Portable Laptop Workstation
(Updated March 2023 with an even better stand setup at the end)
I frequently travel for work for weeks at a time and have noticed a little pain from constantly craning my head down at laptops. I miss using the three large monitors in my home office as having extra screen real estate can really increase my productivity (when I can stay focused). With this and my interest in #ergonomics, I’ve been experimenting with different portable workstations that solve both problems above and have found some (imperfect) solutions.
I own a cheap 15.6 inch thin portable monitor that I bring on trips which helps with screen real estate (and love how I can power it and provide a video signal via a single USB-C cable with DisplayPort-Alt mode alone), but have two issues using it with my laptop alone:
- Both the laptop screen and the portable monitor are still too low and thus less comfortable to use for multi-hour sessions with my neck craning down;
- The cable connecting the portable monitor to the laptop often gets in the way and I can’t place the devices very close to each other.
I recently got a double-adjustable ElfAnt Laptop Stand stand that folds up very compactly but is also super adjustable (and supports heavier devices like my ~5 lb. 2021 16 inch MacBook Pro). I’m experimenting with different setups to improve this where I have the laptop monitor and portable monitor vertically stacked, and the primary monitor I use is near eye-level.
- May need a separate mouse and keyboard, may not
- Should be easy enough to set up so I don’t not ever actually use it
I tested this with two devices: my 16-inch MacBook Pro, and my 13-inch Surface Pro 9 tablet.
# MacBook Pro 16 inch option
Here is the best solution I found:
The 16 inch screen on the MacBook is too tall to place on the table as the laptop stand, even at its highest configuration, is still not quite high enough to place the portable monitor on and be completely above the Macbook Pro (unless you angle the laptop’s screen all the way to the back, which is impractical for real use). This limits me to placing the large laptop on the laptop stand, but the stand’s base device holders are large enough that I can still place the monitor on them on top of the laptop base, and with a few adjustments with the monitor’s own stand, it is just the right height to have two seamless vertical monitors.
- The superior MacBook screen is nearly at eye-level
- The laptop stand can still be adjusted higher if preferred, to increase the total height of both monitors
- No access to MacBook’s keyboard or touchpad, so an external keyboard and mouse are necessary (I prefer QMK/ ZMK mechanical keyboards anyway, but they’re less portable)
- Cannot remove MacBook without moving monitor, so less accessible
- MacBook screen is a bit far away (but not that big of a deal)
# Surface Pro 9 option
The best solution here was to swap the computer and monitor:
The Surface laptop/tablet is much shorter than my Macbook, so it is just short enough that it can be the bottom monitor, which makes setup and takedown much easier.
- Easy to setup; can quickly disconnect and reconnect Surface without affecting remaining setup
- Can choose to use Surface cover keyboard or can remove it and use another
- The portable monitor screen is larger and helpful to have as the main monitor (though mine lacks the same 120hz refresh rate, resolution, and brightness of the Surface screen)
- Having the Surface on the bottom allows easy use of its touch screen
- While the portable monitor is much higher than without the stand, it is still several inches below eye-level, and I feel some neck pain after several hours
Here’s what using the Surface with an external split keyboard looks like:
I also tried putting the Surface Pro on the laptop stand (without the Keyboard cover). The Surface’s incredible stand made it easy to get the right angle on top. But without the added height of MacBook’s screen, the laptop stand is too low to allow for a good angle on the bottom screen without cutting off the bottom of the Surface’s display. It somewhat works if you angle the portable monitor back and sit closely, but then your arms feel cramped while typing. Also, the top display is generally further away than the bottom display and thus a larger top display is easier to see.
All-in-all, my favorite setup is with the Surface Pro 9 on bottom and the portable monitor on top. The touch screen is nice for quickly dismissing notifications that appear in the bottom right, and with it I can choose to use the Cover keyboard that I’ll always have or a more ergonomic keyboard. It is also the easiest to set up and take down in case I want to leave the external display there for several days. The MacBook option could work if I need a serious powerhouse of a workstation that can stay in one place.
That said, I’ve used the Surface Pro 9-bottom, portable monitor-top setup while travelling awhile, and it isn’t perfect (but see the update below which improves these). The biggest gripes are:
- The ElfAnt laptop stand, while very sturdy is just a little bit short, and depending on the height of the hotel desk and chair. Sometimes the best angle for my Surface Pro 9 cuts off the bottom inch of the top monitor screen, so I have to settle for a subpar viewing angle. Also, while the height is much improved for my neck, it still isn’t quite eye-level.
- The laptop stand is also rather deep, and oftentimes hotel desks aren’t deep enough and push up my Surface closer to the edge (making typing less comfortable).
# Moft Z Stand Update March 2023
Update: I got the Moft Z Sit-Stand Desk for $60 which, while expensive, works even better than the ElfAnt Stand, especially with my Surface Pro 9. There are three main reasons why:
- In its tallest ‘standing’ mode, my portable monitor sits harder than on the ElfAnt. It really is at eye level now.
- While I don’t think Moft intended it, the standing mode is just tall enough to allow the Surface Pro to sit up vertically at the perfect angle (nice for PDFs and top/bottom app splitscreen), and you can use a flap on the bottom to secure it.
- The stand doesn’t ‘feel’ as deep this way, as I can put my split keyboard behind the Surface Pro which works well in shallow hotel room desks and especially on economy airplane seat trays (though I wouldn’t use the monitor then).
# The Ideal Portable Workstation
While I really enjoy the T-style dual monitor setup via the Moft Z stand, my ideal portable setup would have a larger second screen. A 16-inch laptop form-factor is at the upper end of what I’d consider portable (backpackable or baggable), so I could probably find the most compact 17-inch portable monitor (readily available to purchase today) but this doesn’t seem worth it.
To really get a single larger monitor, I thus think we need to go foldable. I have a foldable phone and have fully embraced it as the future of phones, and think the same principle can be applied to larger devices. The Lenovo X1 Fold 16.3-inch laptop is already trying this and goes down to around a 12-inch form-factor when folded. While this is a great step in the right direction, I can imagine a monitor (or possibly a laptop) that is diagonally 16 inches when folded, which opens up into a huge 21-24 inch monitor unfolded. That alone would make a huge difference over my 15.6 inch display, and with two of those stacked on top of one another, I could imagine getting rid of regular monitors entirely.
If you have other elegant 2+ monitor workstation solutions, please share them with me in the comments!
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