I, like many of you, have spent the better part of a year working from home. But over the last 11 months I've done surprisingly little to improve my working environment.
In fact, until recently, my approach to remote work could best be described as Spartan. No monitor, no keyboard, no mouse, just my laptop. I treated my home kind of like a coffee shop, plunking down my laptop wherever was convenient and getting to work. Sometimes I’d work from my desk, others times my kitchen table, and sometimes on slow days I’d work from my couch.
But even with a vaccine on the way, I'll almost certainly be spending the next four-to-six months working from home, and when I do return the office, it won't be for the full work week. My company is transitioning to a flex work, or hybrid work model, which means I'll still be working from home at least part of the week. While it will take some adjusting, I think it is a smart move that will help keep everyone safe and allow us to grow our staff without increasing our footprint.
Faced with this prospect, I decided to start the year off by giving my home office a much needed upgrade. And so, I thought I’d share a few recommendations based on my experience thus far.
Get yourself a big 4K monitor
Did you know 4K monitors aren’t that expensive anymore? This was my first big upgrade after trading in my old notebook for a M1 MacBook Pro earlier this winter. It was sort of the catalyst for this project.
It turns out you don’t have to spend a whole lot to get a 4K display with reasonable color accuracy, if you’re willing to make a few compromises and do a little hunting. I paid about $250 for a 28-inch Samsung UR550 4K monitor, that, as far as I can tell, is a Best Buy exclusive.
I bought the monitor for productivity and eventually light gaming, but it should also be decent for creative work once I get a chance to properly calibrate it. For now, I’m sticking to my MacBook’s retina display for image edits.
For getting work done, the extra screen real estate afforded by the 4K panel is invaluable. With UI scaling set in MacOS to 2560x1440 (similar to setting scaling to 175% in Windows), I have just enough room for all my windows without text and graphics getting too small to read comfortably.
If you are planning on picking up a new monitor for your home office, make sure it has a quality stand, or better yet, a VESA mount. A lot of monitors, especially inexpensive ones like my Samsung, lack pan and heigh adjustments. To get around this limiation, I mounted my monitor to a cheap monitor arm I found on Amazon for about $30.
The asymmetrical design of the monitor arm gives it a really clean aesthetic that I quite like. It's almost like the monitor is floating off my desk.
As a final note if you’ve got the room, consider getting a larger monitor. 27-inches might feel huge at first, especially if you’re coming from a 13-inch or 15-inch laptop display, but you’ll get used to it quickly.
As a side note, it’s always a good idea to position your monitor in front of a bright light source like a window. If your monitor is the brightest thing in your corner of the room, it can cause eye strain.
If putting your monitor in front of a window isn’t possible, a LED bias lighting kit is a great alternative. I’m using a Luminoodle kit since it was well reviewed, but pretty much any LED light strip will do the trick.
Upgrade your typing experience
Without a doubt, the home office upgrade that’s made the biggest difference has been getting a better keyboard.
If you’re a long time Mac user, it’s hard not to recommend either of Apple’s Magic Keyboards. They have fantastic scissor switches, large key caps, long battery lives, and best of all seamless pairing with MacOS.
PC users wanting a similar experience should check out Microsoft’s Surface Keyboard. It’s quite similar to Apple’s full-size Magic Keyboard, but tailored for use in Windows 10.
But if, like me, your job involves a lot of typing, a mechanical keyboard can offer a far more rewarding experience.
After a little research, I picked up a Keychron K1. It’s available in full-size and 10-keyless layouts, but more importantly, it’s one of the few mechanical keyboards designed with Mac users in mind. Out of the box, the keyboard features a pretty standard Macintosh keyboard layout, complete with multifunction buttons on the top row. But don’t worry, if you’re not a Mac user, the keyboard comes with additional key caps and a key cap puller for PC users.
The K1 is somewhat unique in that it features Gateron’s low-profile switches in your choice of reds, blues, and browns. As their name suggests, they have a shorter travel, making them a little easier to get used to coming from a chiclet or membrane keyboard.
By the way, if you’re new to mechanical keyboards, red switches depress smoothly and relatively quietly; blues have a tactile bump when depressed and produce a relatively loud and somewhat polarizing click; and browns come in somewhere in the middle. They keep the tactile bump, but ditch the obnoxious click. You can probably tell I’m not a big fan of blue switches.
Just a word of warning, make sure your co-workers are okay with you getting a relatively loud mechanical keyboard before making the switch. This is especially important if you’re thinking about getting one with blue switches.
Doomscroll a little smoother
2020 was the year of doomscrolling. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to scrolling through an endless feed of despair, whether that be scrolling through Twitter, Reddit or your favorite news aggregator. Personally, I spent a lot of time doomscrolling Apple News in 2020.
And I don’t expect doomscrolling will be going away for a while, so why not upgrade your mouse for a slightly less terrible one. I’ve really been enjoying the Logitech MX Master 2S, which my brother got me for Christmas.
The MX Master (the original, 2S or 3) are endlessly customizable, and critically for anyone who uses MacOS or spends a lot of time in spreadsheets, features a thumb wheel for horizontal scrolling. Additionally, the mouse features two vertical scrolling modes: a classic ratcheted mode for precise scrolling, and a flywheel mode for flying through large documents.
I really can’t recommend this mouse enough. It’s an absolute joy to use.
For those that prefer a trackpad, you can’t do much better than Apple’s Magic Trackpad. Yes, it’s expensive, but you’re getting the same legendary tracking you’ll find on the company’s MacBooks.
The Magic Mouse on the other hand is best avoided. I have no idea why Apple hasn’t redesigned it yet, because it’s just awful. The touch-sensitive surface is nice since it allows you to navigate MacOS using gestures similar to the Magic Trackpad, but in practice it’s really rather uncomfortable to use.
Worse, newer versions of the Magic Mouse have an integrated lithium ion battery, which sounds like an improvement over AA batteries, but the charging port is located on the bottom. As a result, it looks like a dead turtle every time you have to plug it in.
If you do pick up a mouse, consider throwing a mouse pad in your cart too. I’ve never really cared for mouse pads until now, but for $10, Razer’s Pro Glide and Goliathus mousepads provide a large, smooth tracking surface.
Level up your setup
One cable to rule them all
One of the biggest challenges since I transitioned to remote work is maintaining a decent work/life balance. It’s easy for one to bleed into the other. To help mitigate this, I like to have a clear divide between where I work and where I live. That means I don’t tend to spend a lot time in my office when I’m not working unless I need a larger display.
However, plugging and unplugging a bunch of cables every time I want to move from one room to another is tedious and annoying. So for my office upgrade, I went for a one-cable solution and picked up an Anker PowerExpand Thunderbolt dock.
The dock can supply 85 watts of power to my laptop and allows me turn one port into many without taking a performance hit. It features four USB-A ports, HDMI 2.0, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two 10 Gb/s USB-C ports, a full size and micro SD card reader, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and gigabit Ethernet.
The only downsides to Thunderbolt docks is that they’re expensive, and you’ll need a compatible notebook. I picked up the Anker Thunderbolt dock on sale for $200, and at that price, it’s definitely worth a try. Unfortunately, it usually retails for $250, which is a tougher sell. The CalDigit TS3 Plus sells for the same amount, offers more ports and is better reviewed.
If your laptop doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3 or 4, but has a USB-C port, Anker does have a USB-C version of its Thunderbolt dock, but I didn’t have good luck with it. The Anker PowerExpand 13-in-1 USB-C dock that I ordered arrived already opened and neither of the HDMI ports were working.
I can, however, recommend Anker’s 8-in-1 PowerExpand USB-C hub, which features pass through power delivery for charging, three 10 Gb/s USB ports, support for 4K displays at 60Hz over HDMI, and sells for less than a quarter of what a Thunderbolt 3 dock will set you back. The only thing I didn’t like about it was it had a pretty short cable that was fixed to the hub.
I also tested two USB-C hubs from Aukey, but found them to be just okay. While they were functional, neither supported 4K at 60Hz, and they lacked the fit and finish of Anker’s hubs.
Make some noise
Despite my father’s best efforts, I’m not an audiophile. So, when it came to finding a pair of desktop speakers for my home office, I was more concerned with finding something that was louder than my MacBook’s speakers, and if they sounded good, all the better.
I ended up getting a pair of Creative Pebble desktop speakers from Amazon. I got the V3 model, but if you don’t need Bluetooth, the previous model is otherwise identical and half the price.
I actually quite like how these little speakers look and for about $25, they sound a lot better than you’d expect. I did find them to be a little muddy sounding on Zoom and Webex calls at lower volumes, but turning them up seemed to help with clarity.
These speakers are USB-bus powered, so you’ll need to connect them to a port that can provide at least 10 watts — 5 volts 2 amps — for them to operate at full power. They’ll still work on less powerful ports, but you’ll need to switch them from high to automatic gain. If you don’t, you’ll get random disconnects any time the power draw gets too high.
A laptop stand can save your neck
Even if you’re not using your notebook with an external monitor, there are a lot of benefits to using a laptop stand, not the least of which is ergonomics. Your back will thank me.
And since we’re all spending an inordinate amount of time on video conferences these days, raising your notebook up a few inches will put your webcam at a much more natural angle too.
As a Mac user, I’ve always been partial to Twelve South’s laptop stands. They are well built, simple, and stylish. But they also tend to be a fair bit more expensive. I picked up their Curve laptop stand for about $50 over the holidays and have been quite happy with it.
If you’re looking for something that’s height adjustable, I can also recommend Twelve South’s HiRise. It’s a little more expensive than the Curve but perfect for lining up your laptop with an external monitor.
But if you don’t want to spend $50-plus on, what is at the end of the day, a piece of aluminum, I’ve also had good luck with this laptop stand from Nulaxy. It lacks the build quality of the Twelve South Curve, but it’s also half the cost.
I’ll keep this section relatively short since my recommendations haven’t changed much since I last wrote about storage.
For bulk storage, I’m still using G-Technology’s 4TB G-Drives. They are reasonably fast — I clocked read and write speads in excess of 165MB/s — thanks to their 7200 RPM HGST hard drives. And at around $140, they are a pretty good deal.
One of the reasons I keep coming back to these is their use of HGST drives, which are consistently ranked among the most reliable in Backblaze’s quarterly reliability report.
One thing to be aware of is G-Technology's drives come pre-formatted with the HFS+ file system. This means they’ll work out of the box with Macs, but will need to be reformatted to NTFS for use with PCs. Just don't format it with ExFat. Cross compatability is nice, but the lack of file system journaling will lead to a corrupted drive in short order.
The only downside to these drives is they can be quite noisy. This can be a bit jarring at first, especially if you’re used to slower drives, and definitely something to consider when recording audio in their vicinity.
If you’re looking for something a little smaller or portable, I’ve had good luck with G-Technology’s ArmorATD rugged drives, which feature three layers of shock protection and an IP54 rain and dust resistant enclosure.
They aren’t the fastest drives though. As far as I can tell, it's using a rather poky Western Digital 2.5-inch drive, which averaged about 95 MB/s in Blackmagic Disk Speed Test.
For high speed storage, it’s hard to beat Samsung’s T5 and T7 portable SSDs.
This is another section I’m going to keep on the short side, since I already wrote a post on my home networking upgrade last summer.
Hardwire all the things
Enterprise-grade networking gear may have its perks, but I can’t recommend it for everyone. With that said, a cheap, unmanaged switch is a great way to extend wired networking to your home office. And since it’s unmanaged, there is no configuration required, just plug everything in and you’re off to the races.
Hardwiring your gear might sound inconvenient compared to WiFi, but it can make a big difference, especially if you’re in a crowded apartment complex where your neighbor’s wireless routers, access points and even baby monitors can cause interference.
Simply run an Ethernet cable from your wireless router to your office and plug in the switch. I’m using this five-port one from TP-Link that I found on Amazon for about $15. Once it’s connected to the rest of your network, you’ll have access to four additional network ports that you can use to hardwire your laptop, desktop, NAS, or printer.
If you are concerned about security, you can pick up a managed switch for a few bucks more and create a separate vLAN for your work equipment. This is particularly useful when paired with quality of service features that let you prioritize traffic from certain ports or vLANs.
I’m using this eight-port managed switch from Netgear since I use power-over-Ethernet (PoE) to drive my wireless access points. If you don’t need PoE, you can probably get by with something much cheaper. Just make sure it supports layer-3 switching if you want to mess around with network segmentation.
Add an Ethernet port
If your laptop lacks an Ethernet port, you can add one pretty easily either with one of the docks or hubs I mentioned previously, or with a dedicated Ethernet dongle.
I’ve had great luck with this inexpensive gigabit Ethernet adapter from TP-Link. It features integrated cable management and a full-size USB 3.0 port. At around $13, it’s also one of the least expensive name-brand options on the market. If you’re living in the future, TP-Link also has a USB-C version that’s about $15.
My last recommendation is to set aside a little cash to do some proper cable management. There is no one right way to approach this, but I’ve linked the items I'm using in case you need some inspiration. With that said, I'd definately look around to see if you can find better pricing elsewhere.
- J-Channels with mounting tape - 94-inches ($24 Amazon)
- 3/4-inch split nylon sleeving - 10-feet ($10.99 Amazon)
- Large cable box (Amazon)
- Anker 12-port surge protector ($24.64 Amazon)
- 3M cable clips ($7.99 Amazon)
- Velcro loop ties ($6.49 Amazon)
If you liked this post, you might enjoy these too:
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- Are you working from home?
- What creature comforts or office upgrades have you made?
- What recommendations do you have?
- Would you like to see more posts like this one?