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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  • inighthawki - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    I take it you're not a developer? Or else you'd understand at large companies you have a set of tasks, a time limit, and you have to cut certain features and prioritize them to customer needs. In Adobe's case, maybe, despite what you may think, their research showed that few people needed a high DPI UI, so resources were spent on other features first. Reply
  • npaladin2000 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Yes I am a developer, working for a large multinational ecommerce provider. And I just said exactly what you did only I was much coarser and simpler in my language in the hopes that it will penetrate some of the thicker skulls out there. But the bottom line is that you apply hours to the features that are either functionally required, contractually required, or will actually be used. If something's unlikely to be used or isn't a specifically requested feature, it's not going to get resources spent on it. Why would you? That would essentially be throwing away money. Those hours could be spent on something else that will actually generate revenue instead. Reply
  • Murloc - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    he was answering to eddman, not you, look at the comment indentation. Reply
  • inighthawki - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    I was replying to eddman. Anandtech's comments section could use a small upgrade. After like 4 levels of replies it's impossible to tell who is replying to whom. Reply
  • JDG1980 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    You're missing the point. You have to *actively do something wrong* for DPI scaling to not work properly. The standard guidelines for Windows API programming have included support for HiDPI for years. If you don't have time to program your own custom controls that support HiDPI, then use the standard controls. If you have time to reinvent the wheel for your project, then you have time to do it right. Reply
  • Gigaplex - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    "If you have time to reinvent the wheel for your project, then you have time to do it right."

    I wish this was true, however it's not. As deadlines loom, you do whatever you need to in order to get it to work. It would be nice to use standard controls for everything, but they aren't flexible enough for that.
    Reply
  • darthrevan13 - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Then why set the flag to true? So that there would be more problems? Reply
  • Zoomer - Monday, April 21, 2014 - link

    Same issue with VLC - fidelity in rendering the work is essential. Small UI vs your artwork rendered wrong - not hard to see what customers will choose. Many pros already memorized the keyboard shortcuts anyway. Reply
  • twtech - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    If you are ever involved with software development, one of the things you will learn is that there is always more to do, and there will always be more to do than you can ever get done. So you must prioritize what you're going to work on.

    If you want to devote the time to DPI scaling, that means something else that you could be doing is not going to get done. When most displays were all roughly around the same PPI, it just didn't make sense to prioritize DPI scaling highly relative to other work.
    Reply
  • phoenix_rizzen - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Yeah. Everyone seems to forget that before LCDs took over and relegated us to a wasteland of 720p and 1080p panels, hi-resolution and hi-dpi monitors were commonplace. 1600x1200 was common in the 90s, and usually under/around 20". 1280x1024 was even more common at 14-17".

    Don't feel like doing the math on those, but they should be over 100 DPI.
    Reply

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