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From webcams to laptops - Adrian Weckler's work-from-home tech tool guide


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Powe users: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Powe users: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Flexibility: Microsoft’s Surface 3 laptop

Flexibility: Microsoft’s Surface 3 laptop

The standout Microsoft Surface Studio

The standout Microsoft Surface Studio

Vision: The Logitech Pro C920 will let you look your best on those Zoom calls

Vision: The Logitech Pro C920 will let you look your best on those Zoom calls

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Powe users: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

This week, we got the grim message from Government - continue working from home "if you can". This all but guarantees the postponement of an office return for thousands of us until 2021.

So with another six months working from home in prospect, are you content with your tech setup? Is your webcam sufficient? Do you wish you could be heard better by others on your Zoom calls? And could you benefit from a decent external monitor?

Here's a guide to the tech that should concretely improve your home-working experience.

1. The laptop

What will do: HP Pavilion 14-ce3606sa - €719 from Currys.

This is a decent, affordable option. For €719, you get the minimum power you'll need - an Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of Ram - and a relatively generous 512GB of storage.

The 14-inch laptop also has a decent amount of ports, including legacy connections for USB keys or external devices you might still have that use old-fashioned USB-A ports. In part, this is facilitated by it not being especially light, at 1.6kg. But it should be solid for a couple of years.

The ultimate: Microsoft Surface Book 3 - €2,639 from Microsoft online or retailers.

Of all the powerful, work- focused Windows laptops out there, this is the one that probably gives the most flexibility and the kind of latitude that makes it easy to get things done quickly.

With a 'basic' 16GB of Ram and Intel Core i7 processor, the engine will make lightning out of even the hardest typical work tasks. If you're really feeling power-hungry, an extra €550 gets you to 32GB of Ram and 512GB of storage.

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But that's not solely what makes it a creative workhorse. While the 3240x2160 resolution display is a treat on the eyes, what really enhances it is the flexible advantage of being able to remove it. This is useful in a number of ways and comes just in time for our semi-permanent work-from-home future. First, it increases the options you have on using screens at your desk. By this, I mean using one for a Zoom or Teams call, another for email and maybe another for writing. But because this is a 15-inch high-resolution display, it's also really good for white-boarding. Because the latency and sensitivity on styluses has improved a lot in recent years, this is now a real option for someone who needs to map ideas out or even storyboard something but feels constrained with a smaller touchscreen tablet or two-in-one.

For Apple users, an alternative is the 16-inch MacBook Pro even though there is still a lingering niggle over paying more for the touchbar, something that probably isn't used that much by most normal users.

Still, you're getting the absolute top specification in an Apple laptop, a gorgeous display and a great 'new' keyboard. I also think that the larger screen makes much more sense in a work-from-home context as you can see (and therefore do) more. You don't have to worry so much about what bag it fits into or it weighing your shoulder down.

2. The tablet

What will do: Apple iPad Air - €758 including Smart Keyboard keyboard.

Sorry Android tablets, you're great for Netflix, YouTube and Gmail but not for some work-related apps that people might need. This means that instead of the likes of Samsung's Tab S6 or S7, Apple's iPad Air is the best semi- affordable tablet system you can get if you're going to use it for work.

It's basically a rebranded version of the last generation of iPad Pro machines, with substantial engine power and compatibility with Apple's decent Smart Keyboard (and its Pencil, although I doubt too many at this level will plump for that).

The ultimate: Apple iPad Pro 12.9 - €1,468 with Magic Keyboard.

I use one of these all the time and it's an incredible productivity tool, made all the more so with Apple's recently-introduced high-end Magic Keyboard case.

It's more powerful than the vast majority of laptops out there and multitasking on it is a breeze. It's also far better at things like Zoom or Teams calls than most laptops, partly because its camera is better. Lastly, most business enterprise software we use have really good apps made specifically for iPad users.

3. The desktop PC

What will do: Lenovo IdeaCentre A340 23.8 - €850 from Harvey Norman.

This is a standard all-in-one desktop PC with a decent 24-inch 'full HD' display and good-enough specifications - 8GB of Ram, Core i5 processor, 1,000GB of the older type of hard drive storage - to handle any typical daily task.

It has two modest advantages over some rival machines in its class. First, the (average) webcam is placed in the top-centre of the monitor, at eye level, and not at the bottom where it looks up your nose. Second, the monitor is somewhat tiltable, giving you more control over viewing angles, glare and Zoom call angles. Basic Lenovo keyboards are often slightly better than basic versions from other brands.

The ultimate: Microsoft Surface Studio 2 - €4,299 from Microsoft or retailers.

Microsoft's 28-inch, 4K Surface Studio 2 is an absolute productivity beast. The standout aesthetic is its screen's ability to tilt almost flat, presumably for architects, technical drawers and other touchscreen users. But I've used it for 'ordinary' work and it's lighting quick with enough space on that gorgeous display to do several things very quickly.

True, a PC nerd might look at the Surface Studio's raw specs - 16GB or 32GB of Ram with a high-end Intel Core i7 and 1GB of solid state storage - and say that they could assemble it for about 30pc less than the Microsoft machine's purchase price. But then you wouldn't have the all-in-one form factor that is one of this computer's core attractions. You wouldn't have that gorgeous hinge, or the other integrations. But there's little you can't do with this computer and it's beautifully designed, to boot. This is a PC for professionals who intend to use it for work.

4. The webcam

What will do: Ausdom AW635 - €60 from Amazon.co.uk.

If you're looking for an affordable webcam for your PC or laptop, this plug-and-play version is pretty easy to use.

Ausdom's AW635 model gives you 'full HD' (1080p), which is realistically as much as you want for just about any video call. It has a proper glass lens with an f2.0 aperture, which means it's somewhat decent in low light. It will almost certainly be a hefty improvement on whatever you have housed in your current laptop or PC.

The ultimate: Logitech Pro C920 - €120 from retailers.

It might be a stretch to call Logitech's Pro C920 an 'ultimate' webcam, but I'm using the term in the context of what the likely Irish office worker will need.

Logitech's Pro C920 is excellent. The 1080p picture quality from it is strong and consistent enough to ameliorate relatively dodgy lighting conditions. It also has really decent autofocus, meaning that if you shift around a bit, you won't suddenly become a blur. It also has a reasonably competent microphone built in that's very likely to be better than the one in your laptop or PC.

5. The phone

What will do: Pixel 4a - €389 from Google's online store.

Google's Pixel 4a is probably the best budget phone being launched this Autumn with some very advanced features and great standard features.

The battery life is improved, the screen is great and there's a generous amount of storage. You also get a class-leading camera on it and an interface that's the best of its kind. It's cheaper than almost all of its rivals, too. Direct competitors like Samsung's Galaxy A71 or Apple's iPhone SE cost €100 more. Only OnePlus's Nord is similarly priced, at €20 more. But although the Nord's screen is better and it has more cameras, those cameras aren't quite as good. For a work-friendly, super-smart phone under €400, you can't really do better right now.

The ultimate: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra - €1,350 sim-free.

Samsung's brand new Note 20 Ultra is something of an ultimate business or 'power' user's daily smartphone.

The main updates over the last high-end Note 10+ include a higher resolution screen, better cameras and improved, close-to-instant touch sensitivity with the built-in 'S Pen' stylus. It also has buckets of storage (256GB up) and a very high-end engine. Overall, it regains its crown as the top model for those who specifically lean on their phone for work and also want something hovering around a best-in-class status for everything outside work too, including movies and photography.

Yes, you'll pay dearly for it: this costs a whopping €1,350.

But to be fair, this is around the going rate for the absolute top-end flagship phone these days, from the iPhone 11 Pro Max to Huawei's P40 Pro+ to Samsung's own Galaxy S20 Ultra.

6. Other important 'work from home' tech

The laptop stand. €35 from vinehall.ie.

It's not just laptops and Zoom accounts you need to work from home. Unless you want shoulder pain and bad posture, it's handy to have a laptop stand to put your laptop screen at eye level.

This Irish company's simple wooden stand, delivered from its online store, does the business just fine and won't break the bank.

The monitor: Samsung LS24R652FDUXEN - €219 from Currys.

Unless you have a really large all-in-one PC, you could definitely benefit from an external monitor. You should use this either to plug your laptop into or simply to use as a second screen, for either your laptop or PC.

Whatever the reason, it will boost your ability to keep an eye on email, web pages and other documents at the same time.

You get these from around €80, but I'd recommend getting one that's at least 23 inches in size. This 24-inch Samsung model is relatively good value for what you get, including a wider number of connection ports to hook in different types of laptops and external devices.

The headphones: Sony 1000XM3 - €269 from most retailers.

Dogs barking, bin trucks unloading, kids playing - you may need good noise-cancelling headphones to concentrate on some work tasks. I'm a big advocate of such headphones and there are many good sets to choose from.

Sony's 1000XM series has generally set the pace in recent years and, while it has just launched its fourth version, you can still get the excellent XM3 version for around €120 cheaper.

The microphone: Blue Yeti Nano USB - €129 from Littlewoods.

For some, it's not just a webcam that is needed to make Zoom, Teams or Webex calls more professional looking. It's the microphone.

Laptops and PCs are burdened with pretty low-end microphones, leading to tinny, poor audio. Some may want to invest in the sound of their voice. Almost any type of USB microphone - which just plugs into your laptop or PC - is likely to be an improvement on what you have.

They start at around €30. But if you want something decent, try the recently-released Blue Yeti Nano. It has an adjustable stand, has two microphone capsules and is configurable to capture single or multiple voices.

The keyboard: Logitech MX Keys - €120 from Currys.

Keyboards start at under €10 from most retailers - they're the USB keys of the computer accessory world.

But it's worth thinking a little of ergonomics, as well as things like 'key travel', when picking one for the long term. A firm, 'clicky' press is much more desirable than the spongy sensation that feels like dabbing a key rather than typing on it. Microsoft does some decent, affordable keyboards at around €50, but if you can stretch the budget, Logitech's wireless MX Keys model is excellent.


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