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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  • kasakka - Sunday, April 20, 2014 - link

    Many monitors and TVs have reportedly messed up EDID data so it's probably not completely reliable.
  • invinciblegod - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Now that I think about it, how would you side swipe with a windowed modern app (to access settings)? Would you sideswipe the application or the edge of the panel? If it's the edge of the panel, that would be sort of weird since it's not part of the window (ironically, Mac users would not find this dichotomy confusing as they already have one in the Menu bar).
  • Brett Howse - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Always swipe the right side to access settings.

    If you have two metro apps (or more) open an snapped, it will do settings for the active (last used) window. If you're not sure which is active, the bar in between the two (or more) metro apps will have three dots and a bar, with the bar always on the side of the active app.
  • Brett Howse - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    To specifically answer your question about windowed - obviously we're not sure yet what they will do but I imagine it will be the same as now with the active window having the settings but we won't know until we see some bits from Windows 9.
  • Laststop311 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    poor dpi scaling has kept me away from high dpi notebooks. I'm hoping for an alienware 18" m18x with gtx 980m 20nm flagship maxwell in sli and a 4k ips screen. Even tho my personally upgraded m18x r1 is still goin strong with 4.2ghz core i7-2960xm + gtx 680m sli the massive battery gains i will get going to 1st gen 14nm broadwell + 1st gen 20nm maxwell from 2nd gen 32nm sandy bridge + 1st gen 28nm will make it worth it. Just hope sli gtx 980m is enough to game in 4k on at least 1 step below ultra settings
  • Antronman - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    If you actually want an alienware, you don't the first thing about technology.
    Here, let me fill you in:
    Alienwares = Overpriced, underperforming Dells.
  • bznotins - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    I tried running Win8 in VM on a 13" MBP and even with the tweaks noted in this article, Chrome still doesn't look half as good as it does in OSX. I have no idea if this is a Win8 problem or a Chrome problem (or both), but regardless it keeps me from considering a high DPI Windows laptop. Or even running Win8 fulltime on my MBP. Hopefully they get it fixed at some point in the future.
  • Accord99 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Chrome probably, it used to work well in HiDPI back late last year but something that Google did broke Chrome completely for a period of time, then only partially fixed.

    I don't care too much because I prefer using Firefox which works well.
  • darthrevan13 - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    It also could be the VM driver. It looks okay on a native windows machine with high DPI
  • rxzlmn - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    How about the other side of the high DPI development, hardware scaling? I have read multiple times on forums that high DPI screens would often not be able to properly scale down to a lower native resolution (i.e. that is an exact fraction of the original resolution), due to internal electronics still doing some kind of interpolation instead of pixel binning.

    For instance, I plan to buy a 4K laptop in the near future (the Lenovo Y50 probably), and one point why I want 4K and not 3K or something else is, that 4K would be able to natively scale down to both 720p (for games) and 1080p (for desktop stuff that is not usable via Windows DPI setting, yes, I'm looking at you Adobe).

    Does anyone have any insight on whether a 4K display on a notebook would use pixel binning to scale down? Or not? And if so, why, and will this be an issue that is intrinsic to the monitor, or somehow be tweakable by SW?

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