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Millions of Americans are working from home due to the coronavirus, many of them struggling to focus at makeshift desks in a spare bedroom or the kitchen table, with kids or roommates doing the same.
It’s easy to get frustrated by distractions or a slow home WiFi network, or simply wonder about the best way to hold a videoconference. Here are some tools that can make working from home easier, helping you stay focused, productive, and sane.
Free Videoconferencing Apps
Even though you’re working from home, you’ll still probably continue to need to meet with clients and co-workers, and videoconferencing can help with that, as well as keep you in touch with friends and professionals like tax preparers.
If you’re going to be holding small, simple group meetings—essentially conference calls with smiling faces—try a consumer-oriented videochat app such as Google Duo (which can accommodate up to a dozen participants), Apple FaceTime (which can take up to 32 people), or Microsoft’s Skype or Facebook’s new Messenger Rooms (which each have a capacity of 50).
If you need presentation features such document sharing or whiteboarding, consider the free version of a business-oriented platform such as Zoom, Google Meet (which is replacing Hangouts), Microsoft Teams (which is going to replace the company’s Skype), or Cisco Webex. You will face some restrictions compared with paying users, but they may not matter to you.
The free versions of Google, Zoom, and WebEx limit meetings to 100 participants, and Microsoft maxes out at 250. In its free tiers, Zoom limits the duration of calls to 40 minutes. Google Meet usually holds calls to 60 minutes but is lifting that restriction until Sept. 30. The free versions of Cisco and Microsoft don’t put time limits on calls.
You should also think about privacy and security for yourself and the participants in your meetings. Researchers at Consumer Reports’ Digital Lab analyzed Zoom and, separately, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex, and found that the platforms collect more consumer information than you might expect. In addition, remember that a meeting could be recorded and shared later.
To enhance everyone’s privacy, participants can turn off their cameras and mics when they’re not presenting, think about what’s showing in their background, and be sure to tell people whether they’d like to record a meeting. A Consumer Reports member and privacy expert has good advice on preventing Zoombombing.
A More Robust Home Network
If you’ve experienced intermittent slowdowns or weak or spotty WiFi coverage in certain parts of your home, this could be a good time to upgrade. A newer router could be especially helpful to handle the increased demands that come with kids gaming or streaming Netflix on screens all over the house, along with other adults sucking up bandwidth for their own videoconferences.
If you’re in a small home, you might consider the TP Link Archer C3150 V2, $150. However, if you have a large home or one with lots of stone or concrete construction, you may have noticed poor WiFi reception in far-flung attic bedrooms and on the back porch. If your productivity strategy is to hide away in those corners of the house, you might look at a mesh router like the Netgear Orbi, $400 for three, or the Eero Home WiFi, $250 for three.
A mesh router uses a base station (which plugs into the modem that connects your home to the internet) and additional satellite units (typically one or two) that work together to spread WiFi throughout your home and eliminate coverage dead spots.
Whether you go for a stand-alone router or a mesh system, modern routers can be controlled with a smartphone app and are simple to set up.
And after you’ve installed your new router, make sure to take a moment to go over these helpful WiFi security tips.
Slack is particularly useful for teams that can’t meet in person.
It’s basically a series of work-centric group chats that don’t disappear. You can create channels, as the company calls them, each devoted to a specific project, subject, or working group. They resemble email threads but are easier to manage and follow.
You can start using Slack in your browser, but the service may be easier to use if you install the app on your computer and smartphone.
Work-from-home veterans will tell you that establishing boundaries with the other occupants of the domicile is key. But what if you don’t have the room to create quiet personal space? Try a pair of noise-canceling headphones.
A favorite around open-plan offices, the Bose 700 represents the state of the art in noise-canceling headphones, albeit for a price: around $400, rarely discounted. If you’re looking for something much cheaper, consider the Monoprice BT-300ANC. They sound really good (almost as good as the Bose) and keep out the hubbub (almost as well as the Bose) for around $50. Both headphones have integrated microphones so that you can hold up your end of a conversation.
The Right Printer for Your Work
Are you one of those people who likes to work on paper, joyfully scribbling notes with your Pentel on a freshly printed page? Or do you just need to send out documents for a client’s signature?
The value-priced printers in our ratings include lots of good options, whether you need to print dozen of pages or just a few.
If you’re printing mostly text, consider an all-in-one laser printer like the Brother MFC-L2710DW. It costs well under $200, but just as important, its toner replacement costs are very low, at an estimated $44 per year. The model prints 16.7 pages per minute and can hold 250 sheets of paper, which is a plus because you’ll be the one refilling it.
If you want a model that can print color and graphics with aplomb, you might look at the Canon Pixma G4210. It’s a bit more expensive than other inkjet printers but uses ink reservoirs instead of pricey ink cartridges. That limits supply costs to $6 per year by CR’s estimates; ink cartridges for other inkjet printers can easily cost more than $100 per year.
An Affordable External Monitor
Plenty of us are missing the computer monitors we’re used to at the office. The small screens on a laptop can make it a challenge to manage large documents like spreadsheets, and can make it harder to practice good ergonomics, which is important for both comfort and good health.
High-quality external monitors can easily cost $400 or more, but there are some relatively inexpensive options. Our testing shows that BenQ BL2480T features impressive display quality for a price that typically hovers around $200, along with a wide viewing angle. It rotates to both portrait and landscape modes, can be wall-mounted, and includes a built-in speaker.
The BenQ fell a little short when it came to reproducing colors—the colors were too warm, with a yellowish cast—it’s regular HD, not 4K. That all means this isn’t a great choice for video editors and graphic artists. But for most office work, it’s more than good enough and is a relative bargain.
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