6 Proven Office Productivity Tools

Useful tools to increase your personal productivity

by Daniel P. Dern - For those of us whose work involves some combination of communicating with other people, creating or working with documents, and getting or providing information, the computer is, inarguably, the biggest aid to productivity since the electric coffee machine.

Here are some products -- most of which I have used of many years now -- that further contribute, some computer-related, some not, plus a few I have yet to put to the test.

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1) Telephone headset.

I first saw -- or noticed -- these at the reception desk of the Comdex office, probably two decades ago. I've been using one ever since -- I've gone through at least two Plantronics' ones, in particular.

Inexpensive headsets start around $30. Good ones -- better sound, better fit -- are in the $100-$300 range. The canonical source is the Hello Direct catalog/web site.

You may prefer a wired headset for sound quality, but if convenience is most important to you, opt for a cordless/Bluetooth combination. The Plantronics Calisto Pro, for example, will let you roam a fair distance (a hundred or more feet, depending on what's in the way) from the phone base.

These phones and headsets should work with POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) landlines, VoIP landlines, and PC and notebook phone/voice apps, and any Bluetooth headsets should also work with notebooks and mobile devices.

2) Big display, multiple displays.

Let's face it, screen turf equals convenience equals productivity. A good display will last for years, and be useful as a second screen or on another system when you replace it with an every bigger, better one.

[ See also: Share a single mouse and keyboard among multiple computers ]

One big display is simple, good -- and eminently affordable. 28-inch 1920x1200 WUXGA (1080p) displays are available for $300 to $400... less, if you're a savvy bargain-finder.

Even if you get a big display, a second (or even third) display can still be useful. Not just because of all the turf-demanders wanting a piece of always-visible real estate, like an IM window, Twitter, email, weather, your stocks and horse racing picks, nannycam on your kids, or whatever, but also because some applications like PowerPoint Viewer or web meeting sessions like to grab an entire display.

Most computers today come ready in terms of ports and software to drive two displays. If not, it's easy and cheap to get a USB video card device that supports one or more displays (e.g., from Matrox), and there are now some USB displays. Or, if your computer (and policy) allows, you can upgrade or add a video card.

3) Keyboards, keyboard accessories.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other repetitive motion problems are the bane of many computer users, as in, serious wrist pain.

To avoid being sidelined with a repetitive strain injury, I use a Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite (or its equivalent), which "curves the left and right halves of the alphanumeric keys, so my wrists are in line with my forearm. Not expensive, like forty bucks.

In fact, I've got at least one spare (I grab them at yard sales for a couple of bucks), because keyboards tend to die between 9PM and 3AM, when the stores aren't open.

While we're on the subject of keyboards, I also use a keyboard arm, which attaches (screws in) to the underside of my "desk" (a 3-foot by 5-five by one-inch sheet of plywood, sitting on top of two-drawer file cabinets -- inexpensive!), and positions the keyboard more comfortably for prolonged typing than standard desk height.

There's lots of keyboard arms out there, in the $100 to $200 range, I'd think (but mine hasn't worn out or broken yet, twenty-plus years in, here's one example.

4) Trackball

I find a trackball much more convenient than a mouse. (Not just because it doesn't require any clear desk space to move around on.) I'm on my second Kensington Expert Mouse (MSRP $99.99) (ignore the name, it is a trackball), and have been trying out their new SlimBlade Trackball (MSRP $129.99), which replaces the scroll wheel with spinning the trackball. More expensive than a mouse, but lasts nearly forever, and addictively useful. (Also great for FPS games like Doom.)

5) KVM (keyboard/video/mouse) switch

If you ever have more than one computer -- a notebook in addition to a desktop, a test machine in addition to a production system, your machine and a spouse/partner/child's machine, "play" (games and stuff) versus work, a new machine and an old one, a Mac and a PC, whatever -- that need to share a space -- and use preferably a single display, keyboard and pointing device, you could keep swapping cables.

Or you could use a KVM switch. Inexpensive ones for two systems start at under $50. Good ones for four systems, with sundry features, can run $200-$400. A KVM switch lets you toggle among two systems, or easily switch to your notebook.

You want an electronic KVM -- one that does it all digitally. The old (and much cheaper) mechanical ones run the risk of shorting gear out when you switch. And the electronic KVMs are emulating the peripherals to the systems.

(Note: Some older KVM switches won't work reliably with Windows 7 -- the one I use, for example, episodically hasn't recognized the keyboard and trackball on several notebooks I had for review. This is a known problem. Try unplugging and replugging the USB cable.)

6) USB foot pedal and transcription software

OK, so far everything's been pretty mainstream. Here's one that for many of you is, well, less so: a USB foot pedal, and free transcribing software.

A lot of my projects involve talking with people, either on the phone, or in person. I used to tape them, and transcribe them afterwards, using a transcriber -- a cassette (or microcassette) recorder with a foot-pedal control (a.k.a. "treadle switch") that did "Play/Backup/Go Forward." Eventually, I wore them out... and I decided to type as I talked, since transcribing after-the-fact took way too much time.

But in the past year I've found myself wanting or needing to record-and-transcribe again. Fortunately, transcription, like audio recording, has gone digital: there are transcription programs, including the free Express Scribe, which does playback of digital audio files, and can, like a physical transcriber, pause, back-up-a-little, go slower, et cetera.

And there are USB foot pedals, by gum, which can be used to control Express Scribe, like the Infinity IN-USB-2 USB Transcription Foot Pedal, which costs about sixty bucks.

You can control Express Scribe from the keyboard... but I find the foot pedal worth every penny, even if I don't use it often. (It can also be used with other apps, like right/left mouse clicks, although I haven't tried that.)

My wish list

No list would be complete without a few items I haven't been ready to spend the biggish bucks on, or which are no longer available. I've got at least one of each in mind: a great ergonomic office chair, like a Herman Miller Aeron, which runs $600 to $1,000 ... and, as commended by author, information architect, software developer, and new media innovator Jon Udell, from while he was writing for Byte magazine, is The Floating Arms Keyboard, from Workplace Designs... which requires particular chair, assuming you can find the keyboard. Sigh.

What's nice about most of these is that they're either reasonably priced, last for years-to-decades, or, in a few cases, both. Even a five-hundred or thousand-dollar product that's useful for five years is works out to less per month or per year than new computers or notebooks.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

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