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These Two Desks Could Help You Live Longer

July 10, 2014

Have you heard the latest bad news? Sitting is the new smoking.

According to one study, every workday you spend sitting costs you 2.5 hours off your lifespan. Sit six hours a day, and you’ll die 4.8 years sooner. It’s true even if you exercise regularly; this article explains why.

Sitting also makes you fat, reduces bone density, contributes to heart disease, and makes you less productive. Great.

These statistics are heaven-sent for the makers of standing desks — tall desks where you work standing — and sit/stand desks, which move up and down so you can split your time between sitting and standing. That’s supposed to be the healthiest arrangement of all.

Unfortunately, first-generation hand-cranked sit/stand desks are the modern equivalent of treadmills: health equipment you buy with the best of intentions but wind up not using (except to drape clothing on).

Ironically, the lazy person’s powered sit/stand desk, which goes up and down at the touch of a button, is much more likely to be used and therefore to yield better health results.

The Stir Kinetic Desk
Enter the Stir Kinetic Desk, the brainchild of JP Labrosse, a former Apple designer (he worked on the iPod Shuffle, among other projects). This baby fits right in with the Tesla sports car, Nest thermostat, and MacBook Air in a special circle of exquisitely designed, ultra-high-tech everyday goods that come at nosebleed prices. In the desk’s case, that’s $3,890 — plus a ridiculous $500 fee for delivery and “white-glove” setup (two people unpack, assemble, and set up the desk wherever you like).

David Pogue sitting and standing at the Stir desk
David Pogue sitting and standing at the Stir desk

The Stir Kinetic Desk. (Yahoo Tech)

Now, when this desk was first announced, the blogger reaction was swift and scathing. “For $4,000, you can buy 10 standing desks and 10 sitting desks of equal quality,” sniped one commenter. “For $4,000, it should also be able to provide me with natural sunlight and fresh air so I don’t have to go outside,” snarked another. “Who’d pay 4K for a desk? I went to Home Depot and bought a board and two filing cabinets for $30, and I’m fine.”

The Stir is, however, a bit more sophisticated than a board.

First, it doesn’t just go up and down (although it does that very well, smoothly and quietly, from 25 to 51 inches). It also has smarts: WiFi, Bluetooth, and a 4.3-inch color touchscreen in the corner.

You use this screen to store your preferred heights for sitting and standing. Just use the slider to make the desk move up and down, and then tap Set.

Stir desk touchscreen
Stir desk touchscreen

You also specify what percent of the time you want to spend standing (the company recommends 30 percent at the outset), and how long you can stand to stand at a time (for example, 20 minutes). The software tracks your progress and goals.

Three images of Stir desk touchscreen
Three images of Stir desk touchscreen

And yes, of course, the desk can store all of these preferences for different people.

When you tap twice on the screen, the desk moves automatically to the next position.

Unfortunately, the screen goes to sleep after a minute to save electricity. So, really, to change positions, you have to tap once to wake it, and then twice to move the desk.

There are exceptions. The desk has a thermal sensor that knows when you’ve arrived at the desk; at that point, the screen lights up, ready for your double-tap.

The desk also does something wild when it’s time for you to change positions: It reminds you by “breathing.” It gently rises, then lowers by one inch, as though heaving a sigh. It’s a little freaky at first. (You can turn off those reminders if you like.)

Anyway, that desk-breath also makes the screen wake up so that a double-tap changes positions.

Digital smarts
The desk is equipped, believe it or not, with WiFi and Bluetooth. Because the desk can get online, it’s capable of uploading your calorie and sit/stand data to your Fitbit Web dashboard (if you have a Fitbit fitness tracker). In other words, the Stir desk is also a new addition to the blossoming marketplace of “quantified self” gadgets — things that let you measure various aspects of your own life and activity.

A cool graph on the screen shows you how much of each day you’ve spent sitting and standing (and how long you were away from the desk).

Otherwise, it does seem like the Internet and touchscreen capabilities aren’t fully exploited. Why couldn’t the screen serve, at your option, as a Twitter ticker? Or a daily calendar? Or at least a clock? And since the desk doesn’t run on batteries, why does it turn itself off all the time?

My favorite feature has nothing to do with digital smarts: It’s the power-cord wells built into the far right and left corners of the desk surface. Under these hinged trap doors, you get a total of eight power outlets and six USB jacks. Better still, these wells are wide and deep; you can tuck the brick portion of each power cord inside the hollow of the desk.

Devices plugged into Stir desk
Devices plugged into Stir desk

The result: Even with 12 things plugged in and charging, only a single power cord trails out of the desk and into the wall. It’s a tidiness fan’s paradise.

All of this works well, feels classy, reeks of luxury, and screams “ultimate.” For $4,390 installed, it had better.

The PowerUp Desk
However, you can get the essential benefits of a powered sit/stand desk for much less money. The Web is full of electric desks called things like the PowerUp, the UpLift, the GeekDesk, the NextDesk, and so on. They’re awfully similar to one another, so I had a look at the PowerUp desk from UpDesk as representative of its kind.

The PowerUp Desk’s core function — rising and lowering — is identical to the Stir desk’s. In fact, the motorized legs seem to be identical — in design (telescoping metal square tubes), appearance (inverted T’s), and operation (they make the same sound, move up and down at the same rate, adjust through the same range).

David Pogue sitting and standing at PowerUp desk
David Pogue sitting and standing at PowerUp desk

According to its makers, the PowerUp desk can support and lift at least 300 pounds of equipment (its “dynamic load” rating); surprisingly, the much more expensive Stir desk’s limit is 75 pounds.

The biggest difference, though, is the price: $1,000, about a quarter of the Stir’s price.

Actually, there are three sizes of the PowerUp desk: small (48 × 30 inches, $950), medium (60 × 30 inches, $1,000); and large (72 × 30 inches, $1,050). The Stir desk is the same size as the medium PowerUp desk.

PowerUp desk with a laptop on it
PowerUp desk with a laptop on it

(You can save $200 more by buying the non-powered Up desk, which goes up and down with a hand crank. Then again, you can also put a plank across a couple of file cabinets.)

Just because the PowerUp desk’s core function is the same as the Stir desk’s, though, they’re not in the same league.

Comparing features
For the extra $3,000, here’s what you get in the Stir desk:

• “White-glove” setup. The Stir people earn that $500 by coming to your house and setting up the desk. The PowerUp desk you have to assemble yourself (and you pay $140 for shipping). Assembly takes about half an hour and involves putting in 22 screws. But the instructions are excellent.

• A computer and a screen. The Stir desk has that touchscreen, memory, processor, software; it generates data and analyzes your calories, goals, and time standing. The $1,000-range desks don’t do any of that. Many of them, in fact, come with the same identical black rubber control panel, obviously sourced from the same Chinese supplier.

Desk controller
Desk controller

• The hidden power and USB jacks. Man, it’s tough to go back to a tangle of cords and power bricks on or behind your desk once you’ve enjoyed the tabletop tucked-away convenience of the Stir desk’s power wells.

• WiFi, Bluetooth. The Stir desk can talk to the Internet and other gadgets. At the moment, those aren’t very useful features; the WiFi is for downloading software updates and uploading your data to sites like Fitbit.com. But you never know.

• Leg caps. The Stir desk has plastic caps covering the ends of the feet; the PowerUp’s are left open, which could be ripped toes waiting to happen if you work barefoot.

PowerUp and Stir desks' feet
PowerUp and Stir desks' feet

• Automated movement. The Stir desk remembers your heights for sitting and standing; when you double-tap, the desk moves to the next position automatically.

But on the $1,000-range desks like the PowerUp, you have to hold down the up/down button for the entire move. (The PowerUp desk and NextDesk have three memory buttons — for example, for Sit, Stand, and Spouse — but you have to hold those down, too.)

Why do you have to hold them down? For safety, so you don’t crush your knees. A better solution: a sensor that tells the desk to back off if it hits something on its way down, like, say, your Saint Bernard. The Stir has that (the sensor, not the dog).

• A clean underside. The Stir desk’s underside is a smooth, unbroken surface in your choice of four colors. The PowerUp desk reveals every component.

Underside of two desks
Underside of two desks

• Reminders to change position. That 1-inch up/down “sigh” is the Up desk’s reminder that it’s time to change position. The $1,000-range desks don’t remind you.

Are all the Stir’s benefits worth four times the price? Not for most people.

But think about first-class plane tickets. They cost four times as much as coach-class tickets, and for that, you get get a wider seat, a meal, and sometimes free movies. By themselves, those extras aren’t worth an extra $1,000 or whatever. But, clearly, somebody buys those seats. Or, rather, somebody’s company.

(The Stir company also points out that people justify paying thousands for mattresses, on the premise that you spend eight hours a day on them. Well, guess what? Most Americans spend even more of their lives at their desks.)

The UpDesk company does offer something cool that the Stir doesn’t, by the way: a model called the UpWrite. It’s the PowerUp desk with a whiteboard surface, so you can scribble notes and doodles right on your desk and then wipe them off later. It’s kind of awesome.

UpWrite desk with notes jotted on it
UpWrite desk with notes jotted on it

Other choices
I didn’t test the NextDesk, but it seems to be a perfect intermediate between the Stir and PowerUp models. For example, you can get a choice of bamboo desk surfaces and finishes for the legs.

NextDesk with bamboo finish
NextDesk with bamboo finish

You can also opt for a surge suppressor that offers 12 outlets under the desk, so that only one power cord trails to the wall. You’ll pay $1,500 and up for this model.

There are some wonderful and insanely wonderful options out there in the sit/stand desk realm, with a range of prices and luxuries. If you love life, don’t you want to do everything possible to make yours longer?

If you’re not a smoker, moving to a sit/stand desk for your workday may be the most promising change you can possibly make.

You can email David Pogue here