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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  • Brett Howse - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    You should do the math - 1280x1024 @ 17" is 96 DPI (called out in the article) and 1600x1200 @ 21" is also exactly 96 DPI.

    So not high DPI. Even going down a couple inches on screen size isn't going to change the DPI much.
    Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Interestingly enough, I had an Acer "Centrino" laptop circa 2004 that I believe had a 14" screen at 1280x1024. I remember needing to use 125% scaling. It was my first high DPI experience. Reply
  • solraun - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Great article! Thank you for calling out Adobe. But you are right, they are probably working overtime for a solution.
    One important point though:
    The resolution dictates how much detail any screen can display. The screen size determines how far away you want to be.
    Actual dpi is unimportant.
    The bigger the screen, the further away you will want to use it. The actual field of view, or angle, that the screen represents in for your eye stays the same. Sit in front of your monitor, then take out your smart phone and place it in the distance you would normally use it, but in front of the monitor. It will mostly match the outlines of the monitor.
    So for me, if I am using 1080p on my 24'' screen or 1080p on my 5'' smartphone: it is the same number of pixels per degree of my view.
    Similarly, I just bought a 4k 24'' screen, and while many people say 4k makes only sense on bigger displays, I disagree. I would have to sit further away from a 30'' monitor, and I don't have the space.
    I
    Reply
  • bountygiver - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    that's why windows 8.1 has a feature that solve this.
    It queries the dpi and screen size and calculate the viewing distance and decide how it scales.
    And I love how it scales real time when you move the apps across different monitors.
    Reply
  • Taracta - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Adobe, with postscript and PDF (especially PDF which was meant to scale from the 10s of DPI on monitors to thousands of DPI on printing presses) in their portfolio that were meant to scale with DPI and their applications don't scale properly! RIDICULOUSNESS! Reply
  • bengildenstein - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    What? We're now giving Apple sole credit for the trend to improve mobile screen resolutions? Utterly preposterous.

    The DPI race did not "begin" with the iPhone 4. Screen resolutions (and by direct implication PPI/DPIs -- given a fixed screen area) have been steadily increasing over time, with Android devices showing a far smoother increase curve than the single iPhone "retina" release. Additionally the increase in resolution requires a larger industry of components to support them. And smartphone resolutions continue to increase while the iPhone screen remains stagnant at a sub-HD resolution.

    I'm not arguing whether Apple is influential. But I think it's high-time that we stop crediting them with creating innovations that have already happened and were trending at the time of their release.
    Reply
  • Taracta - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Apple deserve the credit for the increase in DPI and screen resolutions. Without Apple you would not have had the Android device push ever higher DPI and laptops with now 4K screens. The only thing that was happening was the defaulting of resolutions to 1080p because of HDTV but DPI was actually going down as you were just getting bigger and bigger 1080p monitors. Actually 1080p was a regression from the 1920X1200 monitors that had existed before!

    So yes, Apple deserve the credit for starting the trend of increasing DPI and resolution.
    Reply
  • evonitzer - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    In the phone space, not exactly. The OG iPhone, 3G, and 3GS were all 320x480 devices (165ppi). Meanwhile, Android phones had bumped their way up to 480x800 and 480x854 (265ppi @ 3.7"). The 3GS was released in June 2009, and 4-5 months later the OG Droid came out with a higher resolution. Then in June 2010 Apple released the iPhone 4, which further bumped up the resolution to 'retina', or 330 ppi. I'm not sure when the first 720P Android phone came out, but roughly 16 months later, Android phones matched the 330ppi and have kept going up.

    So I dunno. Perhaps the Android manufacturers would have stagnated without Apple countering them in 2010, but I would suggest that Android phones were pressuring Apple to improve and so they did. Push and pull from good competition. Who deserves the credit?
    Reply
  • Brett Howse - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    It's all about marketing. The "Retina" branding of the screens worked with consumers.

    You could say the same about the Touch ID. Not the first phone with a fingerprint sensor, but certainly the first one that average consumers would know about.

    In tech, it's rarely about who gets to market first, but more about who resonates with consumers with a product and in these two cases I'd argue Apple did that.

    They are not always the product innovators, but sometimes they are the ones that get average people to know enough to ask about an innovation.
    Reply
  • hackbod - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    If you think us having high density displays in mobile today owes *anything* to Apple, you are delusional. This would have happened without Apple lifting a finger, it was *already* happening without them, and was actually happening long before the iPhone came out.

    Android devices were clearly increasing screen densities first, and in the Android world as soon as that happened, the platform had the full extensive density support it has today that allows seamless scaling down and up in density, to 320dpi and beyond, without changes to applications (once they were tweaked to be compatible with the implementation in Android 1.6, which was even a bit before the Droid). Nobody needed to push this along: screen resolution has *always* been one of those marketing numbers manufacturers use to convince people that their hardware is better, and in fact for the densities we are talking about here this is one of the more useful numbers because its impact is clearly visible right on the screen. The fact that they continue to push screen densities up to 480dpi and beyond pretty clearly shows that nobody needed Apple to make up a word and act like they were the Big Innovator in order to spur things on.

    But this was all happening well before Android or the iPhone. This increase in screen density actually happened well before that, in the Palm device world, with the introduction double density (160dpi) screens on Palm devices and support in that platform for scaling based on density. In fact this experience with how important it is to handle multiple densities on mobile devices had a big impact on the design of Android, planning for this from the start and thus having better intrinsic support for it.

    If you are actually familiar at all with the development of the mobile market, I think it is pretty clear that this increase in density is actually some intrinsic aspect to this market compared to what happened in desktops. There are probably a lot of reasons for this; for example, mobile screens can't really grow in size so increases in screen pixels need to be done as density increases rather than screen size increases, and these screens are starting at a much lower resolution so the simple 2x jump in density is a lot easier (keep in mind that 2x screen density means 4x the pixels to render, and when you are talking about desktop screens starting from their current resolutions that actually pushes you up in to resolutions that are pretty expensive to drive).

    Thinking that Apple had anything to do with pushing this part of the industry just shows a severe lack of knowledge about the history of the mobile market.
    Reply

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