Shelf helps users work in comfort

October 18, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

After a painful bout with carpal tunnel syndrome a decade ago, I became a lot more particular about my work habits.

I stopped sitting at the computer for hours at a stretch, learned to take frequent breaks and stopped what I was doing whenever my arms and wrists told me I was overdoing it.

I also began looking for a gadget that would let me position the keyboard at exactly the right height and angle to minimize the strain. This is critical because the repetitive stress injuries that affect up to 20 million adults in the United States today are often caused by keyboards that are too high or two low, forcing you to bend your wrist while you type. Ideally, your keyboard should be at a height that allows you to type comfortably while your forearms are at a 90-degree angle to the floor.

Over the years, I must have tried and discarded a half-dozen keyboard trays and wrist rests without finding one that felt truly comfortable. One reason is my build -- I'm 6 feet tall but sit a lot "taller" because most of my height is in my body. I also have relatively short arms. As a result, a keyboard that sits on top of my desk is too high, and most of the slide-out keyboard trays that mount under the desk -- even the adjustable models -- are too low.

For every person like me, there's one who sits "short" but has long arms, and so forth. While furniture is designed for the statistically average person, few of us match those measurements.

The underside of my computer table is so scarred with drill holes from various keyboard trays and shelves that I don't know if there's enough solid wood left to anchor another one.

Luckily, I don't have to. Last week I discovered a reasonably priced keyboard shelf that lets me adjust the height and tilt of the keyboard perfectly. It also provides room for a mouse at exactly the same height as the keyboard, so I don't have to reach forward to roll the mouse across my desktop.

The Kensington EzMount Under-Desk SuperShelf II takes only three minutes to install -- in fact, it may take you longer to get it out of the box than to attach it to your desk. Instead of using screws to mount to the underside of your work surface, it uses two heavy-duty metal clamps that slide right onto your desktop and fasten tightly when you twist a knob under each side. The clamps swivel so that you can use the shelf with a standard desktop or a corner unit.

Underneath, a retractable metal arm supports a plastic keyboard tray. You can move the tray back and forth (or tuck it away under the desk altogether), adjust the height over a six-inch range and change the tilt of the keyboard to your liking. The tilt is a feature you'll normally find only on industrial-strength keyboard trays that cost several hundred dollars and are difficult to install. But it's important because research now suggests that tilting the keyboard slightly down and away from you can further reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury.

The tray is wide enough to accommodate a standard keyboard with a small area to one side for a mouse pad -- which Kensington provides, along with a gel-filled wrist rest. The "mousing" area is a bit small for my taste, and may not be suitable for artists or designers who need more room to roam. But I quickly got used to it -- and for once, I was typing at exactly the right height and using the mouse without straining my back and shoulder.

There are some drawbacks. Like most pivoting keyboard arms -- even the most expensive models -- the SuperShelf II bounces a bit when you type. This may bother you for a while if you're used to keeping your keyboard on a desktop or slide-out tray that doesn't tilt. Also, the clamps are ugly as sin. But in my basement office, I don't have to impress anybody but myself.

The wide range of adjustment makes the SuperShelf ideal for computers used by more than one person -- and a great idea if you have kids. There are plenty of horror stories today about children suffering from the same wrist, arm and shoulder injuries as adults -- or even worse -- because standard desks are too high for them. The SuperShelf II can lower the playing field to give kids a more comfortable work space.

I bought my shelf at Office Depot for $60. But since it's a bulky item that takes up a lot of shelf space, not all computer or office supply stores may carry it, and Kensington doesn't sell direct to consumers. But after a little Web browsing, I found the unit for $75 at Computer Discount Warehouse (www.cdw.com) and for $70 at J&R Computer World (www.jandr.com). If you can find one in your area, it probably pays to buy locally -- the SuperShelf II is heavy and the shipping charges add up.

For more information, call the Kensington Technology Group at 800-235-6708 or surf to www.kensington.com.

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