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A Comparison of the Usability of a Laptop, Communicator, and Handheld Computer

Piia Suomalainen, Leena Korpinen, and Rauno Pääkkönen

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 3, May 2010, pp. 111 - 123

Article Contents


In recent years, the use of different technical equipment has increased. According to the Finnish statistical office in 2007, 37% of households used portable computers and 76% of households used home computers (Statistical Finland, 2008). In spring 2007, nearly four out of five Finns (79%) aged 15 to 74, or over three million persons, used the Internet. Seventy-five percent of the population used the Internet at least once a week. Nearly all people under 40 years old used the Internet in Finland (Statistical Finland, 2007a). In Finland the use of the Internet and computers is higher than in other countries in the European Union. However, in other Nordic countries the use of the Internet is higher than in Finland (Statistical Finland, 2007b).

The first handheld computer came to the market about ten years ago and the demand for the product has been increasing ever since (Shah, 2001). There are multiple programs that can be downloaded from the Internet and most of them are free of charge. The medical industry is an example of an industry that is extremely well suited for handheld computers (Adatia & Bedard, 2003; Embi, 2001; Harris, 2001; McCombs, 2003; Torre & Wright, 2003; Wilkinson, 2001). Handheld computers make patient care even more efficient because it is possible to do medical calculations, check the ICD-10 codes, write prescriptions, and check the patients’ data with a handheld computer (Larkin, 2001).

People often use mobile devices (e.g., laptops, handheld computers, and communicators) in different situations than traditional desktop computers, and the usability questions for mobile devices are different than the usability questions for desktop computers. The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) Council has adopted an official definition for usability: The scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance (IEA, 2000). The ISO 9241-11 standard determined that the usability of a product describes how well users can use products gainfully, effectively, and pleasantly to get defined objectives in a certain environment (ISO 9241-11, 1998).

There have been many studies about the usability of desktop computers or portable computers (Adatia & Bedard, 2002; Adatia & Bedard, 2003; Berner & Jacobs, 2002; Jalil & Nanthavanij, 2007; Moffet, Hagberg, Hansson-Risberg, & Karlqvist, 2002; Zecevic, Miller, & Harburn, 2000) and many studies that describe what a laptop should be like (Griffin & Kahan, 1999; Kelaher, Nay, Lawrence, Lamar, & Sommerich, 2001; Larkin, 2001; Straker, Jones, & Miller, 1997). Griffin and Kahan (1999) gave ergonomic guidelines on how to set up a laptop computer so that users would be comfortable using a laptop keyboard. The setup guidelines are very similar to how you would use a desktop computer keyboard (elbows at about 90 degrees, wrists level and upper arms hanging as vertically as possible). They suggested that people should try to use a chair that does not have arm rests so that they will have room to move their arms when looking down at the screen; they suggested that people should be careful not to bend their neck and head forward; and they suggested that people should try to tuck in their chin to look down, keeping the head and neck more or less balanced over the spine. According to Pitkänen (2002) if one uses a laptop for long periods of time it is good to have a detached screen, keyboard, and mouse to prevent stress on one’s neck and back.

In Hong Kong, Szeto and Lee (2002) compared typing postures between a desktop computer, a laptop, and a handheld computer. There were 25 subjects between 20 to 24 years old. The result of this study was that computer users should remember to observe their working postures so they will not have any problems with their spine.

This study examined the usability of mobile devices—laptops, communicators, and handheld computers—using test subjects, observation, and questionnaires. Subjects completed typing and calculation tasks while an observer monitored their posture looking for body-stress issues. After the subjects completed their tasks, they were given a questionnaire that asked how they physically felt while using each device. The goals of this study was to determine (a) if the devices were easy to use based on how fast and accurate the subjects typed and how accurate their calculations were and (b) if the devices were comfortable to use based on the subjects’ questionnaire answers and posture observations and comparisons to physical load tables.

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