Scaling Windows - The DPI Arms Raceby Brett Howse on April 15, 2014 2:00 PM EST
The Old Way - Windows XP Scaling
As mentioned, Windows XP does have support for higher density displays, but the experience is rarely very good. Changing the DPI settings in Windows XP increases the font size and OS elements, making everything larger on the screen. It works up to a point, but if the system DPI setting is too high, many applications have issues. Even in XP, there’s an API that allows a developer to check what the fonts are set at and scale their forms as needed to make it work with that ratio of font. However, if an application doesn’t check the font DPI level, there are often problems: text boxes overlap UI elements, form fields have text spill out the top or bottom of the field, and other nasty ugliness.
Even the OS doesn’t scale very nicely. The minimize and close buttons become very large, title bars are very text heavy in look, and system tray icons are simply scaled up in size giving an aliased and blurry look to them. It’s technically a workable solution, but without extensive developer buy-in, it likely causes as many (or more) problems than it solves.
But Windows XP is now old news, and due to the low PPI displays of the time, it was generally not an issue. DPI scaling in XP was normally used if a person felt the text on the screen was too small, but in almost all cases a better solution was to simply lower the resolution of the monitor, even if it introduced blurriness to the LCD image.
A New Way - DPI Virtualization
Windows Vista introduced a new concept for dealing with applications that are not DPI aware – DPI Virtualization. Below 120 DPI the system would continue to utilize the XP scaling algorithm, but when the DPI settings in Windows are set above 120 DPI, DPI Virtualization is enabled. Any DPI-unaware application that request the DPI setting from the operating system with DPI Virtualization enabled are simply told that the DPI is set at 96 DPI – the base level. Windows then renders the application off screen and then dynamically upscales the application to whatever DPI setting is selected by the user.
While this certainly fixes the issue with fonts falling out of text boxes, it introduces some blurriness to the application. This is not an ideal situation, since the user experience is somewhat compromised. To get around this, Microsoft developed an API to declare that the application is in fact DPI aware on its own. Developers can call SetProcessDpiAwareness to declare that their application is DPI aware, and if so, Windows will not perform any scaling of the application. It’s then up to the application developers to decide how best to handle “non-standard” DPI settings.