When the time comes to get some work done at home, there’s more to setting up a home office than simply slapping your MacBook down on the dining room table.
Whether you’re self-employed or working for the man, chances are you sometimes need to knock over some work at home. If these times are few and far between, then you may get away with sitting at the dining table or resting on the couch, but often there comes a time when you need to create yourself a decent workspace.
The key to working at home is productivity – there’s little point in burning through your home time if you’ve got little to show for it at the end of the day. This means you need to work at home effectively and efficiently. Not everyone can commandeer an entire room as a home office, but even establishing a workstation in a quiet corner of the house can make a big difference to how productive you become.
Putting a price on a home office is tough, but we’ve made some rough calculations on what you need to get started. They’re recommended retail prices, so you should do better if you shop around. You may be able to claim much of this on your tax, along with a slice of your utility bills, but it’s best to consult your accountant for financial advice.
Let’s assume you already own a desktop Mac or a MacBook of some description. Perhaps there’s also an iPad on the coffee table, which is useful for both work and play, but it’s unlikely to make do as a full-blown workstation for regularly working at home. For all its strengths, iOS can be a frustrating work environment compared to a desktop operating system. That aside, working for hours on an iPad isn’t great for your neck or back. You don’t want home productivity to come at the expense of your health.
The next step up from working on your MacBook at the kitchen bench or dining table is to invest in an external keyboard, mouse and monitor. The extra screen real estate certainly comes in handy but, more importantly, sitting at a proper workstation encourages the correct posture. Also look for a decent office chair.
When seated at your workspace, you want your monitor at eye level and your arms straight by your sides. Your elbows should be level with the keyboard, or slightly above, so you can keep your wrists straight while typing. If room allows, and your budget stretches, it’s worth investing in an ergonomically sound office chair – allow about $100 – along with a proper desk or workstation. Good lighting is also important. Aim for diffused lighting rather than a bright light directly overhead and avoid unshielded light sources or glare in your field of vision, including on the monitor.
For Apple fans, Apple’s 27in Thunderbolt display ($1199) seems the logical choice for a monitor, but it’s worth considering the alternatives. As the name suggests, the Thunderbolt display only features a Thunderbolt video input. It’s actually designed to be a full Mac docking station with a built-in FaceTime HD webcam, three USB 2.0 ports, Firewire 800 port, Gigabit Ethernet and a Thunderbolt port for daisy-chaining additional Thunderbolt devices. There’s even a MagSafe connector to power a MacBook.
You can connect an older Mac via a Mini DisplayPort to Apple’s Thunderbolt display, but you won’t be able to access all of the monitor’s built-in features. Apple’s Thunderbolt display may also frustrate you if you want your workstation to double as a home entertainment space. Rival monitors offer several alternative video connectors such as HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI and D-Sub.
If you’re avoiding Apple’s Thunderbolt monitor you may consider Belkin’s Thunderbolt Express Dock ($349) for hooking up all your desktop peripherals to your Mac’s Thunderbolt port with a single cable.
If you’re looking beyond Apple’s monitor you’ll find various adaptors for connecting your Mac’s Thunderbolt or Mini DisplayPort video connector to HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI or D-Sub monitor inputs. If you want to hook your iGadgets up to a monitor, you’ll also find Lightning adapters and older 30-pin adapters for VGA and HDMI monitors.
There are plenty of dirt-cheap monitors on the shelves, but you get what you pay for when it comes to screen quality. If you’ll spend plenty of time staring at your monitor, it’s worth investing in a decent one. If you’re chasing size and picture quality to rival Apple’s Thunderbolt display, look to the likes of Samsung’s 27in S27B970D ($1299) and Dell’s 27in U2713HM ($829).
If these 27in giants are out of your price range, you’ll also find some great 23/24in monitors like Dell’s P2314H ($309), but even if you’re on a budget you should be reluctant to drop down past 21 inches.
Alongside your monitor, the standard Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad ($59) is an obvious choice for your USB desktop keyboard because it features all the Mac function keys. If you’re looking to cut down on cable clutter, you may look to the Apple Wireless Keyboard ($89), which is Bluetooth enabled so it can work with a MacBook or an iGadget. Accompanying your keyboard you’ll want to add an Apple Magic Mouse ($89), Magic Trackpad ($89) or standard USB Apple Mouse ($59).
For this you’ll pick up a reasonable office chair, 24in monitor and video cable along with an Apple keyboard and mouse or trackpad. Spending more on a desk or workstation depends on your budget and available space.
Apple’s iWork office suite of desktop and mobile apps is free these days, as is Google’s online suite of Office apps. If you want something that better mimics Microsoft’s offerings then you might look to the free OpenOffice, which is compatible with Microsoft formats.
Of course Microsoft Office itself has undergone a dramatic change with the new Office 365 subscription model, which starts from $9 per month. In return, you get all of Microsoft’s Office desktop applications, as well as tight integration with Microsoft’s online storage and cloud editing tools. If you’re looking for the easiest way to shuffle files between Mac and Windows without the need to convert between formats, then Microsoft is probably your best bet.
Microsoft’s new Office for iPad apps are free to download, but require a monthly subscription to utilise fully.
You’ll also want access to a cloud storage service for backing up your files and syncing them between all your devices. Apple’s iCloud is rather limited once you stray beyond iWork files, but there are plenty of free alternatives such as Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive.
If you run your own business, then you’ll probably be looking for accounting software. Cloud-based services such as Saasu and Xero start from $9 and $25 per month respectively, challenging traditional players like MYOB and Reckon, which offer both online and desktop options.
There are a few other gems worth adding to your arsenal. The free FormulatePro lets you write on PDF files so you don’t need to print, sign and scan digital documents.
It totally depends on what you do for a living, but you should be able to get most of what you need for free.
Apple has banished optical drives from the latest range of Macs, but if you’re still attached to them you may benefit from adding an Apple USB Superdrive ($99) to your workstation.
If you’re after one with the lot, consider the NewerTech miniStack MAX external hard drive that also features a Blu-ray/DVD/CD burner, SDXC memory card reader and USB-powered hub. Unfortunately, if your Mac doesn’t include a built-in optical drive then Apple’s DVD Player application probably won’t recognise a movie DVD inserted into the miniStack MAX or other third-party external optical drive.
Some monitors feature built-in speakers, but if you’re buying standalone speakers, then you’re spoiled for choice depending on your budget and whether you have an ear for quality. If you’re after basic sound on a budget, then it’s hard to go past Logitech’s Z150 ($35) stereo speakers. If you’re looking for a little more bass, then step up to Logitech’s LS21 ($49.95), which includes a separate small subwoofer.
From here the sky’s the limit. The more time you’ll spend at your workstation the easier it is to justify spending more on speakers – especially if you’re a music lover and listening helps you stay focused on work. If you’re after top shelf sound, then consider the likes of Harman Kardon SoundSticks III ($249.99), M-Audio BX5 D2 ($349) and Audioengine 5+($399).
Of course, if your workspace is tucked away in the corner of a shared living area then you may be better off investing that money in decent headphones. Headphones come in three main designs: intra-aural, supra-aural and circumaural. Intra-aural headphones are tiny earbuds, which tend to lack bass, although you can look to ‘canalphone’ earbuds like the Sennheiser CX 300-II Precisions ($99.95), which wedge into your ear canal to block outside noises and offer better bass levels.
At the other end of the scale, circumaural headphones feature large pads that completely cover your ears. Along with richer sound, they generally do a better job of blocking out the noise of the outside world. Don’t spend extra on active noise-cancelling headphones if you’ll only use them at home. Noise-cancelling is most effective with constant drones, such as aircraft noise, rather than the random shouts of children in the next room.
Circumaural headphones are divided into open-back and closed-back designs. Closed-backed headphones like the AKG K430 ($149) and Sennheiser HD 438 ($119.95) are sealed, keeping in the sound while blocking the outside world. The trade-off is that they can feel a little claustrophobic and sweaty. Open-back headphones like the Audio Technica ATH-AD400 ($179) let sound escape from the back of each headphone via a grill. They also let in more sound from the world around you.
Between intra-aural earbuds and circumaural headphones sit supra-aural headphones like the Sennheiser PX100-II ($99.95) and Grado SR60i ($130), which sit on top of your ears, rather than inside or around. They tend to be a compromise between circumaural and intra-aural in terms of sound quality and comfort, plus they let in more background noise.
Underneath your desk you’ll want a powerboard, preferably with a built-in surge protector to safeguard your equipment during power spikes. Also look for individual switches for each power socket, so you can completely cut the power to equipment not in use. If you leave the switch on, most devices tend to suck a little juice even when they’re powered down, which adds to your electricity bill. Options include the APC SurgeArrest Home/Office ($89), Belkin Gold Series 8-Way ($99.95) and Jackson 6-Way Switched Surge Board ($59).
This should get you a powerboard with a surge protector and entry-level speakers or headphones, but don’t be afraid to spend more on sound.
You’re probably paying for broadband internet access anyway, but there are a few things to consider if you’ll be regularly working from your home office.
If you’re working at home full-time, you probably can’t afford for your home internet connection to go down. You can generate a Wi-Fi hotspot from your smartphone in an emergency or you might invest in a standalone Wi-Fi hotspot. These start from $20 per month with a few gigabytes of data.
When it comes to phone calls, it’s perhaps easier to just use your mobile phone rather than hooking up a second copper phone line for your office. But if you want a dedicated work number, you should consider VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) – it’s much more economical than a standard phone line, especially if you’re making long distance calls.
VoIP services provided by your internet service provider (ISP) tend to be a little more expensive, but are also more reliable than third-party services, because your ISP can give your call priority over other data traffic and they support higher-quality audio codes such as G.711.
You can buy standalone VoIP adapters such as the Cisco SPA112 ($89), which connect to your broadband modem via an Ethernet cable. Alternatively, you may consider upgrading to a broadband modem with built-in VoIP adapters, so you can plug your phone straight into the modem.
Once you’ve got two voice services you need to decide how you’re going to access them around your home. You may just add a basic handset to your desk like the Telstra T800, but you could also consider several dual-line DECT cordless handsets such as the Uniden XDECT R055 + 2 ($329.95), which includes three cordless handsets so you can make and receive calls from either phone number anywhere in the house.
COST: $150-ish plus $10 per month
That gets you a VoIP adaptor and basic handset, plus monthly rental for a VoIP service, which will hopefully include a few free calls.
Your broadband modem may feature a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, but otherwise you could connect up an Apple Airport Extreme ($249) that can generate simultaneous 2.4 and 5GHz networks. You’ll find 5GHz n and ac networks are faster than 2.4GHz g networks, plus they’re less susceptible to interference.
If there are Wi-Fi blackspots in your home, download WiFi Explorer ($3.79) from the Mac App Store to test the Wi-Fi strength in each room. Apple’s Airport Express ($119) can act as a Wi-Fi extender to boost the signal around your home, plus you can hook up speakers to take advantage of AirPlay music streaming.
While Wi-Fi is convenient, Ethernet cables are faster and more reliable, so you may want to invest in something like the D-Link DGS-1005D 5-Port Gigabit Desktop Switch ($59) to share one Ethernet cable with all the devices in your office (one in your lounge room AV cabinet may also be handy).
If Wi-Fi isn’t up to the task and it’s not practical to run Ethernet cables, then you can run a link through your electrical wiring using Powerline AV adaptors such as Netgear’s XAVB5001 Powerline AV+ 500 Adapter Kit ($219).
It just depends on how unlucky you are with your home network environment. You may not need to spend anything, but we’ve factored in an Airport Express to be safe.
Rather than connecting to a single computer via USB, a network attached storage (NAS) drive connects to your home network via an Ethernet cable, so it’s accessible from all the devices around your home.
A NAS makes a handy central location for storing backups of your important files and perhaps your multimedia library for streaming to the office and around your home. Look for a NAS that supports both Samba and AFP networking in order to get faster transfer speeds from your Mac. Many NAS drives can also support Time Machine backups from your NAS.
Apple’s Time Capsule ($349) may seem like the obvious choice, but it’s rather limited compared to what you’ll find elsewhere. Other network drives make room for multiple drives for redundancy if one fails, plus they support remote access via protocols such as FTP and WebDAV. Most third-party NAS drives can also act as an iTunes and DLNA server for streaming multimedia around your home and office.
Many NAS drives will connect to cloud storage services, making it easy to upload files for the extra protection of off-site storage should fire or flood strike your office and claim both your computers and your NAS.
If you’re on a budget, the LaCie Cloudbox ($119, 1TB) offers good value for money, but also check out the more flexible Western Digital My Cloud ($219, 2TB). If you’re looking for the protection of data redundancy, then consider a dual-drive NAS such as the Netgear ReadyNAS RN102 ($379, 1TB) or Seagate Business Storage 2-Bay NAS ($399, 4TB). If fast data transfer speeds are crucial, then consider a NAS with a powerful Intel processor, like the Synology DS214play ($439 plus drives).
This will get you an entry-level NAS, but you may spend more depending on where your priorities lie and how devastating it would be to lose all your important documents.
The paperless office is a dream that few of us have managed to achieve, so chances are you’ll need access to a printer and scanner.
If you’re mostly printing text, then it’s more economical to buy a laser printer than to rely on an inkjet printer, because inkjet printers are more expensive to run in terms of ink costs. Even when it comes to laser printers, as a general rule, the cheaper the printer, the more expensive it is to run.
The most practical solution for most home offices is to invest in a modest monochrome laser multifunction device that can act as a printer, scanner, copier and fax machine – such as the Fuji Xerox DocuPrint M255 z ($499) or HP LaserJet Pro M1536dnf ($599). If you don’t need the fax features, or you’re prepared to use an online fax service, then you could look to a cheaper model, which includes only a printer, scanner and copier.
If you need to regularly print in colour, then you may step up to a colour multifunction device. Some have dropped in price of late like the Fuji Xerox DocuPrint CM215 fw ($405). This new model is actually cheaper than the Fuji Xerox’s entry-level monochrome laser MFDs, but when you read the fine print you discover it prints more slowly and features a smaller paper tray. Keep in mind that colour inkjets do a better job of producing photo prints than colour laser printers.
These limitations may not bother you, but they’re the kinds of things you may sacrifice when you opt for a cheaper printer. Also compare the cost of replacement toner.
If you only need to do the occasional spot of colour printing, then a separate colour inkjet printer might be useful, but remember that dirt-cheap models will sting you in the long run. Also consider whether it’s more economical to outsource your colour printing to somewhere like Officeworks.
If you skimp on your printer you’ll only end up replacing it later, so it’s probably best to bite the bullet and invest in at least a monochrome laser multifunction device.
That comes to a rough total of $1600 to get yourself up and running in a home office, cheaper if you shop around on price. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different, so you’ll need to determine your own priorities and you’ll want to spend more in some areas and less in others. If you skimp and are forced to upgrade later, then it may have made more sense to spend the extra money upfront.