Microsoft: Windows 8 will support retina-style displays, too

Microsoft has big display plans for Windows 8. Now we just need to see the PCs and tablets that actually sport the higher pixel densities the Softies are touting.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft isn't going to stand by and let Apple take all the pixel-density kudos, as is evident from a March 21 post on the "Building Windows 8" blog.

David Washington, a senior program manager on the Windows 8 User Experience team, explained in more depth the choices Microsoft made in enabling its coming operating system to scale to differently sized and more pixel-rich screens. (He also mentioned Apple and the iPad by name in his post, which might be a first for any of the Building Windows 8 posts.)

The Softies said back at the Build conference in September 2011 that the minimum screen resolution that Windows 8 would support was 1024X768. (The resolution must be 1366X768 to enable the "Snap" feature, however.)  By selecting a hard minimum, Microsoft officials said they could insure that developers could use this as a baseline to insure all their navigation, controls and content would fit on a screen. Additionally, according to this week's new blog post, Microsoft's data shows that "only 1.2% of active Windows 7 users have screens with a resolution of less than 1024x768."

It's not just screen resolution that plays into how an operating system and apps look as they scale; pixel density -- the number of pixels in a physical area described in dots per inch (DPI) or pixels per inch (PPI) -- matters, too.

Washington said many of the coming Windows 8 tablets will have pixel densities of "at least 135 DPI," with some HD tablets and quad-XGA tablets going as high as 190 DPI and 253 DPI, respectively.

"Pixel densities can increase even more on lesser aspect ratios and smaller screens as we see in the new iPad," Washington noted, which sports a retina screen displaying 234 PPI, or twice the pixel density as the iPad 2, on a screen with a resolution of 2048x1536. (Apple calls these pixelly-dense displays 'retina displays.')

More from Washington's post:

"Some might be curious about the new iPad screen. For this screen, Apple has chosen a scale factor of 200%. The new screen has twice the pixel density (132 PPI to 234 PPI) on the same size screen. Because iOS and developers only need to support the predefined resolutions, they only need to design for this one additional scaling factor. In the case of iPad 2 compared to new iPad the 200% scaling factor means that what you see on 1024x768 is exactly what you see on the new resolution, only sharper because more pixels are used (as in the image of the app above). Additionally, on higher pixel-density screens like the new iPad, developers for games and other performance-critical apps may decide the right balance between letterboxing and running at a lower fidelity to deliver the best experience (frame rate, for example)."

In the case of Windows 8, with multiple OEMs building PCs and tablets with many different screen sizes, Metro-style app developers will need to "make sure images look great on each of the scale percentages," Washington said. Users, IT administrator and OEMs won't have to worry about doing anything proactively, however, Washington said, as Windows 8 will implement proper scaling "automatically," he said, supporting three scale percentages: 100% when no scaling is applied; 140% for HD tablets; and 180% for quad-XGA tablets.

Windows SuperSite's Paul Thurrott has a few critiques and questions regarding Microsoft's display-scaling approach, noting that users of Desktop apps will likely see few if any changes with Windows 8. His conclusion:

"Windows is just never going to be as simple and elegant as the iPad, and that's particularly true in this (high-density display) area. Windows' diversity of devices, as always, remains both a blessing (choice) and a curse (inconsistency)."

Agree? If not, why not?

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