10 Home Office Tech Essentials (& Where To Get Them) [telecom]

By Megan Summers

Zoom meetings. Endless emails. Excel spreadsheets. Slack chats. These are just a few of the catchphrases that will make almost any at-home worker cringe. For those who have found themselves stuck at home recently, maintaining the boundary between job life and personal life can be tricky.

Distractions are also plentiful at home, be it kids, pets, roommates, or partners. Fortunately, creating a designated home office space, one filled with helpful technology, is more affordable than ever before. The essential tech devices on this list will inspire even the most burnt-out to plow through their daily tasks and increase their productivity tenfold.

10 Dual Monitors

9 Ergonomic Keyboard And Mouse

8 USB Hub

7 Laptop

6 USB Webcam With Built-In Microphone

5 Bluetooth Headphones

4 Wireless Laser Printer

3 Backup Driver

2 Surge Protector With USB

1 Smart Lights

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The URL above points to an article which illultrates some of the types of equipments that are useful in a work-at-home setup. when you're planning how to build, equip, and maintain an effective, efficient, and safe office working environment in your home, the illustrations show the *types* of devices in question, but I'm going to write about some of the things that the article does /NOT/ mention.

The numbered items shown in this reply have explanations after them in the actual article, but I cite them to add my own opinions. Please see the original for the complete context.

Let me think now: IMNSHO(1) ...

10 Dual Monitors

They are a big win for certain situations: two monitors are justi- fied for those whom have jobs in mass-market customer care, but even then, I only /recommend/ two monitors when workers have the worst kind of situation - where there are multiple separate systems to access simulatneously. Don't ask me how I know: I signed an NDA.

Of course, that doesn't mean you can't have two monitors if you think it'll help. But single or double, *DON'T* *cheap* *out*: you want the largest screens with the best resolution you can get, and DO SOME RESEARCH: if your PC has a "built in" video card (i.e., one that's integrated with the motherboard), the odds are it will stop working as soon as you plug in the external card you thought would be all you needed for the second monitor. You MUST have a card that supports *two* monitors, and be SURE it has equal or higher resolution than the monitors /AND/ that it will support full resolution on *both*, AT THE SAME TIME. Don't ask me how I know /this/: telling you would make me feel stupid a-g-a-i-n.

9 Ergonomic Keyboard and Mouse:

Very useful /IF/ you have a desktop machine, /and/ if you do a /lot/ of typing. Even if your laptop is in a docking cradle 99.9% of the time, you'll find that changing from an ergonomic keyboard to the (inevitably) lousy laptop keyboard will be agravating at best and painful at worst.

Do *NOT* assume that an "Ergonomic" keyboard is all you need to have good ergonomics. If you don't have a large work area, a *COMFORTABLE* chair, excellent task-area lighting, good ventilation, and properly situated components, you're setting yourself up to fail.

The author makes the point for me: "officer workers know too well the kinds of arm, neck, shoulder, and back pain that comes along with sitting at a desk all day." However, someone in the photo department tried to get cute: the image associated with the story shows a young, oh-so-happy couple, smiling while they sit on /stools/ at a "desk" made from a piece of plywood and a couple of sawhorses, "working" with a pair of laptops with a brightly-lit window at their back. It's useful as an illustration of all the things you should /NOT/ be doing.

8 USB Hub

Very nice to have /if/ you have a plethora of USB devices that *YOU* use frequently while "at work". If, however, you just want one place to plug every USB device in to charge, then you'll just create a "junkpile" of distractions that could as well be placed elsewhere: don't forget that most phones will probably wind up plugged in to outlets next to the beds their users are in at night.

Again, *DO* *SOME* *RESEARCH*: be sure that any hub you buy has these features:

A. At least 1.5 times as many ports as you currently need

B. Designed for the HIGHEST speeds you'll use - and don't think for a moment that USB 2 is "good enough" just because you're laptop or desktop doesn't have USB 3. Get the best!

C. Is equipped to supply *FULL* power to EVERY port it has, *SIMULTANEOUSLY*, without overheating. That means it will have a /separate/ power supply that plugs into a separate outlet: the one the author mentions is NOT capable of providing *any* charging current, so I don't think it's the best choice.

Many, if not most, of the USB Bridges sold at Office-supply stores will be deficient in one of more areas. Don't settle for second-best.

7 Laptop

This item should really be "New Computer." Laptops are nice for SOME things, and they can serve as a "desktop" equivalent machine in *SOME* circumstances, but I regard them as suitable for in-person meetings and airports or airplanes, not the 8-to-10 hour workdays you'll be doing at home.

No matter what use you intend for a laptop, please learn from my mistake, and get one with the touchpad and mouse-keys mounted out of the way of the keyboard. I was set to order a 17" model, with the touchpad near the screen and to the right of the keyboard, but I got a 15" model with the touch pad in the center, and the keyboard between the touchpad and the screen, because Dell doesn't have a 17" model with an ESD drive. I'm *ALWAYS* moving the mouse when my palms graze the thing as I type, and I haven't found *ANY* effective combination of options that will make that kind of setup satisfying to use.

6 USB Webcam With Built-In Microphone

Well, maybe. The logitech model I use has a good camera, but I don't know if there's /any/ model that can cancel out the "echo chamber" sound that they produce - like talking to someone who insists on using a speakerphone all the time.

I prefer a headset: the microphone is right next to your mouth, and will deliver clear, professional-sounding audio that will help you when you're on a deadline and need to make points concisely and quickly.

By the way, here's a free tip: get in the habit of looking AT THE CAMERA when you talk. It's amazingly hard to do, but it WILL make your remarks a lot more memorable and effective.

5 Bluetooth Headphones

Nice to have if you're required to pull a reference book off a shelf or open a file drawer during a video meeting, but /don't/ forget that Bluetooth is a short-range technology by design. and you won't be able to start cooking dinner or answer the doorbell without risking dropouts.

Wired or wireless, I recommend buying a headset with a microphone, and be sure it has a separate "MUTE" switch on the headset or the cord, where you can jump in to make a quick remark without having to run back to your desk to unmute. Be sure to get something light and comfortable. Noise cancellation is nice, but not as critical as some think, unless you're thinking of working in a noisy area - and that's a work-at-home setup that is broken-by-design.

4 Wireless Laser Printer

Hmmm. Laser printer, yes, *IF* you *MUST* print out lots of things - but most home workers don't. They're cheaper to run than inkjets, /BUT/ it's very easy to fall into the "print it out and put it in a folder" trap. This isn't 1950, you're not a clerk, and you don't need to print out most things you'll produce.

Wireless? OK if it saves you from needing to install another Ethernet connection from your cellar to your work-at-home office, but *NOT* if you use it to try to make any vacant counter in your home into a workplace. The *FIRST* thing to think about when it comes to creating a workspace is *YOUR* comfort and ease-of-use.

WiFi is designed to cut down installation times when creating new workspaces in a professional setting. It is *NOT* going to create a viable, ergonomically-sound workplace when you don't have one already.

3 Backup Driver

Yup, and that's just the start. Many Anti-Virus programs offer "Cloud" backups as a feature, and that's really nice to have when your laptop isn't in the overhead bin at the end of your flight: with luck, the work you did the day before will be available to restore to your new laptop.

But (Repeat after me) "Backups Are Easy! Recoveries are hard!" Modern backup disk drives can hold ten times the info you'll ever create or import. It's easy to plug in a 5 or 10 TB drive once a week and simply write out your entire machine's internal disk.

Then, sooner or later, you'll need to recover that data: a failed internal hard drive, a ransomware virus, a stolen machine, etc. *THAT* is the hard part, so you'll need to practice recovering your laptop and/or desktop from the backup drive, with complete notes about every step you took, and the pitfalls along the way toward having a once-again-productive computer.

The easiest and most robust test is to buy a new hard drive, and swap the old for the new: you'll be in exactly the same situation as you would be if your old machine died/was stolen/was lost. You need to do it at least once, and make thorough notes.

It goes without saying (cheerful S.O.B., isn't he?) that you'll need to have, and maintain, a well-thought-out and easy-to-remember file structure that allows you to quickly restore the subset of files you need /NOW/, to be productive in the meeting that you're due to host in two hours. And, yes, it happened to me.

2 Surge Protector With USB

In a word - *NO*! Gewgaws like that are, at best, solutions looking for a problem. They are marketed to "checklist" buyers: unsophis- ticated junior employees whom are checking off items at the office- supply store while their boss is golfing. Don't fall for it.

Surge protectors belong on the floor, so that the cords that are plugged in don't cover your (precious) desk space, and the floor is the least easy place to plug in a USB cord at the end of a day, or to unplug it at the start. You'll find yourself dirtying the knees of your newly-cleaned suit while doing it, and the USB cords - which are fragile to start with - will always be in the way, given that they're plugged in and removed so often. They'll break frequently and become a trip hazard as well: you'll do much better with a properly sized, separately powered USB HUB, mounted on the wall next to the desk, so that you can send/receive data to/from your USB-connected devices /and/ charge them at the same time, without feeling like you're dancing around USB cords every time you stand or sit.

As if that weren't bad enough, consider the "Surge Protector" part of the device. Surge Protectors are /NOT/ reusable devices: once they arrest a surge, they're dead and must be replaced. If you get a surge, you'll wind up with a broken outlet strip which probably won't have any USB charging outlets left in usable condition.(2)

Oh, and just in case this old nag isn't dead yet, I'll beat the beast one more time. Anyone who works at home needs not only surge protecton, but also an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS). Up here in the hills of North Carolina, our power flicks off and on about twicce a week, for just long enough to reboot a desktop that doesn't have a UPS at the end of its power cord. Most UPS devices have surge protection built in, but you'll need to do yet more research: the device that will keep /your/ system from crashing the night before the big presentation will have to be sized, maintained, and tested so that you can be sure it will keep /ALL/ your devices going long enough to email and/or print out the report, backup your data, and shutdown gracefully before you dig out the Scrabble game and enjoy a quiet evening with the kids.

1 Smart Lights

Do yourself a favor: buy a well made desk lamp at a yard sale. You don't need anything that you can't fix yourself, and complications are the enemy of productivity. Don't forget that /YOU/ are the only repairman available, and if you can't plug in a new bulb within a minute or two, you've bought a time-sucker that's just making your life harder in the long run.

0 Last, a couple of "think outside the envelope" options.

A. No matter how much it costs, pay for the "Within-24-hours"(3) *ON* *SITE* maintenance for your PC, monitor(s), printer, and router, and /always/ keep a /new/ keyboard and mouse on hand! You are *WORKING* at home, not studying computer maintenance! You need to have someone to call when something breaks!

B. If you work in sales, and are in a state that still requires ILECs to offer IDSN wired phone service, *seriously* consider spending for the digital connection. It will be expensive, but you'll be astonished at the added voice fidelity and clarity you'll enjoy. Don't hesitate: if it's available, order it *now*. You'll thank me when you see your income statement, because it sounds so much better that you'll get better sales results.



  1. In My Not-So-Humble Opinion
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  2. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't have a surge protector. They are *designed* to protect downstream devices by giving up their electronic lives to save other, much more expensive devices from irreperable harm. That's the only way to do it at a price SOHO users can afford.

  1. If waiting for up to 24 hours will cost you a day's pay, I recommend that you obtain and assemble a "twin" system that is /functionally/ the same as the regular one. It doesn't have to be as powerful, or have as many monitors, or even run all the same software. As long as you can do /some/ functions and keep your boss happy, it'll pay for itself sooner or later. If all else fails, there are places that rent laptops, and most likely a library nearby with a public WiWi connection.

Reply to
Bill Horne

I apoligize to the Telecomd Digest readers. I have noticed some errors in the post I sent yesterday, and I hope this post will make my remarks more clear.

I also noticed that I used too many "bold" or "italic" formatting marks, so I'm going to cut way back on them. I'm sorry if I seem strident, but there's a good reason: in the late 90s, I broke my leg very badly, and had to work from home for almost a year. I learned a lot about the equipment needed to be productive, and even more about the tricks you need to know about when doing your job from home, and I like to spare others the need to learn it all the hard way like I had to.

Bill Horne (Remove QRM from my email address to write to me directly)

I forgot to mention that you can usually borrow someone else's monitor to test if you like the look and feel. It's also an easy way to find out if your system can handle two monitors, if you already have a spare video jack available.

I also forgot to mention that the most important "ergonomic" change you can make is to have your keyboard at the proper position, which is almost always below the table-top. Your elbows should be at a right-angle to your upper arm when you position your hands over the keyboard, so you're less tempted to rest your palms on the table while you type. Most tables made for use as workstations have a keyboard shelf to make this easy.

There's a great money saving idea: get some longer USB cords for the hub, so that you can place phones, tablets, etc., at arm's length while they charge. Not only will it keep unused devices from crowding the oh-so-precious deskspace near your keyboard, but the cords can be replaced cheaply and quickly if a USB plug gets bent or crushed, and the hub won't be any the worse for wear.

If you are in this situation, as I am, you might be able to work around it. I have a laptop with an hdmi port, which I can plug in to my TV set so as to use the TV as a giant screen. It's a bit of a hack, and takes a while to get used to, but I can set the laptop on the table next to my easy chair, and use a wireless keyboard to do my work: I have a Logitech keyboard with a built-in mouse pad that's NEXT TO the keyboard, instead of in front of it.

There's a bigger point here: working at home is all about being willing to try different things and innovate to get what you want.

I also forgot to mention that when you use a headset with its own mic, you'll need to get in the habit of testing the audio connection before joining a video chat. Zoom, and the other video services I've used, make it easy to switch from the built-in mic to your headset mic when you are in the "test" screen.

There's a problem I should mention: when you're depending on your local "mute" button to keep others on a video chat from hearing your sink running, you'll sometimes get stranded when a "moderator" mutes everyone on the call to cut down on noise from other attendees.

So, if you use your local "mute" button, and then you're asked to say something, and folks don't take the hint of seeing your chair empty or your video off, you'll just have to wait until the moderator figures it out, or until you're done with the sink and can get back to your PC.

I'm not anti-printer: I'm just reluctant to imply that printing something means the job is done. If you must prepare printed output for someone you can't send a file to, be sure to have the Post office, UPS, FedEx, and DHL drop off points and pickup schedules handy. Be sure to have pre-paid shipping labels ready, along with appropriate envelopes, so that you can be sure whomever couldn't print your paper locally has it in front of them before the associated meeting.

Here's another trick you may find comes in handy: if someone calls you up and says that they can't print your presentation, just send them a copy that you saved in HTML format. When they open it, it will come up in their browser, and they can almost always print it from there.

There's also another work-around that few people realize is available. If someone can't print your file, just ask them to open up a video conference right then, with just the two of you participating, and then ask them to turn on the "record" feature of the video meeting software, and make you the "presenter," so the video software will record the screen and your voice while you page through the file for their benefit. The recordings come out in mp4 or similar "portable" format, which almost any computer can open, so they can replay the meeting and make all the notes they want before the actualy video conference starts.

I won't add anything here: just remember to rehearse recovering a drive before you need to.


There's something else to consider: you may be able to get your boss to loan you a machine, or borrow one, while yours is being repaired. As I wrote before, you can build a spare machine that's "good enough" to keep your boss happy while you wait. Old, but still serviceable, PC's can be had from a number of sources, sometimes just for the asking.

Just set it up and test it in advance: it's all about having options.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

While on the subject of disaster-recovery methods, I'll touch again on the WiFi connections available at many libraries. You might wonder why I don't recommend just going in and signing up to use one of the public computers?

Here's why:

A. They have AV software and/or firewalls which break VPN's.

B. You can only sign up for a limited time: typically, two hours max.

C. The three O'Clock schoolkid rush will make the environment crowded, the machines overbooked, and you a nervous wreck.

So, I recommend planning to use libraries only for WiFi, and bring a laptop with you.

OK, I couldn't believe I wrote "IDSN." Sorry.

You are looking for an Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) Basic Rate Interface (BRI) phone line connection. When you call your local phone company, you might think the job will be easy, but hold on to your hat: they might be overjoyed to hear that you want an "ISDN" line, and might transfer you to the "Business" part of the business office to get one, and then you'll think I'm a rich madman for having suggested the idea, when you get a quote for over a thousand dollars per month for "IDSN" service!

Relax, kick back, take a breath, and rest assured that I'm neither rich nor mad: they are almost certainly assuming that you represent a company which wants to rent a "PRI," which is a PRIMARY rate interface used to connect private branch exchanges directly to the PRI interface section of the central office. A "PRI" can handle 23 simultaneous phone calls, and they're very common in big cities where there are a lot of PBX's, and they cost more than any homeowner could afford.

Talk your way to the person or group that deals with BASIC rate interface ISDN service. A "BRI" ISDN line includes two phone numbers, and a ~9600 bps data channel, and if your state PUC still has them in a tariff somewhere, the phone cmpany will install one after you convince them you're able to use one.

But, here's the catch: ISDN is a DIGITAL service. You can't attach your existing analog phone to it: you must buy and connect an ISDN interface, usually a small router with a "BRI" card installed. Cisco made one, altough I don't recall the exact model number, but it was one of the 2500 series.

Why, you might ask, should I go to all that trouble?

Imagine someone from your office is on the phone, demanding to know where in the building you are at that moment, unable to believe that you're actually at home. IT HAPPENED TO ME, more than once! That's how good the quality of ISDN phone lines are!

You might have to negotiate for a while, but if it's still under tariff in your state, you'll win. Trust me: it's worth it.

Reply to
Bill Horne

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