Posted by Neil Bennett 29 August 2014
How Apple, Adobe, Microsoft and others have let us down over UltraHD and hiDPI screens
It's disappointing when technology fails to live up its promise, like an apple pie that turn out to be 90 per cent pastry and a teaspoon of filling (yeah, I'm looking at you Tesco 'Finest'). The Dell Precision M3800 laptop I'm typing this on has an incredible screen – but you wouldn't know it from most of the ugly, broken-looking apps I use on it. The screen is better even than Apple's Retina Display on its MacBook Pro laptops and capable of showing images and video in detail as rich and beautiful as Daisy Buchanan – but often what's on screen is so miniaturised as to give me a headache and visions of mixture of fuzz and jaggy lines and edges like a Jagermeister hangover.
The same's true for the Dell UltraSharp 24 UltraHD monitor back at IDG Towers – and this is true whether it's plugged into a Mac or Windows PC.
The reason is that software developers and designers haven't got their heads around what are called hiDPI screens for the desktop yet – even while it's the norm now when designing apps for mobile phones and tablets. Yes, there are lot fewer hiDPI and 4K computer screens around than high-density phone screens (as found on all major tablets and smartphones, even ultra-cheap ones like the Tesco Hudl), but this the way things are going, and developers need to get on this now so that this can enter the mainstream without just annoying people.
HiDPI is short for High DPI, with DPI short for 'dots per inch' – which is a measurement of pixel density, and the thing graphic designers refer to when trying to explain to clients why a 100x100-pixel photo can't be printed at A3 without looking like something from Crimewatch. The main thing to know here is that as has screen resolutions have increased and screen sizes have stayed the same – 14.1- and 15.6-inches are still the most popular laptop sizes, as are 21- and 24-inch desktop screens – they've become more detailed. So developers of applications have had to scale up the sizes of text and buttons and other interactive elements so you can read what it's telling you and get it to do what you want without having to click repeated to hit that button you want.
UltraHD and HiDPI screens like this M3800's 3,200x1,800 pixel display add another level of complexity. Where in the past, screen resolutions have grown slowly, this new generation of screens are between 1.5 and twice the density of the previous generation's 1,920x1,080 pixel HD screens. If you create an interface that works well on a 15-inch HiDPI screen, it's going to look childishly oversized on a 15-inch HD screen, so the designers essentially got to create two versions. So no wonder they're taking their time over it.
Developers of Mac apps are much further along – unsurprising as most of the HiDPI screens out there are Retina Displays on MacBook Pros. But here Apple has somewhat scuppered their hard work for Mac Pro owners, as you can't turn a 4K monitor like the Dell into the equivalent of an XX-inch Retina Display without hacking your Mac (though the hack is relatively simple and painless). It's a bit jarring when Mac OS X does something worse than Windows 8 – and I'm hoping this is something Apple fixes in the forthcoming OS X 10.10 San Andreas (the first PC operating system that lets you steal cars and pop a cap in passers-by).
It's a shame then that even the likes of Adobe, whose mighty Photoshop has automatically 'doubled-up' its interface for the Retina Display for over a year has only just added support on the Windows side – after gentle prodding by users who own laptops like this in online forums, Facebook and Twitter – and being on forums and social media, by 'gentle prodding' I of course mean FULL CAPS OUTRAGE!!!. And Photoshop's hiDPI support isn't complete, with occasional tiny dialogs popping up so you have to stick your face close to the screen, garnering odd looks from fellow passengers on the 8.32 from East Croydon. Adobe describes Photoshop's hiDPI support as "experimental", which either means they couldn't club together to buy a Dell XPS 15 and an Ultra HDscreen, or they've put out a half-finished solution just to shut the wingers up.
In short, super-high-resolution, high-density screens are the future for laptops and desktop monitors – just like they are the present for smartphones. So software developers, sort it the fuck out.