It’s 2017 and you’re probably thinking about upgrading your old laptop and perhaps lusting after a machine with a Quad-HD or 4K display. Resist that temptation until you have read this post and familiarized yourself with some concepts. If you run older software, you better read this until the end!
If you know about High-DPI, jump right to the scaling part!
What is a High-DPI display?
What is DPI? The term stands for “Dot per inch”; high-DPI means that every inch of the screen has a lot of pixels, and we hear a display with “high pixel density”. The pixel actually stands for “picture element” and that pixel contains layers of Red, Green and Blue, and the mix of the values of these colors is the color reproduced on the screen.
Resolution: the number of pixels on your laptop’s display.
• 4K: 3840 pixels × 2160p (8.3 megapixels or million pixels)
• Quad HD: 2560 x 1440p lines (3.69 Megapixels)
• Full HD (aka 1080p): 1920 x 1080 lines (2.1 megapixels.)
• HD Display (aka 720p): 1366×768
(I allow myself to digress a bit: See why they tell you megapixels don’t count when you go past 8MP for a camera? Because your eyes won’t notice the difference 😉 )
On a 15-inch laptop, Full HD is the sweet spot. Everything looks perfect with 100% Windows scaling (more on that in moment). In a Full HD panel, the “inch” contains enough pixels that your eyes cannot discern the pixel from a normal viewing distance. For your TV, you can’t tell either because you are too far away from it, but come closer and you’ll start seeing the pixels.
Let’s call the pixel the square. Older monitors show a sort of square-ish text, that’s because the pixel count is visible to the human eyes, and that’s why the text looks “pixelated”.
Full HD for a 15-inch laptop has been the perfect size that the human eye cannot discern the actual pixel. Quad HD and 4K are sort of overkill; yet, they have some advantages, including:
- Text looks crisp because every inch in a 4K display (15.6-inch screen) contains 282.4 ppi (pixels per inch). That’s a LOT of pixels in a small area.
- They offer you a roomier work space; in other words, you can fit two windows side by side or fit more icons in your desktop or have a larger text area or display many of your browser bookmarks.
(Example: it displays more text, more visible open tabs: Scaling at 200%).
What is Windows Scaling?
Don’t be daunted by the technical term; it’s just the ability to make everything (text and icons) look bigger or smaller in Windows.
The first image depicts what everything looks like with the actual resolution with no scaling (100% scaling) so nothing is enlarged.
Problem: Text and icons look very small from a normal distance, and you’ll have to squint and hunch over to read what’s there. And that’s where scaling comes in handy; it makes everything larger thus readable.
Fix: At 250% scaling (it increases the size of everything by 2.5 times).
You scale the display by 250% and think the problem is gone. Not quite!
Let me share with you my story
Last summer, I bought a Dell XPS 15 (9550 model) with 4K display to replace my two-year-old Asus VivoBook with 720p display. And the jump felt like moving from a hot hatch to a Porsche 911 😃. When setting it up for the first time, I basked in the delightfully bright screen with its vividly accurate colors (100% of Adobe RGB color space), so text and images looked lifelike. However, the honeymoon was over the moment I began installing legacy software.
The surge of better-than-HD displays took place with the launch of Apple’s MacBook Pro Retina display; before that point in time, you couldn’t find WQHD displays or 4K for Windows laptops. Therefore, applications were not optimized for that high-DPI display; this means that older software cannot make icons and text bigger correctly.
Let’s have a look at one of the affected programs:
Cambridge Dictionary case:
Compare the text size in the following images, and you’ll notice text is blown out of proportion except in case 3.
Look how small the buttons of minimize/maximize/close are. However, the problem is not that severe in this case. (All at 250% scaling in Windows)!
SDL Trados 2015 Case
Texts and icons are cramped. Quite unusable, in fact. The problem was alleviated to some extent in Trados 2017 but the issue persists!
(Courtesy of: @AngelaBenoit)
So, you ask, how the heck am I supposed to fix this?
The first solution is the waiting game: wait for software developers to update their programs to make their software High-DPI-aware and then again who can wait? …. And what about software nobody supports anymore? Well, here comes solution 2.
Fiddling with High-DPI Settings by right-clicking the application icon on your desktop and going to compatibility tab:
Override High DPI scaling behavior performed by: -Application-System– System (Enhanced) (this one was added in Windows 10 Creators Update)
In every app, in the compatibility tab, you find a slew of workarounds for this issue:
– Overriding high DPI scaling:
Scenario one 1: Default app High-DPI Settings
Using the application’s default high-DPI settings, some parts couldn’t get bigger because they were not designed as such in the first place. Look at the A a and the top buttons.
Scenario 2: System scaling
The second alternative doesn’t change much.
Scenario 3: Enabling System Scaling
This solves the problem but partially. Everything is made bigger but the downside is that the text and images look blurry.
The blurriness of the text is set to alleviate the pixilation of the application. One could say, it’s the lesser of the two evils.
Microsoft’s latest Windows 10 Creators Update has improved DPI-scaling but not it didn’t solve the problem entirely; now the ball is in software developers’ court!
For the Cambridge Dictionary, the Creators Update solved the problem with the new option of “System Enhanced” settings. However, it doesn’t help with many apps.
Getting a Quad-HD or 4K laptop is a dream. If you have too many legacy software (which are no longer supported), it’s better to stick to laptops with good 1080p panels. There are reasons why it’s best to opt for a Full HD display: 1) no need for scaling 2) better battery life (because Quad HD or 4K as there are too many pixels to power. 3) cost: they are rather cheaper. However, if you go for an Ultra-HD display, make sure you have an external monitor to mitigate the issues that arise from poor scaling on legacy software.