Computing comfortably
at 30,000 feet

mgsloan


Flying on commercial airlines can often be a bit stressful for both our minds and bodies. Flights can also be a nice time to get some work done, but the ergonomics tends to be pretty awful. You need to tilt your head forward, probably slouch your back, while simultaneously probably putting your wrists at funny angles. So, the proposed usage embedded in the name "laptop" seems to be inadvisable.

laptop positions with bad ergonomics

Image from "The Adaptive Laptop". October, 2001. Timothy Griffin

I'm writing this while on a flight to St. Louis, to attend ICFP 2018. Thankfully, I've figured out a pretty decent way to compute comfortably while flying! Here's what I'm looking at:

tented keyboardio with computer

tented keyboardio

This feels way better than the alternative! I can hardly believe I put up with the back-hunching, neck-craning, and wrist-compromising positions that you typically get forced into when using a laptop.

Prerequisite: Get a ThinkPad, or get creative

I've only used a setup like this with ThinkPad computers. Many ThinkPads have screens that can tilt all the way back, a bit past 180 degrees, making it straightforward to orient the screen vertically. Many also have strong hinges, with a gap large enough to thread through zip-ties (more on this below). There are probably other laptops out there with these attributes, but I don't know of any off-hand.

It would be great to figure out a simple way to do this sort of thing for other types of laptops. I'll bet there's a good solution, please let me know if you figure out a way to do it!

Step 1: Strap around tray table

In a pinch, you could probably get your laptop into position by perching it on your knees. However, it's bound to eventually fall one way or another, perhaps due to turbulence. I imagine that could be quite catastrophic if your neighbor just purchased some red wine.

The way I resolve this issue is by attaching the laptop to the folded tray table. The first step is to put some variety of strap around the tray table:

strap around tray table

In this case, I'm using the strap that comes with the Packed Pixels. Usually it's used to mount the portable screen to the side of your laptop screen – quite handy for the traveling computer user! In this case, the brackets work quite well to keep the strap at the top of the tray table. For some types of tray tables, along with sufficient tightening, they can hold the whole weight of the laptop.

Step 2: Attach laptop to strap

You could probably just put the strap around the front of your laptop, to stabilize it horizontally. However, this would not keep it from falling directly down – it can be rather nice to be able to get up from your seat and leave your laptop hanging.

My preferred way of doing this is to thread releasable zip ties through the laptop's hinges, and around the strap. A couple years ago, I got a hundred 10" zip-ties, and ever since they've come in handy in innumerable ways, particularly suspending my laptops in a variety of configurations. More on this in future posts!

I don't have a great picture of this on hand, but the zip-ties are fairly visible in this picture:

airplane laptop from side

The resulting comfort and health totally makes up for looking a bit unconventional :)

Recommendation: Get a decent keyboard

As illustrated in the picture at the beginning of this post, it's nearly impossibly to use a laptop keyboard without compromising ergonomics one way or another. So, it's good to have an external keyboard – ideally a decent one! Here are a few keyboards I like to use:

kinesis on airplane

All of these keyboards share the following great attributes:

None of these suggestions are as portable as I'd like. I'd love to have a travel keyboard that had all of these attributes except using membrane switches instead of mechanical, so that it can pack up smaller.

Step 3: Enjoy ergonomic airplane computing!

Once your screen is elevated closer to eye level, you can sit back, and productively enjoy your flight. So far my experience with doing this has been quite positive – I no longer feel that I need to choose between health and computering while flying!

There is a bit more setup to this than just taking your laptop out of your bag – at first it might even seem to be too much of a hassle. After a few iterations, though, I've found that the amount of time spent on setup and fiddling reduces quite a bit each time. For me, even the initial hassle was well worth the dramatic improvement in ergonomics.

I hope that you give this a try! I'm writing this post in order to share the idea and encourage people to use their computers in healthier ways.

Variation: Model 01 tilted outwards via flexible mounts

One of the great things about the Keyboardio Model 01 is that it has a 1/4" camera mount on the bottom. This easily allows for all kinds of mounting possibilities. Right before my flight to ICFP, I got a couple "Aobelieve Flexible Twist Mounts". They turned out to work surprisingly well for keeping my keyboard in place, by wrapping around each leg:

flexible mount with keyboardio

This makes it feasible to use the keyboard tilted outwards, which can be quite comfortable:

airplane laptop from user pov

It can go as far as being entirely vertical, but that does not seem to work well for me on airplanes due to usually not having much space.

Variation: Model 01 without mount

On my flight back from ICFP, I realized that I could actually do fine without the camera mounts. So, for science, I decided not to use them and instead just perched each half of the keyboard on each leg. It actually worked quite nicely. Compared with using the camera mounts, I could get the halves further apart while keeping them horizontal. The main downside is that I found myself often pressing with my palms to keep it in place – not great for correct typing ergonomics.

keyboardio no mount

Other Possibilities

Feel free to contact me at mgsloan@gmail.com if you've given something like this a try, have figured out variations, or have questions. I'm curious to see what y'all come up with!

More words

Listening to podcasts along with music, on Android

A couple tricks to listen to podcasts and music simultaneously. Read full post