The magic of Apple’s “Retina” displays is that macOS (formally called Mac OS X) renders the user interface with four times as many pixels (twice the vertical and twice the horizontal resolutions) as it does on a traditional lower resolution display, giving users the benefits of ultra-sharp text and graphics without making the interface too small to see.
This works great on high-resolution displays like 4K monitors and the new 5K iMac, but what if you could have the benefit of Retina-like sharpness on a non-Retina monitor? Well, thanks to something called HiDPI mode in macOS/OS X, you can, although there’s a pretty big caveat.
HiDPI mode was initially available as an option in Xcode’s Quartz Debug utility, but since Mavericks has been accessible via a Terminal command. If you’re running Mountain Lion or older, check out this article at OS X Daily for instructions on how to enable HiDPI mode in OS X. I.
Note: If you’re using macOS Mojave, the Terminal commands shown below won’t work, so you’ll want to skip down to the part of this article that talks about “third-party applications.”
If you’re using macOS Mavericks or higher, then continue with the steps below:
First, fire up a new Terminal window and then copy and paste the following command:
$ sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/com.apple.windowserver.plist DisplayResolutionEnabled -bool true
Then press Return to execute the command and, because this is a “sudo” command, enter your admin password when prompted.
Most users will likely have the “Default for Display” option checked, which is typically your display’s native resolution. Click Scaled to reveal additional resolutions and you’ll see one or more options at the bottom of the list with “(HiDPI)” appended to their resolutions. Click on one of the HiDPI modes to enable it on your desired display.
Note: If you’re not seeing the HiDPI resolutions listed in System Preferences after using the Terminal command above, try clicking on the “Scaled” radio button while holding the Alt/Option key on your keyboard. This trick reveals additional resolutions for all displays and should list the HiDPI resolutions if they weren’t already visible.
You’ll instantly see everything appear much sharper, but here comes the caveat: your effective resolution is much lower. This works on high-resolution Retina displays because macOS has millions of additional pixels to work with.
If you want “Retina-quality” on a standard-resolution display, you’re going to end up with a much lower effective resolution. For example, here’s what a native resolution of 1920×1200 looks like on a 20-inch iMac:
And here’s what HiDPI mode looks like with an effective resolution of 960×600:
Although it may be difficult to discern on your own display (you can click on each image to view them larger), the HiDPI mode makes macOS and apps look much crisper, but significantly reduces the working resolution of the system.
You therefore likely won’t want to work in HiDPI mode all the time, but once you’ve enabled it with the Terminal command, you can easily switch to it when you want to view a particular app or document with Retina-like quality, or if you want to temporarily make the UI easier to see from a distance without the reduction in quality that accompanies using a “normal” lower resolution, such as when displaying OS X on an HDTV across the room.
When you want to switch back to the default native resolution, just head back to System Preferences > Displays and choose “Default for Display” or your preferred resolution from the “Scaled” list. It doesn’t hurt to leave HiDPI mode enabled as an option in OS X when you’re not using it, but if you want to remove the HiDPI mode resolutions from your “Scaled” resolutions list, just run the following command in Terminal:
$ sudo defaults delete /Library/Preferences/com.apple.windowserver.plist DisplayResolutionEnabled
Just as when you enabled HiDPI mode in macOS, you’ll need to both enter your admin password and reboot your Mac for the change to take effect.
If you’d rather not play around with Terminal commands, there are third-party apps and utilities that can enable HiDPI mode for you, in addition to other display-related functionality.
Here are some examples of third-party software that can enable HiDPI on macOS:
- ResolutionTab ($1.99, Mac App Store) ResolutionTab is a “menu bar app for fast switching between Standard & HiDPI display modes.”
- SwitchResX ($15, shareware). SwitchResX, in particular, offers tons of additional functionality for setting up custom resolutions and refresh rates, but both of these apps can get you in and out of HiDPI mode with just a click.
HiDPI mode certainly isn’t a replacement for a true high-resolution Retina display, but it serves a useful role for those who occasionally need macOS/OS X to look sharper, such as when taking high-quality screenshots, or for users who want a larger and easier to read interface without the blurriness of a standard lower resolution.
If you found this article useful, you might want to check out other TechJunkie Mac articles, including How to Use Only a Dark Menu Bar and Dock in macOS Mojave and How to Edit the Hosts File on macOS (Mac OS X).
Do you have any tips or tricks for turning on HiDPI mode on your Mac? Do you know of any good third party applications other than the two listed above? If so, please tell us about it in the comments below!