Cheaper Alternatives to Expensive Standing Desks
I was delighted when my employer recently moved out of its old, decrepit offices in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, and into a modern complex just across the Mississippi River.
The new offices have awesome amenities. For instance, I have a motorized standing desk of the sort that can be raised or lowered with the push of a button so I can work while standing or sitting.
Such height-adjustable furniture is increasingly commonplace in offices because of its supposed health benefits, though experts have lately cautioned that such claims are more speculative than research-backed. I’m still a fan of standing desks because getting on my feet every now and then while I’m working makes me mentally sharper and less physically fatigued than sitting for hours on end.
Not all office workers are lucky enough to score fancy motorized standing desks, and those who are self-employed often do without, since these desks run from the high hundreds into the thousands of dollars.
Fortunately, lower-cost alternatives exist. Many are inexpensive DIY standing desks, but such jury-rigged setups typically can’t be lowered for use in a sitting stance (and for me, non-stop standing is no less problematic than sitting all day).
A better option is a work platform that sits atop a regular desk or table to replicate the functionality of full standing desks. A traditional fixed surface becomes, in effect, height-adjustable.
A host of such products are available from a variety of vendors, and I wrote about some in “Ergotron Lets Mac Users Stand and Deliver” (5 December 2014).
Since then, I’ve broadened my horizons to try out products that are not quite as Apple-focused, but are suitable for use by either owners of desktop Macs, users of mobile Apple computers (Mac or iOS), or both. In the past year, I have tried a half-dozen such products with a range of designs. None are motorized, like my office’s standing desk, instead adjusting their heights by other means.
Ergotron Home — I’ll start by revisiting Ergotron, whose headquarters is just down the road from where I live and work.
The company recently unveiled an Ergotron Home line aimed at making adjustable work gear more appealing and accessible to the masses. I’ve been testing a couple of these products.
The most unusual of these, the Lift24 laptop platform, is a bargain at $249.95, and is designed somewhat for mobility. The apparatus can be set up at a desk, table, or counter for standing use, and then collapsed and transferred via a carrying handle to another location.
I’ve been using it outdoors, on a wooden table on my front porch when the weather is nice, and indoors, deployed at various locations around my house.
The Lift24’s pieces include a sturdy tempered glass base and an elevated stainless steel laptop shelf, both of which are attached to a frame-like vertical body with a trigger mechanism at the top for height adjustment.
The Lift24’s design is ingenious, but not without minor problems. Wobble is one. People requiring a rock-solid laptop surface might dislike this stand because the shelf has some give and jiggle. I did not mind this too much after using the unit for a while, however.
At 12 inches deep and 23 inches wide (30 by 58 cm), the shelf is also a tad cramped as a workspace when using a laptop with a mouse. Much of the time, I was using an iPad Pro with an add-on keyboard, which was fine.
The shelf has another quirk, but Ergotron said it’s a part of the design. The slab isn’t level with the ground, but inclined slightly upward on the user end. Ergotron calls this “negative tilt” and says it’s “ergonomically friendly for your wrists. It keeps them straighter, which helps prevent carpal tunnel.” This annoyed me initially, but grew on me after a while.
Unlike other products detailed in this article, the Lift24 can’t be lowered to desk level for use while sitting. Such a feature would be pointless, though, since you can just take the computer off the shelf when you want to sit down.
Collapsing the Lift24 for storage or transport is a bit of a process, but it becomes a tight bundle, and it can be lifted and toted around like a small suitcase. You wouldn’t want to carry it long distances, but it’s fine for schlepping to the office.
The laptop shelf also can be used by itself as a lap desk for working with a laptop on the couch. Having a big slab of metal across my lap was a bit odd at first, but I came to appreciate the flexibility it offered.
The Lift24, though serviceable, is too compact to qualify as a full standing desk and is unsuitable for use with desktop computers. But for notebook users who need mobility and do not mind cozy conditions and a bit of give, it could do nicely.
The other Ergotron product I tried, dubbed the Lift35, is a more conventional standing desk. It’s a consumer variation on the WorkFit-T, an entry in Ergotron’s corporate line of adjustable work products.
The $449.95 Lift35 is much simpler than the Lift24. It consists of a large platform for one or more monitors or all-in-one computers (like an iMac), along with a smaller and slightly recessed platform in the front for a keyboard and mouse. The unit has an ample 35-inch-by-25-inch (89 by 63 cm) footprint and can hold up to 35 pounds (16 kg).
On the left and right of the Lift35, two mechanical levers can be flipped upward to lift and lower the rig. This is mostly effortless thanks to a counterbalancing mechanism that makes the raising and dropping super smooth.
The Lift35 is a beast, which is one of its strengths. It feels sturdy and solid, with virtually no give. Even the keyboard platform is a rock, though it is a bit on the cramped and narrow side for those using a full-size keyboard with a numeric keypad, along with a mouse. Apple’s Magic Keyboard fits in nicely, however, alongside a Magic Mouse 2.
The Lift35 lacks some features found in its WorkFit-T cousin, including pre-drilled holes for use with specialized expansion kits, but Ergotron said these would be of minimal interest to average consumers. On the other hand, the Lift35 has a few features the WorkFit-T lacks, like the choice between three optional wooden work surfaces (each raising the cost of the desk to $699) and even the option of real bamboo (which hikes the price to a whopping $899).
Ergotron Alternatives — The Lift35 has competition, which is to be expected since this kind of standing desk is quite popular.
I tried a couple of Lift35 alternatives from two Ergotron rivals, VariDesk and InMovement. Their standing desks work in much the same way, but with a number of design variations.
InMovement’s entry, the $399 Elevate DeskTop DT2, is true to its name in that its upper surface looks a bit like a desk with rounded edges and a couple of wood-finish options (along with a white option). The rest of this rig is shiny, curvy metal that looks quite stylish. The desk as a whole is lovely, in fact.
As with the Lift35, levers on the left and right allow for smooth raising with a counterbalancing mechanism.
The DT2’s keyboard tray, unlike the fixed Lift35 version, is a thin, slide-out variant that flexes a bit too much for my taste. However, colleagues who used a couple of DT2 test samples extensively said they didn’t mind this in the least.
A movable keyboard tray has one big advantage: it can be pushed inward and out of the way if the user wants to use just a single, flat work surface that is more appropriate for laptop use.
VariDesk, a prominent maker of standing desks, has a dizzying selection of desktop work units, with something for everyone in a range of styles and sizes. Some have distinct, separate display and keyboard platforms. Others feature a single all-purpose surface.
The model I tried, the $375 ProPlus 30, is much like the Lift35 in that it has a small platform for a keyboard and mouse, and a bigger one for a screen or all-in-one computer. It has levers on the right and the left for raising and lowering, which is smooth and effortless thanks to a counterbalancing mechanism.
The ProPlus is curvier than the Lift35, with a typing area that is more open and feels much less restrictive. The unit is constrained by its 30-by-30-inch (76 by 76 cm) footprint, however, with room for only one display or iMac. But other models in the ProPlus series, the 36 and the 48, add width while working in the exact same way.
The ProPlus 30 has another big flaw. When its lift mechanism is engaged, it does not move straight up, as the Lift35 does, but arcs a bit towards the user. This can be a problem for those typing in tight quarters since the station ends up gobbling space the user otherwise would be able to occupy.
VariDesk has remedied this shortcoming somewhat with standing desks in its Pro, Compact, and Cubicle lines. These still have a bit of an arcing movement when they are elevated, but it’s much less pronounced.
Simpler Options — The products described so far are a bit elaborate and bulky. Those wanting greater simplicity have other options.
For laptop users, VariDesk provides an ingenious (if not terribly attractive) mini-standing desk called the Soho. It consists of a typing platform along with metal legs that expand and contract to adjust the unit height via left and right levers.
The platform, with nicely curved edges, is 14 inches deep and 31 inches long (36 by 79 cm) — just right for a laptop along with a mouse. It’s made in white and black.
The Soho is intended to be somewhat mobile, though the lack of a carrying handle makes this a bit awkward. Even so, at $175 it’s a steal.
Another product I tried, the Readydesk 2, is unusual in that it’s entirely non-mechanical, made solely from wooden slabs. Two of the slabs are notched upright supports, and two other pieces fit, shelf-like, into the notches. Height-adjustability is achieved by picking the correct notches for the shelves.
The Readydesk 2 provides several work configurations, depending on what kind of hardware is being placed upon it.
A single shelf suffices for those using notebooks. Both shelves are required if notebook users add an external keyboard and mouse, with the laptop on the top shelf, as a display, and the peripherals on the lower one. This setup also would apply to those using a standalone monitor or all-in-one computer, along with a mouse and keyboard (as pictured below).
The Readydesk 2 is much sturdier and more stable than it looks, thanks in part to crisscrossing struts on the back that hold the upright elements together. It’s also carefully designed to place the display at about arm’s length, which is considered to be the optimal distance (about right for me). Some prefer their screens farther away from their faces, but the Readydesk does not allow for this.
The Readydesk 2 also won’t work well for those who like to shift between standing and sitting stances. Adjusting the display height is a hassle, since you have to remove an iMac or monitor to reposition its shelf in a new slot, and there’s no obvious desk-level option for typing while sitting. Laptop users could remove the Readydesk from desks and tables when it’s not needed, but its size and weight makes this a chore.
I’d also suggest the maker sand down the shelves’ sharp, slightly uncomfortable edges so they are a bit rounder and softer for the delicate undersides of users’ wrists.
The Readydesk 2 costs $169.99 (or $179.99 with a laptop-elevating kit called Readyriser that tilts a notebook for better viewing; see the picture below).
Wrap-Up — In an ideal world, everyone would have fancy motorized standing desks like the one in my office.
There are full standing desks of the non-motorized variety, too. I have tried and liked Ergotron’s WorkFit-D, which substitutes the motor with an ingenious one-lever manual height-adjustment system that is quick and simple to use.
Likewise, VariDesk offers a Pro Desk series, each with those familiar levers on the left and right to tweak the working surface’s height in a jiffy.
But all these products, motorized or not, are priced at least in the high hundreds — too steep for some. Besides, many people will not want to get rid of a traditional desk to make room for a standing desk.
That’s where standing-desk products that rest atop desks, tables, or counters come in. If you’re interested in doing some of your work while standing, you should be able to find a solution that fits both your space and your budget.
I don't use a standing desk most of the time, so my substitute is a simple one: a padded music stand.
Recent studies show there are no health benefits from standing desks.
We discuss that in the article. Frankly, I've always been skeptical.
I'm skeptical, as well. As I understand it, motionless sitting and motionless standing are pretty much the same. The key is moving. This is where a standing desk might be a big benefit: If you are standing, you're likelier to move. In my case, I absentmindedly jump up and down, do little jigs, walk in place, etc., as I take breaks in my home office to ponder my work. It's not the equivalent of a full workout, but it's much better than sitting all day long. I also use a standing desk at the office, where I'm too self-conscious to do my Ed Grimley (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvbQKSaYQD8) but this does make me likelier to take walks for various reasons across our vast facility. I get some pretty decent walks in every day.
I feel the same way - that's what I like so much about the Topo Mat (it's an anti-fatigue mat that isn't flat). It actually drives you to move more instead of standing still, but isn't distracting like treadmills or balance boards.
The Topo Mat looks really interesting - I may have to get one (though it's a little expensive). http://ergodriven.com/topo/
As far as I'm aware, the research hasn't shown that standing desks do have health benefits, but that's very different from showing that they have no health benefits.
It's relatively uncontroversial that sitting is correlated (and likely causal) with health problems, and people have extrapolated from that to say that standing is therefore better, a position that is so far unsupported (hah! couldn't resist) by studies.
Julio's comment about moving is also relevant. I too work at a standing desk, but I stand still for only very short periods of time - I'm constantly moving around, shifting weight, leaning on a standing stool, and more. It may be that movement is what's really important.
Thank you, Adam! People's failure to understand that distinction is what made me feel like NPR was being irresponsible to publicize the story without making that clear.
Yes, I heard that story on NPR before it came up here, and I was quite disappointed because the headline implied more than the story supported. It can be hard to write accurate headlines, so it's possible the person who did the headline wasn't the writer of the article, and didn't understand completely.
I find that the clearest benefit is the ability to focus.
I just don't goof off if I'm standing. I think it's great for productivity mode, planning and organising, running through tasks, emails etc.
Not so great for considered creative work, writing, photography, video, etc. I have to sit for that.
I have a standing desk (home built) for the mornings and typically (perhaps it's lunch...) I sit in the afternoons at a regular desk.
Makes sense. Everyone is different. Adapting to standing while working took me a while, but now I have no trouble writing, photo/video editing, and the like in that position.
When I want to stand, I use an iPad.
Proper standing posture is important when using a standing desk. Looking down too much can cause neck flexion aka "text neck." Get a standing desk that allows you to look straight ahead at your monitor while still keeping the keyboard at elbow height. Disclosure: I sell Readydesks.
Good advice. I'm following it.
Absolutely true - this is one of the problems with laptops in general, and a standing desk won't help it if you don't separate the screen and the keyboard.
I wouldn't agree with that, Adam. Two-level standing-desk rigs allow for keyboarding on the lower level with the display on the upper level. One-level standing-desk rigs are appropriate for those using a laptop in standard fashion while standing instead of sitting.
But that's exactly the problem - it's not possible for arms and neck to both be in a proper ergonomic position when working exclusively on a laptop. The screen and the keyboard are simply way too close together, so you'll always end up raising your arms past 90 degrees, or inclining your head down (instead of looking straight ahead). Either an external display or an external keyboard solves this.
I hear you. That bothers some people. It has not been an issue for me.
That's one of the tricky parts of ergonomics. There are "right" ways of doing things, but for many people, the "wrong" ways aren't problematic.
Thanks for the nice run down of options. I don't need it for computer stuff, but it could be quite useful for the microscope.
Prolonged being on one's feet, even if moving, increases the odds of varicose veins, especially in women. Even when I was growing up long ago, 'everyone knew' that people in occupations like grocery checkout and waiting on tables tended to end up with assorted leg problems, including varicose veins. One 2005 article from an overly quick search (the title says 'standing' but the abstract includes walking, either for more than 75% of the work day):
Frequent switching between sitting and standing should help, but fitting in a variety of activities through the day is possibly better--explicit stretches and exercises, weed pulling breaks if you work at home. If only I could make myself do any of that regularly...
Thanks for the nice article. Please check out lifttop.CA for an upcoming alternative
Interesting concept, Tim. Good luck with it.
I've had an excellent experience with a MUCH CHEAPER option than the ones you list. Specifically, I use the Furinno adjustable laptop table which is about $50. I put it on top of an existing desk, and use a separate hi-tech stand (a.k.a. a pile of books) for my keyboard.
You want the cheapest option? Go to your local thrift store and get an ironing board!
Adjustable, portable and three leg stability. Good idea. ?
An alternative to a height-adjustable desk is a fixed standing desk with a height-adjustable chair (for example, http://www.amazon.com/Deluxe-Drafting-Chair-Adjustable-Footring/dp/B0039MIMRO ).
Amazon carries several hand-cranked height-adjustable desks in the $350 range. One I looked at (http://www.amazon.com/Adjustable-Stand-Up-Desk-Shelves/dp/B00JREVI5G/ref=pd_sim_196_3 ) gets good reviews.
I'm very happy with my Uncaged Ergonomics WorkEZ variable stand. I got the Executive model, which has a built-in USB 2 hub and cooling fans (powered by your laptop.) It's sturdy and very reasonable (under $100).
From their website, it looks like they've simplified their line around that model (now called Cool) with an added mouse platform.
If you want a portable standing desk, designed by an MD that is ergonomic check out http://www.zestdesk.com
I built my own four years ago. More info at http://sites.google.com/site/adjustabledesk/
It cost me about $300 which is more than you lower-cost alternatives but it serves me so well.
Great write-up Julio! We've been manufacturing anti-fatigue mats for standing desks for over a year, and we always get folks asking for our recommendation for a good desk to get started with. We didn't really like any of the options on the market, so we made Spark. It's super stable and provides solid ergonomics (separate keyboard and screen platforms = super important) and it's just $20! I don't want to turn the comments into an advertisement, so feel free to trash this comment, but I think it fits really well, and the whole goal is getting more people to at least give standing a shot. If you want to check it out, here's the link: http://bit.ly/MeetSpark