High-PPI support in Windows 8.1: still not so great

— 8:25 PM on December 19, 2013

Displays with high pixel densities are pretty much standard in tablets, and we're all waiting for them to become standard in notebooks. Take a trip to your local Best Buy, though, and chances are a majority of systems in the laptop aisle will have 1366x768 panels—even large notebooks that really have no business with a display resolution that low.

It's a sad state of affairs. If Google can serve up two megapixels in a $229 tablet, then why can't PC makers do the same in $800 ultrabooks? Why isn't 1080p the new standard by now? And why aren't truly high-PPI screens (think 2560x1440 or more) widely available for those who don't mind paying a premium?

I'm sure costs and margins partly explain why PC makers continue to ride the 1366x768 gravy train. As I discovered recently, however, there's another, even more infuriating hurdle on the path to high-PPI nirvana.

You see, high-PPI support in Windows still kinda sucks.

Behold exhibit A: the Zenbook Prime UX31A from Asus. This is an Ivy Bridge-powered ultrabook with a 13.3", 1920x1080 IPS panel. It's already more than a year old, and there's nothing all that remarkable about it. Last month, I dug it out from my pile of review samples, loaded it up with Windows 8.1, and took it to AMD's APU13 conference in San Jose, California. There, I used it as my primary computer for about four days.

Windows 8.1 did a great job of recognizing the Zenbook Prime's display as a high-PPI one, and it scaled the user interface accordingly right away. Default applications like the File Explorer looked crisp and clean, with readable text and correctly sized widgets. I couldn't really fault Microsoft there; they clearly seemed to have done their part.

Things got ugly once I started installing third-party apps, though. Here's what Google Chrome looked like at the default scaling setting:

Total blurry mess. For reference, here's Chrome next to a File Explorer window that's scaled properly. Note the difference in font sharpness:

It's not just Chrome's user interface that was scaled up and blurred. The whole application was blurred—even web pages. I tried switching to the Chrome beta channel, even toggling an obscure high-PPI switch in the hidden "chrome://flags" settings to enable high-PPI support, but nothing helped. The beta looked no better, and the obscure toggle ("HiDPI Support," in case you're wondering) just made everything broken and ugly.

I encountered the same blurriness in other third-party apps: iTunes, 7-Zip, and Sublime Text 2, my favorite text editor. They all scaled up to the right size, but without making proper use of the extra pixels available. The result was invariably atrocious. Looking at blurred fonts all day is a recipe for headaches.

Now, a few third-party applications did handle themselves better. Here's Firefox, for instance:

Mozilla's browser at least understood that it was running on a high-PPI system, and it scaled page contents and UI fonts sans blur. As you can see above, however, the UI widgets didn't quite look right. The icons were blurry, and the Firefox menu was full of giant black arrows for some reason. Don't get me wrong; this was still worlds better than Chrome. But it was hardly the kind of experience you'd expect from a premium ultrabook with a fancy screen.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have apps like Photoshop that pretty much ignore Windows' PPI settings altogether. Here's Photoshop CS6 and Word running side by side; Word scales correctly, while Photoshop doesn't:

I couldn't track down a fix for Adobe's negligence. I did, however, find out how to get rid of the blur in apps like Chrome: right click on the application shortcut, go to Properties, find the compatibility settings tab, and tick "Disable display scaling on high DPI settings." Boom! All better. Except, not really. Ticking that checkbox means UI widgets stay the same size at any scaling level, and fonts may or may not scale up as needed. In Chrome's case, that means tiny buttons, big text labels, and illegibly small fonts on web pages. You have to raise Chrome's default page zoom to 125% in order to make the web readable.

There is a simpler alternative to enabling that compatibility setting for half your apps. In Windows' Display control panel, ticking "Let me choose one scaling level for all my displays" will restore the legacy scaling from previous Windows releases. That means no blur, but also no improvement over the per-app compatibility setting. Fonts and UI widgets are still sized inconsistently, and in apps like Chrome and Sublime Text, you still have to scale page or document contents manually.

So, yeah. Running Windows on a notebook with a high-PPI screen is an exercise in frustration right now. With the Zenbook Prime, I sometimes wished that I had a 1366x768 screen—not because I didn't enjoy the extra pixel density in software that supported it, but because I just wanted everything else to look right. And no matter how much I tinkered, some things never did look quite right.

Now, can you imagine a technically illiterate user grappling with these same problems? Yikes. No wonder HP, Dell, & co. aren't tripping over themselves to sell you high-PPI notebooks. The software support just isn't mature enough yet.

If PC makers aren't going to take the first step, then Microsoft needs to reach out to developers and make sure Windows software is ready for high-PPI screens. We're not talking about cleaning the Augean stables here. Apple has already pulled off something quite similar. There was a rough transition period after Retina MacBooks came out a couple of years back, but high-PPI support in OS X and Mac software has improved dramatically since then. Today, laptops like the $1,299 MacBook Pro with Retina display are very compelling, partly because they offer a high-PPI experience that Windows just can't match.

Microsoft, I know you're all about tablets right now—but if you want to make Windows notebooks sexy again (and goodness knows they need it), then fixing high-PPI support should be high on your list of priorities. If this doesn't get done, my next laptop might just have an Apple logo on it.

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