Ask LH: What Notebook Should I Buy For Telecommuting?

Hi LH, I’m going to be moving interstate in the coming months and my employer wants me to continue working as a telecommuter. The boss will be buying me a notebook to work with. I've barely used them before as I’ve always been a Windows desktop man, so what should I recommend for him to get me?

My software requirements are nothing more strenuous than Skype and the Microsoft Office suite. I will need to do a lot of my work using a remote desktop due to an in-office router configuration I won't be able to replicate at home. A very cheap notebook or even a netbook could easily handle that. Budget is a concern though. I haven’t been given a price range, but I suspect every $100 under $1000 is going to be appreciated.

My main concern is size: is it practicable to work daily on the keyboard of a 13in or 15in notebook and will the screen size bother me? I currently use 23in monitors on home and work desktops. For the most part my work environment is going to be at a desk in a spare bedroom at home, though I will travel back to the office on occasion.

The need for daily comfort versus the lack of need for power is a bit of a compromise. Should I go for a lightweight notebook attached to USB keyboard and a monitor or go for a more full-featured model with only a USB mouse? Comments and advice from Lifehacker readers would be much appreciated!

Thanks, Laptop Newbie

Picture by Tina Lawson

Dear LN,

This is definitely an area where reader experience will be more useful than my observations, so please feel free to share thoughts in the comments. I'll just offer a handful of starter observations:

  • Given that you're not really looking for a travel machine, I'd go for a larger screen (17 inches or more). This isn't a keyboard issue: I use much smaller machines than that and have no problems typing. I just suspect that if you're used to a 23in monitor, dropping that much screen real estate will be a shock.
  • That said, if you're using a desk in your bedroom, I'd resist having the monitor unless you also plan to use it as a TV. Having just a notebook means you can close it up and separate your work life from your bedroom life to some extent. For the same reason, I'd resist having a separate keyboard, though admittedly it's not hard to put one in a drawer.
  • Make sure that you have a good support package/warranty which includes on-the-premises service. While that will cost a little extra, for a machine you're using to earn your crust, it's a sensible investment for a remote worker.

Now it's over to you, readers. Particular machines you'd recommend? Experience with a notebook and monitor setup? Other thoughts? Tell all in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    My mum works from home and she has a large laptop, but still needs a wireless mouse and a separate keyboard. Compare to minus keyboard, there's a significant improvement in comfort with a full-size keyboard.
    The added feature of a number keypad if you do a lot of data entry will be a lifesaver, too.

    My suggestion: get a larger screened laptop, put it on a stand, and get the separate keyboard and mouse.

    to be honest, any 13" laptop with a core i3+ and 4Gb of Ram should be more than enough, but I would invest in an external monitor, and a wireless combo of keyboard and mouse. If you only have to travel on the occasion, then you can take the time to plug/unplug everything but you will be more productive and comfortable at home.

    That's what I have when I work from home and I take only my laptop and the mouse with me when I need to travel.

    I'd take a different approach here: if you're getting a laptop, it should be portable

    You already have a 23" monitor at home, and most monitors have multiple inputs. Get a smaller laptop (I'd say 12"-13"), plug it in to an unused vga/dvi/hdmi input, and grab a cheap external keyboard and mouse. You get the screen real estate when you want it, and can still take advantage of the benefits of telecommuting - working from the couch, a park, or your local pub.

    For office and skype, you can get away with almost anything. Pick a screen size, see what the big manufacturers have in that size (dell/hp/others all have similar models), and buy one on special around the $700-$800 mark.

    Angus: It may not change your answer much but his workspace is in the spare bedroom, not his actual bedroom.

    I think Laptop Newbie needs to ask a few questions of his environment first before he makes any such decision.
    Fair enough, he doesn’t have much need to raw power and speed, but a few major questions which will affect how enjoyable or frustrating he finds the experience are:

    - Where will the laptop be primarily used? In a home office? On the dining table? On public transport?
    - How valuable is screen real estate? Doing data analysis in my current and previous role, I found having a big 22-24” screen advantageous for working with multiple spreadsheets in Excel, something to bear in mind when you’re limited to a 11-17” screen of a notebook PC.

    Though with the primary focus (from his employer) being on budget, I get the feeling that sticking with a cheap and simple 15.6” notebook will be the best way to go. There’s seldom cost advantages in going for a smaller size than this, and there is arguably the best range for choice in this form factor.

    From my own experience, I typically find that having the availability of a proper keyboard, mouse, and larger 22-24” display helpful when available, but also enjoyed the portability of a smaller factor laptop, to allow for easy portability when on the daily commute to and from work.
    I had a dockable 12.1” notebook, with docks both at my desk in the office, and at home – each connected to keyboard, mouse, display and network. I found this gave me the best of both worlds.

    agree to some points,

    1. Get a Large monitor and a smaller Laptop
    However, make sure that the laptop has good grunt, Core2Duo i5 atleast and a SSD, othersie you will be frustrated with the smaller laptops pretty soon.

    2. It is always better to use an external mouse and keyboard, if the laptop will become your workstation.

    3. The Apple Laptops are the best PC's, in all respects. The CPU Power, the SSD and the Display even when used without an external monitor.

    the Mac Book Airs are pretty good, get the 13" version and an external HDD if you will require a lot of data, SSD's are small.

    cheers,

      Except that the MBP/MBA are well above the $1k budget.

        .. and Apple laptops are far from the best PCs.

    I'm with everyone else: first and second-hand experience is that you're better off with a small notebook and a full-sized screen/keyboard/mouse. Especially if you're remote-desktopping into a machine at work - a netbook would be sufficient.

    You can get a screen, keyboard and mouse for <$300 total. The rest of your budget (say, $500-$700) covers a whole variety of sizes and capabilities of Windows netbooks/notebooks from which you can choose based on your needs. $600 can get you a basic Dell netbook with two years on-site service.

    A few years ago I asked myself the same question. I wanted light weight, portability and huge battery life.

    I settled on the ASUS UL30VT. 13 inch screen but no disk drive. That didn't bother me.

    If you don't want a disk drive, I'd recommend waiting a bit for the latest ASUS UX31.

    I'm planning to buy the wife one to replace her mac book.

    Just my opinion.

    When I got my girlfriend.. err.. fiance` (now) her new laptop a few weeks back I opted for a 14".. it's plenty big enough.. 13" is getting a little on the small side though still reasonable.. 15" and higher is where you are starting to lug around a lot of heavy hardware. Sure, it's great to have 17".. but you have to carry it too.. 15" used to be a good middle ground but I've found that 14" is ideal.

    After seeing that photo, I have decided I will telecommute, and devote every minute of my life to that goal.

    Just look at it!

    On a serious note, I work with a guy who telecommutes (I work in the office in Toowoomba, he works from home in Port Macquarie). He's well suited to it, but it takes a certain kind of person. I don't think I could handle it, I wouldn't get any work done.

    I have a MacBook Air that I use primarily at my desk at home.

    It's hooked up to an external keyboard, mouse and monitor, because a 13" screen and laptop keyboard/trackpad really don't cut it for extended periods are a desk.

    While the machine itself doesn't fit the requirements, the general approach of connecting to the usual desktop setup probably will.

    In my experience a 15" laptop is good enough so long as I'm using an external keyboard and mouse - the Logitech Performance MX. I'm using a macbook pro, so a little outside your budget but any other lower spec machine would suit. If the 15" becomes too draining or ergonmically unfit you could always attach a bigger external monitor.

    One of the best resources for answering this question is the notebook review forums. There's a checklist that asks all the question you need to know, and the advice will often lead you to unthought of options

    I'm about to go down the same path and in my case I'm going to use the laptop with a 24in monitor and keyboard shared with my desktop rig via a KVM switch.

    Regarding a "good support package/warranty which includes on-the-premises service", well that just does not exist and would be a waste of money. Do you really want to wait 4 or 6 weeks for Dell or HP to perform your warranty repair?

    Your best disaster recovery plan is to make sure everything is properly backed up and when the laptop goes toes up, buy another one immediately!

    Just buy an iPad.

    Skype - check
    Office Suite - check
    3G - check
    Easy to do all those commuting things from email to videos.

    And only 600g

    And just use logmein App for remote desktop access.

    Two important points to keep in mind:
    1. This is a primary working tool, which will presumably be used daily and for long stretches.
    2. A laptop is simply not an ergonomic device to use for any stretch of time owing to the positioning of screen in relation to the keyboard as well as the nature of the keyboard itself (shallow keystrike, etc.)

    So… You want to maximise the ergonomics of your set up. You'll want your laptop on a stand or, better still, you'll want to take advantage of the existing monitor that you already use at home. Or connect to your monitor *and* put the laptop on a stand: you'll have two screens then. Very handy. And then you'll want an external keyboard (presumably you have one of these already, but you may decide to duplicate, depending on your desk arrangement). And mouse/trackpad, of course.

    The implications for the actual laptop (which you would – I'm guessing – only use *as* a laptop on a fairly occasional basis) are then: no need to worry especially about screen size or keyboard style; focus instead on the specifications needed to run the local and remote software tools you'll be using, and your memory and connection requirements.

    Tell your boss you're a windows desktop man and that you'd prefer a desktop and tell him it will be cheaper than a notebook..

    See if you can get one with an inbuilt SIM interface - saves having to use USB dongles etc. Unless you're going to use a wireless hotspot, in which case...never mind!

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