4K Monitors for CAD—Are They Worth It?

Updated Jul 8, 2019
Pink mockup of computer monitor - 4K for CAD?

Those of you who work in the CAD industry know that a lot of your time is spent rendering, inspecting, editing and sharing designs. It’s important, therefore, that the workstation you use is able to provide you with the best possible means to produce and enhance your work to a professional standard. Given the focus on imagery, a component of your set-up that deserves significant investment is the monitor.

Anyone considering upgrading their system these days may contemplate forking out for what is considered the crème de la crème of display screens: the 4K monitor. If you’re looking for incredible image quality, high pixel density and exact rendering, it doesn’t get much better.

While still fairly cutting edge, 4K isn’t exactly new. In fact, 4K monitors have been around for over a decade. What is a recent development is monitors of this standard being available to the masses. In other words, you no longer need to remortgage your house in order to own one.

BenQ BL2711U Monitor

The BenQ BL2711U 4K Monitor will set you back a very reasonable $463.00

Quite the opposite—these days you can get a 4K monitor of your very own for less than $500. Given the reasonable pricing, the decision to invest in a 4K monitor might sound like a no-brainer. Don’t get your wallet out just yet, though.

Before taking the leap into the undoubtedly dazzling world of 4K, make sure you’re aware of its possible shortcomings. In this article we’ll explore the pros and cons of 4K monitors, and contemplate whether now is the time to upgrade to ultra high definition.

Table of Contents

What is 4K?

4K logo

4K is named so because it denotes a horizontal screen resolution in the order of 4000 pixels. This makes them double the horizontal and vertical resolution of FHD (full high definition) displays. Though the 4000 pixel count is not exact (in fact, there are a range of resolutions that fall under the ‘4K’ banner), each version of 4K is still a major advancement from FHD standards.

A screen packing this level of pixel density is able to show intricate details of an image in an impressively high quality, without users having to zoom in. In the last few years, the television and film industries in particular have been making the transition to 4K. The incredibly sharp images and vivid colors produced by the technology enhances viewing experiences significantly. Plus, as you might imagine, it can take gaming to another level!

But what about CAD? Sure, many in the industry have already made the move to 4K—but it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing. The falling price of 4K monitors doesn’t necessarily correlate with CAD software’s ability to support these resolutions. Plus, depending on the specs of the rest of your workstation, you may need to upgrade some of your other hardware components if you want them to be able to keep up.

Thankfully, things move fast in the world of tech and the issues that crop up are constantly being ironed out. The more accessible 4K is to consumers, the more computers and operating systems are getting better at handling 4K.

The benefits of switching to 4K

Incredible image quality

You simply can’t escape the fact that 4K monitors provide outstanding clarity and a level of precision that is unmatched by most other displays. Considering the importance of detail and accuracy in computer aided design, 4K monitors should be a welcome addition. A workman is only as good as his tools, after all!

The benefits of 4K monitors match CAD users’ needs in a variety of ways. The level of intricacy and crispness of images provides the perfect canvas on which designers can make adjustments with a very high degree of accuracy. Colors and gradients will be precise, and the overall quality will be clean, professional and striking. With every aspect of an image presented in high resolution, your designs will never look better!

More room to play

Apple workstation

With 4K, you no longer have to navigate multiple screens

Say goodbye to your dual display set-up—4K monitors allow far more information to be displayed on a single screen. After all, you’re working with four times as many pixels now! When you first turn your new monitor on, you’ll notice icons and text appear much smaller. Despite this, they’ll be just as clear and defined (if not more so) as before. The resulting increase in workspace means your display can handle multiple applications being open at the same time.

This is great for multitasking, as everything you need is in the same place. Plus, you can clear space in your actual office environment because you only need one screen. You might be so used to having multiple displays that you don’t want to reduce to one, and that’s fine. Nice to know you have the option, though!

Many CAD users also report that 4K monitors can increase productivity. You can see the entirety of your designs in glorious ultra high definition—so you don’t need to spend as much time zooming in and out. Add to this the fact that you’re not constantly switching between screens, and you can see how work rate can improve.

Investment in the future

Samsung U28E590D 4K Monitor

Samsung U28E590D 4K Monitor

Even if you run into some initial hurdles with your 4K monitor, it’s likely to be because this part of your workstation is too advanced—either for some other hardware or the software you’re using. Though this is frustrating in the short-term, at least you know that everything else will eventually catch up.

Such a purchase can be considered a worthwhile investment, because it is still fairly new technology and so is unlikely to become outdated any time soon. Particularly if your system is due to be upgraded anyway, it makes sense to invest in something that will carry you through the foreseeable future.

Issues with 4K

When 4K monitors first became affordable for the average CAD practitioner, many rushed out to buy them because of the aforementioned benefits. However, many of those early consumers found that the elevated user experience promised by such technology didn’t exactly match up with the reality. The problem? It’s no use having the latest monitor if the rest of your workstation can’t keep up.

Software compatibility

AutoCAD and SolidWorks logos

Before switching to a 4K monitor, you must ensure that the CAD software you’re using supports 4K displays. If it doesn’t, you can kiss goodbye to those sharp images and accurate renderings.

Venture into the user forums of Solidworks and AutoCAD, and you’ll find plenty of people complaining about compatibility issues and less-than-stellar display quality on their 4K monitors. Icons are pixelated, text is both small and large with no discernable organisational structure… etc.

These problems usually arise because, in lieu of compatibility with 4K, the input is simply scaled to fit the screen. As a result, you may find yourself with a monitor displaying the opposite of the high resolution results that were advertised.

If you don’t think your CAD software is to blame, it’s also worth adjusting the scaling settings on your operating system. There are known scaling inaccuracies with 4K monitors and some older versions of Windows, for example.

CATIA's logo

In 2018 these issues have largely subsided, as most CAD software providers have released updated versions that support 4K displays. Native 4K support exists on the latest version of both Solidworks and CATIA—not to mention AutoCAD, as explained in our overview of AutoCAD 2018’s top features.

As is often the case with software, new issues may rear their head at any time. It’s therefore definitely worth double-checking for compatibility issues before investing in 4K.

Hardware compatibility

There are always going to be certain components of your workstation that you’re willing to invest more money in than others. It can make sense, depending on the demands of your work.

If this is the case, however, you still need to make sure that all of your hardware at least meets some kind of uniform standard. Otherwise, each component may not be able to operate at its full potential. Sure, your software might now be compatible with 4K—but is your hardware?

NVIDIA graphics card

Make sure your graphics card is up to the job!

There are two areas in particular where this will matter. First off, 4K monitors are large and thus will require more RAM to run correctly. CAD itself can eat into quite a bit of your system’s memory, so if you’re also working with a 4K monitor, we’d suggest starting with at least 8-16GB of RAM.

You should also check whether the graphics card you’re using will need to be updated to accommodate 4K. The high resolution demands a lot of processing power, so make sure your GPUs are up to the job. If you’re unsure of what to go for, graphics cards that come with a DisplayPort are recommended for use with 4K monitors.


3D performance

Working with a graphics card that can’t keep up with 4K can have a knock-on effect to other aspects of your work. For example, if you’re working on CAD models it’s probable that you’ll want to view and edit your designs in 3D.

If your GPU is already having to work overtime to render the high number of pixels on the screen, you may find other features, like frame rates, slow down. Once applications become less responsive, basic actions like accurately repositioning your CAD model become tricky.

Again, it’s only worth investing in an ultra high definition monitor if the rest of your system can keep pace with it. Hopefully, switching to a 4K monitor won’t require an overhaul of your entire system…

Eye strain

  Desk with Mac. glasses and book.

Perhaps your software and hardware is up to scratch and your 4K monitor is running like a dream—great! The only thing is, you also have to consider the impact this large screen with highly defined graphics is having on your health. In particular, 4K monitors can cause users to strain their eyes.

As we’ve discussed, the higher pixel density means text and icons can be presented on a much smaller scale, allowing for plenty more room on your workspace. Even though the image quality does not suffer, the overall reduction in size may cause you to squint a lot. On top of this, the screen is much larger and you are likely viewing it from a close distance. All of these things can be damaging for your eye health.

Obviously it’s important for anyone staring at a computer screen for long periods of time to take a break every now and then to give their eyes a rest. The problem is, if you’re working on a CAD project, you may not have the luxury of taking frequent breaks. Another thing you can do is look into the settings of the software you’re using. Try adjusting the scaling settings to make it easier on your eyes.

4K monitor for CAD—should you invest?

A few years ago, we would probably have advised you to hang back on splashing your cash on a 4K monitor. Then again, things move fast in the world of tech. While there are still some issues affecting certain users, it’s in the interest of the manufacturers that the transition to 4K is made easier and requires less effort on the part of consumers. Improvements have certainly been more noticeable in the past couple of years, as more CAD software providers include support for 4K in their products.

Given the nature of CAD work, if you can afford it, it makes sense to invest in the best monitors on the market. Utilizing the most advanced technology at your disposal can ensure your work is the best it can be. Soon enough 4K may become the established standard, so getting comfortable with the technology now will set you up for the future.

If it’s going to require a full upgrade of your entire workstation, you might want to wait a while—at least until prices drop a little further. Work out how much of an overall adjustment it will require, and whether it is worth it in your current situation.

Planning on an overhaul of your entire workstation anyway? 4K could be the way to go. If you’re ready to take the plunge, you can find a couple of good options on our list of 5 best CAD monitors under $1000.

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