It’s well documented that sitting too long in front of a PC can be hazardous to your health.
Fortunately, new products can help relieve wrist and back pain; plus, three books that can help Windows 8 users get the most out of their OS.
Ever wonder why you’re sore and tired — both physically and mentally — after a day of laboring at your PC? The typical workstation configuration might account for much of your stress. Keyboards can lead to debilitating pain in hands and arms; slumping in your chair for hours can easily lead to back and shoulder pain. Add the frustrations of adapting to Windows 8.1, and it’s a wonder we make it through the day.
Good work habits such as standing up every 30 minutes is so can help make our work less taxing. But using the right equipment can also improve our daily grind. To overcome these mind and body issues, here are some useful products that increased my productivity. They might help boost yours, too.
Programmable, mechanical keyboards really click
Whether you type on a laptop or a desktop keyboard, it’s almost assured you’re pounding away on a membrane keyboard — so called because it uses a uniform, flexible, plastic or rubber membrane under the keys.
Membrane keyboards are incredibly inexpensive, but they often have poor tactile feedback. The sad fact is that most of us have grown used to the mushy feel of membrane keyboards. Why is that a problem, you ask? Without good tactile feedback, we tend to completely depress every keystroke, which, over hours of typing, leads to finger and hand fatigue — and potentially debilitating carpal-tunnel syndrome (more info).
It’s unlikely you can find a classic IBM Selectric keyboard to fit your PC, but various companies are making Selectric-like alternatives. Func’s new KB-460 (more info), for example, is a mechanical keyboard that I found surprisingly comfortable. Designed as a programmable keyboard for computer gamers who need fast reaction time and durability, the KB-460 works well for business applications, too.
Figure 1. Func's KB-460 keyboard gives the feel of a classic electric typewriter but adds modern touches such as backlit, laser-etched key characters.
Unlike membrane keyboards, mechanical models have an individual switch under each key, much like the precomputing, electric typewriters. Mechanical key switches vary in audible click and tactical feedback, but one characteristic is common to nearly all — they’re designed to endure 50 million or more keystrokes. (Membrane keyboards typically have a duty cycle of five to 10 million keystrokes.)
The key switches in the Func KB-460 have gold-plated contacts that enhance the keyboard’s durability. A steel spring under each key switch produces an audible click when the switch closes. With a bit of time and retraining, that feedback can improve the speed and comfort of constant data entry.
As you’d expect, the KB-460 has a few tricks never found on the old mechanical keyboards. For example, it offers four levels of key illumination, making the laser-etched characters on each key more readable. And unlike the printed letters on most membrane keyboards, the key characters on the KB-460 won’t wear off with heavy, continued use.
Although the USB-connected Func keyboard is plug-and-play, installing the included software lets you reassign buttons and customize key configurations. You can also add up to 10 boilerplate macros, each assigned to a different key. Another nice touch: the KB-460 includes two pass-through USB ports as well.
Figure 2. The KB-460's software allows extensive customization, but making those changes isn't especially intuitive.
Not everything about the KB-460 is well designed. I consider myself something of a PC expert, but programming the keyboard was akin to filling in the New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle. It’s doable, but it takes some concentration. Although the software’s keyboard template (see Figure 2) is primarily designed for gamers, there are preset navigational enhancements and custom key assignments for some business applications.
Ultimately, customizing the KB-460 adds some convenience. It’s the renewed feel of typing on a fine, responsive keyboard — with increased speed and accuracy — that made me love Func’s offering. The list price is U.S. $120 — about triple the cost of most good membrane keyboards. But hey! How much is your typing comfort worth?
LUMOback takes a digital approach to posture
I’m the first to admit I slump in my office chair while working at the computer. But I’m far from alone; it’s probable that most PC users tend to slouch through the day. And we wonder where our frequent back and neck pain comes from?
There are numerous devices for improving our work posture — from special chairs to standing workstations. But they tend to be expensive. So I was curious to try the $150 LUMOback (info), which takes a novel approach to maintaining a correct posture.
This isn’t some over-priced pillow you stick between you and your chair. The LUMOback is a wafer-thin sensor attached to a waist belt that tracks your movements — and progress — via Bluetooth to an iPhone or selected Android devices.
Figure 3. The LUMOback sensor is worn around your waist; it buzzes you when you're not sitting properly. Source: Lumo BodyTech
You start by establishing your particular correct (erect) and slouching positions. The LUMOback iOS/Android app then uses a stick-figure avatar to show your back’s current position. Seeing how I was holding myself — whether sitting, standing, or walking — was a wake-up call. When not connected to an iOS or Android device, the LUMOback sensor still acts as a posture nag, buzzing when I sank back to my bad habits.
Figure 4. When connected to an Android or iOS device, LUMOback tracks your correct-posture progress.
Testing the Lumoback for a couple of weeks, I initially got repeated zap-in-the-back reminders. But by the third day, the nudges came less frequently. Using it regularly during the day, the sensor’s battery lasted about four days and took just 90 minutes to recharge. I haven’t needed an Ibuprofen in a week, but I still get the occasional buzz, reminding me that I need to sit and stand upright to prevent future back and shoulder aches.
Venturing into Win8.1 with the right guidebooks
We’re all familiar with that saying, “Old habits die hard.” With Windows 8, they seem to die harder (apologies, Bruce Willis). The learning curve for Win8 is steeper than any previous Windows version, with the possible exception of Windows 1.0. Certainly, it’s steeper and longer than Microsoft intended. So it’s not surprising that there’s quite a selection of Windows 8 guide books to choose from.
Amazon, for example, has over 30 Windows 8.1 books for sale — and choosing the right one or two for your needs can be vexing. After reviewing numerous guides, I can recommend three that will be valuable to Win8.1 users of any skill level. (Note: The prices given below are the publisher’s list price. You can typically find these books on Amazon for less. All three books come in both print and ebook formats.)
We, of course, recommend Windows Secrets as your first Win8 resource. But we also believe that differing perspectives can help illuminate a task or solution to a problem. To see how each author approached a particular Win8 feature, I chose File History, which automatically backs up most user data. (Fred Langa covered File History in the July 11, 2013, Top Story, “Understanding Windows 8′s File History.”) I also checked each book for any unique features that might separate it from the pack.
Windows 8.1: The Missing Manual ($40; site).
Written by David Pogue, this is the manual Microsoft should have included with each copy of its operating system. An exhaustive, 928-page tome, Windows 8.1: The Missing Manual discusses all consumer versions of Version 8.1 — from the tablet-based Windows 8.1 RT to the top-of-the-line Pro.
Clearly written and well indexed, the Win8.1 Missing Manual is appropriate for all levels of Windows users. I particularly liked the page layouts, with tip-associated screenshots to further clarify the already clearly written instructions and sidebar tips. Two features seemingly unique to this book are found in the appendices at the end. Fun with the Registry should once and for all, take the mystery out of using RegEdit.
The Where’d It Go section brings together the various features we used in earlier versions of Windows and tells us where they’re now located in Win8.1 — or that they were eliminated altogether. There’s also a pointer to missingmanuals.com, for tips and freeware that would have in years past been found on CDs.
I found File History in the 31 page index, where you’d expect it to be — under File History. How to maximize File History’s value is, like the rest of the Win8.1 Missing Manual, finely delineated in layperson terms for both novice and advanced users.
Windows 8.1 All-in-One for Dummies, ($35; site).
Billed as 10 books in one, this 1,000+ page, four-pound guide was written by Windows Secret’s senior editor Woody Leonhard. As its title suggests, Windows 8.1 All-in-One for Dummies is an easy-to-understand, step-by-step guide to the ins and outs of Microsoft’s most complicated Windows. The book includes a 52-page index. As with Windows 8.1: The Missing Manual, Win8.1 All-in-One is suitable for all levels of PC users — novice to advanced.
Like the layouts for all Dummies books, each chapter nearly overflows with illustrative screenshots that highlight the specific points under discussion. Icons next to the text help guide you out of some Win8.1 rabbit holes by pointing you to further info at Askwoody.com, pinpointing an apropos tip, giving a warning of a common pitfall, or explaining “technical stuff.”
Unique to this book is the Best Free Windows Add-on section, which directs us to must-have add-ons, the software you don’t need, and advice concerning other valuable free apps.
File History is indexed under its own name (thank you), and, like the other Win8.1 features discussed in the rest of the book, it’s explained with simple step-by-step instructions.
Windows 8.1 Inside Out ($35, info)
Published by Microsoft Press, Tony Northup’s guide is a dense 700+ pages of less-than-easy-to-read San Serif type. Although there are a profuse number of screenshots, they’re not always labeled with clarifying captions. But in most instances, the straightforward text works without illustrations.
In addition to the main 40-page index, two index pages are devoted to troubleshooting topics — a nice touch. The eBook edition, currently available for free via a code included with the print version, also includes 50 instructional videos, matched to chapters in the book.
File History is indexed both by its name and as a subtopic under Backups. However the actual File History instructions were not as easily read as those in the two other books I reviewed.
I recommend this book for intermediate to advanced Windows users.