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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  • Taracta - Friday, April 18, 2014 - link

    I could say the IBM started the high density displays with the T220/T221 4K 22" monitors in 2001 with a ~200 DPI but I won't because these were not followed up on like the Sony laptop display you mentioned. I believe that it only counts when you follow up on it and make it part of your product portfolio, which is what Apple did, which forced the others to do it too.

    So I give credit to Apple and not IBM, for them mainstreaming HiDPI by requesting HiDPI panels from their ODMs suppliers. This in turn allowed the others to have access to the technology but Apple was the leader in mainstreaming it.
    Reply
  • Gigaplex - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Apple didn't make the panels, they bought them off suppliers that were making them anyway. Often those panel suppliers were also Android manufacturers, so don't try to tell us that those screens wouldn't have made it to Android without Apple. Reply
  • yasamoka - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Hint, those displays were MADE for Apple. Upon Apple's request. Nobody cares who made the displays, they didn't appear out of thin air and then Apple went: OH PERFECT, this is a perfect fit! Reply
  • psyq321 - Thursday, April 17, 2014 - link

    Sony introduced a 4" 1024x600 display (296 PPI) in 2007 --> look up Sony Vaio UX
    Sony also introduced a 13" 1920x1080 display (170 PPI) in 2010 --> look up Sony Vaio VPC-Z

    So, no, Apple did not invent high DPI screens. Apple invented a marketing name for them ("Retina"), though.

    By the way, Apple's notebook displays were low-DPI garbage before Retina Macbook Pro. I switched to Retina Macbook Pro since Sony stopped innovating and retired Vaio Z and Apple finally decided to produce a real high-end notebook. I could not even think of this before Apple decided to put a decent resolution display in their notebook.
    Reply
  • psyq321 - Thursday, April 17, 2014 - link

    Before I switched to 15" Retina Macbook Pro, I had all generations of Sony Vaio Z.

    Sony switched to 13" Full HD panels in 2010. Two years before Apple's switch to "retina" screens in their laptops. Before Apple Retina Macbook Pro, the DPI of their notebooks was pathetic.

    Also, Sony had Vaio UX with 1024x600 4" screen in 2007.
    Reply
  • munim - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    These problems are why I won't be upgrading from my 96 DPI 24 inch monitor for the foreseeable future. Reply
  • jhoff80 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    "The Surface Pro’s on-device screen is set at 200% scaling which is necessary to make that resolution work on a 10” screen"

    No, it isn't. Out of the box, the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 are set to 150% scaling on their own displays. And for what it's worth, 125% scaling is completely usable as well - I've used it that way since release of the Pro 1 (since upgraded to the Pro 2).
    Reply
  • bountygiver - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Exactly, even with only 125%, I have no problem navigating most legacy applications with touch. Reply
  • Brett Howse - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Sorry about that - fixed now. Reply
  • darthrevan13 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    "Few high resolution devices"? That's no excuse! You can move the slider up to 150-200% even on your current low res display and then things will have to get 1.5-2 times bigger. It's not hard at all! I am a developer and I can't understand that. Microsoft released the API for this at the start of 2007, that makes 6 years not including this one.

    Most of all Adobe has no excuse at all! They should offer all of their next version apps which scale correctly for free!
    Reply

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