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How to Enable HiDPI Mode in Mac OS X

Posted by Jim Tanous on August 20, 2015

The magic of Apple’s “Retina” displays is that 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 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. If you’re running Mavericks or newer, including the latest El Capitan betas as of the date of this article, 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

Press Return to execute the command and, because this is a “sudo” command, enter your admin password when prompted. Next, reboot your Mac and, upon logging back in, head to System Preferences > Displays.
hidpi os x display preferences
Here, you’ll see the familiar preference window where you can set your resolution and refresh rate. 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 OS X 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:
iMac 1920x1200 native resolutionAnd here’s what HiDPI mode looks like with an effective resolution of 960×600:
iMac 1920x1200 hipdi mode os x
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 OS X 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 OS X, you’ll need to both enter your admin password and reboot your Mac for the change to take effect.

There’s an App for That

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. Examples include ResolutionTab ($1.99, Mac App Store) and 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 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.

7 thoughts on “How to Enable HiDPI Mode in Mac OS X”

Klajd Deda says:
This did nothing for me, mac pro 2010, 10.11.6 with Philips 40″ 4k
When i login, i’m greeted with the largest res, 3840×2160
I have to find the Display Menu on the tool bar and change res after each login.
Very frustrating.
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Stephen Boesch says:
Your screenshot only shows 1920 x 1200. What about 2560×1440? I can’t get El Capitan to show anything higher than 1920×1080 actually – even though I’ve tried connecting two different 1440p monitors via dual DVI cable.
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Kelley Chambers says:
Thank you for the article but I’m very sad to say this did not work for my $1400 2015 MacBook Air (i7). I’m still seeing pixelated text when it should be sharp as a tack on my 4K tv/monitor. Even got an Apple certified adapter for 4K transmission from my MBA… still have bupkis! What’s worse? My $150 2013 Acer Chromebook C720 (hacked with Windows 10 on it now) produces PERFECT text on the same tv/monitor!!!! I am PISSED to say the least.
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Bachsau says:
This allows to use full Retina resolution in a Parallels VM.
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Mario says:
Does this still work on El Capitan? We have a Mac mini that we’d like to connect to a 4K display in a conference room, and the default resolution makes everything tiny. I’m hoping this method will make it easier to see.
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TekRevue says:
Yes, although don’t forget to reboot after using the Terminal command.
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Mario says:
The tip in this article worked for me on the Mac mini connected to a 4K TV. We were able to use a 720p resolution setting with crisp Retina-like text and GUI. The mini is actually running macOS Sierra 10.12.6.
However, the tip doesn’t seem to work on my Late-2013 15″ MBP (Sierra 10.12.6). When I connect it to a standard 1080p TV, and switch to 720p, the GUI and text are still blurry.
I may try one of the apps linked in the article.
Florian V says:
@sumroad:disqus yeah but with more tweaking, i managed to enable HiDpi mode on a Dell external screen (base resolution 2560 x 1440) look so sharp now ! You need to check this post http://www.tonymacx86.com/mavericks-laptop-support/133254-adding-using-hidpi-custom-resolutions-13.html
Reply
Sumroad says:
Will this work when plug-in an external 4K monitor?
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