This week's contender in our ongoing "Standing Desk Shootout" is Steelcase's AirTouch desk. Unfortunately, we were unable to get our hands (or is that legs?) on a desk here at the Core HQ for a "Living Working With..." feature, so I ended up spending an afternoon at the Steelcase showroom in Midtown Manhattan.
They don't call it a WorkLife Center for nothing: Steelcase has taken to championing the more progressive, upright workplace with their Details line of office furnishings, from a range of height-adjustable surfaces ("Height AdjusTable" line, as it were) to the Walkstation, which is more or less exactly what it sounds like.
I'll be focusing on the AirTouch desk (pictured above & throughout unless otherwise noted) here, though it's worth mentioning that they also offer a line of motorized desks—the Series, 5 and 7 desks are yet another option, alongside the Geekdesk and Haworth's Planes Height-Adjustable Table. (Steelcase also offers a crank-adjustable table, the Series 3.)
Height range: 26” – 43” with infinite increments
Adjustment speed: seated height to standing height in 1.2 seconds
Ergonomic lift handle activates smooth, effortless height adjustment—speed designated by the user
Recommended load capacity (including weight of tabletop): up to 150 lbs. Adjustable gauge on the lifting column allows the amount of lift assist to be set for various weight loads
Various worksurface shapes, sizes and edge options are available
As far as I could tell from spending just a couple hours with the AirTouch and its direct competitor in Humanscale's Float, the only major difference is the base: the single, centered, two-footed leg—more properly described as a trunk—feels more prominent, if not outright deliberate, than the L-shaped legs of the Float.
Nevertheless, the single leg of the "AirTouch" might offer the advantage of flexibility for arranging peripheral furniture at the expense of leg/chair room. For the record, the feet of the "AirTouch" did not get in my way at all, whether I was sitting or standing at the desk.
For better or for worse, the vaguely monolithic support also imparts a decidedly more futuristic aesthetic to the Steelcase model—intended, perhaps, to evoke a progressive workplace. (A piece of collateral, "The Case for Height-Adjustability (PDF), tellingly suggests that "progressive companies use height-adjustable workstations as a brand statement, a way to attract and retain workers based on the company's progressive work style.")
Like the other desks, the surface comes in a variety of shapes, sizes—Corner, Dual Corner, Straight, Dual Straight or 120° Corner, according to the catalog—sizes and finishes (Veneer or Laminate). Similarly, the base comes in the user's choice of Black, Platinum Metallic and Midnight Metallic finishes.
It's also worth mentioning that the far edge of the desk is designed to accommodate monitor arms, cableways or "modesty screen" attachments; specifically, Steelcase offers a bespoke SOTO™ (State of the Office) rail system that can customized with shelves, lamps, cable management and other organizational accouterments.
I didn't get to spend enough time with either the AirTouch or Float to discern a significant difference between the counterbalance mechanism or any of the other largely parallel features: indeed, the Steelcase model has almost exactly the same functionality as the Humanscale desk, including a (removable) crank-adjusted counterbalance—how-to video here—and an "auto-lock" safety mechanism if the load exceeds the limit. (I opted not to test the load limit on the showroom model.) Suffice it to say that Steelcase desk's counterbalance system is comparable to that of Float: simple, intuitive and responsive.
Over the past two decades, Steelcase has established itself among the leading producers of ergonomically-designed office furniture. Thus, I was surprised to find that the AirTouch fell slightly short of its competitors: where the Float and Planes tables came in at a maximum height of 47” and 48” respectively, I definitely noticed that the Steelcase model topped out at 43”: I'm about 5’ 11”, and I could have used another inch or two as I stood slightly hunched over the keyboard of my MacBook.
To be fair, I would attribute the mild discomfort largely to the laptop itself—with the screen as far back as it would go, no less—where a desktop with a separate keyboard would have been perfectly fine. (Steelcase's electric offerings both go up to 52”.)
I'm sure there are guidelines for recommended height, given the recent rise in ergonomic research, but I'll report that three hours of usage provided a firsthand experience that a work surface should be the proper height, whether one is sitting or standing.
Maximum height aside, I was pleased with the adjustment features and smoothness of the motion. I did, however, encounter a slight hiccup when raising the desk from a seated position, when I attempted to lift the desk as I stood up. In other words, I found it difficult to raise the desk in a "deadlift" position (as I rose from the desk chair)—unexpectedly so, considering how easy it is to raise the desk when I was standing. The obvious solution is to stand up before raising the desk, which can be raised all but effortlessly from waist height to mid-torso.
Still, this behavior should be contraindicated, as the temptation to raise the desk while one is raising his or her body could potentially result in lower back problems (this applies to Humanscale's Float table as well).
The maximum height was the only issue for me, though laptop users up to 5’ 9” shouldn't have any problems with it. Moreover, my experience simply underscored the fact that height-adjustable desks are intended to be relatively permanent piece of office furniture, and there's a reason why Steelcase offerS a full range of monitor arms and shelf accessories.
The rest of the differences are largely aesthetic, and only time will tell whether the AirTouch is more durable than its competitors.
As I noted earlier, Steelcase also offers the Series 3, 5 and 7 adjustable desks—crank-controlled, electric and top-of-the-line electric, respectively. I didn't have a chance to test the Series 3, which is adjustable between 22” and 34”, but a glance a new offerings across the category suggests that the trend is moving from strictly manual controls towards electric or counterbalance mechanisms. Meanwhile, the features and functionality of the Series 5 and 7 are on par with those of their competitors, suggesting that there are already expectations and standard offerings for the burgeoning category.
All three models have L-shaped legs with a crossbeam.
The specs of the Series 5 are as follows:
Electric height adjustment range from 25.50" to 52"
Instant and easy sit-to-stand adjustability with simple push buttons control up or down at 1.7" per second
Robust and sturdy with a distributed 220 lbs. dynamic load-bearing capacity
Telescoping stretcher adjusts to accommodate a number of different worksurface widths
Lifting columns controlled by external DC "master" and "slave" motors
Various worksurfaces shapes, sizes and edge options are available