With a few changes, you can get comfy at computer

May 02, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you walk around a room full of people using PCs, you'll notice more than a few who seem to be craning their necks and squinting at their screens.

This is a sure sign that they're not comfortable using their computers, and that's bad news. Eyestrain is the No. 1 ergonomic hazard involved with extended computer use. Fortunately, it's a problem that's relatively easy to fix with a few simple adjustments to your hardware, software and headware.

Even if you think you're comfortable at your machine, pay attention, because what we mistake for comfort is often a case of getting used to a condition that's mildly annoying but can be harmful in the long run.

First, look at the height of your monitor. This isn't strictly an eyesight issue, but most ergonomic experts say we should actually be staring slightly downward at our screens to eliminate neck strain. We don't hold books straight in front of our eyes when we read them, yet many monitor and desktop height combinations leave us staring directly at the middle of the screen, or slightly upward.

Depending on how your workstation is designed, you can change the angle of view by lowering the desktop, or if that's impossible, by lowering the monitor slightly. True, most monitors don't have height adjustments, but almost all have removable bases. Take off the base, and you may find yourself with a more comfortable viewing angle. You can always put a book under the front end.

Distance to the monitor is another key, especially if you wear reading glasses, or should be wearing them but don't. Give this a try: Sit at the distance that's most comfortable for keyboard and mouse use, then move the monitor back and forth a bit on your desk (monitors may be heavy, but very few are planted in concrete). You may find that moving the monitor a couple of inches will put the screen where your eyes have to do far less work.

If you wear bifocals, consider a visit to your eye doctor for "computer" glasses. The bottom lenses in most bifocals are designed for reading paper at a distance closer than the typical computer screen.

As a result, to read your screen with standard bifocals, you may have to sit closer than you'd like and tilt your head back. Glasses designed specifically for reading at computer distance can help, as can more expensive, blended "trifocal" lenses with an area corrected for computers in the middle.

A related problem is that the people who set up computers are all under the age of 20 and just got out of fighter pilot training. As a result, for those of us in our "middle years," the print on the screen is too darn small.

You can adjust the overall size of the objects on your screen by changing its resolution. Resolution is a term for the number of pixels, or dots, that make up the image on your screen. It's measured in pixels of width by pixels of height. So at a resolution of 800 x 600, your screen is 800 pixels wide by 600 pixels high. At a resolution of 1,024 x 768, your screen is 1,024 dots wide by 768 dots high.

Your PC can operate at several different resolutions, depending on your video adapter and monitor. It's adjustable through Windows' control panel.

Why not use the highest possible resolution? The catch is that no matter what resolution you choose, you can't change the physical size of your screen. Changing from a lower to higher resolution is like cutting a pizza into eight slices instead of six. The size of the pizza is the same, but each piece is smaller (and less satisfying if you're hungry).

If a standard Windows icon is 32 pixels wide, it will be 32 pixels wide regardless of the resolution. So changing the resolution from 800 x 600 pixels to 1,024 x 768 to a higher resolution means you can fit more icons onto the screen, but those icons will be smaller. Likewise, you can get more spreadsheet cells on a higher resolution screen, but the type will be smaller.

On a 15-inch screen, a 1,024 x 768 display may be almost unreadable to many people. On a 19-inch screen, the same resolution may look just fine.

Your eyes will tell you which resolution is best for you. For example, I find that resolution of 800 x 600 is best for the 17-inch screen I use at home, while 1,024 x 768 works best on my 19-inch monitor at work.

You can experiment with this at no cost. Just right-click on an empty spot on your Windows desktop and choose Properties from the popup menu. Click on the Settings tab of the dialog box that appears, and you'll see a slider that allows you to choose different resolutions. Choose a lower or higher resolution and click the Apply button.

If you choose a lower resolution, everything on your screen will appear bigger. But you'll get fewer objects, or less text, on the screen. If you choose a higher resolution, everything will appear smaller. You'll get more on the screen, but it will be harder to read.

Try a different resolution for a while. If you like it, you've solved your problem. If you don't like it, change it back.

Finally, glare from bright overhead lights can make your eyes work a lot harder, too, even if you don't always notice it. A monitor hood can shield your screen from overhead glare and make it easier to read. Or, if you're not a slave to fashion, just tape a projecting piece of cardboard to the top edge of your monitor.

Finally, protect your eyes from glare. I know this sounds weird, but if you find yourself squinting a lot in a bright office, try putting on a baseball cap or sun visor. If your eyes suddenly relax, you've found an easy fix. Remember those guys in old movies who wore green eyeshades in the office? They weren't so dumb after all.

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