My Standing Desk: NextDesk Terra Pro Review

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 19 Comments
My desk setup

My desk setup.

I work from home as a database consultant. For years, I’ve had two desks in my office – a normal sitting desk, and a standing desk over in the corner. Every now and then, when I was feeling ambitious, I’d disconnect my laptop, shuffle over to the standing desk, and work from over there.

But because I had to move my laptop over there, and I didn’t have the same monitor/keyboard/trackpad, and I didn’t have my recording gear over there…I almost never bothered. The standing desk went unused.

A few months ago, I took the plunge and bought a $3,500 NextDesk Terra Pro for three reasons:

Reason #1: I can raise my whole desk to a memorized standing height or sitting height with one touch. When the urge strikes me, I can just hold down a button, push my chair out of the way, and work standing up. I don’t have to guesstimate what the right height is – I just set it once, and it goes back there every time.

This works wonderfully:

I find myself switching between sitting and standing a couple times per day. When I’m working with clients over video, standing up is so freeing. I even find myself stepping forwards and backwards to use my arms in different ways on the webcam. When I’m working on code or a blog post, I’ll usually sit down. Time to record a quick video? Up it goes.

I’ve even polished my setup so that my cameras and lighting all rise and fall with the desk. (My microphone is on a boom stand on the floor, though – I don’t want my typing/clicking to travel through the microphone stand and affect my audio.)

Reason #2: The Terra Pro has four legs, so the monitors don’t shake. Four legs means more stability, which means no wobbly, shaking monitor screens – even when the desk is raised to a high standing height. I type hard and fast (insert joke here), and it really pisses me off when the monitor shakes.

Monitors in Motion Boa II dual-monitor stand

Monitors in Motion Boa II dual-monitor stand – the black pole in the middle is my microphone boom

I didn’t buy the Terra Pro’s monitor arms – those didn’t get particularly good reviews – and instead I went with a Monitors in Motion Boa II. It’s a super-sturdy two-monitor stand that is machined out of aluminum. I’m not a big fan – it’s sturdy, but it’s not strong enough to hold my 32″ monitor vertically no matter how hard I crank down on the allen bolts. I’ve had to support the monitor with my little Tascam audio recorder, which works, but doesn’t exactly look boss. Would not buy the Boa again.

But hey, on the bright side, no shaking of the monitors whatsoever – even though my office is carpeted.

Reason #3: I’m a sedentary geek. I’m 40, and let’s face it, the more I get up off my lazy ass, the better.

What I Like About the NextDesk Terra Pro

Assembly was easy. Took me maybe thirty minutes by myself, and I’m not exactly known for my mechanical prowess.

The motors are solid. Some afternoons, my little dog Ernie likes to sleep on my lap, so I’ll lower the desk to the seated position, put my feet up on one corner of the desk, put Ernie on my lap, and surf the web and do emails. Because the NextDesk has individual motors in each desk leg, I worried that the uneven distribution of weight would cause problems. Doesn’t seem to.

The “artisan bar” is a good foot rest. I find myself standing with one foot on it all the time. If you’re considering the less expensive Terra desk, don’t bother with the artisan bar because it’s too far at the back of the desk. For the Pro and Air Pro desks, though, it’s awesome.

What I Meh About the NextDesk Terra Pro

Why there's an extra chair in my office

Why there’s an extra chair in my office

I keep shuffling my chair mat and my standing mat around. I know, first world problems, but I can’t work for an extended period of time while standing on my chair mat, and I can’t roll my chair around on a cushy standing mat. I end up with my chair mat on the floor, and then whenever I wanna stand, I pull my standing mat on top of it.

Holy cow, the Terra Pro is expensive. I’d held off on this purchase for quite a while because I kept comparing it to a $3,500 laptop – which one would I rather have more? It’s a good desk, don’t get me wrong, and I don’t have a single complaint about how it’s constructed, but it seems like it’s about $1,000 more expensive than it needs to be.

Granted, you can get a base Terra Pro for about $2,700, but you won’t:

  • Add $300 for the wider 79″ desk – you want this if you’ve got two big monitors.
  • Add $150 for the silver matte finish legs – I know this sounds stupid, but they look way better than the default black legs.
  • Add $150 for the vanity cover cable management – you’re going to be powering this desk up and down all the time, and you don’t want a bunch of cables moving around where your legs go.

Skip these options:

  • Power management – it’s a slender surge protector screwed to the bottom of the desk. Just buy one and do that yourself to save $80.
  • Keyboard/mouse tray – this makes sense for seated desks, but not standing ones. You’re going to want to lean on the desk while you work sometimes, and you can’t really do that with the tray option.
  • Sound system – the pictures make it look like there’s no cables, but there are plenty of cables. Those speakers are so 2000. Take that $200 and spend it on a pair of tiny but mighty Audioengine monitors.

Shipping is way slower than NextDesk says. I’d read reviews saying they promised shipping by day X, and then the pallet actually left the factory weeks later. That happened with mine as well. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if it arrived in a series of small boxes, but it arrives on a pallet carried by a freight truck. That requires a lot more planning for us downtown high-rise dwellers where we can’t just put a pallet on the elevator without building approval.

Bottom line, all things considered: it’s awesome. I love it, and I’d totally buy it again.

Annotated Photo of My Office Gear

Annotated

Annotated Version

A – BenQ BL3200PT 32″ monitor – really love this. 2560×1440 resolution, USB 3 hub built in.

B – Asus VE248Q 24″ monitor – meh, just alright. Side monitor for Twitter and Hipchat.

C – Coffee.

D – Tascam DR-60MD MKII audio recorder – for better audio on my training videos, I use a professional microphone (Audix SCX1-HC) on a boom stand above my desk. The audio recordings go into the Tascam on SD cards, and then after I finish recording, I merge the Tascam audio, Mac screencast, and GoPro video feeds together using Final Cut Pro.

E – Microsoft Sculpt Bluetooth Ergonomic Keyboard – I don’t need a number pad, and I want the trackpad as near to my hands as possible, so this thing is perfect. Plus I hate wires.

F – Apple Magic Trackpad

G – Audioengine A2+ Monitors – look great, sound great, very compact.

H – LimoStudio photography bulbs in CowboyStudio stands – these bulbs are crazy bright and put out very natural-looking light. Best of all, they’re not hot, so I can leave them on during recording without breaking a sweat.

I – Boom microphone stand with an Audix SCX1-HC microphone mounted above view.

J – Orcas of Queen Charlotte Island by Blaine Billman – print of a very detailed pointillism piece we picked up in Alaska.

K – Peephole #1 and Peephole #3 by Sas Christian – I’ve adored Sas’s work for years, and I’ve slowly built up a little collection of paintings and pencil drawings. These were the first two paintings of hers I bought.

L – Apple MacBook Pro 15″ – the brains of my desk operation, but it’s not actually on my desk. I don’t need access to it since I do everything via the Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad and the monitors, so it’s over on a separate cabinet.

M – Blackmagic Design MultiDock 2 – holds the 1TB SATA SSDs where my work-in-progress training videos go. I used to work off hard drives, but now that I’m using multiple GoPros as cameras, the sheer amount of video files required means I need a lot of fast storage. This plugs directly into one of the MBP’s Thunderbolt ports.

N – Elgato Thunderbold 2 Dock – plugs into the other Thunderbold port and drives my monitors, Ethernet, more USB3 ports, etc.

O – GoPro HERO4 Blacks – I used to use HD camcorders, but I’ve switched to the GoPros for better 4K video and smaller size on my desk. Sounds crazy to record 4K talking head video, but the end result is much better then HD camcorders. I’m using Luxebell Skeleton cases to mount the GoPros on small tripods, plus keep the USB and SD ports exposed.

Not annotated: Herman Miller Aeron chair – bought this back in 2010, and it’s held up extremely well. Get the Forward Tilt option if you’re the kinda person who leans into their work.

How to Use a GoPro as a Web Camera in Skype

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 15 Comments

Even in 2015, $100 webcams still have pretty crappy video quality. They have tiny sensors that don’t pull in enough light. Here’s the output from a popular Logitech webcam:

Logitech webcam output

Logitech webcam output

Ugh. Faded, bad colors. Instead, check out how a GoPro Hero4 looks as a webcam:

GoPro Hero4 as a web camera - same room, same lighting

GoPro Hero4 as a web camera – same room, same lighting

Awww, yeah – what a difference. Here’s how to make it happen:

Do not buy the more expensive GoPro Hero4 Black. Sure, it shoots higher resolution 4K videos, but that doesn’t matter when it’s used as a webcam because the GoPros only output 1080p resolution via the HDMI cables we’ll be using. It also doesn’t have a screen on the back to show your framing. (In theory, the Black has a phone app that acts as a display, but it’s terribly unreliable.)

The Blackmagic Mini Recorder piece does the magic – in converts an HDMI (video) signal to Thunderbolt. If you’re a Windows user without Thunderbolt ports, use the Blackmagic Design Intensity HDMI-to-USB3 capture device – same basic principle there. I’m using the Thunderbolt one because it’s cheaper and smaller, and my Mac has free Thunderbolt ports.

Step 1 – Plug everything in.

The UltraStudio is powered by Thunderbolt, but plug the GoPro into a USB port since it’ll be running for hours on end. Don’t even bother trying to use the built-in battery – it’ll die out after an hour.

Step 2 – Turn Off the GoPro’s Output Displays.

By default, the GoPro’s HDMI output shows things like the time and the recording status onscreen. That’s ugly. Power on the GoPro, and then go into its setup menus to turn OSD (OnScreen Display) off.

Step 3 – Set the UltraStudio Mini Recorder defaults to HD.

After installing the Mini Recorder’s drivers, it defaults to standard definition video. I know, right? Go into Apple, System Preferences, Blackmagic Design, and click on the UltraStudio Mini Recorder. Change the video input from SDI to HDMI:

Blackmagic Settings for HDMI

Blackmagic Settings for HDMI

If you don’t do this, the Mini Recorder just outputs a black video stream.

Step 4 – Fire Up Your Webcam App.

In Google Hangouts, for example, when I go to choose a camcorder, Blackmagic is listed as one of the input sources. Choose 1080p29.97 (the resolution that your GoPro puts out) and presto:

Google Hangouts resolution list - choose 1080p 29.97

Google Hangouts resolution list – choose 1080p 29.97

Unfortunately, not all apps offer native support for video capture devices:

  • Google Hangouts – works
  • Skype v7.6 – works
  • Telestream Screenflow v5.0 – works
  • Cisco WebEx Meeting Center v29.13.4 – does not work
  • GoToMeeting v7.1.5 – does not work

When I’m recording training videos or doing long chats with clients, here’s how I use it on my desk:

GoPro in the middle of the screen

GoPro in the middle of the screen

I know – it looks a little goofy having the webcam right in the middle of the monitor, but that’s because I’m using a ginormous 32″ Benq monitor (around $600). When I’m doing chats with clients, I want them to feel like I’m looking ’em right in the eye, so having the webcam at eye level helps. (I’m using a standing desk.) There’s plenty of space to run browsers and applications on either side of the camera.

Should everybody go this far? Of course not – but when you make a living online talking to other people, you don’t want to look like a faded-out relic from the 90s.

Is Your Blog Cheers or McDonald’s?

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 5 Comments

When you’re writing a blog post, stop for a moment to ask:

Why is someone reading this blog post?

Are they a regular reader who devours all of your posts, in order, and knows you and your style well? Are they walking into Cheers?

Or are they hurriedly searching Google for an answer to a question, and they have no idea (or concern) of who you are? Are they running into McDonald’s for a fast meal?

A great way to understand the difference is to think about two popular – but very different – SQL Server bloggers:

  • Pinal Dave’s blog SQLauthority.com
  • Paul Randal’s blog at SQLskills.com

I purposely didn’t hyperlink those because I want you to think before you click. I bet you know both of them, and I bet you immediately recognize which one is McDonald’s and which is Cheers.

There’s nothing wrong with Cheers or McDonald’s.

They’re two different methods to become Internet famous, and they both work, but they both require an awareness of your audience.

If you’re building a McDonald’s blog, you can’t just optimize for search engines – you have to choose subject matter that will appeal to people who desperately need to solve a problem quickly. Pinal understands exactly how overworked, in-a-hurry people use the web: they Google for a command, and they need quick, easy-to-understand syntax examples. They don’t give a rip about your personality or your dog or your career.

If you’re building a Cheers blog, you can take the time to dive deeply into topics that take longer to understand. You can take the reader on a long journey and cultivate a relationship over time. When looking at Google Analytics, you’ll have much longer visitor time spent on page, but a lower visitor count. (That’s not a bad thing – both approaches have their pros and cons, and after all, you knew both of their names right away, right? So they’re both winning.)

One blog *post* can’t be both Cheers and McDonald’s.

My blog is more like Little Goat's private dining room.

My blog is more like Little Goat’s private dining room because there’s only a dozen of us in here.

When it’s first published, that is.

And notice that I emphasized post.

My strategy is to write posts for my regular readers because they’re the ones who see my posts as soon as they come out. You people already know me well, and I don’t have to fill you in on my background or my motivation or the industry basic concepts.

Once a month, I go back and look at Google Analytics to see which of my posts are being discovered by searchers. If a post seems to have staying power, then I’ll flesh it out with more background information and change the tone so that it’s more search-friendly. At that point, my regulars have already read it, so I can turn the post from Cheers into McDonald’s.

If you read Pinal’s blog (and I do), you’ll notice that he’s using another diversification tactic: sponsored long-format guest posts. From time to time, other folks write longer posts that aren’t necessarily search-engine-friendly, but tell a longer story. This means his normal SEO-targeted posts still gather traction over time, but he’s also got new resources for those of us who like to follow his RSS feed regularly.

That’s hard work – but starting is easy.

You don’t have to build a big strategy – just make a decision about who you’re going to write for, regulars or hungry strangers. It’ll help improve your blog writing style tremendously.

Sentences To My Younger Selves

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 12 Comments

I don’t have regrets – everything that’s happened to me so far has led to a life that I wouldn’t trade – but if I had the chance, I’d probably like to say a few sentences to past versions of myself.

Dear 1988 Brent – Keep playing the piano no matter how boring it seems.

Dear 1990 Brent – Instead of drinking protein shakes to gain weight, enjoy your temporary skinniness.

Dear 1991 Brent – While your high school sweetheart is indeed drop dead gorgeous, brilliant, and kind, it’s completely okay that you are not the right fit for her, nor she for you.

Dear 1992 Brent – You’re making the right decisions by cutting high school classes and enjoying life.

Dear 1993 Brent – Cutting college classes, on the other hand, is a spectacularly bad idea, and you should finish college on your full scholarship even though you don’t quite understand what it’s good for.

Dear 1994 Brent – Don’t let a single month go by without a letter to your parents assuring them that you’re okay.

Dear 1995 Brent – Seriously, dude, do not trade in the Datsun 280ZX to buy a brand new Hyundai Accent on credit.

Dear 1996 Brent – Bankruptcy feels really shameful at the time, but it doesn’t determine your worth as a human being.

Dear 1997 Brent – As long as you’re broke, you should probably just move to Silicon Valley and gamble on getting a job in the dot-com boom.

Dear 1998 Brent – On your first day of a long French vacation, when you’re ordering food in a bar, don’t gamble on the steak tartare with the raw egg in the center.

Dear 1999 Brent – You’re a professional now, and professionals keep in written touch with inspiring people who have been influential in their career.

Dear 2000 Brent – Do not get drunk in the presence of the company receptionist because she likes you way more than she lets on, and eventually she just might marry you.

Dear 2000 Brent - get a better haircut and shirts that fit.

Dear 2000 Brent – get a better haircut and shirts that fit.

Dear 2001 Brent – At this point, you’re doing exactly the right thing by ignoring your dot-com buddies in California, because that ship has sailed.

Dear 2002 Brent – Get to know that Matt Mullenweg guy at the Houston Wireless meetings.

Dear 2003 Brent – When a company can’t pay your paycheck, you need to leave no matter how much you love your coworkers and your job.

Dear 2004 Brent – You’re doing a good job of going on wild spur-of-the-moment no-budget trips with Erika, but I bet you could go on even more, and you should, because you’ll never get these airline flight benefits again.

Dear 2005 Brent – Instead of being incredibly stressed at having one bad manager for a couple of months, realize that you were blessed to have years of great ones, and know that the next great one is right around the corner.

Dear 2006 Brent – Take more walks on South Beach.

Dear 2007 Brent – Seriously, if you didn’t want to walk on the beach, why the hell did you get an apartment that close to the water?

Dear 2008 Brent – Even though you’ve only been at that job for a couple of weeks, you did the right thing by quitting immediately with no safety net, because this would have killed your spirit for life, and a better one will come along literally tomorrow.

Dear 2009 Brent – Spend one hour per week listening – really, really listening – to each of your inspiring, insightful coworkers like Kevin Kline, Christian Hasker, Andy Grant, Billy Bosworth, Douglas Chrystall, and the rest of the gang of entrepreneurs at Quest.

Dear 2010 Brent – While it’s utterly terrifying to quit Quest, write a $20k check to pay back your MCM, and go out consulting, do not be even the least bit stressed about it because it’s one of the best things to ever happen to you.

Dear 2011 Brent – You can’t please everybody all of the time, so focus on making ten people happy – starting with your family and your business partners.

Dear 2012 Brent – Startups are a marathon, not a sprint, and you have to take even better care of yourself when training for the startup marathon.

Dear 2013 Brent – The ex-girlfriend who contacts you out of the blue is actually at death’s door, and you need to find out what you can do to help.

(Writing this was very rewarding. I started with a few years off the top of my head, then jogged my memory with my photo albums. Afterward, I found myself writing Now Brent a full letter as if I was looking back in the rear view mirror, and that was really rewarding too.)