4k Monitors – Are they a Necessity for Truss/Panel Designers? (Part 3)

The last 2 weeks we explained details and definitions of 4k monitors and introduced the idea for their use in component design. Before reading this week’s article, please click here to review Part 1 and here to review Part 2 in this series so that you can follow along in this article coherently.

4k-monitor

Working Distance

We learned from the last installment in this series that not all truss design tasks are optimally suited for high-resolution monitors. We made a distinction between the resolution of the monitor, which is a literal count of the number of pixels built into the screen; and the size of the monitor, measured in inches.  I had suggested grouping a designers’ tasks into three categories, with the following recommended ideal monitor resolutions – of course, with design software other than MiTek, your mileage may vary:

  1. Plan reading – 4k. This would be for examining architectural or structural drawings, normally in PDF or CAD format.
  2. Layout – QHD or WQXGA. Something in the 2560×1600 neighborhood seems feels pretty natural for laying out a building’s worth of trusses
  3. Engineering – HD. A standard, inexpensive HD monitor seems to play pretty nicely with MiTek’s Engineering software.

We also learned that humans can only resolve a certain level of detail, and that with a good set of contact lenses or glasses your eyes will be ready to perform at their greatest potential, like they were looking at an optometrist’s chart on a far-away wall. When considering monitor resolution and visual resolution as two sides of the same coin, the new variable we will consider today is the working distance between your eyeballs and the center of each monitor that feels most comfortable to you.

While it may seem natural to jump to the question of “how large a monitor can I buy?” the truth is that working distance is a more important question to consider before going shopping for a new screen, because a high-resolution monitor won’t help you if you can’t visually take in that many tiny pixels from long distance.  Conversely, if you prefer to work close to a screen, a large monitor will actually work against you because it will take up a significant amount of real estate on your desk, requiring you to swivel your head around unnecessarily to view a second monitor – when a much smaller monitor at extremely high pixel density would be sufficient for your needs, assuming your eyesight is up to the task.

So take a moment to move backward and forward in your chair right now, and ask ourselves a few different questions:

  • First: quite subjectively, “Am I enjoying being this close, or this far, from my screen? Do I feel that this this is the best working distance?
  • Second: “Am I working at an uncomfortable distance because my desk is poorly designed, or a bad fit for my needs? Are the arms of my chair hitting the desk edge? Or is it that if I sit too far back I get glare from the window?” Etcetera. There are a multitude of reasons that we feel forced to sit in a non-optimal position in relation to the screens.
  • Third: “If I feel like I would prefer to be closer or farther from the screen, and nothing else seems to be stopping me, is it perhaps that the screen is too dark and dim or too bright to handle at that distance?”

Take the time to resolve any of these issues which might prevent you from working at a comfortable viewing distance. If your desk constrains you into working in an ineffective manner, stop now – put the funds you would have spent on a new monitor into a more flexible desk setup which gets your aligned more effectively with your screens.  We all like new electronics and a new desk may feel a bit dull, but truthfully, no replacement monitor will help you if the desk it sits on forces you to locate it in an awkward way – and larger monitors are even more unwieldy and hard to position than small ones.

Having settled our desk or workspace questions, we can now measure the distance that feels most comfortable to us. I like to hold a folding rule (remember those?) next to my skull and extend it straight out in line with my vision, measuring from a spot in the center of my monitor to a point on the rule which is exactly in line with my eye.  I find that 30” works pretty well for me; I don’t feel any significant ‘strain’ or tension in my eyes when I work at this distance for long hours.  Your results might be different.

Horizontal arc

Having settled on a working distance, we need to now settle on what I call, for lack of a better term, “horizontal arc”. This is a circle segment in which you should imagine yourself, more particularly your head, at the center.  Sitting in your desk chair, start by turning your head left and right; as you swing your head from side to side, find a maximum amount of “swiveling” in your neck that you feel comfortable with.  Some folks are fine with craning their neck every-which-way; others prefer to keep their heads absolutely still, or nearly still.  Keep in mind that a horizontal arc that initially feels comfortable might not feel so comfortable when you have to repeat this motion every five or seven seconds.

Next, without turning your head from side-to-side, simply look back and forth, trying to determine the area of your vision in which you are actually comfortable working. The portion of your vision which includes the highest density of optical receptors is actually rather modest, compared to your peripheral vision, and the boundary between the two is less of a dividing line and more of a long, smooth transition.  Think for a moment about where you want to effectively draw the line between your central (working) vision, and the more peripheral (useless, for our purposes) portion.

Now combine both motions, both turning your head and swiveling your eyes, not further than the limits you just set for yourself, for both.  This is your horizontal arc in which all important monitor information needs to be placed in order to be useful to you.

Monitor size

As you may have guessed, your correct monitor size is now one which, when placed next to your other monitors to create this rough semi-circle at the proper working distance, falls within your horizontal arc.  Experience has taught me that screen area which falls outside this area is almost useless to me; I cannot force myself to put important information in these areas, since my mind and body don’t want to look there.  As you might imagine, very large screens become difficult to fit into the horizontal arc, unless you are blessed with extraordinary eyesight and prefer a very large working distance – and have an enormously deep and wide desk surface to work with!

When shopping for monitors, look for the physical width of the screen you are considering purchasing; many monitors have a thick band (bezel) around the screen which adds bulk and takes up some of your horizontal arc. Also, realize that the listed size of a monitor is a diagonal dimension, measured from corner-to-corner.  Even with thick bezels, a 28” monitor might only take up 25” actual width.

Conclusion

To summarize, we have distanced ourselves from our screens as much as is comfortable, settled on a maximum horizontal “zone” in which we feel comfortable working, and divided up this zone into “segments” which each represent the maximum monitor size we can purchase.  For myself, I have found that two 32” monitors, with an additional 27-28” screen, maximizes my horizontal arc.  As you might imagine, the monitor I dedicate to plan reading is a 4k monitor, my layout monitor is WQXGA, and my Engineering monitor is HD, with the added bonus of touchscreen functionality.  So far this has been the most satisfactory combination of the many I’ve experimented with, and I would recommend it to anyone who had similar preferences.

The 4k resolution has been a worthy purchase – but with a few caveats, and in the final installment of this series, we will examine some monitor-related issues which should be thought through prior to purchasing a 4k monitor, a word about mouse movements, and some budget ideas for how cash-strapped design departments can cheaply outfit old PCs with a third monitor.

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Stay tuned for Part 4, the final article in this series.

Has this brought to mind some new considerations for your desktop setup? Please leave your comments below.