After Windows users have watched smartphones, tablets, and even Mac laptops get high-density displays, they’re finally arriving on new Windows laptops. But be careful what you wish for — many desktop apps have problems on high-DPI displays.
Windows has had some support for DPI scaling, but few desktop programs took advantage of it. Now, the Windows desktop has a teething problem — just as it did when Microsoft originally instituted UAC.
Note: This article was originally written for Windows 8, but Windows 10 is even better at dealing with high-DPI displays.
Upgrade to Windows 8.1 or 10
Windows 8.1 or 10 offers much improved display scaling for high-density displays. If you’re using Windows 8, the free updrade to Windows 8.1 is a no-brainer, and Windows 10 is now a free upgrade from Windows 7 or 8.
If you’re still using Windows 7 — well, you shouldn’t use Windows 7 on a high-density display. New laptops with high-density displays will come with Windows 8.1 or 10 — stick with Windows 8.1 or 10 and don’t try downgrading them. Windows 8.1 or 10 can be configured to work much more nicely on a desktop system and has much better support for high-DPI displays.
Windows 8.1 or 10 automatically chooses the correct display scaling settings for each display based on its pixel density and resolution. You can also have independent scaling settings for each display — so if you plug in an external monitor, Windows will automatically choose the correct scaling level. Previous versions of Windows would force the same scaling setting on each connected monitor.
Control System-Wide Display Scaling
If your laptop, convertible, or tablet came with a high-density display, Windows 8.1 or 10 will automatically choose an appropriate scaling setting for it. However, you may still want to modify the scaling setting if you’d like elements on your screen to appear smaller or larger.
To access this setting, right-click the Windows desktop background and select Screen resolution. Click the “Make text and other items larger or smaller” link in the Screen resolution window and you’ll be able to set a custom scaling level for your display.
Unlike on previous versions of Windows, you shouldn’t have to log out and log back in after changing this setting — your change will take effect immediately.
Fix Blurry Fonts in Specific Applications
Many third-party desktop applications have blurry fonts when scaling is used. Windows 8.1 and 10 enables DPI scaling for all desktop apps, and ones that aren’t high-DPI aware will have blurry or fuzzy text, especially when they’re blown up to 200%.
Theoretically, this applies only to “older” applications that aren’t aware of DPI scaling. In practice, this problem applies to many extremely popular desktop applications like Google Chrome and Steam.
To fix this problem, you can disable display scaling for specific apps. To do so, right-click the desktop application’s shortcut and select Properties. If the application is on the taskbar, right-click the taskbar icon, right-click the application’s name, and select Properties.
Click the Compatibility tab and click the “Disable display scaling on high DPI settings” checkbox. After you do, close the application and re-open it.
Fonts will no longer appear blurry in the application, but graphical elements will likely be much smaller. This is a trade-off you’ll have to make. Depending on the program, you may be able to enlarge fonts and other graphical elements in its preferences window to make them appear larger and compensate for the loss of proper scaling,
You could also just disable DPI scaling system-wide by selecting 100% scaling in the control panel screen above. If you did this, everything would appear smaller. Whether this is acceptable depends on how pixel-dense your screen is and how good your eyesight is.
Fix Google Chrome (or Any Other Application)
Note: At this point Chrome should be working much better on high-DPI displays. We’ll keep this section just for posterity, but you can also use the same technique for any application that is broken.
As of version 31 on Windows 8.1, Chrome is currently very broken on high-DPI displays. Hopefully, you’re reading this some time in the future and Chrome has been updated to fix all these problems. If it hasn’t, here’s how we fixed these problems in Chrome 31.
First, go into the Chrome shortcut’s properties window and enable the Disable display scaling on high DPI settings option.
Restart Chrome and everything will appear sharp, but very tiny. This isn’t good enough. Type chrome://flags into Chrome’s location bar and press Enter to access the hidden Flags page.
Scroll down to locate the Touch Optimized UI setting, set it to Enabled, and then relaunch Chrome. (There’s also a HiDPI Support setting in the Flags list — ignore it for now, as it seems to result in many graphical glitches in Chrome’s interface.)
Next, open Chrome’s Settings page. Scroll down and click the Show advanced settings option, then scroll down to the Web content section
Set the default page zoom level to either 150% or 125%, depending on your screen resolution and eyesight. This will make everything on web pages appear larger — not just text, but images and other elements.
Chrome should now be fixed. Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox both appear to work okay without any tweaking needed, so you could also try one of them.
Remember that you can adjust font sizes on each individual web page. To do so, hold Ctrl and press the + or – keys, hold Ctrl and scroll the mouse wheel up or down, or use the zoom options in Chrome’s menu.
Windows 8 or 10-style apps actually scale nicely to high-density displays and offer crisp text and images without any of the bugs you’ll find on the desktop. Using Windows 8 apps would be a great way to avoid all the problems with the desktop — if there were enough apps available. Switching to the new Windows 8 interface will be a non-starter for most people, especially since Microsoft doesn’t even offer versions of its own Office apps for the new interface.