The Best Linux Desktop Environments for HiDPI Displays

In the age of Apple’s Retina technology and 4k displays, HiDPI support is becoming more of a mainstream thing. This means that modern operating systems have started tweaking their UI so it looks good on bigger, denser displays. Big players like macOS and Windows 10 have been enabling pretty good HiDPI support to combat this. How has Linux been handling this new trend?

For the most part, it varies. Most modern desktops on the Linux platform will have HiDPI support, but which are the best? Here we have compiled a list of the best desktop environments to use with HiDPI displays.

linux-hidpi-elementary-os-pantheon-desktop

The Elementary OS project works very hard to make all software easily accessible to its users. This means all the software, and everything in between, is ready to go without setup. Out of all the modern Linux desktop environments, Pantheon has the best out-of-the-box HiDPI support by far.

The Pantheon treats HiDPI displays as first class citizens. No digging around in the screen settings and selecting an option to enable it. Just install the operating system as normal, and get on with it. Having a feature that works out of the box shouldn’t be something that needs to be bragged about. HiDPI on Linux is usually buried, so this is a nice surprise. Considering a lot of Linux users are looking for a “Mac-like” HiDPI feature, Elementary OS is a good choice.

linux-hidpi-linux-mint-cinnamon-desktop

Since version 2.2 of the Cinnamon desktop environment, support for HiDPI has been wonderful. The scaling for the UI, windows and everything looks great (which can’t be said for desktops like Mate or XFCE). This is good, considering like Elementary OS and Pantheon, Cinnamon is part of an operating system that promises to make Linux easy.

Unfortunately, unlike Pantheon, the HiDPI support doesn’t “just work” and will require the user scale up the user interface so that the Cinnamon desktop looks good on a high density pixel display. To do this, open “Preferences,” then go to “General,” and change the settings so that it is double.

linux-hidpi-gnome-shell-desktop

The Gnome project has been working HiDPI support for displays running the Gnome Shell desktop environment for a long time. Though, (like most Linux desktop environments), the user will need to turn it on manually. It is possible to change the pixel density for large resolution displays directly with Gnome Tweak Tool.

The Gnome Tweak Tool is on every Linux distribution that ships Gnome Shell. Install the tweak tool, open it and click on the “Windows” section of the tool. From here, change the default value of “1” to 2 (for 200% increase), or 3 for a 300% increase in scaling.

linux-hidpi-ubuntu-unity-desktop

Ubuntu’s Unity desktop environment prides itself on being very user-friendly.  The Unity desktop has wonderful HiDPI support, and Unity looks great on higher pixel density displays. However, when it comes to HiDPI support, users might find themselves needing to change the scaling manually. Luckily, Unity, like all of Ubuntu, is very easy to navigate and change settings on.

To enable HiDPI support in Unity, open the Unity dash, search for “display” and press the enter key. This will bring up monitor settings. Select a monitor and locate “scale for menu and title bars.” Drag the slider to 2 or 3 to increase the scaling.

linux-hidpi-kde-plasma-desktop

KDE has a long standing reputation of being infinitely customizable and great for power users looking to change it up. Chances are, if something is irritating or out of place on the K desktop, settings can be changed. HiDPI support is no different. Don’t like how the Plasma 5 desktop looks tiny in 4K? Change a setting and increase the pixel density.

Enabling HiDPI support on KDE is as easy as going to “System Settings,” then “Display And Monitor,” “Display Configuration,” and then selecting “Scale Display.” Change the slider to 2 or 3 to increase the scaling to make the KDE desktop more comfortable on Retina or HiDPI displays.

As technology improves, PC displays will get more and more demanding. Right now the big need on Linux is good 1080p and 4K support, but nobody knows what the future will hold. It is important that the desktop environments on Linux keep up with these technological demands, otherwise those with HiDPI needs will move elsewhere.

13 comments

  1. Has anyone tried a mixed DPI monitor setup? I’m considering a 4K display to go along my WXGA laptop and I wonder how much pain is involved in that.

    • I think your best bet would be distro with the most recent version of gnome.
      My coworker is using dell 4k laptop with Fedora 25 and it has very good hdpi support.
      Im not sure what author refers to when he says “the user will need to turn it on manually.” -> it worked out of the box for us.

  2. I guess its because of its increasing popularity, but for those who have used Linux for a long time? We’re not really interested in “pretty” we’re more concerned with “functional, efficient, logical, and useful”. For myself I have laptops from the “2010/2012” era, that don’t have HiDPI displays, just “ordinary” HD displays…..I don’t think the Firefox web browser is going to look so different on a machine that has HiDPI, the content on the page will be the same, and unless we’re talking about photos or videos,…then most of the stuff you do on a machine that doesn’t have HiDPI, won’t really matter. A Word document still looks the same, as do charts in Excel, an slides in PowerPoint. But I realize there is a market for this kind of thing since a lot of what’s trending today is all based on visuals, (Virtual Reality, gaming on Linux, and movies) so maybe there is some cause for it.

    • Eddie, hi. I have to sort of disagree. I’ve been using Linux on laptops from the pre 1.0 kernel days – and I remember when I first got X running. Made the computer so much more powerful!

      I tend to agree that we’re interested in function, rather than form, but would argue that a HIDPI display is functional – I can see more and do more as a result. I’ve just tried to install Elementary OS on my dell XPs15 (with the high DPI display), and it’s a shame that the install fails (glad I didn’t pay for it) with a grub error – It _looks_ stunning, which is definitely a functional feature for me.

  3. Too bad you didn’t include Budgie. Budgie has very good hi-dpi support as well (I can vouch for that, given the fact that my dad uses it on a hi-dpi display).

    • I’ve found it to be lacking to be honest, the developers noted recently that none of them are using HiDPI displays and that HiDPI support is minimal at best.

  4. Maybe my visual acuity ain’t what it used to be, but I don’t see a benefit proportional to the hype with high DPI displays.

    We’ve 43″ 4K UHD TVs that we use as computer monitors. 3840×2160 gives 4X the display pixels of a 1920×1080 display, but the dpi works out to be something like 104 dpi so nothing “special” is required. Since I can’t resolve the individual pixels at any “normal” viewing distance I don’t see how reducing the screen size to increase the dpi would be useful.

    Having four 1920×1080 document windows open at once is easily twice as good a my previous dual monitor 1920×1200 setup was.

  5. XFCE lets you choose the exact DPI you want
    In configuration window manager theme you can choose “default-xhdpi”
    And in Apparience – Fonts you can select the DPI (170 DPI at 1080p on a 24″ screen that looks like a 720p default one in font size)

    It is not automatic or by default, you have to know they exist to setup it and it would be great if you add it to your article as it is not a well known desktop as your article shows (and I suppose you made your research and did not find this).

    I use Manjaro XFCE, I have other distros installed, as backup and to test with other desktops and I cannot tell you if it is “default XFCE” or a Manjaro addon, but I suppose it is default XFCE.

  6. This is such a cursory and largely empty review, just like most “reviews” these days. GNOME does not support HiDPI on one monitor but not the other – a VERY basic functionality requirement. Do any of the others? Generally I’d say the support for HiDPI on linux desktops is the bare minimum, and more aggravating than useful. I would not advise any linux desktop user to buy a 4K monitor.

    • I have to disagree. I’ve recently updated Ubuntu to 16.04 version and finally everything works/looks properly on my 4k display. I was waiting for this 3 years when I bought that XPS

  7. Whoever wrote this didn’t actually test these DE’s in HiDPI or mixed DPI setups. Yes Unity has a setting to adjust DPI, but not all apps obey it and the title bars don’t adjust with it. If you have to drop resolution for a game and come back up again it messes everything up. KDE is much better, it still sucks at mixed DPI, but you can get all of the apps and the title bars scaled perfectly. Changing resolution doesn’t cause as much havoc, you have to restart apps but not the whole OS.

  8. So tried Linux Mint 18.1 and looks great but the scaling options not so great for a laptop 1080p 15 inch. Normal scaling is too small and double is too big. Really need better incremental adjustments although I guess a person can play around with font size and adjust panel size etc to get what you want under normal scaling. Or drop down resolution on monitor and deal with the fuzzy’s. I know scaling properly is no easy tasks because even Microsoft has struggled with Windows 10 being perfect. Some system menus still look bad after one year.

  9. Listen, it is pointless to talk about 4k desktop support without mentioning how well the desktop manages the applications to look at home on 4k. So what if Plasma has scaling if all the softwear looks like crap after being scaled.

    Don’t waste time with a BS answer unless it contains commentary on how well the softwear works on 4k and how well the DE handles non-4K ready software to make it feel at home.

    Some distros add the DSP settings in the .desktop files automatically. Some distros go that extra step.

    That is what we need to know; not “well this team is working hard…” Please don’t waste people’s time.

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