If you’re headed home to work and haven’t done it much previously, there are some tech items worth thinking about. Here are some that we at ExtremeTech find particularly worth considering, in addition to a couple of obvious items like an external monitor if you’re working with a laptop.
Quality Conferencing Speaker
While your office may have a good setup for participating in conference calls, your home office probably doesn’t. Speaking as a journalist who listens in on several virtual press conferences a month, I can easily tell when one of the presenters is trying to make do with their laptop’s built-in microphone, their phone, or a cheap webcam. In my case, I have both a nice Logitech 1080p webcam perched on my monitor and use a speakerphone for audio-only calls.
Currently, I’m testing a review unit of eMeet’s M2 conference-friendly speaker ($199.99). It is a UFO-shaped design, with a solid build featuring a machined-aluminum chassis. Playback is a definite step above any smartphone I’ve used, but the unit’s real strength is a set of microphones surrounding its edge that give it a 360-degree sound field, coupled with audio processing that allows for speaking at various distances and helps filter out background noise. You can use it via Bluetooth, via the supplied audio cable, or using the included wireless USB dongle. I’ve had good success with it for both voice calls and with Skype. Especially if you have more than one person at your location on a call, it is a lot better solution than having everyone hunched over the same smartphone trying to be heard. It isn’t a true speakerphone, though, so if you need a model that is also a phone on its own, you need to look elsewhere.
If you don’t want to shell out for a dedicated conference speaker, remember that in a pinch you can use a Google Home or Mini or some other voice-assistant appliances as a speakerphone. I’ve kept a Google Mini next to my home office machine for just that reason. Speaking of Google, I’ve been experimenting with leaving my Pixel 3 on Record while I’m dialed in. That gives me a decent transcription of the call that I can use to backstop my notes. There are also specialized call recording options for various applications. I’ve used Amalto Call Recorder with Skype successfully. The free version has a time limit on call length, though. (Also remember that different states have different laws about recording phone calls.)
A speakerphone isn’t always the best solution. For starters, unless your keyboard is really quiet, if you type during calls you’ll be really unpopular (this is another thing that happens on a surprising number of press calls). Or, if you aren’t the only one working from home, you may not have the option of blaring your calls out of a speaker. Finally, with a quality headset, the microphone can do a better job than most speakerphones. Particularly when on a call with non-native English speakers, I find using a good headset especially helpful. In my case, I own a Jabra Evolve 40 ($115) that I’ve found a reasonable compromise between a decent price and good quality audio.
Particularly if you need to work in the same space as other family members, lighting your work area effectively without disturbing them can be a problem. Simply sticking a desk lamp next to your computer typically spills the wrong amount of light in the wrong places. Fortunately, a dedicated monitor light is a great solution.
My favorite is the ScreenBar family from Benq ($99-$129). I’ve been using the original for several years. It provides a targeted, dimmable, light source from its location on top of your monitor. I use it to light my keyboard and any documents I need while I’m working. Their newer Plus model adds a desktop control, which I find more convenient than using the touch controls on the bar itself. It also has a very cool feature where its ambient light sensor adjusts its output to provide you with a constant level of overall illumination.
Fail-Over Plan for Your Internet Connection
The internet is an amazing thing — when you can get to it. At the office, your company probably has a system of fallbacks to keep everyone connected if an ISP has an issue. At home, you probably don’t. Depending on your location and budget, there are a few possibilities for setting one up. The simplest might be to get a phone plan that allows you to use your device as a hotspot and comes with enough bandwidth that you can work over it. Or get a dedicated hot spot device with a data plan.
If you’re likely to be working from home long-term, though, it might be worth investing in a second ISP connection. In our case, we have a fairly-fast primary connection over Comcast, with a slower backup over AT&T. The two are plugged into a Synology RT2600ac Router ($199.99) that supports automatic failover. Most of the time I second-guess whether we need to pay for two ISPs, but once every month or two it pays for itself when we can work even when our primary connection is down for a few hours.
It’s really easy when working from home to become something of a couch potato. Going for walks is great, but it isn’t always to make enough time. Going to a gym is traditional advice, but if you’re staying home to avoid excessive contact, it may not be the best option.
Obviously there is a nearly unlimited selection of home exercise equipment, but one I have found particularly compatible with working at my home desk is an under-desk “cycle.” With a decent one, you can dial in the resistance. More expensive models will also keep track of your distance. I have a relatively inexpensive model — a Stamina InMotion E1000 (I paid $89.99, now it’s $104.99) that so far has worked well. Keep in mind that you’ll need a high-enough desk to allow you to cycle under it.
I read an article recently from a journalist who found himself confined to home and bemoaned how much he was spending on food delivery services like Postmates and Doordash. For me, that totally misses out on one of the biggest advantages of working from home — it is much easier to cook for yourself and your family. For starters, you can probably cook dinner in the same time you usually spend commuting. Plus, you can get a head start on meal prep during the day, and even experiment with meals that require a long time to cook.
Assuming you’ve already got some type of stove and oven, for me the most valuable “next” cooking appliance is an Instant Pot. The newest versions, like the Duo Evo Plus ($109) that I own, can slow cook, sous-vide, pressure cook, and more. If you want to get a little more exotic and have the budget, check out our reviews of the Brava Oven and Cinder Grill.
Keep Your Receipts
You may be able to expense your work-from-home gear costs. Expense report processor AppZen reports that around 6 percent of COVID-19 expense reports filed so far have been for work-from-home expenses. Even if your employer doesn’t cover them, you may be able to file them as deductions on your income as Employee Business Expenses. Of course, if you are a freelancer or run your own business, then there is a good chance they are deductions you can take directly against your business income.
We’ve only scratched the surface here, so please let us know in the comments any tech items you find helpful for working from home.
- ExtremeTech’s Top Tips for Working From Home
- PCMag: How to Work From Home
- AT&T, Comcast Offer Improved Internet Access in Wake of COVID-19