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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  • JDG1980 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Adobe is a company full of whiners. When the Surface Pro came out, the pen didn't work in Photoshop because it used the Microsoft Ink API, instead of WinTab. (WinTab was supposed to be a free standard, but is tied up by a patent troll.) When Adobe was asked to fix this, they said "Waaaah, Ink API is too hard and we don't like it, so MS will have to support the old API instead." Unfortunately, Microsoft backed down instead of forcing Adobe to do the right thing. And we're seeing this same thing again with HiDPI support for Windows: "Waaah, it's too hard, we don't like the APIs, please Microsoft fix it for us". It's been pointed out to them multiple times that many other apps manage to do it just fine, but no, Adobe is a special snowflake and it has to be their way. Everyone else has to conform to them. Can't expect them to do any real work for the thousands of dollars per unit that they're being paid by graphics professionals. Reply
  • jhoff80 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    That had been a problem for nearly a decade. However, Adobe has now added Ink API support to Illustrator and Photoshop in their newest updates.

    And while I definitely fault Adobe for taking so long to add the Ink API, Microsoft still needed to get a Wintab driver. Adobe is not the only company that wasn't (at the time) using the Ink API. Even now, Photoshop is covered, sure. That doesn't help with Mischief, or 3D modeling programs, or any number of other Wintab-only applications.
    Reply
  • Imaginer - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    You do not need to wait for a Microsoft WinTab driver. Wacom's FeelIT drivers for Tablet PCs has been updated for the Pros since last year around May.

    And, the drivers work for any Wacom pen-enabled displays. This driver, allows me to have two side buttons to assign functions and work with on particular pens out there (most definitely not the Surface Pen).
    Reply
  • jhoff80 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Yes, that is exactly the driver we were talking about waiting for. That issue is fixed now on both ends. Microsoft/Wacom have their Wintab driver, and Adobe now also supports the Ink API. But when the Surface Pro first came out, neither of those things were true. Reply
  • twtech - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    In an ideal world, every huge old codebase like Photoshop's would be very clean, and adding another pen interface would be relatively straightforward.

    In reality, they probably had WinTab-specific code sprinkled in there in various places, which made fixing the problem more difficult, and includes the possibility that the WinTab stuff wouldn't work right afterward if any mistakes were made during the process of making that code generic.
    Reply
  • JDG1980 - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Well, that's why we pay them the big bucks. It's their responsibility to keep their code base clean and maintainable, not everyone else's responsibility to pander to their pile of spaghetti code. Reply
  • kasakka - Sunday, April 20, 2014 - link

    My experience with Adobe is that while the guys working on the image manipulation algorithms are absolutely brilliant, the folks behind the UI and QA are borderline incompetent. Adobe's software has been riddled with a shitload of small UI flaws (ranging from wrong fonts to incorrectly positioned controls to more severe stuff) for years and they don't seem to bother doing anything about it. These are probably the same people we can thank for not having proper DPI scaling. Reply
  • skiboysteve - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Great article. Kudos on writing this up so clearly Reply
  • r3loaded - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    The problem is that developers for the Mac are far more enthusiastic and invested in their platform, so when the rMBP was launched many of the big names rushed to add HiDPI support to their programs (either straight out of the gate or within a couple of months), giving a good user experience. There's also a general culture of following Apple's guidelines on UI design and UX best practices.

    On the Windows side, many developers can't give a crap about UX problems and blatantly ignore Microsoft's guidelines and best practices, preferring to do it their way. They still haven't got around to fixing their programs. I wonder if many ever will.

    Unless there's a big shift in culture and attitude, we're going to continue seeing scaling issues in Windows programs (issues that are in reality the fault of developers, not Windows itself).
    Reply
  • jhoff80 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    To be honest, this is exactly why I feel that Metro needed (and still needs) to continue being pushed forward, as much as most power users hate it. Sure, there are some great desktop / Win32 apps, but they haven't really been relevant for years, and most developers just don't care enough any more to update them in really essential ways for the future (High DPI being the prime example). WinRT / Metro definitely still are rough around the edges, but in forcing developers to cut ties, it also forces a lot of progress on these fronts. Reply

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