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If I’ve learned anything from five years of working from anywhere, it’s that my “office” typically sucks. Cafe tables weren’t designed to be workspaces, and kitchen chairs aren’t intended to be sat on for hours.
The ergonomics of hunching over a laptop for hours are frankly awful. I’ve regularly ended up with pain in my neck, back or wrists after a long writing session.
Wi-fi signal in hotel rooms and elsewhere is often terrible, while street and cafe noise is a massive distraction. On the rare occasion I do find the ideal workspace, I only get to enjoy it for a few days or weeks before moving on to the next place. When it comes to work environments, the “digital nomad dream” is usually anything but.
While there have been many times I’d happily swap my wobbly dining room table for the health-and-safety-approved desk of my old corporate jobs, nothing else attracts me back to the cubicle. Instead, at the start of the year I finally got sick enough of crappy workspaces to invest my time and money in doing something about it.
I’ve been using my new setup for several months now, and it’s made a big difference. I’m far more productive, with better focus, faster typing speeds and less joint pain even after a full day’s work. The extra gear all fits in my existing day pack, and adds about a kilogram of extra weight, making it easy enough to justify carrying.
Here’s what I’ve used to create my perfect digital nomad office, no matter where I’m working today.
The Stand: Roost Laptop Stand
I started with what I considered the most important piece of equipment: a laptop stand. These lift the screen up to eye level, which has eliminated my neck strain and the “digital nomad hunch” you’ll likely spot at any cafe in Chiang Mai.
I checked out a bunch of them, but most weren’t designed for travel, so were too big and heavy. In the end I went with a recommendation from a friend, and ordered the second-edition Roost Laptop Stand.
It weighs 170g (under 6oz), and slides down the side of my daypack when folded into its soft carry-case. It expands into one of three height positions — useful given I never know how high my table or chair will be from one place to the next, and when I’ve experimented with stand-up working.
The Roost is surprisingly sturdy for such a lightweight device, and I’ve never been worried about it slipping or collapsing, or my laptop falling out of it. My 13” Asus fits perfectly, and it can handle all but the thickest of machines… which you’re not likely to be carrying on the road anyway.
The Keyboard: Logitech Bluetooth Illuminated Keyboard K810
Of course, with my laptop sitting up on a stand, I can’t use the inbuilt keyboard. An external keyboard gave a better working position anyway and, if I chose the right one, a better typing experience as well.
There are hundreds of Bluetooth keyboards out there, and most of them are awful – you really do seem to get what you pay for. After reading far too many reviews, I settled on the Logitech K810.
The keys are slightly narrower than those on my laptop, but I haven’t noticed while using it. They have just the right amount of firmness and travel for me, and don’t clatter like those on cheaper keyboards.
I’ve actually noticed my typing speed increase with it – a quick speed test just now showed 70wpm, which is faster than on my laptop. If only my brain could keep up with my fingers.
There are a few other useful features too. The keyboard remembers three device pairings, and you can switch between them with a button press. I’ve used it with my (Android) phone and tablet, and it works well, with no lag or missed keystrokes.
The backlighting is adjustable through several steps from off to bright. There’s also a proximity feature that turns the light on when your hands get close to the keys, and off after they move away. There are volume and playback controls along the top row, and they work as expected.
Battery life is very good. It lasts several weeks with the backlight off, and I particularly appreciate being able to recharge via micro-USB rather than having to find batteries.
I wouldn’t want the keyboard to be any smaller, but that means finding space for a one pound, foot-long gadget in my bag. It fits in one of the internal pockets in my day pack, but in hindsight, I’d probably have bought the Roost carry case that holds the stand, keyboard and mouse, and offers extra protection for them all.
Unlike most other Bluetooth keyboards, it’s Windows-specific rather than universal. That means I get a dedicated Windows key – given how often I use it, that’s very useful. If you’re a Mac user, there’s a K811 model for you, but it’s surprisingly expensive. I’d probably just go for the Apple Magic keyboard instead.
The Mouse: Microsoft Sculpt Mouse
I’ve never really liked touchpads – blame it on using desktop computers for much of my life, I guess. As a result, I’ve had a wireless mouse since starting this journey, and I kept using my current one with this new setup.
It’s a fairly basic Microsoft mouse, with little more than a couple of buttons and a scroll wheel, but it works just fine. The software issue I mentioned in this review disappeared with Windows 10, so now the only minor annoyances are the transceiver taking up a USB port, and needing to replace the battery every couple of months. For under twenty bucks, it’s hard to complain.
The Booster: ALFA AWUS036H Wi-fi USB Adapter
Awful Wi-fi is a fact of life on the road. It’s one of the reasons I started using Airbnb and other apartment rental services instead of staying in hotels. Still, I’m in guesthouses, cafes and hotels often enough to get regularly frustrated when I can’t get a signal, or it’s too poor to get any real work done.
A vital part of my digital nomad setup, then, is this cheap, ugly ALFA Wi-fi extender, and I’ve been using it for years. I talk about it in detail in that review, but in brief, it consistently turns one or two bars of unusable Wi-fi signal into a solid four or five. It even shows networks I can’t see at all with the wireless card in my laptop.
On many, many occasions, it’s been the difference between a productive few hours and a day spent swearing at websites that won’t load.
This model is getting pretty old, and it doesn’t support the latest wireless standards or current versions of MacOS. It’s still popular despite that, because it’s inexpensive and reliable. If you want something newer, though, or you’re a Mac owner, this range extender gets good reviews.
The Sounds: Taotronics Bluetooth Speaker & Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
Everyone has different views on music and noise when they’re working. I have friends who much prefer to work in coffee shops because they love the ambient sounds. Others insist on absolute silence if they’re going to get anything done.
For me, my preference is an instrumental soundtrack, ideally designed to increase focus. I’ve used Focus At Will for the last three years and my book wouldn’t have got written without it. If you don’t want to spend the money, Spotify has several “Focus” playlists that are pretty good as well.
When I’m heading to a cafe, co-working or other shared space, I won’t set out without my Shure SE215 earphones. Despite only having passive noise isolation, they block out almost all background sound by themselves. This means I don’t need to have my music on high volume to drown out the noisy people at the next table.
They boost the bass somewhat, but not by much, meaning they’re good for both music and podcasts. I love these things – so much so that when I left my original pair on a plane at Bangkok Airport, I went out and bought another pair as soon as I could.
I do find, though, that any earphones make my ears ache after a few hours. Since the speakers on my laptop (and most others) aren’t particularly good, I carry a little Taotronics Bluetooth speaker for when I’m working somewhere private like a hotel room or apartment.
It’s very much a personal speaker – it starts to distort when I crank the volume right up – but it’s ideal to put on the desk beside me.
It’s super-small and light, the rechargable battery lasts longer than my work days, and it costs under thirty bucks. The sound quality is fine for what I use it for, and is far superior to what comes out of my laptop speakers.
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My entire setup cost a little over $300, and was totally worth the money (and extra weight). I’m able to work more effectively no matter where my travels take me, and deal with everything from bad ergonomics to noisy environments to crappy Wi-fi.
I put off setting myself up properly for far too long, and I wish I hadn’t. The end result is getting more work done more quickly, which in turn increases my income and gives me more time to enjoy the fun parts of being in a new city.
This little portable office will be coming with me everywhere I go from now on. My neck, wrists, ears and bank balance would all get very upset if it didn’t.
Do you have a portable office setup you’re happy with? Tell us about it in the comments!
Main image via illustir