The 'Poor Man's Desktop' Work From Home Setup

  • Thursday, Oct 1, 2020

Due to the events of 2020, many people have suddenly found themselves working from home. Whilst a laptop is perfect when moving around for work, sitting hunched over a tiny screen for 8 hours a day can be very tiring. A desktop PC  setup is far better for this. But what if you don’t have the budget, or the space, for a desktop PC?

The good news is, if you already have a decent laptop , it’s possible to create what I call a “poor man’s desktop”. Basically, you buy all the peripherals (monitor, keyboard, mouse) that a desktop PC requires, but the PC itself is actually just your laptop connected to it all. Some of you may be familiar with this type of setup from your office. But how do you go about setting it up, and what do you need?





A desktop monitor

At the centre of any good work from home setup is a decent monitor. The most important things to consider are:

  • Size: The average laptop screen size is about 15.6” (a diagonal measurement), but yours may be even smaller. When looking for an external monitor, you’ll want something at least 21”, if not bigger. The more screen real estate you have, the better really.

  • Resolution: You want this to be at least 1080p (Full HD) or higher. The higher the resolution, the sharper the image on the screen. However, you need to be aware of what the maximum resolution supported by your laptop is (this can often be found in the laptop’s manual).

  • Reresh rate: This is basically how often the screen refreshes its content; the higher the number, the more frequently it refreshes. If you have ever seen old new footage from the 90s, you’ll notice any computer monitors are flickering as their refresh rate is so low (this is more detectable by a camera than the human eye). You’ll want the highest refresh rate that your laptop’s external monitor port can support (this can often be found in the laptop’s manual). Higher refresh rates reduce the risk of eye strain and give a smoother picture in general.

  • Connector: You need to make sure that whichever monitor you choose can be connected to your laptop. Older laptops only have a VGA connector (this is usually blue) - these ports only broadcast using an analogue signal, which means the image is not as sharp as other options. If your only option is VGA, you are better off trying to find an inexpensive used monitor that also only supports VGA, since newer higher resolution monitors would be wasted as the signal being given to them would be analogue. More modern laptops usually have an HDMI port or a Mini DisplayPort (or USB Type-C and Thunderbolt on very new PC laptops and Macbooks), which sends a digital signal and is much sharper. You can find a deeper dive into the various ports here .
    The monitor will usually have one or more VGA, DisplayPort, DVI and/or HDMI connectors. You need to make sure you also have the relevant cable to connect your laptop to your monitor - VGA goes to VGA, or if your laptop only has VGA and you monitor only has HDMI, DVI or DisplayPort (or vice versa), you’ll need a convertor to change the signal from analogue to digital (or vice versa). I don’t recommend this if you can avoid it.
    HDMI and DisplayPort/Mini DisplayPort use superior digital signals - you can get cables that go to or from them both (for example, you can connect the Mini DisplayPort on a laptop to the HDMI port of a monitor with the right cable). I’ve put a picture of the various types of display connector below - but if in doubt, consult Hither Green IT .


Typical laptop display ports

Once you have your external monitor connected to your laptop, you can choose to either use just the monitor with the laptop screen off, mirror the two displays with identical content, or use one display (usually the monitor as you are sat in front of it) as a “main” desktop, and the other as a secondary “extended” desktop you can drag and drop things onto.



Keyboard and Mouse


A wireless keyboard and mouse

Whilst some laptop keyboards are actually quite good (expecially on business machines like the Lenovo Thinkpad or Dell Latitude lines), de facto full size keyboards designed for desktop PCs are usually a lot better. Adding one to your “poor man’s desktop” setup will free you from having to use your laptop keyboard. This also means you can position the keyboard in front of your external monitor and position the laptop to one side - so as you type you feel like you are sitting at a desktop PC.

Likewise, most laptops have a touchpad. Again, these are fine for use on the go, but 8 hours a day can become laborious without a proper mouse.

You can either get a wired keyboard and mouse that connect to your laptop’s USB ports, or a wireless keyboard and mouse that has a small dongle that goes into one of your laptop’s USB ports. It’s also possible to get bluetooth keyboard and mouse sets that don’t need a dongle and connect directly to your laptop via bluetooth. The wireless options give you a lot more flexibility in terms of where you can position them in relation to your laptop and monitor. Wireless keyboards with a dongle tend to have longer battery life than bluetooth ones, but the advantage of bluetooth ones is that you can also use them with other bluetooth enabled devices like tablets and smartphones.

There are hundreds of different choices when it comes to the above, but entry-level brands I recommend are Logitech and Microsoft. You can spend a lot more and get a keyboard with mechanical switches (usually designed for gamers), but some people find these noisy.

NB - Apple laptops are a different beast, especially the newer ones. There are a lot less third party keyboards and mice available. Some Apple laptops don’t have full size USB ports, only small USB Type-C or Thunderbolt ports, so you’ll need to use a dongle (I’ll cover these more later in the article) to connect peripherals with full size USB connectors.





A USB webcam

The cameras and microphones in laptops (even expensive new ones) are often poor, as there is very little room inside the chassis for high quality ones (everyone wants a thin laptop!) They are fine for the occasional quick video call, less good for extensive use. Using a USB webcam (as well as a USB microphone/headset) can improve the quality of Skype/Zoom calls etc. The trouble is, since lockdown, everyone wants a USB webcam now they’ve realised how bad their laptop webcam is - this means the world is low on stock, and when stock is available it’s price gouged. For example, a fairly unremarkable Logitech C270 720p USB webcam was just £25 pre-Covid - people are now selling them for £100+!

Microphones and headsets improve the quality of the audio as the speaker is closer to them - I personally use a headset, as it moves about with you, but I can appreciate this isn’t always comfortable/aesthetically pleasing. Often the microphones built into laptops/USB webcams are adequate for most people - but there are plenty of options on the market that connect via the heaphone jack, USB port or via Bluetooth.



An ethernet connection


An ethernet cable

As we saw in my guide to home networking , connecting to your router with an ethernet cable provides a much better experience when compared to using WiFi. If your workspace happens to be near your router (or you have an ethernet cable running between your router and the room your workspace is in), it’s always better to use ethernet. This will be infinitely more stable than using a WiFi connection (as long as you have addressed your full home network setup as detailed in my guide).

You can plug the ethernet cable in and out of your laptop as required, or get a USB dongle (more about these below) that has an ethernet port built into it. Some thinner laptops actually don’t have an ethernet port at all, so you have to get a dongle. You can get them just to convert USB to ethernet, which is cheaper than a dongle that also has other ports.



Hubs and Dongles


A USB hub

So, once you’ve got all the peripherals above, you may find yourself running out of USB ports. In this case, you’ll need to purchase a USB hub/dongle.

A hub (picture above) is basically just the USB equivalent of a power extension gang socket; it takes one USB port and converts it into more. You need to be sure that the hub is the same revision of USB as the port you are connecting it to - so USB 3 for a USB 3 port (usually blue, or marked with “SS”) and USB 2 for a USB 2 port.

If in doubt, USB 3 hubs are backwards compatible with USB 2 ports and devices. USB 2 is usually what devices like keyboards, mice and webcams use and USB 3 is for connecting hard drives. It’s important to connect USB 3 compatible external drives via USB 3, otherwise they will operate at much slower USB 2 speeds (The USB 2.0 standard offers a theoretical maximum signaling rate of 480 megabits per second, while USB 3.0 defines a maximum rate of 5 gigabits per second. ).

Also, if any device takes a lot of power from the USB port (like USB hard drives), you can only usually connect one of these to a hub at a time. The average USB hub can power one external hard drive plus lower powered devices like keyboard, mice and webcams. If you need more power, there are USB hubs that have their own power supply.

A USB dongle

It’s also possible to get USB dongles. Not only do they expand one USB port into more, but they also often have extra connections on them like an ethernet port or a card reader. Some even have an HDMI port on them - but this will only be supported if you device is able to output display via a USB port (mostly high end newer laptops and Macbooks). The advantage of a dongle is, rather than having to plug/unplug many cables each time you want to setup your “poor man’s desktop”, you just keep as much as possible connected to the dongle and then just plug it in and out as necessary.

NB - some laptops (usually business models) have a “docking port” on the bottom, which means that you can buy a special docking station designed for them (if you work in a large office this is often the setup they use). They are essentially a more robust version of a USB dongle - you “dock” your laptop onto them, and the dock is connected to your monitor. keyboard, mouse and any other peripherals. If you have a docking port, this can be a more elegant option - but depending on your laptop model, they can be expensive.





A happy home worker

If you combine the various elements detailed above, you can easily get the ergonomics of working at a desktop PC without having to actually lay out for the computer itself, and you retain the flexibility of using your laptop as well.

And as always, for expert advice and installation, contact Hither Green IT .

comments powered by Disqus