Pixel Scaling: Why Your Old Favorites Look Worse on New Displays

Pixel Scaling Explained Featured Image

Pixel scaling refers to the process of scaling pixels to fit a larger-resolution image. Some form of pixel scaling is present in nearly all of the content you stream on a daily basis, especially if you’re using a 1440p, 4K, or other high-resolution monitor.

What makes pixel scaling a bad thing? It isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – if no pixel scaling was present on modern displays, almost all content would look shrunken!

Sometimes, though, pixel scaling can be a bad thing – especially on modern displays playing older content. Let’s talk about why.

Why does pixel scaling visually impact older content more than newer content?

Pixel scaling in and of itself doesn’t make content look bad – what does, however, is uneven pixel scaling. Uneven pixel scaling is common when displaying older content on newer displays due to the low resolution not matching the modern high-fidelity display. Beyond this, you also run into the issue that even with proper pixel scaling, a low-resolution image is simply going to look less refined than a high-resolution image.

Why CRTs look better than you remember

Now, the main reason why pixel scaling is an issue at all is because these days, all content must be scaled to native resolution before playback on the display. This is because pixels are physical objects in modern displays, which all have to be lit for a full-screen image to display. If the image doesn’t meet or exceed native resolution, or fall into quarter-res, uneven pixel scaling is inevitable.

Pixel Scaling Explained Lcd Layout Example
The physical pixels on an LCD display

Switch over to CRTs, and suddenly this isn’t an issue – and non-native content looks much better now too! While CRTs lack the extreme fidelity of modern 4K displays, what CRTs do have is the ability to display non-native content with ease. This is because image projection in a CRT works more like a projector. The individual pixels are no longer physical objects but are instead being projected onto the screen.

Pixel Scaling Explained Crt Gaming Example
CRTs remain in frequent use by fighting game communities everywhere

In addition to better handling of low-resolution content, CRTs also tend to be a lot better at removing input latency than modern displays, especially modern TVs. This is why CRTs remain a favorite in the fighting game scene, as many games require frame-perfect inputs for certain actions. A modern high refresh rate monitor can be pretty good in this regard, too.

What can I do to fix poor pixel scaling?

What can you do to fix this problem if you’re experiencing it?

It depends on your use case and the issue you’re having.

If you’re dealing with standard-definition content from old DVDs, game consoles, or VHS, you’re in a tight spot. Besides the obvious contender of going back to a CRT TV or monitor for these devices, you can also look into something like the mCable, which will add extra image processing and anti-aliasing to soup up the image. For older game consoles, emulating at a higher resolution in something like RetroArch can also be a way to improve the quality of those games on modern displays.

Pixel Scaling Explained Integer Scaling Example

If you’re attempting to play 2D games on a PC and notice that they look blurrier than they should, chances are you’ll need to enable something called integer scaling in your AMD, Nvidia, or Intel graphics settings. Integer scaling ensures that all pixels are scaled as close to perfect as possible, which means you may not get a fullscreen effect but will get the visually sharpest experience.

As a last-ditch resort, you may also want to look into a “Just Scan” or similar setting on your display that will simply show the raw footage at its intended resolution, which should look fairly sharp but may not fill your screen.

If none of the measures listed help, then it’s time to start looking into higher-resolution versions of the content that is suffering from poor scaling. For instance, you may want to look for Blu-Ray alternatives of your favorite DVD/VHS movies if you want the best viewing experience on a modern display.

Image credit: Jtalledo, Local Tournament, Integer Scaling Image l i

Christopher Harper
Christopher Harper

I'm a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.

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