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Dual Motor vs Single Motor Desks: Which Is Better and More Reliable?

Avatar of Autonomous Autonomous | Feb 23, 2021
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Many of the best modern standing desks use electric motors for their lifting power, rather than gears and ratchets, gas springs, or other mechanisms. This form of construction has notable benefits, including a smooth transition, quiet operation, and integration of smart features.

It’s an easy decision to decide to go for an electric motor standing desk, but when you start to research shopping for one, you’ll realize something: there are multiple kinds! Specifically, there are desks with one motor, and desks with two. Depending on your perspective, you might have a few concerns, such as:

  • If my desk is large, or if I have a lot of stuff on it, will a single motor struggle or be more likely to burn out?
  • If my budget is small and I want two motors, are they going to be cheap motors that are more likely to burn out during regular use?
  • If my desk has two motors, can they get out of sync, and will that damage the desk if it happens?

There are pros and cons to both styles of desk, so a lot of it comes down to a few key factors. One is desk size; how large of a desk do you want? One is budget; how much can you afford to spend on quality construction? Your choice in manufacturer, your choice in style and size, and even your intended use case for your desk will influence which option is better for you.

Factor: Motor Quality

One of the biggest factors influencing the quality of your standing desk is the quality of the motors. If your motor is made with high tolerances, using high-quality materials, and supported by a high-quality manufacturer, a single motor desk will be fine for just about any need.

Motor quality

Conversely, if your motors are manufactured by the cheapest bidders and made in bulk with very little quality control, even a dual-motor desk will be out-performed by a single-motor desk with better manufacturing.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to gather this sort of information while shopping for a standing desk. Many desk sellers aren’t going to disclose where they have their parts manufactured. 

One indication you might have is the warrant the company offers. A longer, better, or more comprehensive warranty indicates that the company stands behind their products, and is willing to work with you to replace any parts that fail or don’t work as expected, including the motor module. A shorter warranty, meanwhile, is more likely to indicate a company that knows there’s a failure point for their motors and doesn’t want to deal with supporting them.

Factor: Weight Capacity

Your initial inclination might be to think more motors means a better weight capacity, but that isn’t always true. One strong motor can perform better than two weak motors. Indeed, two motors need to operate in concert, and they need to be able to support the total weight of the desk, in case the desk is unbalanced and weighted more on one side or another.

For example, our SmartDesk 2 has a weight capacity of 300 lbs. It’s a dual-motor design, and of course, we stand by our products, so we test to ensure that they can still move effectively even when loaded. 

Weight capacity

Most standing desks with a single motor tend to top out around 250 lbs. You’ll find that dual-motor designs have higher capacities, but not double what a single motor can handle. A dual motor design is better if you know you’re going to be working near capacity, but for the vast majority of office and home needs, you’ll never near the weight capacity during normal operation.

You may also want to look into whether or not your desk has overload protection. Going over the stated weight capacity can damage a motor and reduce its lifespan, slow it down, or simply break it. Of course, if you never intend to get near the weight capacity, this won’t be a problem.

Factor: Adjustment Speed

Another factor that you may or may not consider initially is the speed of adjustment between a sitting position and a standing position. With an electric motor and a programmable desk like ours, you can hit a button and walk away while the desk adjusts, so the speed of adjustment isn’t necessarily a huge factor in your decision making.

Adjusting speed

What you will find, though, is that there’s usually a trade-off between weight capacity and lifting speed. An unladen desk will adjust faster than one near weight capacity, simply because of how physics works. Even so, some desks prefer a “slow and steady” operation to adjust slower but with consistency at all weight levels. Other desks aim for a faster speed of adjustment and will slow down when nearing weight capacity.

Factor: Motor Reliability

Motors are complex moving parts, and as such, the materials, manufacturing, and quality oversight are all important. No one wants to dig into the specifics about, for example, the magnets used in a motor, or how much grease is in the worm gears, but it’s still an influence on how reliable the motors are.

The vast majority of standing desks will function fine as you unpack, assemble, and start using them. Rarely, a desk will simply not function out of the box, and when that happens, it’s generally easy to contact your manufacturer to get a replacement motor under warranty. Even the worst warranties on standing desks still cover the first few weeks after ordering.

The problem comes with regular use of your standing desk. You’re very likely going to be transitioning between sitting and standing multiple times per day. While that’s still only a few minutes of use on a motor every day, that can add up over time. 

Motor reliabilityMotors that are over-greased can slip. Motors that use poor quality magnets can wear out. Motors with poor coils can degrade over time. Motors with plastic gears can wear away and start to slip position. Motors with exposed wires can have those wires degrade or be damaged, by children, pets, an inadvertent contact, or the environment.

The best motors are made of high-quality parts, assembled with quality control, and are enclosed so they aren’t exposed to the environment. 

Some manufacturers will claim that two motors are better than one for reliability, but this isn’t strictly true. There are two factors that can refute that statement:

  • Many desks that use two motors use smaller motors than a desk that uses one motor. Smaller motors are less powerful and often, though not always, less reliable. 
  • Desks that use two motors need both motors operating in synchronization. If one of them slows, slips, or fails, the entire system fails. It’s an additional point of failure over a single-motor system.

Obviously, all of this depends heavily on the manufacturer. A single motor may be less reliable than two motors if the two motors are better in quality and construction. 

Factor: Accessibility and Right to Repair

Over time, your desk will likely exit its warranty period. Very few standing desk manufacturers offer lifetime warranties. Sooner or later, your desk will be outside of the warranty period. So what happens when a motor burns out or breaks and the warranty has expired?

You typically have a few options:

  • You can purchase an entirely new desk. That one lived a good life, and now it’s time to upgrade.
  • You can purchase a new motor and attempt to swap out the old one for a new one.
  • You can attempt to repair the motor itself.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not have much right to repair. This can make it difficult to repair your electronics, such as motors, simply because it’s difficult to even access them.

One consistent factor with the majority of standing desks is that single-motor desks are often easier to access and repair or replace than dual-motor desks. Dual-motor desks often have motors buried in housings inside the legs, whereas a single-motor desk has a central column with an easy to access motor in it. Of course, this varies from company to company and from design to design.

Repairing desk

When a single-motor desk fails, it often still functions fine as a stationary desk, so long as it didn’t break in a mid-transition position. You can lower it all the way and leave it there, stable enough until you decide what to do. With a dual-motor desk, if a motor fails, the desk typically tilts and becomes unusable until you lower it completely or replace a motor. 

There’s one compelling argument for a replacement rather than a repair, however: technology improves. If you get three to five years out of a desk, that’s plenty of time for modern technology to improve. Better motors, cheaper desks, and better controls can all hit and saturate the market in that time. 

Additionally, with some desks, you can buy a new standing desk frame, but you don’t need to buy a new surface for your desk. If you like your current desktop, you can remove it from the frame and replace it. This isn’t always true, but it’s true for some kinds of desks, which might be a factor in which desk you want to buy.

Factor: Frame Styles

One factor that is probably as much if not more important to you as any of the other factors above is simply the appearance of the desk. 

Some desks keep their motors hidden in a sleep frame. Other desks leave their motors more exposed. As mentioned above, an exposed motor is at a greater risk of being damaged, having wires pull loose, or otherwise ceasing to function. At the same time, an exposed motor often doesn’t look as good as a sleeker frame with hidden motors. That’s largely personal preference, of course. Some people prefer the more exposed, industrial look. It really depends on you.

Frame and motor

If the style is one of your primary concerns, you’ll probably want to explore different brand options and look into their specifications once you’ve found a style of desk that you like. Many standing desk manufacturers copy from one another, so styles are often similar, but small details can influence your preference just as much as any large decision.

Factor: Size

A factor that should be obvious, but which some people overlook, is the overall size of the desk. For example, a large L-shaped desk is almost always going to be a two-motor system, if not a three-motor system.

All of the same factors apply to a triple-motor system as the factors that apply to a dual-motor system. The motors need to stay in sync, and a third motor is the third point of failure. They increase the overall weight capacity of the desk, but not by a lot. Additionally, an L-shaped desktop surface is heavier than a standard standing desk surface, eating up some of that additional weight capacity.

Factor: Cost

Other than appearance, the price of the standing desk is often the single largest determining factor in whether or not you buy a particular standing desk. 

Almost always, a dual-motor system is going to be more expensive than a single-motor system because it has more moving parts and an additional piece of technology in it that a single-motor system doesn’t have. Larger desks also tend to cost more. 

Pricing of desk

The truth, however, is that pricing can vary wildly. The materials used in the construction of the desk (steel versus aluminum versus plastic versus wood), the size and style of the desk, the material of the desktop surface; these all impact the total overall cost. 

This means you can find a large L-shaped triple-motor desk for a lower price than a small single-motor desk. The price range for standing desks starts at around $150 at the low end, and can easily pass $2,000 at the high end. Sure, some of that is paying for brand name and for warranty, but some of it is a reflection of the quality of the materials and construction of the desk.

Making the Decision

When all is said and done, the decision is yours to make. We recommend any of our own array of desks, of course; our dual-motor systems use high quality, powerful motors guaranteed to stay in sync through the computerized control module, and our five-year warranty ensures that you’ll get a better than average lifespan out of any desk you buy. Feel free to research other options, but we bet you’ll be back.

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