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Ergonomics of detachables vs. tablets-used-as-laptops vs. laptops

Is the detachable or 'hybrid' the future for business IT? This blog takes a closer look at their ergonomic advantages.

For a long time now, we've wrestled with the conundrum of the laptop which offers technically very capable computing, in an unfortunately un-ergonomic form. With the screen and keyboard joined, it's been a case of neck-ache, or wrist-ache, and in the long term - computer hunch.

From an ergonomics point of view, probably the biggest benefit of detachables or using tablets-as-laptops is that you can separate the screen and mount it on a riser. Increasing screen height using a riser will improve your neck posture and mean less likelihood of neck strain, which in turn means the ability to work longer without needing to take a break – because you will be set up more ergonomically. See the picture at the top of this blog post which shows the Ergonomics Café Arrow tablet stand in use with an iPad and external keyboard.

You might be thinking that you can sort of do that with your laptop, you can put it on a stand right? True, but you'd need to carry an extra keyboard – so in effect you'd be carrying two keyboards – the laptop keyboard and an external keyboard.

With a detachable, all you need to carry with you to set up ergonomically is up to 2 items: a screen riser and an external input device if it supports one (and if there isn't one already integrated into the keyboard).

With a laptop however, you need to carry up to 3 items: your laptop stand, an extra keyboard and and input device (if there isn't one already integrated into the keyboard). So in terms of carrying and portability for achieving an ergonomic working posture, the detachable wins over the laptop.

What about just using a tablet with an external keyboard – is that basically a hybrid?

Once you add a keyboard and an input device to a tablet, you are starting to approach detachable territory, but before we get too excited, there are a few drawbacks.

One big problem for Apple fans is that iOS doesn't support a cursor. This raises a slightly different question - is the iPad Pro a true detachable? Nope – from a physical ergonomics point of view we don't think so – and unfortunately the same goes for any iPad with a keyboard linked to it. This is simply because you can't link an external input device / pointer, so you are still stuck with having to use either your finger or the stylus ('Pen') to select on the screen. That means you having to reach up and forwards, which if you do it repeatedly during the day could increase your risk of musculoskeletal strain.

Sure you could learn a whole load of shortcuts, and we'd encourage anybody, whatever system they are using, Windows, iOS, Android, to learn particularly useful / frequently used ones. But you would have to become a true keyboard Jedi to make it work with the same ease of use as a laptop with an input device, and avoid repeatedly reaching to your screen. Whether this reaching is a problem will depend to some extent on what you are doing. If you are writing a long document, then it could be okay; once you are set up, you just type away happily. But other functions like navigating websites etc. could get more tricky and lead to reaching.

So to sum up, in our view iPads unfortunately need not apply for the role of a detachable as they don't have cursors and they don't support external pointing devices like mice / trackpads. Android systems made since 2011 (Honeycomb version 3.1) and Windows tablets do support input devices and give you a cursor to move about and select etc. Fingers crossed Apple one day relent to demands for cursor functionality on iOS, no sign of it yet unfortunately.
Okay, so – a tablet with an external keyboard can effectively become an ergonomic laptop, as long as it supports an external pointing device and all you need to do is use a tablet riser? (note riser, not a stand – you should make sure your screen is actually lifted above the table surface).

Well, not quite – screen size also needs to be considered.

What about screen size?

Screen size of tablets could still be a drawback if you plan to use one as a detachable. Tablets are designed to be hand-held and mostly have smaller screens than laptops and detachables. For example the iPad Air 2 has a 9.7" display. A small screen could mean you leaning forward to view it (poor posture) and it could be generally frustrating to use because not enough content fits on the viewable area and you have to keep scrolling to do things (stress).

As a rule of thumb, at screen-size 10" or more you could be looking at replacing a laptop and employing it as a detachable on the basis of having a relatively useable screen size. It won't suit everyone though. If you are used to a 13" laptop screen, going down to 10" is likely to be noticeably more frustrating and you would need to consider very carefully the screen content / usability aspect for tablets with screens between 10" and 12".

True dedicated detachables offer screens typically around the 12" size – for example Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 has a 12.3" display – which is a reasonable size for a laptop, and a relatively large size for a tablet (avoid holding it in one hand and trying to type with your thumbs!). The Microsoft Surface Book has a 13.5" display, and a number of other dedicated detachables have displays around the 13" size. Here is a link to a good review of some dedicated hybrids.

The iPad Pro 12.9" has a (you've guessed it!) 12.9" display, so whilst it is easily large enough to replace a laptop screen, the user interaction drawbacks already noted still apply.

Summary

Detachables offer an ideal solution for many mobile workers by reducing the amount of equipment they have to carry in order to set up ergonomically. Tablets may work as a detachable, provided that they support an external input device such as a mouse, and if they have a sufficiently large screen. Both these solutions offer scope for putting the screen on a riser, and setting up ergonomically while mobile working – reducing neck strain. This in our view is a very significant benefit.

Dedicated detachables tend to have bigger screens than standalone tablets, which makes using them in laptop-mode for sustained periods easier on the eye and less frustrating from a usability point of view.

If you do down the route of using a standalone tablet and adding a keyboard and stand to do sustained mobile working, we recommend that you try to avoid tablets with screens under 10". On the other hand, if you are going to be working mainly in 'tablet mode' instead of using them as a laptop, then the smaller size and lower weight of dedicated tablets will probably mean they are more suitable.

As with any IT equipment decision, you should include the physical ergonomics aspects we've outlined here, taking into account how the equipment will be used and transported, as well as issues like battery life, robustness, operating system etc. when making purchases.

We'd be interested to hear any comments you have on what we have said – maybe you have experience of pros and cons which we haven't considered here – feel free to put any comments below.