Microsoft Forgot To Fix One Major Thing in Windows 10

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There’s been exactly one thing keeping me from buying a Windows laptop for the last three years: Windows sucks at handling high-resolution displays in small laptops.


To be clear, this is not some problem with how Windows handles big high-resolution displays — my 27” 2560x1440 screen at home is proof it does that just fine. The problem is laptops with small, pixel-dense displays. Since Windows sizes things like text and icons based on the pixel height, rather than physical size, a display with lots of pixels but short on inches causes stuff to be shrunk to laughably tiny proportions.

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My XPS 13 with standard scaling. Consolation beer for scale. You try seeing that system tray!

Windows 8.1 introduced a band-aid fix: a slider that lets you make the size of text and icons bigger, based on a percentage. It works, to an extent — icons and text isn’t need-a-magnifying-glass small any more.

But instead, that slider causes most third-party programs to become fuzzy. Applications like Spotify haven’t been updated to handle the larger asset sizes, so Windows just blows up a smaller version. Just like if you were to blow up a 2-megapixel selfie onto a Times Square billboard, everything appears horribly pixelated.

Even for those apps that scale without pixelation, some things get blown up bigger than others — for example, Chrome’s tabs and navigation bars are horribly oversized, while the pages themselves are the right size.


That’s not explicitly Microsoft’s fault — it provided a solution, in a sense, and app makers have just failed to update their apps accordingly.


Chrome on hi-DPI displays, Windows vs OS X. Notice how gigantic the tabs are in Windows.

But it sure is Microsoft’s problem. Because every time I go look at the screen on my $1200 laptop, all I see is pixelated text, mis-sized icons, and my own tears reflected back at me. It’s bad enough to completely ruin an otherwise-excellent computer for me, drive my Apple-hating ass into an Apple Store, and spend $1500 on a MacBook Pro.


I was hoping, praying, and desperately tweeting Bill Gates that this would change in Windows 10. That Microsoft would introduce some kind of system to make hi-DPI displays usable on Windows 10. I’m not exactly sure what form the fix would take — force app makers into updating their programs, or some clever asset-scaling solution, which is basically what OS X uses, perhaps.


I’m not reaching for the impossible here. Windows 10 don’t-call-’em-Metro apps work just fine on pixel-dense display, because that entire UI was designed from the ground up to work with hi-DPI displays.

Either way, Windows 10 basically does jack shit. There’s a more prominent slider for adjusting the crappy scaling mode, and that scaling mode does work differently on multi-monitor setups, which is something I appreciate as a desktop user. But as someone who just wants to use a Windows laptop with a beautiful screen, it’s as much use as a chocolate teapot.


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As a developer, I find statements like these confusing.

Ignoring the fact that Explorer icons scale completely normally to whatever DPI/percentage you’ve set, there’s a reason your apps look “fuzzy”.

That reason is, those apps are GDI-based, which means they were written using a graphics platform that wasn’t DPI-aware to begin with. They were built from the ground up to be laid out in pixel terms, rendering in a rasterized fashion.

In the days of yore (i.e. pre-win8), there was a different mechanism for scaling old GDI apps. This involved actually having the app itself try to perform the scaling, before rendering, and it did it *poorly*. Fonts looked horrible, some items scaled and some didn’t, things just generally looked like shit.

Microsoft’s solution to this was to add a new scaling mechanism that let the application render at its native 96PPI level, then scale it up. This ensured that everything — *everything* — scaled flawlessly, but the tradeoff is that items become a bit fuzzy, as low-res scaled-up stuff is wont to do.

The other benefit is that in Windows 10, there is a new per-display scaling feature — if you have multiple monitors at different DPIs, apps will scale to the different display DPIs automatically as you move them between displays. There’s absolutely no way that the oldschool GDI scaling would handle this properly.

Basically, unless the developer implements proper GDI scaling himself, or uses a GUI framework that has it built-in (e.g. .NET), this is just the situation you’ll have to deal with, as there simply *is no better solution*. Barring some Gameboy-emulator-style scaling filter, at least, which probably would only serve to make the problem worse.

Old apps and app frameworks simply weren’t designed to be aware of scalable environments.