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Motorized vs Non-Motorized Standing Desks: Which to Choose?

Avatar of Autonomous Autonomous | Nov 29, 2020
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If you’re interested in buying a standing desk, you have a lot of different options. The biggest decision you need to make is whether you’re going for an electric desk or a manual desk, and what kind of desk within that category appeals to you.

Types of Non-Motorized Standing Desks

In the broad world of standing desks, there are a lot of different solutions for making the conversion. Some people have a sitting desk and a standing desk, and move their laptop from one to the other when they want to convert. That’s fine, but it’s inconvenient and doesn’t work very well if you have multiple devices, paperwork, or other items you need to use as part of your daily to-do list.

Ideally, you want a sit-stand conversion desk - something that can move from a sitting position to a standing position whenever you want to change. Non-motorized versions of these desks operate in a few different ways and thus come in a variety of styles.

  • For example, you have the hand crank system for adjusting your desk height. The hand crank system is essentially just a crank you twist to raise or lower your desk. It uses a system of gears to mechanically raise and lower your desk surface, similar to how an old-school car might have had hand-crank windows.

Hand crank

This design has some benefits.

  • For one thing, it’s easy to adjust the surface up or down in small increments, because you can just crank it slowly to adjust to where you want it.
  • It’s also relatively smooth, so long as you keep a constant speed while cranking the device to move it up and down. You lock it in position, and usually, you can lock it in any vertical position you like.
  • They also tend to be the cheapest style of a sit-stand desk.

On the other hand, rotary cranks have a few drawbacks.

  • Foremost among them is the fact that you have to manually crank them. This can tire out your arms and can be annoying enough that it disincentivizes the user from converting the desk.
  • They can also be noisy, especially as they get older and the gearing wears out and the lubrication dries up.
  • There’s also the faint risk of your gear brake breaking, and the desk crashing down to its lowest position. That’s very rare, but it can potentially happen.
  • Some users might also consider the crank itself to be an annoyance, and it can get in the way of the desk sitting flush against a wall.

The second style you might find is a ratchet-lock desk system. These desks essentially have a pole with holes in it for each position – usually built into the legs – and a lever-based ratchet attached to a handle you can access. When you want to raise the desk, you simply lift on the top portion of the desk and the ratchet clicks into a higher position. When you want to lower it, you pull the lever to disengage the ratchet, allowing you to lower the desk.

Some of these desks have counterweights or gas cylinders to help you raise or lower them, while others just have very low weight capacity so it’s relatively easy to lift them. They tend to be quite cheap, but don’t have many pros beyond that.

The drawbacks of this style are numerous. They can be loud and annoying to adjust, and they don’t allow for fine adjustments; the position of the holes is where the desk can sit, and that’s it. It can also be annoying to raise or lower them if the desk is at all unbalanced.

Hydralulic Systems

  • A third style you’ll often find is the pneumatic system. Sometimes also called a hydraulic system (which is incorrect. Pneumatics are powered by air, hydraulics work on liquids, and no normal standing desk uses a liquid system that we’re aware of), a pneumatic system uses a gas spring similar to the kind of height adjustment spring in your office chair. When you want to raise your desk, you pull a lever and press up gently, letting the gas pressure raise the desk. When you want to lower it, same deal; you pull the lever and gently press down.

These systems are the quietest models out there and offer a relatively smooth transition between sitting and standing. Gas pressure is often very easy to adjust up and down, the same way it’s easy to adjust the height of your chair.

On the other hand, very fine adjustments can be tricky. A pneumatic system also requires a balanced desk; if you have too much weight on the desk, it might be harder to raise and easier to lower. Gas springs can also wear out over time, though this is often measured in years, so it’s not as much of a drawback as it may seem.

It’s worth mentioning that hydraulic systems do exist, just not for your typical office desks. Hydraulics are used for high-weight adjustable systems, like heavy machine shop workbenches.

Types of Motorized Standing Desks

Motorized desks are always electric, so there’s not usually a lot of variation between most models. There are a few considerations to look for, though.

The number of motors is first. Cheaper desks have a central pillar with a single motor on it to raise and lower the desk. A single central motor is fine for smaller desks but doesn’t work as well for larger desks, and it generally has a lower maximum weight capacity. Larger desks, or desks with higher weight capacities, will have two motors, one for each leg. These motors work in sync with each other to smoothly lift or lower a desk. Even larger desks, like L-shaped desks, might even have three motors working in tandem.

L Shaped Desk

The more motors you have, the smoother the desk will adjust, the more weight it can hold, and the larger it can be. On the other hand, it’s also more points of failure, and you may end up needing to replace a motor at some point if one wears out. This is likely going to take years, but can still happen.

Second, you can look for the presence of any smart features. Some electric desks are little more than a button for raising and a button for lowering, which you can tap for minor adjustments or hold for major adjustments.

Smart desk features

Other desks have a full array of smart features, including:

  • Memory. You can adjust a desk to a point where you like it, and save the position in memory. This allows you to convert between sitting and standing at the press of a button, rather than needing to crank a handle or hold a button the whole time. Press a button and go get a coffee, and come back to your desk in its new position.
  • Variable speed. Some electric adjustable desks can be set to move slower or faster depending on the load and the stability of the items on it.
  • Smartphone Apps. Some electric motorized sit-stand desks have apps that allow you to control the desk from afar.

On the cutting edge of smart desks, many different intelligent innovations are very convenient and fun to use. Virtually any electronic feature or integration you could want may be available somewhere, though you may have to hunt down a specific desk that can do it.

Picking A Desk Style

So, which should you pick, a motorized desk or a non-motorized desk? The answer to that question depends on your preferences and desires.

Here are some of the pros and cons of motorized desks:

icon
  • icon checkSmoother convenient operation
  • icon checkStore/save favorite positions
  • icon checkVariable speed
  • icon checkSafety features
  • icon checkMobile app and smart features
icon
  • icon timesMore moving parts
  • icon timesRequires electricity
  • icon timesGenerally more expensive

To compare, here are some of the pros and cons of non-motorized desks:

icon
  • icon checkGenerally cheaper
  • icon checkNo electricity required
icon
  • icon timesLouder operation
  • icon timesToo much weight can deteriorate parts
  • icon timesLess convenient

If you want a mobile desk that does not need access to electricity, you should get a non-motorized desk. You can pick from among any of the non-motorized styles, like pneumatic or hand-cranked designs, depending on how you want your desk to adjust. If all you need is a relatively mobile surface you can adjust up and down, a ratchet-style desk will work fine. If you want something more ergonomically adjusted to your height, you’ll want something with pneumatics or a hand crank, depending on how willing you are to crank your desk every day.

If you’re primarily concerned with noise, you can go with either an electric desk or a manual desk. Electric desks can have quiet motors, ranging from 35-60 dB while in operation. Some cheaper desks are louder, but most mid-range or higher desks are going to be quiet in general. In terms of manual desks, pneumatics are going to be the quietest option. All you have with them is the noise of a lever clicking and the hiss of a gas cylinder. Ratchet desks tend to be louder, and while a crank desk can be quiet when you first assemble it, it will be louder over time.

If you’re concerned with weight capacity, electric desks are probably your best option. Many electric desks have a standard weight capacity of around 350 lbs., though you may need to verify with the manufacturer of the desk you’re considering. Pneumatics tend to be lower, at 250 lbs. or lighter. Hand cranks can be a very high weight capacity, but it depends entirely on the design and the quality of the materials. Ratchet desks generally have a very low capacity. Hydraulics can lift even higher capacities, even up to 1,000 lbs. or more, but they’re rare and more made for industrial use.

If you primarily use a laptop, you might consider a different option: a converter desk or a laptop stand. Converter desks are small desktop devices that sit on your desk and raise the overall height of your original desk and can be adjusted between a sitting and a standing position. Laptop stands hold a laptop at a more ergonomic height, but generally require you to use a secondary mouse and keyboard to interface with your laptop since the laptop itself will be held in an awkward position. 

If you’re mostly concerned with space, such as when you want your desk to hold multiple monitors, you’ll probably want to go with either a hand-crank design or an electric motorized desk. Hand-crank desks use a gearing mechanism to raise or lower your desk and can be relatively large compared to many other kinds of desks. Motorized desks can be large, even L-shaped desks, giving you plenty of space for all your screens, computers, devices, tools, and paperwork.

L Shape Example

If you plan to switch between sitting and standing multiple times per day, you’re probably best off going with an electric motorized desk, particularly a smart desk. Adjustments can be tedious and take time, especially if you need to crank your desk manually every time you want to adjust it. The easier the desk is to adjust, the more likely you are to adjust it as frequently as you want. A smart desk that you can adjust by pressing a button and walking away is much more convenient.

If you’re concerned with your carbon footprint, you should probably go with a manual desk of some kind. The one thing all motorized desks have in common is their need for power. If you’re concerned with spending electricity, either for environmental reasons or just because of your electric bill, using a manual desk will solve that problem for you.

If you want to keep yourself in shape, you might want to look into exercise desks. Exercise desks are usually standing desks that don’t adjust up or down. They’re fit to have a treadmill or exercise bike positioned in place of a chair, so you can walk while you use the desk, or cycle while you’re on a call. These can be great for keeping in shape, but they tend to be a lot noisier than any other alternative, and obviously don’t adjust.

At the end of the day, whether you choose a motorized desk or a non-motorized desk depends a lot on your intended use case. Neither option is 100% better than the other, otherwise it wouldn’t be a choice. Simply decide on what is most important to you while you’re working, and pick the style of desk that fits that use case. In the end, all that matters is that you’re satisfied with your choice.

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