Desktop Unbound!

Ergotron LCD arms Yeah, I should be saving money, but I came across a 2007 review of Ergotron LCD monitor arms on Coding Horror. Digging around on Amazon, I saw that Ergotron, the company that sells these arms, had a dual arm laptop + monitor kit for about $200. In that moment, I saw that this was the key to fixing my desk so I liked working at home again. Here’s why:

Ergotron LCD arms With the cable management in place, I can actually lift the monitors out of the way and use my desk as a regular work surface. And additionally, I get back all the wasted desk space formally occupied by LCD monitor supports.

My vision is somewhat bad, and I was constantly making a choice between having the monitor close enough to me to be comfortable versus having space for the keyboard to be positioned comfortably; this was particularly a problem when working directly from the laptop screen. It’s a 17″ screen, but it’s the 1920×1200 version…tiny fonts, anyone? The justification for choosing this eye-searing resolution is embodied in the 27″ Dell monitor that also is 1920×1200; when I’m doing design work on the laptop (it’s my mobile development station) I just clone the output to the big-ass monitor and I can see things are fine. In a pinch I can work from the laptop screen and not suffer from the usual problems with laptop-based dual-head monitor setups: windows disappearing when the second monitor isn’t available, moving to awkward places, and the amount of disorientation that occurs when all your side windows get shifted back onto the main LCD screen.

So if I’m not running a multi-monitor setup, what is the second monitor doing? If you look closely you’ll see that these are two different desktops, controlled by one keyboard and mouse through Synergy. Synergy is essentially a soft kvm switch. Instead of pressing a button on a box to tell which computer should be getting the keyboard/mouse input, you just move your mouse cursor from one screen to another. Synergy takes care of the switching for you…it’s very seamless. It also supports simple copy and paste between machines (though in practice it doesn’t always seem to work). File copying is a little more difficult, but I’ve recently started using DropBox to handle file sync across all my computers. It’s also very seamless and predictable in its operation. You get 2GB for the free plan, and 50GB for $9.99/month. I’m looking forward to testing it with a real project.

When I do get my 27″ monitor back, I could do a setup like this:

Ergotron / Laptop Configuration I would have to run the monitor cable to the right-side port and put some electrical outlets in the back of the desk, but this would be one sweet setup. Booyah. The ability to position the computer any way I want has been wonderful for comfort. The arms are a little stuff, but it’s fairly easy to get the monitors positioned at just the right height and angle. For example, I was rerecording my SkypeIn outgoing message, and wanted to stand up while doing it for a better vocal delivery:

Ergotron / Laptop Configuration Awesome.

One caveat: I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to move the laptop frequently, because even the small amount of jostling could induce a hard disk crash. The MacBook Pro has hard disk protection from such things via the internal accelerometer, but I believe it only works if you’re running the MacOS, not Windows w/ Boot Camp as I do.

Monitor arms fall into that class of accessory that are now mandatory for my home computing setup. You can get a single monitor arm for about $120, or the kit I got for $200 (it comes with choice of dual monitor or monitor + laptop). There are some other manufacturers of this kind of product that I saw at the local office supply store too, but I haven’t tried ’em. I do like the build quality and thoughtful provision of tools that came with my kit. The arms are some kind of solid metal (aluminum?) with some plastic casing around it for the cable management. The plastic parts feel a little flimsy, but they don’t have to be sturdy. It also took a little while to figure out how to adjust the tension on the springs (you have to raise the arm all the way up to get access to the adjustment screw). Overall, I’m pretty darned happy with these monitor arms, and it’s again a pleasure to work in my home office. In fact, I don’t really miss that 27″ monitor at all.