Autonomous SmartDesk Review

The Autonomous SmartDesk was launched on both Indiegogo and Kickstarter in 2015, offered as a gimmicky AI personal assistant (akin to an Amazon Echo but with extremely limited functionality, relatively speaking). Oh, and it also happens to come with an entire desk. It was an interesting approach, and it worked – they raised over $200,000 in advance orders.

SmartDesk 2 AI

SmartDesk with its personal assistant perched on top.

Suffice it to say, there are enough of these now in the field that we can scour bountiful user reviews to see how well user experiences match up with our own observations. At least on Amazon, the vast majority of sales, and the more positive reviews, are on the standalone DIY base itself as opposed to the full desk system.  It’s a spotty record as Amazon goes, especially given the known positive bias to Amazon reviews of office fitness products. Many unverified-buyer reviewers also cut the company a lot of slack because they bought it from the Kickstarter campaign.

User reviews run the gamut from hating/returning the product to being absolutely delighted with it. Many complained then, and still complain now of very long wait times for shipping, some serious product quality issues, and nightmarish customer service installation challenges – particular if purchased with a tabletop. The desk is targeted at the DIY crowd, which is a good thing, because if your desk arrives without all the screws, you probably have some around that you could use to finish the job, (and you’re likely to be far more tolerant of shortcomings than the typical consumer). Keep that drill handy; apparently pilot hole alignment can be problematic when attaching the top to the base.

We’re naturally skeptical of anything that sounds too good to be true – we’ve lab-tested far too many electric desks to believe that something this cheap is going to perform as advertised. (Learn about how we test products in Anatomy of a Review.) The company claims its product is the “#1 top-rated desk in the world,” and shows only 5-star ratings on its own website that we have to assume are curated.

There’s no free lunch when it comes to component quality, and at $249 it’s a given that this desk is made as cheaply as an electric height-adjustable desk can possibly be made. But the thing that raises our eyebrows the most about Autonomous is the sheer number of hyperbolic marketing claims on their website. It just didn’t match our own experience when we tried the desk out at the Neocon office furniture trade show in Chicago. And because we’ve tested dozens of desk models in our labs, we have something to compare to that the typical consumer does not.

You Pay for What You Get

There are a lot – and we mean a WHOLE lot – of cheap knock-off electric desk bases coming out of southeast Asia these days. We’ve reviewed a few of the most popular adjustable height bases for DIY desk builders. And we’ve tested many more in our labs and at trade shows like Neocon, where manufacturers bring their wares from around the world. We’ve also toured a number of manufacturing plants in China – enough to know that there’s a wide spectrum of quality that you can expect, and generally you’re not going to find too many components made with precision robotics at this end of the price scale. To be blunt, we’ve seen a lot of bases coming out of dirty, noisy, sweaty factories that would never be allowed to operate under US health and environment standards. The dark, grainy video footage of the factory that Autonomous put on their Kickstarter page definitely suggested the latter.

SmartDesk DIY Standing Desk

The SmartDesk’s standalone DIY Base.

While this review is mostly a forensic one, we did get our hands on an actual unit in Chicago long enough to run a basic assessment. The first clue as to the quality of manufacturing of the Autonomous base was the long black oil streaks we saw running down the white actuator legs. That’s not a good thing. Some grease residue will be seen on any desk, but this was not the normal amount, and implied a problem with the design or manufacturing tolerances of the gaskets between the telescoping leg segments. The second clue was that the only desk they brought with them had failed entirely by the second day of the show, and the booth crew apparently split town, leaving the desk at an odd height between sitting and standing. Now, to be fair, that was early on in their development, and they’ve probably come a long way by now. Indeed, features and prices are continuously changing on their website and in their ad campaigns, and there are indications they may have already changed manufacturer(s), at least for some key components.

What’s not changed since their crowd funding campaigns? Long shipping delays and over-the-top marketing claims. The persistently long shipping delays indicate that the company is using your money to place their next factory order, i.e. they’re not quite out of Kickstarter mode yet. You can get a seemingly great price but you’ll have to wait a very long time to get it. In contrast to numerous other, more established vendors who will ship you a totally customized desk within just a week’s time.

So our first sense of this company was that it wasn’t going to set the world on fire with their unrefined AI product (competing with Amazon Echo is really, really hard, and many users reported removing the clunky electronics after a while and just using the desk), and that they may still have a lot to learn about what it takes to build a real desk manufacturing company. Did we mention that their first Kickstarter campaign was for a DIY robot? It seems odd to branch off from DIY robots to DIY desks, but it’s actually easier than you might think to source a manufacturer in China that can make bases and tops for you – and there’s always one willing to make it cheaper than anyone else to get your business. The only bridge between these products is that they purportedly rely on artificial intelligence, but when it comes to the desk that’s a pretty weak link. In any event, we’re not reviewing the optional AI add-on package here, just the desk.

Unpacking the Marketing Claims

Autonomous Smart Desk, World's Best Standing Desk

“The world’s best marketing hyperbole, period.”

$249 for an adjustable height desk sounds really great, but this is a highly misleading bait-and-switch advertising tactic to get you to their website where you’ll find out what it really costs with all the options you’d actually want. In classic cheesy marketing style they notate that “traditional retail” for the same desk would be $1,500.  There are certainly $1500, made-in-America desks available that are ten times as nice, but that’s not what you’re going to be getting here with the cheapest variety of Chinese components.

Autonomous claims to have the most configurable desk in the world, with “270 options.” Ahem, there are plenty of other desk manufacturers out there that offer many more. Sounds like a lot but it basically boils down to only 90 permutations, that we could count, of the following choices: 5 laminate colors (black, white, walnut, light oak, and bamboo), three leg colors (black, white, or gray) and three tabletop sizes (53×30 “classic,” 53×30 with an “ergonomic cutout”, and 70×30), and lastly, a super-cheap “home edition” single-stage base with a single motor driving both legs, or “business edition” dual-stage, dual synchronized motors).  We’ll get to the bases later in the review.

Autonomous must be counting some other options (like their AI personal assistant) in coming up with a purported 270 combinations, but this array of options is actually quite limited compared to the much wider range of desk size and color options you’ll find from other makers we’ve reviewed. Let’s keep going.

Heavy Duty Industrial Grade Steel is not a feature. Aluminum would be a feature. Sounds good, though, doesn’t it? Not to burst anyone’s bubble but 99% of sit-stand desks are made of the same stuff. It’s how you form it – and the manufacturing tolerances between the leg segments (measured in microns) – that counts. Stability and rigidity go hand-in-hand, and it’s how the steel is formed and the plastic gaskets in between the steel segments that determine whether a desk is really “heavy duty.”

SmartDesk Bamboo

…featuring bamboo surface

Grade A Wood and Bamboo Tops is one of the more ludicrous claims the company makes. This isn’t USDA beef; there is no such grading system. In fact, the lamination used on these tabletops is the cheapest and most ubiquitous kind you’ll find in southeast Asia, using high pressure laminate and glued-on edge-banding, and leaving exposed seams that over time allow moisture and air into the MDF (particle board) core of the tabletop. They’ll degrade over time like any other cheaply made tabletop, and that’s a comment we also saw come up frequently in user reviews. Despite the great-sounding “Grade A” construction, these tops don’t compare to hardwood, nor do they compare to much more advanced 3D lamination that is increasingly used in American-made products. And if you’re concerned about environmental impact from the chemicals used to make these tops, you can be certain that the tops were not made in a plant that could meet the stringent US EPA environmental standards.

SmartDesk with Ergonomic Cut-Out

…and an “ergonomic cutout”

The “ergonomic cutout” is curiously very deeply cut. When seated, some chair backs may prevent you from rolling all the way forward so that you could reach the keyboard comfortably. Larger individuals will have to squeeze into the “cockpit,” which may be uncomfortable (do they know what the average American looks like?). Installing an ergonomic keyboard tray on this desk is impossible, and if you use a large monitor you may find that you’re too close to your screen and start developing neck strain and eye strain as a result. We’re still grasping for what is ergonomic about this oddly contoured cutout they charge an extra $50 for. They can call it whatever they want, but it isn’t ergonomic.

The most affordable standing desk on Earth sounds really great. We’ve seen other companies make this claim, though, including IKEA with their abysmal Bekant desk that has garnered more negative user reviews than any other desk we’ve ever reviewed, or seen.

#1 rated desk on Earth,” again, sounds really great. We’d like to see all the user reviews they didn’t publish. Earth is a big place, and there are a lot of desk reviews these folks have not yet read.

SmartDesk Electric AdjustmentUnparalleled performance through advanced Electric Motor System.” OK, this is where we have to vomit a little in our mouths. Autonomous offers two bases. The Home Edition is a single-motor, single-stage base. This means that one motor is driving both legs, with a transmission rod and a bunch of gearing in between them. You won’t find many single-motor bases made anymore; just about every other base manufacturer has figured out that you can make a much better base with dual synchronized motors, with far greater reliability, for a relatively small cost increment. You’ll also find very few single-stage electric bases (meaning two telescoping leg segments) anymore, as the rest of the world has moved to dual-stage bases (3-telescoping leg segments) for their better range of height adjustment. Users frequently noted that the single-stage base could not go low enough to sit or high enough to stand.

If your plans for this desk are to put it in the garage and use it only occasionally, the $249 desk may be a good bargain. But if you’re planning to use it as your everyday work desk we’d strongly recommend at least popping the extra $100 for the dual-motor base, and getting full height range adjustability. The company claims a 220 lb. rating on the single-stage, and 300 lb. rating on the dual-stage base. Please, be sure to read our article on Do Weight Ratings on Electric Desks Really Matter? Hint: they do matter, but side-loading and manufacturing tolerances on the telescoping segments matter a whole lot more.

The transit speed on the Home Edition desk is a pokey 1 inch per second – literally the slowest desk we’re aware of on the market (slower even than the vintage GeekDesk), and not what we’d call “advanced.” They do claim The most silent standing desk with advanced Noise Cancellation Engineering – sound level at only 39 dB during movement,” though this is very subjective as it can be measured in a hundred different ways. That’s why we prefer to test these desks in our labs under comparable conditions just like the other desks we’ve tested (learn more about that in our Testing Standards for Standing Desks).

Generally speaking though, slower desks are quieter. At this price range it’s a question of whether you’d rather have a loud, fast-moving desk, or a slow-moving, quiet desk. The single-stage, single-motor Autonomous base seems to be of the latter variety. If you want fast and quiet you won’t find it in this price range. As for “noise cancelling technology” there is not a shred of truth to this claim, no active noise cancellation circuitry is built into this desk (nor any other desk); we assuming this is just a misunderstanding on the part of the Chinese-to-English translator.  The Business Edition base claims a 2.3 inches per second transit speed, which we find hard to believe as it is far faster than any other desk we’ve EVER seen in all our years of reviewing height adjustable desks. They do not publish the dB rating on this newer base, but we can only assume it would sound like a small turbine jet engine at that spindle rotation speed, and we would seriously question its long term reliability. Surprisingly, Autonomous does not claim to be the fastest desk in the world. They missed that one.

As for height range the two desk bases have pretty conventional stroke ranges for being two-segment and three-segment desks. The Home Edition has a range of 29″ – 47″ and does not meet ANSI/BIFMA minimums. The Business Edition has a range of 24″ to 51″.

I am Autonomous, Autonomous Smart Desk

“I am Autonomous” – well, at least that’s my name…

Smart Keypad that remembers your perfect sitting and standing heights is again pretty conventional for a standing desk, but many users reported being misled into thinking that once you press a stored memory key the desk would move to that preset height all on its own, or “autonomously.” The words “I am Autonomous” are actually printed right on the hand controller, so it’s easy to imagine how users might come to expect this. The fact is, in order for a desk to be sold with an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification in the US, the controller must be programmed so that you have to hold your finger on the preset button the entire time the desk is in motion.

Apparently this upset a lot of customers, so Autonomous removed this programming in its most recent version of the product, and now has a “fire and forget” memory preset. Unfortunately this violates UL safety regulations, but they’re probably not aware of this in China. Both the ANSI/BIFMA and UL certifications are generally required for any adjustable height desk going into a government agency, school, or major corporation. If you’re buying it for yourself to use in your home office, you can certainly choose to look the other way.

The most energy efficient standing desk – only 0.06 watt standby power consumption is yet again another one of these “best in the world” claims. It may surprise you that even under US law (the Lanham Act), it’s not illegal for a company to make such unfounded claims as “best on earth” without providing any evidence whatsoever.

As with most adjustable-height desks, there are plenty of bloggers and Youtube stars out there who’ll give you their review without having any particular expertise in adjustable-height desk technology, or having ever seen another desk side-by-side to compare against. That’s why you’re reading this review. By the way, to get all our reviews as we publish them please subscribe to our free newsletter.

The Bottom Line

Like we’ve been saying throughout this review, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In this case, many of the company’s marketing claims are outlandishly false. DIYers are a different breed of cat than most desk consumers. They’re far more willing to put up with long shipping delays, or scrounging for screws that were missing from the box, or taking it all apart and waiting for a replacement part if a component fails under warranty. In the name of getting a bargain price they might even be willing to buy a new desk in a couple of years should this one fail prematurely. Most consumers we hear from would rather never hassle with a desk failure – it can really put a crimp in your work productivity if your desk became stuck at sitting or standing height – or worse, in between.

While the company recently changed over to the Autonomous SmartDesk 2, with very little information published as to the differences (the aesthetics of the controller seem different, so they may have had reason to change manufacturers), they have expanded their warranty coverage from one year to five years. That might have been absolutely necessary given that many desk makers have gone to offering five to ten year warranties these days, but this company hasn’t had a five year track record yet, so caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware” – we’ve seen their flair for hyperbolic claims. In fact, making exaggerated claims of excellence is the one thing we might say Autonomous is “the best in the world” at.

This is a bottom dollar product, and we’re wondering how the company can even stay in business very long at these selling prices. The fact that customers are made to prepay for the desk before the factory in China starts making it gives us pause. At such low margins, the company could easily run into a cash crunch while holding onto customers’ monies and be unable to fulfill. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened with Kickstarter-launched businesses. So if you’re going to buy an Autonomous desk, we recommend getting it from ActiveDesk on Amazon – which appears to be the same company (a.k.a. Vifah) – and take some extra comfort in the liberal return policies of Amazon.

Be sure to check out all the desks we’ve put to the test in our Comparison Review of Electric Height-Adjustable Desks.