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Review of the Steelcase Think (v2) chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Steelcase Think chair

After test-driving the Herman Miller Embody and the Steelcase Gesture, I felt a bit down. I had just tried out two top-of-the-line models from the two most renowned high-end chair manufacturers and neither was good enough. Would I ever find a suitable chair for myself? As it happened, my next candidate, the Steelcase Think, restored my faith in ergonomic chairs.

The Think is something of an overlooked model in Steelcase’s lineup. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to try it out. The salesman who gave me a demonstration of Steelcase chairs didn’t even consider it worthy enough to show it to me, and I had never seen it mentioned on the Internet, so I wasn’t even aware of its existence. The only reason the Think ended up in my apartment was that, on a later visit to the Steelcase dealership, I noticed one of the employees sitting on it, and requested a quick test. Apart from the stylish design (which I admit was what caught my eye in the first place), I noticed it had a unique recline mechanism, a mesh backrest, and highly adjustable armrests. It definitely deserved an extended look.

The Think is – in my humble opinion – the best-looking chair made by Steelcase. Its striking lines make more conventional models like the Leap or even the Gesture look positively mundane. I think it could even give the gorgeous Herman Miller Embody a run for its money.

The backrest on the Think is unique. It has a coarse mesh supported on a flexible, plastic “ladder” that presumably is there to prevent you from “falling in”. There is also a built-in, non-optional lumbar support – a plastic-and-metal bar that you can slide up or down. Here’s a clip showing how the backrest responds:

For complicated reasons, I actually test-drove the Think twice, with a 6-month break in between. On my first test, I found the backrest comfortable enough, as did one of my friends (who ended up buying the Think and is happy with it). However, another friend immediately rejected the Think, complaining that the plastic strings in the back dug into his upper back. On my second test – for reasons I cannot fully account for – I started feeling the same hardness that my other friend had noticed. After several hours, my shoulder blades got a bit sore from the continuous pressure. I had to place a thin layer of white foam (the type LCD displays come in) between the 3D mesh and the topmost string, which solved the problem for me (and made the chair look slightly less good). After about two weeks, I removed the foam and never looked back. I suppose my back just got used to the small discomfort.

Apart from that brief episode, the Think’s backrest was pretty comfortable for me, although it is, of course, a highly subjective thing. I will say this, however: if you’re looking for comfort, you would do better to pick a chair with a padded backrest or one made of a soft mesh (i.e. not like the Herman Miller Aeron or Mirra).

The backrest on my test model was the default, “3D-Knit” version. You can also order a backrest that’s covered in fabric – which might temper the hardness of the plastic ladder, but doesn’t look as good as the 3D-knit version (I think Steelcase knows this – in their marketing materials they only show the mesh backrest), and provides less airflow (though not dramatically so – the fabric is quite thin). I think I would recommend the mesh version (with the foam mod, if necessary).

Speaking of airflow, the chief advantage of a mesh backrest is coolness, and the Steelcase Think does not disappoint. On hot summer days, with the temperature in my room exceeding 27 °C, the Think was 25% cooler to sit on than the Steelcase Amia. Wait a second, what does “25% cooler” even mean? Glad you asked. That’s a totally subjective figure which is supposed to represent how hot I felt after sitting for a period of time (between 30 and 45 minutes) on the Think versus how I felt on the Amia in the same conditions. Yes, I know it’s pseudoscience, but I did many rounds of tests, and I stand by my figure. I’m comparing the Think with the Amia because I happened to have those two chairs in my apartment at the same time. The Amia’s thermal performance is comparable to that of the Steelcase Leap or Please. All of these are chairs with padded backrests.

The lumbar support is quite subtle – the plastic bar is almost as flexible as the “rungs”. I didn’t feel a big difference even when I moved it all the way down. I think the chair would benefit from a stiffer lumbar support.

The unique backrest is attached to a unique reclining system. The Think is equipped with a weight mechanism. With most chairs, you get a knob that lets you choose how strongly the backrest pushes you forward. The optimum position of the knob depends on your body mass (heavier users need more resistance, or else they will drop all the way back) and your preferred recline angle. With a counterweight system, the backrest is connected to the seat, so that a heavier user will automatically get a more resistant backrest. The most obvious advantage is that the chair doesn’t have to be adjusted for each user, making it great for environments in which the same chair is used by different people. (This review, however, won’t be concerned with that scenario.)

Usually, the biggest weakness of weight-based systems is that they only take into account one of the two variables that determine the backrest’s resistance (your body weight) – and not the other (your preferred recline angle). As a result, you’re locked into whatever the chair’s designers decided to be the “optimum angle” (for an example, see the Humanscale Liberty review). The Steelcase Think eliminates this weakness by giving you a four-stop dial to modify the weight-based recline angle:

  1. Upright (tilt limiter) – 111°
  2. Mid-stop (tilt limiter) – 117°
  3. Near-upright (“boosted” setting) – 115°
  4. Maximum recline (standard weight-based setting) – 123°

Here are photos showing positions 1, 3 and 4:

Photo showing 3 main positions on the Steelcase Think chair

I did not include a photo of position 2 (mid-stop) because it is almost indistinguishable from the “boosted” setting. The only difference is that with the boosted setting, you can recline to the max if you push hard enough, while the mid-stop setting has a hard limit. I’m not sure why anyone would prefer a hard limit to a gentle, bouncy limit.

The recline mechanism is of the “smooth” type – you can tilt the backrest back and forth around some “neutral” position, but you cannot recline too far back because the force exerted by the backrest on your back will eventually go up. In fact, the resistance on the Think increases quite steeply. Whereas most other “smooth” chairs are pushovers that will let you easily tilt the backrest back by a large distance, the Think fights back and will quickly ramp up the opposing force. It does not feel like a rocking chair – it’s a more crisp, high-energy sensation, like bouncing against something. The Think is, in fact, the most “bouncy” chair that I’ve tested. Viscerally, I found it quite satisfying, and I think this kind of springy, limited rocking is a good match for an office chair, as rocking over a large distance would probably make it more difficult to type and use the mouse.

I am quite convinced that the combination of a smooth backrest and the four-stop position dial is a near-perfect system. This is for two reasons:

  • You can instantly switch from a “typing” (near-upright) position to a “casual browsing” (reclined) position, and back again (because the two positions are pre-set, you don’t have to fiddle with a continuous knob every time). This encourages frequent position changes.
  • You keep the ability to rock, whether you’re near-upright (position 3) or reclined (position 4). This is not the case when you use a standard tilt lock or tilt limiter. Rocking is fun and probably good for your health.

You might think that the pre-set recline angles – as opposed to “infinite”, continuous resistance adjustment – limit your freedom to set the recline angle “just right”. However, in my testing (and I had the chair for several weeks), I never once wished for an extra preset. In fact, adding intermediate stops would ruin the main advantage of the chair, as more clicks would be required to go from a near-upright to a reclined positions.

It would seem that all the chess pieces are in place for a resounding victory – finally a chair that lets you easily switch back and forth between a near-upright and reclined positions, with one click (of a knob), without sacrificing “rockability” – a feat that is out of reach for Steelcase’s “sticky backrests” (Leap, Gesture, Amia, Please – which have very little rockability) and for the “smooth backrests” like the Herman Miller Embody (which have no rockability when the tilt limiter is engaged).

Unfortunately, the Think squanders some of its advantage because of mechanical details. Although the resistance dial on the Think is thankfully pretty easy to access, you have to perform some gymnastics in order to switch from one mode to another. You cannot simply turn the knob – you have to lean forward before that. If you neglect that first step, the knob will (1) not turn at all, or (2) it will turn but the mode won’t change (the click sound will be subtly different). The second failure type is particularly user-unfriendly because it doesn’t give you sufficient feedback that you did something “wrong” and can have you wondering why the new mode feels the same as the old mode. (In some cases, you can turn the knob and then lean forward to “activate” the change, but this works only for some position changes and it’s probably best to just use the more universal sequence in all situations.)

I also have to mention that, after a few weeks of using the chair, the mechanism degraded to the point that it became completely impossible to switch from mode 3 to mode 4, no matter what I did with the backrest. The only way I could get it to work is by turning the knob very rapidly from mode 1 to mode 4. This is a clear mechanical issue that would be covered by warranty – I’m not sure if it’s a manufacuring defect with my demo unit or a manifestation of some design flaw. The issue is not shown in the video below because it cropped up after I recorded it.

All the mode-switching gymnastics are made easier by the fact that it is quite easy to lean forward on the Think due to its “bounciness”. The optimal technique is to first lean back, compressing the spring in the recline mechanism, and then have the spring push you forward with little effort from your abdominal muscles (and without bending your lumbar spine too much).

At great expense, I made a video so that y’all could see exactly how the recline mechanism on the Think works:

The biggest problem with the backrest (and the chair as a whole) is that it doesn’t recline far enough. The maximum hip angle is only around 123° – even less than the Steelcase Amia and Herman Miller Embody. When using the chair, I often wished that I could give my lumbar spine a bit more rest.

Another pretty serious issue is that the lumbar support keeps sliding down, especially if you use the fully reclined position a lot. During my tests, I had to readjust it a few times a day. This is a surprisingly common problem – I’ve experienced it, to some degree, on every Steelcase chair fitted with a height-adjustable lumbar. Fortunately, on the Think, the issue is easy to fix by sticking two appropriately sized pieces of plastic or hard cardboard into the slot in the side of the frame, below the tabs which are used to move the support. It worked perfectly for me – no more sliding down lumbar support.

Photos showing the lumbar support on the Think in the initial position and after two hours of sitting.

The lumbar support on my Think would keep sliding down, especially if I switched positions a lot. (Actual photo before and after 2 hours of use.)

The armrests on the Steelcase Think v2 are one of the best in the industry:

  • They stay level as you recline, enabling you to keep using them in all positions.
  • You can adjust them inward in order to support your forearms as you touch-type.
  • You can retract them quite far, enabling you to move close to your desk – you don’t have to stretch your arms out to reach the keyboard.
  • You can pull them down if you want them out of the way.
  • The armrest caps have the right amount of friction to allow you to slide your forearms on them as you move the mouse.

There are minor differences between the armrests on the Think and the excellent armrests on the Leap and Amia. The Think’s armrests have a bit less left/right adjustability (though still enough to comfortably rest your forearms on them as you use the keyboard) and the caps are less soft (though by no means hard). If I had to criticize the armrests on the Think, it would be on that last point – though, in truth, they never caused me any discomfort when using the chair. I only noticed the difference later, after I had the chance to try out the Steelcase Leap.

The Tom Test

How does the Think fare on my checklist? Let’s have a look:

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): I’m not sure. The reclined position is not very reclined. You can go from the near-upright position to the reclined position with a single click of a dial, but you have to lean forward first.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: I’m not sure. The backrest doesn’t recline enough.
  • Lumbar support: Pass. It’s pretty good, but keeps sliding down unless you mod the chair.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: Pass. It conforms to your back better than most chairs, but the plastic supports can dig into your shoulder blades.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Pass. The best “rockability” among office chairs, in every position.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Pass. Exceptional adjustability, no real shortcomings.
  • Annoyances: Lumbar support keeps sliding down. Mechanical glitches when switching positions.

Final words

The second edition of the Steelcase Think is a good ergonomic chair that I feel does not get the attention it deserves. After testing about 10 high-end chairs, I was seriously considering buying a Think because of its good airflow (suitable for hot summers), and the unique reclining system that enables rocking in every position and – on the whole – easy switching between positions (despite some mechanical niggles). I am also partial to good armrests, and the Think’s are almost perfect. Finally, at $840 or €670 (incl. VAT), the Think is priced more reasonably than other high-end chairs.

On the negative side, the Think doesn’t recline far enough to give your lumbar spine a satisfactory rest break. There are also annoyances like the sliding down lumbar support and the plastic ladder in the backrest which may put uncomfortable pressure on your shoulder blades (both problems can be fixed with easy mods). If you’re willing to look past those issues, I can definitely recommend giving the Steelcase Think a test-drive. In the end, I did not buy a Think – although if I ever come into some extra cash, I’ll be tempted to get one as my “summer chair”.

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