable and intuitive to use and just blends into the background. Precision tasks as well as general pointing and clicking tasks can both be performed without any problems. From a purely tactile point of view, it’s not as satisfying to move around as the Evoluent VerticalMouse, which feels a bit heavier and looks more aesthetically pleasing.

The “OrthoMouse” is a great compromise between proper ergonomic design and everyday practicality. Its industrial design emphasizes function over aesthetics without producing the medical equipment look that so often makes people shy away from such devices.

If you already suffer from a repetitive strain injury, this mouse is definitely worth a try even at its comparatively high price point of $109. If you don’t already have problems, now is probably the best time to make sure that it stays that way.