4k Monitors – Are they a Necessity for Truss/Panel Designers? (Part 4)
In the last few articles, we have investigated the ideal uses for 4k monitors and how to decide if they are appropriate for you or not. We also made a distinction between monitor resolution and monitor size, which often trips folks up. Today we’ll make a few more subtle distinctions in the hope of setting you up for an equipment purchase (or perhaps purchases!) that you won’t regret.
Different brands & models of monitor use panel technologies which vary in the way they represent color. It doesn’t seem like color reproduction would be of importance to a truss designer, as opposed to, say a photographer or a graphics professional. We are judging quantitative data on our screens, not qualitative appearance; yet take a quick look at the comparison between two panel technologies shown above, and decide which would be more pleasant for you to gaze into for upwards of 8 hours per day, 5 days a week – the majority of your waking hours?
The most inexpensive panels, known as “TN” technology (shown on the right), tend to have a narrow color gamut, or range of depth, between bright and dark. These are the favorite of management, as they can be had in large screen sizes at low prices. The most expensive are “IPS” panels favored by digital photographers, shown on the left. In the middle are a variety of “VA” panel types, such as MVA; these are not favored by gamers as they don’t have the lightning-fast response time that video games require – but the colors are lovely and rich, roughly on par with an IPS panel – and are easier on the wallet than IPS. VA panels are recommended for truss designers.
The gamut shown by these panels are typically expressed as a percentage of the “Adobe RGB” theoretical color spectrum. When comparing two monitor models, say, from two comparable manufacturers, try to choose the one with the highest percentage rating of the Adobe RGB color space.
Brightness & Contrast
It is also worth comparing monitor models based on the number of brightness nits they can reproduce. A high contrast ratio will allow you to control the darkness of your black levels, and whiteness of your whites, relative to each other. Particularly if you are in a very bright or well-lit office, a bright monitor will allow you to bring the screen brightness up to the level of ambient light in the room.
Similar screen size
Unless you can convince your IT department to completely replace all your monitors at once, it is common to end up with a mismatched assortment of screen sizes. If your coworker quits and you inherit a 27” monitor, matched with the 30” you already have, and in the interest of gaining more screen real estate you add the 22” that was gathering dust in the back of the stock room, you may think you have achieved a sort of nirvana, with more pixels on your desk than you ever thought possible!
But not so fast; as you move your mouse around in your new digital playground you become irritated at the awkward transition of the cursor between the upper edge of the tiny monitor – the short one – and the upper edge of your 27” monitor, which will be proportionally higher up in your field of view. If the two are mismatched in resolution, you now find the mouse even more unpredictable as the difference in pixel density between the two will mean that the top of one screen might only correspond with the middle of the next screen, making it quite frustrating to navigate quickly from one screen to the next, say, to change a “Yes” tally to “No” in the Properties menu. Love for all your screen real estate quickly morphs into a game of ‘whack-a-cursor’ where you dread moving from one screen to the next, lest you have to motorboat your mouse around on the desk in giant, overstated circles, just trying to locate the cursor on a monitor, any monitor! Upgrading one of the monitors to 4k resolution exacerbates this problem to the extreme, as the 4k engulfs the resolution of the smaller HD monitor by a factor of four; the smaller one always will feel out of balance.
So, I recommend if at all possible, try to at least keep the physical size of your main monitors equal, if not the resolution. Maintaining alignment between the upper and lower margins of your screen will at least keep the cursor roughly aligned at the mid-point as it jumps from one monitor to the next, thus saving you from having your concentration broken perhaps five hundred times a day; and we all know the importance of maintaining concentration!
Along these lines, a caveat to weigh carefully before purchasing a 4k monitor is the issue of mouse velocity. Basically, your mouse and computer currently have a setting where a one-inch movement of the mouse on your mousepad corresponds to a certain number of pixels on the screen; if you are using an old, large-ish monitor with low resolution (ie, with large individual pixels), the cursor will appear to move quite quickly across the screen. But be aware that with the addition of a 4k monitor, after transitioning from the old screen to the new, that the cursor will all of a sudden appear to have donned a pair of lead shoes, slowing to a crawl across the 4k landscape.
When I first worked with a high-definition monitor, my mouse settings were such that occasionally I had to physically pick up my mouse and make several “swipes” of it across the desktop to traverse from one border of the screen to another. This can be quite annoying, and is an ergonomic price paid for commanding such an incredible number of pixels in one screen. This is also the reason I did not recommend using a 4k monitor for tasks that require a constant stream of fast, cross-screen movements of the mouse, such as the Engineering software; the canvas at 4k resolution is simply so enormous that an expert user of Engineering will immediately to feel that he is swimming slowly against a tide of thick gravy.
As I became accustomed to the quirks of my 4k screen, I position it away from the center of my desk; it is now the outer monitor (on my left, as it happens), so as to be most convenient for reference to PDF plans, but clear of the “high speed traffic area” which is at the center of my vision. I love the 4k screen for its density, its ability to present me with a phenomenal amount of visual information without panning or zooming; but the effect it has on my mouse velocity limits its use to information intake, rather than high-speed work.
Thanks for reading this series. I hope it has provided you with a few things to consider for your next monitor purchase from a design point of view. Please chime in below and leave some comments on how this may or may not affect your design efficiency.