Choosing a New Laptop – External Extras (Screens, Hard Drives, Mouse and Keyboard, etc)

Adding external screens, keyboard and mouse, and assorted other devices will transform your laptop into a fully developed system to give you maximum productivity and convenience.

This is the fifth part in our series on how to choose the most suitable laptop for your needs.  Please see the links at the bottom to the other parts in the series. 

What Do You Need to Add to a Laptop?

Strangely, and counter-intuitively, these days laptops include less rather than more when it comes to hardware and capabilities.  For example, I was looking at one of my older Dell laptops (I really should start throwing them away), probably dating back ten years.  It came with many different ports of assorted shapes and sizes all around the sides, internet and phone connections, plus it had a floppy disk drive, a DVD drive, and a hard disk drive in three interchangeable bays, with the ability to mix and match a variety of different devices in those bays – not just the three mentioned above, but also batteries, and extra hard drives.  It was a very modular and versatile laptop.  And also, because of that, bulky and heavy, but back then, all laptops were bulky and heavy.

My now to be replaced Dell Latitude 6540 had a hard drive, a DVD drive, internal slots for an M.2 solid state drive and a wireless data card, plus a range of ports, including a dock/replicator port to essentially convert it to a desktop type computer.  I had two batteries for it that could be swapped over – a regular size (6 cell 65 Whr) and a larger size “long life” battery (9 cell 97 Whr).  It has HDMI and VGA ports, an SD card slot, an ExpressCard slot, audio connectors, an ethernet connector, power input, and four USB ports.

These days, laptops include much less, ostensibly to allow for reductions in size and weight.  But this also has the “happy” side effect (for the computer manufacturer) of shifting some of the total cost away from the initial laptop purchase and obscuring extra costs into a fuzzier area of “optional accessories”.

That is not altogether a bad thing for us either, happily.  It means when we change laptops, we don’t need to simultaneously change all the included elements of the laptop too, whether we need to or not – for example, an external CD/DVD player can simply be swapped from one laptop to the next.

Let’s now look at some of the extra devices you should generally add to your laptop, maybe not when traveling with it, but perhaps in its main location (at home and/or at work) for best convenience, use, and productivity.

Keyboard and Mouse

If you have to “hunt and peck” your way around a keyboard, you’ll probably be happy with whatever sort of keyboard your laptop comes with.  But if you’re an accomplished touch-typist, you will want to get a fully optimized ergonomic keyboard.  I’ve been using the Microsoft range of ergonomic keyboards for years and love them, there are “knock-off” copies of the Microsoft keyboards that are almost indistinguishable.

I have never liked using touch pads or pointer sticks to control the screen cursor.  A mouse is so much quicker and easier and allows much more intuitive fine control of cursor placement.  I like a four button plus scroll wheel type mouse – the normal two buttons for left and right clicks, two more buttons for “forwards” and “backwards” when moving through browser pages, and a clickable scroll wheel for scrolling up and down.

If you’re left handed, as I am, you probably don’t need to be told about how many mice (mouses?) are designed only for right-handers.  My favorite mouse is symmetrical/ambidextrous, but alas, Microsoft stopped making them a decade or more ago, and my supply of new ones is dwindling (they break after some years of intense use).  I’ve not managed to find anything nearly as good, and can’t guess why Microsoft stopped making the one I use.  The Microsoft Comfort Mouse 4500 seems to be the closest to the earlier “Intellimouse” that I like so much.

I recommend that both keyboard and mouse should be wired rather than wireless.  It makes things simpler, there are fewer batteries to have to intermittently replace or recharge, and less can go wrong with a wired connection than a wireless connection.  A keyboard and mouse can use any type of USB port – use the slowest ports for these two devices, because they are probably the least bandwidth-intensive (especially the keyboard).

External Monitor(s)

The greatest productivity aid you can add to your computer is more screen area.  This assumes, of course, you know how to properly use Windows, and have multiple windows open at the same time, none of them full-screen in size, all overlapping and on top of each other, and that Alt-Tab and Alt-Shift-Tab are familiar friends you invoke countless times every day.

Studies have shown enormous productivity gains by increasing your monitor’s screen size or adding a second monitor.  This article reports a 52% improvement, and this article talks in more general terms about how and why productivity is improved with more monitor screen area.  I have certainly noticed a transformational improvement in productivity myself.

There are some techniques for getting best use from a larger or second screen – I’ll write a separate article on that in the near future.

One of the limitations of my Dell laptop was that it could only support two 1920×1200 pixel monitors simultaneously, so that is what I had at home.  I wanted a laptop that would support at least one 4K monitor (the same as having four 1920×1080 monitors all connected simultaneously).  Happily that’s a fairly commonplace feature nowadays, and the LG has an HDMI 2.0 port that supports 4K monitors.

The best size of 4K monitor depends on how close you sit to it, and will generally be in the 32″ – 43″ range.  This gives you the ability to have much more information on the screen at once (a 32″ screen has four times more area than a 16″ screen, a 43″ screen has 7.2 times more area than a 16″ screen and 6.4 times more area than on a 17″ screen.  The extra information can be displayed more clearly and in larger size, too.  That’s a three-fold win to you.

Should you choose a curved monitor?  I’m increasingly of the opinion that for larger screens, a curve is beneficial.  I’ve a 43″ flat screen monitor for myself which I’d been moderately happy with; my daughter recently got a smaller but curved 32″ monitor that she loves.  At first I thought she liked it more for its “cool factor” than anything else, but increasingly I’ve realized that with my monitor I seldom work on its “edges” and stay focused more narrowly in the middle, whereas a curved screen would bring the edges in and make them more useful.  I just checked, there is typically about a 23″ distance from my eyes to the center of the flat screen, but 29″ to the edges, that is quite a difference.

Besides which, being seated in front of a curved monitor does create an amazing “surround” type of effect.

I’d certainly recommend her choice of monitor, a Philips brand monitor at a great price, if you wanted to be at the 32″ end of the size range.  She sits “normally close” to her 32″ monitor, which has a recommended minimum distance between screen and eyes of 19.6″.  I had to rejig my desk layout to sit slightly further back from my 43″ monitor, which has a recommended minimum distance of 26.5″.

My choice of monitor was a Vizio brand, which I chose for slightly “naughty” (ie non-work) reasons.  It supports both HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR video, so I can use it both as a computer monitor and also to watch highest quality 4K UHD HDR video of any type as well.

Make sure you have an HDMI cable to go with your new external monitor.  The Philips monitor unusually included both an HMDI and DisplayPort cable, most monitors these days do not.

There is a lot of nonsense distributed these days about the need for special HDMI cables rated for 2.0 or 2.1 HDMI speeds, certified for 4K HDR or even 8K video, and so on.  This isn’t quite as specious as the nonsense about analog audio cables and speaker wiring, but almost as bad.

Out of curiosity, I tried an old HDMI 1.3 cable that proudly boasted “rated for 1080P video” and it worked perfectly fine with a 60 fps 4K video connection.  So if you already have older HDMI cables, don’t automatically assume they won’t work with new higher quality video and monitors.

External Hard Drive Storage

You might say “I don’t need an external hard drive because I’ve so much unused capacity with my built-in storage, I’ll never need more”.  You might even be accurately describing your present situation, but you’re also overlooking the most important reason for one (or more than one) external drive(s).

I have more than three external hard drives.  I use them not for storing “overflow” files that I can’t fit on my internal storage, but for backing up everything on my laptop.  One of them I keep in my fire-proof and hopefully burglar-proof safe, for two reasons, both hinted at.  The first reason is in case of fire.  The laptop and other hard drives can all melt, but I still have a copy of my data in my safe.  The second reason is in case someone should break in and steal my laptop and other hard drives – I’ve still got the other copy in my safe.

Another drive is a small lightweight 1TB “emergency travel” drive.  If something happens while I’m traveling and I need to recover/reload software, my emergency travel drive has everything on it I could possibly need for recovering my programs and data.  This is probably best used together with hard drive mirroring software.

The other hard drives I use both for occasional “entire backups” and also for automatic continuous backup.

Windows comes complete with “automatic backup” software that you can use to backup most of the files on your computer to external hard drives.

Some people use online cloud storage to backup their files.  Certainly, such files are less at risk of fire or theft, and can be accessed from anywhere in the world, so there’s a lot to be said for them.  But they do increase your internet data usage – perhaps not a problem at home and at work, but maybe a problem when traveling, with either slow or costly internet access.  If the internet goes down when you need to access such files, you’re completely out of luck.

Further, online storage, while not ridiculously expensive, is not fully free, either.  Some services offer low cost first year plans and then raise the price in subsequent years once you’ve become more or less committed to their service.  In general it seems you can expect to pay $50 – $100 a year for an offline backup service.  You can buy a 2TB pocket sized external hard drive for about $60 on Amazon.

If you have 1TB of storage capacity in your laptop, and if it is half full, then probably that means you have 100+ GB of programs (that you don’t need to back up all the time) and less than 400 GB of data files (that you do need to back up).  A 2TB drive would probably allow you to keep a rolling backup with multiple copies of all files, or to keep four or five “snapshot” complete backup copies of your data.  If you feel that insufficient, a 4TB external drive is not much more – about $85.

There’s not really any need to select SSD drives for this type of use, because you’ll probably never need their faster speed.  If you do get an SSD drive, be sure to get a “name brand” drive, which gives you more comfort that you probably have higher-reliability longer-lived memory inside it.

CD/DVD/Blu-ray Reader (and Writer)

There was a time when all software came on CDs – and before that, of course, on floppy disks.  Nowadays, it is rare to get software on a CD (which only holds about 800MB of data) and uncommon to get software on a DVD either.  But it sometimes does happen, besides which, we sometimes might want to, ahem, watch a video from a DVD on our laptop, or play music from a CD (or “rip” it to a digital file – see our discussion on how to do that, here).  We might also want to watch a Blu-ray video, too.

For those reasons, an inexpensive external reader drive for CDs, DVDs and possibly Blu-ray discs makes sense.  As for the ability to write to a disc and make a recording, as well as to read from it, if you think you might want to make physical CDs of music, or to store data on CDs, and/or if you think you might want to make DVDs or Blu-rays, probably of video rather than audio, then a drive that will write as well as read discs would be a good thing to have.  In our case, if we’re distributing any types of data files, these days we either file-share online or use a USB drive or (Micro)SD-drive rather than any type of disc, but a lot depends on what your use will/may be.

If you get a drive, either read-only or read and write, it will connect through a USB port.  External CD/DVD drives are very inexpensive (under $25 on Amazon), Blu-ray drives are priced from about $90 and up.

Video Camera

Most laptops come with a built in webcam these days, but the placement of the webcam is not always ideal for getting a good image of you.  If you want to create a more professional video, or to show yourself more creatively, even “just” in Zoom meetings, an external camera gives you enormously greater flexibility for camera angles, and probably will also create a better quality and higher resolution image.  Even something as simple as having a longer focal length will improve your image.

Covid has made working from home and video conferencing a mainstream concept, and if you have the sort of job where you’d normally dress professionally, we suggest that – for no more than the cost of a business shirt or two – you get a free-standing camera so you can present most professionally via video.

Video cameras will most commonly connect to your laptop through – yes, you guessed it – a USB port.

Audio Too

Just on this line of thought, we cringe when we see some videos – not only is the picture quality terrible, but so too is the sound.  If you’re recording a video to be used as a “one-way” presentation to other people, use a decent quality microphone close to your mouth so as to minimize any objectionable room acoustic; if you’re participating in a “two-way” video call or conference, consider not just a good microphone but also a headset or ear plug type speakers for playing the incoming sound, to ensure you don’t end up creating terrible echo effects where your microphone picks up other audio and then sends that audio back to the other people.

Speakers and microphones might also connect through USB ports, but they might also connect through the audio connector port on your laptop, and might need connector adapters to convert between the type of connector they have and the type of connector your laptop has.  For this reason, USB type audio devices are sometimes simpler and easier than analog devices with mismatched audio connectors.

Other Devices

Some other devices are semi-self-explanatory, and you probably have them already.  The key action item is to check that whatever type of connection they use can be integrated with your laptop.

A printer, for example, used to be essential and these days is becoming somewhat more optional.  It used to be that printers typically used a Centronix/parallel type port and connector, but nowadays most use a USB port and some offer Wi-Fi connectivity too (although I sometimes have difficulty with the Wi-Fi connectivity).

Another device that used to be relatively common and now much less so is a scanner.  They sometimes had SCSI type connectors, but hopefully, if you have a scanner, it will use a USB connector too.

There are other things you might occasionally connect to your computer such as a camcorder or regular camera, and they almost certainly use USB connection.

If your laptop doesn’t have a built-in ethernet connection, you might need one of those, too.

If you have devices that don’t use a USB connector, there’s a good chance you can find an adapter dongle that will convert from their type of connector to a USB connector.  I generally search on Amazon for “XYZ to USB adapter”, and usually end up finding the device I need.

One thing to be wary of, in such cases, is to make sure that the adapter has the right “gender” – do you need one with pins sticking out, or one with holes for the pins to connect into.  One of those is called a “male” adapter and the other “female” – not sure if that remains appropriate in these ridiculous politically correct times.  You can probably guess which is the male and which is the female type connector.

Sometimes there are multiple types of an adapter – for example, serial adapters can have nine or fifteen pins.  Make sure what you’re getting matches what you need.

Adding Extra Ports to Your Laptop

So, are you running out of ports on your laptop yet?  Almost certainly you are.  In part four of this series, I listed 14 different things that many people might wish to connect to their laptop, and noted that I usually have at least eight of those connected to my laptop.

The chances are you’re going to need a port extender, sometimes also called a hub or USB hub or docking station.  These can be simple devices that are a bit like a power strip – they plug into one USB port and give you some number of ports to now use instead of just the one.  But you’ll probably want to make full use of the new capabilities of such devices, and get one that does a lot more than just creates more USB ports and nothing else.

We’ll discuss port extenders in the next part of this series.  Please now click on to that or any other parts of this series.

Introduction and “The Chosen One” (The laptop I selected for myself)

The Invisible Bits (Memory, Storage, CPU, Warranty)

The Visible Parts (Screen and Keyboard)

The Other Things (Connectivity, Battery, Size/Weight)

External Extras (Screens, Hard Drives, Mouse and Keyboard, etc) – this article!

Connecting it All (An External Hub)

Bonus Article :  Choosing a New Desktop – Beware The Huge Lurking Trap!  –  to be published

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