Shopping for a Height-Adjustable Sit-Stand Desk

sit-stand desk

Here’s what to look for when you’re shopping for a free-standing, height-adjustable, sit-stand desk. Desks like these are arguably the best solution to your sitting problem. Functionally, they are really hard to beat: they quickly and easily change the height of your work surface, keeping all of your gear – keyboard, monitor, reference materials, and knick-knacks – in the same place. Aesthetically, they shine as well: most of them look as good as any conventional sitting desk you’ve ever had.

Price

We’re all value conscious nowadays, so a lot of standing-desk shoppers consider price first. Prices for height-adjustable, sit-stand desks start at around $500 and go up from there.

Stand-up desks like these are typically available in a variety of configurations, which can differ considerably from manufacturer to manufacturer. Shipping costs further complicate things. Many vendors will ship your desk within the continental U.S. for free, but some charge for delivery.

These customization options and shipping-policy differences can make price shopping difficult, especially when you first set out on your search.

apples-to-apples comparisonIdeally, to make an apples-to-apples comparison, you’d like to know the exact cost to you of a desk configured to your needs delivered to your door. That’s precisely what I try to do with the pricing information on each product page in the standing-desk showcase.

Each sit-stand desk in the showcase includes a price table with two pricing configurations:

  • a basic price for a no-frills version of the desk shipped to your door (in the lower-48 continental U.S.)
  • a deluxe price for a desk with an upgraded table-top surface (if available), cable and power management options, and shipping that includes on-site assembly (if available)

In fact, most vendors offer many more ways to configure your new desk (some of these, like L-shaped or 4-legged models, will be covered in separate price tables). But these two configurations cover two very common buying scenarios: the price-conscious person who wants an unembellished standing desk and the feature-conscious person who wants as much functionality as possible with the least amount of fuss. Sort of like the difference between buying a no-frills Corolla off the lot and having a moderately decked-out BMW delivered to your home.

Even if you don’t fit one of those scenarios, the tables included on each desk’s detail page and the ability to compare them in the showcase should give you a good top-level feel for how two desk lines compare on price.

I constantly monitor the price tables to make them as current, fair, objective, and transparent a comparison tool as possible. If you spot any errors in a price table or if you’re aware of new features or other relevant info, please let me know.

Key Features

There are a number of features to look for in a standing desk.

Functional Features

Regardless of whether you’re sitting or standing, or perching somewhere in between, your desktop size and shape should work for you. Just like your old desk, your new sit-stand workstation should have adequate space for all of your equipment, accessories, and work materials.

Sit-stand, adjusting-height desks introduce some new considerations:

Sturdiness & Stability

The desk should be sturdy enough to remain stable at any height. This is especially important if you add a monitor arm, under-desk keyboard tray, or other accessory that can amplify any wobbling or other desk movement.

Generally, the more legs, the sturdier a desk will be. But even single-leg, pedestal-style desks can be sturdy and functional. Factors like the shape of the desk legs and style and size and shape of the feet can also affect how stable a desk is, so it’s difficult to generalize about stability from any one characteristic. That said, there are still some features that often correlate with more stability: cross bars that connect the legs, C-shaped legs (rather than T-shaped), wider feet, unibody frame construction, and heavier materials.

The best way to assess a desk’s overall robustness is to read reviews from people who have used the desk for a while.

Height-Adjusting Mechanism

The height-adjustability mechanism – whether it adjusts electrically, with a hand-crank, or by another method – should work as smoothly and unobtrusively as possible. Most free-standing sit-stand desks adjust with electric motors that are controlled electronically. A simple up/down controller works well for many, but every standing-desk dealer I have spoken with says that their most common upgrade is a controller that stores multiple preset heights.

Some desks also offer “smart” height-adjusting controls that remind you when to stand and even automatically change height after a set amount of time.

Height Range

The height-adjustment range (sometimes called the “stroke” in technical specifications) should let you work in an ergonomically comfortable posture, whether you’re sitting, standing, or perched somewhere in between.

This adjustability can be especially important if you are very tall or very short. Even desks that comply with the ANSI/BIFMA standard of 22″ to 46 1/2″ of adjustability cover only 90% of the population, so if you’re shorter than 5’2″ or taller than 6’4″, you may need to shop more carefully. Shorter people may need a desk that goes all the way down to 22″ and may still need to use footrest when sitting. Taller folks may need a desk that adjusts well above the 46 1/2″ ANSI/BIFMA standard.

Standing-desk height adjustment is typically measured from the floor to the desktop surface, but it can be difficult to make a true apples-to-apples height-range comparison when you factor in tabletop thickness, floor surface (feet sinking into carpeting, for example), and other factors.

Further complicating matters, not all manufacturers report height-adjustment information exactly the same. If you’re concerned about a desk meeting your height-adjusting needs, make sure that you can try it in person first or that you will be able to return it if it doesn’t work for you.

Height-Change Rate

The height-adjustment rate may matter to you if you frequently change from sitting to standing. Electrically height-adjustable desks state their adjustment rate in inches per second. Hand-crank models use inches per revolution. Counterbalance models like the Humanscale Float Table adjust very quickly but typically have a lower weight capacity. Whichever model you are looking at, make sure it adjusts at a rate that you can live with.

Motor Noise

Motor noise in electrically height adjustable desks can vary quite a bit. If you’re in a quiet office or are otherwise concerned about noise, look for a sound level of 65 dB or less (about the level of a human voice in normal conversation). Not all manufacturers report their motor noise level, and they may measure differently when they do, so if noise is a concern to you, pay particular attention to what current users of the desk say in reviews and comments.

Lifting Capacity

Weight lifting capacity varies with the type of height adjustability.

Most electrically height adjustable desks use linear actuator motors that can lift around 150 pounds per leg, or about 300 pounds total for a two-leg desk. That’s usually plenty of capacity for the typical office work set-up. If you’re an audio or video engineer or in another profession that requires a lot of gear, pay close attention to lifting capacity and consider a sturdier four-leg model.

Cantilever height-adjustment models like the Humanscale Float Table and electric models with lower-powered motors like the IKEA Bekant lift only around 150 pounds. If you have only a laptop and a light monitor and little else on your desk, these models might work for you, but otherwise you’ll likely want to look for a higher-powered desk.

One last note on weight capacity: these capacities typically assume an evenly distributed load. If you place one or two heavy-ish items (a laser printer, reference books, etc.) near the edge of your desk, you might hit the performance limit sooner.

Cable Management

Cable management features like grommet holes and cable trays and channels and are key options that can help keep your desk tidy and organized. Some manufacturers sell comprehensive cable management kits that manage every cable and wire that you might ever use. Others let you build your own system.

The unique challenges of managing cables on a frame that adjusts up and down has lead to the introduction of various snake-like conduits, tubes, and channels, as well as clip-on and magnetized cable-holders.

If you have a computer with a separate CPU, most manufacturers offer an under-desk CPU holder.

Power Outlets and USB Chargers

Power management add-ons like electrical outlets and USB chargers can simplify your cable management by letting you plug just one power strip cord into a wall outlet. These outlets and chargers typically attach under the desk surface, but several desk makers also let you mount them in grommet holes or other cut-outs on your desktop.

If You Need Drawers . . .

Only a few brands currently include drawers in their standing desks. These can range from simple accessory trays that can hold a few pens to full-fledged desk drawers.

Leg Room

Leg room when you are at sitting height can be impinged with some adjustable-height desk designs, especially if you add under-desk accessories like a keyboard tray or a CPU holder. Measure how much room you need for your feet and knees and make sure that the desk you choose leaves enough space.

Standing Desk Portability

Casters and wheels are either built in to some desk feet or available as add-ons. In addition to making it easy to move your desk, these add a little height to the desk, which can be helpful to taller users. But because they can reduce stability, I recommend adding wheels or casters to your standing only if you really need them.

Aesthetic Preferences

Of course you also want your new standing-height desk to look good. Fortunately, most sit-stand desk lines now come with several good choices of colors, finishes, and materials.

Desktop Shapes and Sizes

Desk tops come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most office layouts and individual preferences still favor rectangular-shaped tops, but “ergonomically” curved options, L-shaped tops, and corner units are also common. You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a desktop in a shape that works for you.

Desktop Materials and Surfaces

Desk top surfaces and materials can range from affordable thin veneers over particleboard to attractive powdercoats and laminates over sturdy medium-density fiberboard (MDF), from sustainable bamboo surfaces to solid hardwoods. Modern laminate tops can be designed to look like almost any type of wood and can come in an almost infinite variety of colors. You can even find novelty surfaces with elaborate design patterns and whiteboard-surface desktops that you can write on.

If you want to use your own desktop, many manufacturers sell fully assembled frames to which you can attach your own top. If you go this route, make sure that the frame you buy can adjust wide enough to accommodate your top. Fortunately, most frame-only desks adjust to different widths.

Desk Frame Finishes

Desk frames for electrically height-adjustable desks are typically made of steel, though some are made of aluminum and other materials. They are usually available in a choice of colors, typically black, grey, silver, and/or white. and finishes. While there are still a few of the old industrial-looking frames on the market, most contemporary standing-desk frames look as attractive as the other furniture in your office.

Shipping, Delivery, and Assembly

Sit-stand desks are big and heavy and usually ship unassembled. So you’ll want to make sure you understand how your desk will ship and be delivered. You can assemble most sit-stand desks yourself in an hour or two. But if you’re not mechanically handy or just don’t feel like building your own desk, many vendors offer assembly service.

Shipping & Delivery

Many vendors will ship your standing desk anywhere in the continental U.S. for free, but some still charge shipping fees for domestic shipping. All will charge for international shipping.

Shipping charges can be a crucial piece of information in your apples-to-apples price comparison, so make sure you understand them before you order your new standing desk. (As mentioned above, the price table included in each sit-stand desk in the standing-desk showcase includes shipping charges.)

Depending on how it is boxed up and on the policies of the shipper, your desk will ship using one of several methods:

  • Via standard ground delivery on a big carrier like UPS or FedEx. You’ll be able to track your shipment and communicate with the carrier via their website or 800 number. Your desk will most likely be delivered directly to your door.
  • Via a freight carrier. These carriers operate differently from the more consumer-oriented carriers. You’ll likely need to arrange a specific delivery location and time with the carrier, which will probably leave your package(s) on the sidewalk, not at your door (unless you have a loading dock), although optional doorstep or inside delivery may be available for an additional fee.
  • Via an international carrier. Some vendors may arrange directly to have your desk shipped internationally or to Alaska or Hawaii. End delivery will depend on exactly which carrier the shipper uses.
  • Via a freight forwarder. International shipments are often sent via a freight forwarding service. These services accept domestic delivery at a U.S. location and then ship your desk onward using a variety of international carriers.

Some merchants ship the top and the base separately, so you may receive more than one shipment. Most standing-desk vendors will let you know at check-out how your desk will ship, and most have detailed pages on their website setting out their shipping policies.

Assembly

Most standing stands are designed to be fairly easily assembled by you, the buyer. Assembly typically entails building the desk base and then attaching the desktop to it. Most manufacturers drill pilot holes to show where to attach the base, and a few even embed threaded nuts in the desktop. You’ll also need to attach the height-adjustment controller and any cable-management and other accessories that you order.

The manufacturer always provides an assembly manual, and many provide video instructions on their website. You can also often find YouTube and other online videos created by others who have purchased and built the desk.

If you would rather not build your desk yourself, many vendors offer optional assembly. A few manufacturers offer bundled assembly services that coordinate the delivery, unboxing, and assembly of your standing desk, as well as the removal of packing materials (this highest level of service is sometimes called “white glove” service). Others will coordinate with, or refer you to, a third-party assembly service. The quality of these services can vary quite a bit, so make sure you understand before you order who will do the actual assembly and where you will be able to go for any follow-on customer service.

Warranty

Virtually all standing desks come with a warranty. Some warranties cover the entire desk for a set period of time, but it is also common to see different warranty periods for different desk components. For example, some manufacturers offer a shorter warranty period on motors and electronic components than on the frame and desktop. While not always a reliable proxy for assessing the quality of a desk, a warranty can give you a good sense of how confident the manufacturer is of their product’s reliability.

Standing-Desk Reviews

I don’t review or recommend specific desks here at Well9to5. But there are plenty of user reviews available online, and I link to them (when available) from each product page in the standing desk buying guide. Right now, the main sources for these kinds of reviews are Amazon, YouTube, and standing-desk manufacturer websites. If you’re aware of user reviews that I’ve somehow missed, please share them with me.