For several years now, mobile device manufacturers have been in a race to push the pixel density of mobile devices higher and higher. The race began with the iPhone 4 “Retina” display – an at the time impressive 330 pixels per inch (PPI) 960x640 3.5” display. Keen to trump the Retina moniker, makers of Android devices soon churned out devices with displays with PPIs of 440 and higher, with the current push to 2560x1440 displays in 5.5” or smaller sizes which yield an amazing 500+ PPI. Next up was a similar race in the tablet space, with 1280x800 soon giving way to 2560x1600 displays, but this time in a 7” to 10” form factor.

All the while, the lowly PC and Mac chugged along with displays that could hardly be called impressive. The standard LCD display of just a few years ago would hover somewhere around 96 PPI, and it was often lower. A 17” LCD with a resolution of 1280x1024 wasn’t an accident – it was exactly 96 PPI, which is what the PC and Mac would render at by default. High resolution laptops would barely squeak past the 120 PPI range. These lower densities – though decent for the longer view distances of desktop monitors – have until recently not been improved on, highlighting the gap in progress between the two devices categories.

Further complicating matters, desktops and mobile devices have always differed in how they use resolution when it is increased. On a mobile device, higher resolution has been used to increase image quality, while higher resolution displays on a desktop were released as part of physically larger displays and used to increase the amount of work you can do. Mobile devices have had one big advantage: they are backed by new operating systems that are built for higher resolution out of the box, and there is no back catalog of legacy applications to deal with. Phones and tablets can easily deal with high resolution displays, but for the PC and Mac, things are not so simple.

In 2012, Apple launched the 15.4” Retina MacBook Pro. At the time it was far and away the highest PPI laptop available. It took a lot of work for Apple to ensure a high resolution display was usable because for really the first time, increased resolution on a computer was used to improve image quality rather than simply to increase screen real estate. How they achieved this was nicely explained by Anand back in 2012. However, OS X wasn’t perfect; certain applications didn’t behave as well as they should have, which resulted in some applications having blurry text or other UI issues. Still, Apple was able to make the Retina display work, and for the applications that were Retina aware, the result was a fantastic experience. If developers updated their applications, their clients could enjoy the high resolution clarity that had already taken over the mobile space.

But what about Windows? Windows Vista, and then Windows 7, both had support for higher DPI (Dots Per Inch) settings; even lowly Windows XP had some support for DPI scaling. The main issue was that there was no market force pushing for High DPI (in the operating system and APIs, it’s referenced as DPI as opposed to the PPI of a display) like there was with the Retina MacBook Pro. OEMs were happy to sell consumers low cost, low resolution 1366x768 TN panels for years. If people don’t demand better, most OEMs are unlikely to provide them better than the basics in such a low margin industry.

High Resolution Laptops
Brand Model Screen Size Screen Resolution Pixels per inch
Acer Aspire S7 13.3" 2560x1440 221
ASUS Zenbook UX301LA 13.3" 2560x1440 221
Dell XPS 11 11.6" 2560x1440 253
Dell XPS 15 15.6" 3200x1800 235
HP Spectre 13t-3000 13.3" 2560x1440 221
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro 13.3" 3200x1800 276
Lenovo X1 Carbon 14" 2560x1440 210
Panasonic Toughpad 4k 20" 3840x2560 231
Razer Blade 14" 3200x1800 262
Samsung ATIV Book 9 13.3" 3200x1800 276
Toshiba KIRAbook 13.3" 2560x1440 221

What changed was a combination of High DPI tablets and the Retina MacBook Pro putting pressure on the PC industry to offer something better. It has taken a long time, but finally quality displays are something that are important enough to consumers for every single major OEM to now offer at least one, if not multiple, devices with High DPI.

History of Windows DPI Scaling
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  • Lundmark - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    People who like image quality should get a MacBook. Reply
  • wwwcd - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    This numbers of DPI or/and PPI(which is the same thing) didn't make me satisfaction. I will wait for 8K(+) resolution for my next large dimensional PC/TV display. Reply
  • aron9621 - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Per display DPI scaling in Windows 8.1 is a joke. Try connecting a 180ppi Dell U2414Q and a 96ppi Dell 2413 to your computer, Windows is so dumb it doesn't even detect the correct DPI setting for the monitors, and worse, it doesn't allow you to change it. Oh yes, you can increase/decrease the DPI, but only for BOTH screens simultaneously, it doesn't matter if you have "Let me choose one scaling for all my displays" checked or unchecked, the only difference that setting makes is the way it breaks DPI unaware applications. So you are either stuck with one screen with normal elements and one with tiny ones, or with normal elements on the other screen and giant ones on the former one. And I yet have to figure out how Windows chooses which screen it opens the application on. Reply
  • caywen - Friday, April 18, 2014 - link

    This. Windows seems to have no idea how big my 24" samsung monitor is. I even have samsung's monitor driver installed. In display settings, Windows thinks my Yoga 2 Pro's 13" screen is 4x larger than my 24", presumably because it's still assuming resolution == size.

    I really hope Microsoft fixes this. They should at least provide a way for us to say, "Windows, this monitor size is this big" and for Windows to say "righty ho, now I totally know this display's real DPI."

    I feel like Microsoft is fumbling the ball. They give developers every gun to shoot their foot with, and give users useless tools to mitigate it.
    Reply
  • Gigaplex - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    "This application is the worst example of usability on a High DPI system that I’ve seen."

    I'd pick small elements over element cropping/overflow any day. It's especially annoying when OK/Cancel buttons on dialogs are off-screen because their location wasn't calculated correctly.
    Reply
  • aeeroO - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    960x480 WHAT KIND OF SORCERY IS THAT? Every apple fanboy knows it's 960x640...Anand, where are you? Reply
  • StrangerGuy - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    I find it especially baffling how could people even defend DPI laziness...in mid 2014.

    What, you don't like progress, or are you still living in 2000?
    Reply
  • valhar2000 - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    So, once again, Microsoft gets blamed for the mistakes of other software developers. If only Adobe had a letter "s" in their name that could be easily replaced with a "$"... Reply
  • e_sandrs - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    You could use the Euro sign for the e and/or the Thai Baht for the b and/or the Vietnam Dong for the d? That's the best I could do. :)

    A₫o฿€
    Reply
  • berger0 - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Anyone know a work around to fix Chrome? In Chrome 35 they removed the HiDPI flag. I found some post that had me put the flag in the registry, but chrome looks really bad now. Anyone else running Chrome Beta or Canary seeing this issue? I am running the YogaPro 2 Reply

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