If you’ve previously had all your tech needs handled by your company, but they’ve since sent you off to work from home with little more than a laptop to your name, it can be a jarring transition. And since we’re all probably looking at a few more months of self-isolation, it makes sense to trick out your home workstation a bit with the gear that helps you be productive.
To that point, Lifehacker reader Irene asks in this week’s tech question:
Hi there – I am a first time “WFH” person and need to run Excel spreadsheets and Bloomberg on my laptop as well as log into the cloud, etc.. Nothing super serious but my Apple MacBook Pro is not the best for handling this.. I’d love to get a monitor and a hard drive, but what’s the most compaq/movable system you recommend (we are crashing at a friends house, avoiding NYC but once this nightmare is over will be back in NYC where we have a small apartment no room for the whole office set up).
I’ve found that the biggest blocker for me using a laptop for daily work is that doing everything on a trackpad and keyboard gets annoying. I’m much more productive with a mouse—infinitely more, really. If you haven’t explored that option, I recommend that as a first stop.
That’s just a random suggestion—an appetizer, if you will—before we get to the main course of your question. You didn’t mention what kind of MacBook Pro you have, but the general display sizes of MacBook Pros released in the last have hovered between 15 and 17 inches. Or, as I like to call them, “too small” and “the beautiful beast.”
While I could spend the next few paragraphs getting into display resolutions and what differences you’ll perceive when using displays of various sizes, I’m going to skip all that technobabble for the time being, as I don’t want you to get bored.
Which external monitor should you buy?
I spend three years reviewing monitors for Wirecutter, and I’m confident saying that the smallest display you’ll probably want to get is something around 24 inches in size. Any lower, and the experience just isn’t worth it. You won’t enjoy your multitasking—or the lack of an ability to do so—and you’ll probably be stuck on some garbage 1080p, 19-inch display or what-have-you. At that point, why even bother getting a second display?
When you’re shopping, my recommendation is to shoot for a 24-inch 1920-by-1200 display at minimum. Why not 1080p? You get more real estate on your screen—120 pixels, to be exact—and that will make a difference when you’re suffering through spreadsheets or taking a quick procrastination break to read the news. A 1080p display might save you money, but I don’t think the experience is worth it.
As for which monitor to buy, I’m going to go with Wirecutter’s recommendation because I helped originate their monitor testing, so I know exactly what goes into how they pick a great display. Since a monitor is a “buy it and your stuck with it for a while” kind of a purchase, I think that the $399 Dell UltraSharp U2415 is the one to get.
Why? It’s not very expensive. It’s 1920-by-1200. It supports simple HDMI and DisplayPort connections. And, most importantly, it’s extremely adjustable in all the ways you’d need—no stacking a cheap display on a pile of books to get it to the right eye level—and its colour accuracy is pretty strong. That won’t matter much for spreadsheets and websites, but if you feel like watching some YouTube, playing some games, or firing up a movie on your new monitor, it’s great. Also, the monitor’s speedy USB 3.0 ports should pair nicely with your MacBook Pro’s USB-C connections (if it has them), and will also give you great speeds for the external storage you want to buy—if that’s USB 3.0, too.
Which external storage should you buy?
Onto that! I don’t actually have any solid recommendations off the top of my head, simply because I haven’t used an external hard drive since, gosh, probably seven or eight years ago. I get nervous about small hard drives you move to and fro, because one accidental trip to the floor could mean the end of your data. So, instead, I park all my archived stuff on a Qnap NAS box and use larger flash drives for any day-to-day data needs.
A NAS box is undoubtedly overkill for your needs, but a flash drive? Well,you can get a 256GB USB-A flash drive for around $80. That’s one-fourth of a terabyte that you can carry around in your pocket—not too shabby, and much less bulky than an actual external or portable drive of some sort. You’ll probably need a USB-C adaptor for your MacBook Pro, assuming it was purchased within the past few years, but that should hardly run up the cost much.
Otherwise, if you just need a lot of space, the Western Digital My Book—a perennial favourite—costs around $198 for 4TB of space. It’s not as portable as a flash drive, but it gives you way, way more space for files than you probably need, unless you plan to start a video-production company during your quarantine downtime. I wouldn’t opt for the double-drive version, partly because it costs a lot more, but also because it doubles your chances for data loss if one of the two drives gives out.
Speaking of, I should also take a moment to note that you should absolutely back up the contents of your external drive. Do not forget to do this important step, unless you’re at peace with potentially losing anything that’s on it in the event of a minor technological meltdown. As for where you’ll dump, say, one terabyte of data, consider a backup service like Backblaze. It’ll cost you a monthly fee and eat up some bandwidth, but it’s a lot better than losing the critical contents of your external drive at an unfortunate time.
So, that’s my advice. If you don’t need a lot of space, but just want some handy, portable way to store a decent amount of files, get a speedy USB 3.0 flash drive. (I also have Wirecutter’s recommendation for that: The Kingston DataTraveler Elite G2, which maxes out at 128GB.) And if you need a lot of space, get an external hard drive. I would shy away from a portable drive, which could be a bit faster but give you less space for the price and tempt you to carry it around—potentially losing and/or breaking it, which half-defeats the point of buying a larger chunk of external storage to begin with.
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