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When I use my Macbook Pro's internal monitor, I have the following options in the Display settings menu:

The best thing here is the Scaled option, which means that I can use the native resolution of the screen and rescale all UI elements bigger or smaller depending on my taste and they still look very sharp.

However, when I connect my Macbook to a 2K monitor, the Scaled option is not available, I can only set the resolution. The Display settings menu looks somewhat like this:

I don't want to change the resolution of my external monitor since I always want to use the native resolution of the monitor to achieve maximum sharpness. However, in my opinion the default UI size of the Mac is a bit too small on a typical 27" 2K screen so I would like to scale all UI elements bigger (I mean all, not just fonts) as it is possible to do using the internal monitor.

According to some screenshots that I found, the scaled menu is available at least for this 4K monitor:

So my question is: Why isn't the scaled option always available when using an external monitor with Mac?

By the way, the equivalent option in Windows is to change the DPI settings, which causes all elements to look bigger and sharp and it works on all displays:

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  • 8
    Very well-formulated question! In late 2017 I am still sad about the same problem :(
    – mitchus
    Nov 7, 2017 at 8:53
  • its 2021 and this is still a thing. My health actually suffers from this issue.
    – IARI
    Jan 18, 2021 at 9:33
  • Hint hold "alt" when using "scaled" resolution selection. Apple are hiding the good resolutions from you. This won't fix the downscaling, but will give you a higher resolution starting point.
    – null
    May 23, 2021 at 5:43
  • After 6+ years, I finally found a working workaround: A virtual display app called BetterDummy: github.com/waydabber/BetterDummy
    – Jarzka
    Nov 8, 2021 at 9:04

8 Answers 8

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The OS X UI is not resolution-independent, the only thing you can do is to change the resolution. Which is essentially what OS X does on HiDPI screens when switching to Larger Text or More Space, but since they are retina displays, you can't see that the resolution in some cases is not native, which you definitively can on non-retina displays.

There is a terminal command to change the interface size (which I can't seem to find right now, but I have tried once in 10.6 I believe), but it doesn't work well, especially in 3rd party applications. Some are absolutely unusable.

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    Oh, you're right. The resolution scaling option does indeed change the resolution of the screen, making everything bigger but not tehnically sharper. :( I think it's sad that Apple has not been able to implement better support for resolution independence. While Windows is neither resolution indepentent, the scaling factor does work better as it's just resizes elements and keeping them (usually) sharp while still using the native display resolution.
    – Jarzka
    Jun 30, 2015 at 18:48
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    "The OS X UI is not resolution-independent" - It's not? If you use the screen zoom function, all the standard UI is scaled perfectly. It's been that way for years. There's also API for developers to make sure their custom UI is drawn correctly at the given scale. Whether third party apps do it correctly or not is another story. Apr 20, 2017 at 13:26
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    @JoshuaNozzi see en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resolution_independence - there is a part explaining the state of Mac OS under "implementation" Apr 20, 2017 at 23:38
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    This is blatantly incorrect. Apple's OS has included support for scaling since 2012, the release of the first Retina display; this is why they look visually sharper than normal displays. Not just because of a higher resolution, but because the UI is also scaled up to match the increase in pixel density, revealing more detail. OS X's 'Scaled' settings change the scale factor but not the resolution. macOS just doesn't offer that setting for some external displays, even though you can still do it with i.e. Terminal commands. It only shows them for what it recognizes as "Retina"/HiDPI displays.
    – Dev
    Aug 27, 2020 at 2:43
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    Retina displays are not magic and do not magically add detail to lower resolutions. You can see this when running apps that don't support Retina displays, which will be scaled up to match (but will be blurry). Example: Non-HiDPI window and HiDPI window. Your claim that the OS simply lowers the resolution and has the display magically add detail "since they are Retina displays" is incorrect.
    – Dev
    Aug 27, 2020 at 2:45
11

The answers from Amida and Ornataweaver are incorrect and should perhaps be removed to avoid confusion around this issue.

The Display settings panels from El Capitan and High Sierra do appear to mean different things, but adjusting the scaling setting in High Sierra does not changing the UI scaling. As in El Capitan, it just changes the resolution of the monitor. Kevin Grabher's earlier reply is correct and remains correct, even under Mojave.

UI scaling was not available in MacOS El Capitan, and it has not been available in any version of MacOS.

Those using high resolution monitors who want to make sure they are using all that screen real estate need to make sure the monitor is set to its native resolution in the Displays control panel, and then adjust the size of the Dock and the Finder icons to something usable. There is no way to modify the Menubar text size.

If you are using a high resolution screen with a laptop, you will have to readjust the Dock and Finder icons when the monitor is disconnected, then set them again when you are back using the monitor. It's kind of a pain.

I cannot understand why UI scaling is still not available in MacOS, especially at a time when all sorts of display sizes and resolutions are becoming common, but this is where we stand as of January, 2019.

I would love to see an app that made this process a little less painful. It'd be nice to have something that detected the monitor being connected or disconnected and made these changes automatically.

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  • I wonder if the missing scaling option has something to do with the legacy UI code. If everything was hardcoded as pixel based, it can be difficult to make to resizable and still look good (that would also explain why the HiDPI mode makes everything exactly twice as big). However, this is just speculation. Anyway, even if this thread is now over 3 years old, it seems that people still find this thing confusing.
    – Jarzka
    Jan 24, 2019 at 17:09
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    This is so disappointing. Even Linux (GNOME and KDE) are beginning to support HiDPI screens and scale factors. Jul 15, 2021 at 21:03
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    OMG this is pathetic. Windows has had this for 15 years. If this is not fixed by the time I buy a new computer, the new computer will be a Windows PC.
    – Flavien
    Sep 29, 2021 at 8:53
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You can use the app RDM to scale any monitors but honestly it is not perfect for 1080p monitors because 1280 HiDPI is designed for 2K monitors like the internal one. On my 60" 1080p monitor it looks a big blurry everywhere, so much worse than the native scale mode while the font does look too small. So I would actually just prefer having bigger fonts on 1080p monitors.

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    RDM is fantastic, it's exactly what I was looking for.
    – Magnus
    Mar 9, 2020 at 21:53
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    This is an amazing gem of a tiny piece of software! It's available on Homebrew: brew cask install avibrazil-rdm
    – trevorsky
    Mar 17, 2020 at 19:14
  • Github repo: github.com/avibrazil/RDM
    – undefined
    Feb 4, 2021 at 20:11
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In the Display preferences hold down Option and then click on scaled. It will show additional resolutions.

You may need to use CMD + F1 to refresh the display.

Also, you can turn on mirror display to test resolutions before applying them.

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    wow, this is actually a far better option to rely on. i hate to decrease the resolution, but still it helps to go a bit down rather than going all the way down to some horrible resolution
    – ruhaib
    Nov 6, 2020 at 18:07
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This depends on the OSX version you are using.

On a MacBook Pro late 2013 with El Capitan, I can change the resolution but not the scaling.

Display option with El Capitan

On a MacBook pro mid 2015 with High Sierra, I can change the UI scaling like you wish to do.

Display option with High Sierra

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    Hint hold "alt" when using "scaled" resolution selection. Idiots at Apple are hiding the good resolutions from you. This won't fix the downscaling, but will give you a higher resolution starting point.
    – null
    May 23, 2021 at 5:45
  • This does not actually change UI scaling. It just hides the resolution drop-down and instead shows little icons for bigger or smaller text. If you select one of the choices shown for "larger text" or "more space", and then check the actual screen resolution, you can see that all that happened was a change to the screen resolution. The new resolution was 'scaled' to the native resolution, but UI elements were not actually changed or scaled. I'm not saying this is good or bad, I'm just saying that nothing has really changed, they just present the choices with a new interface.
    – troyfolger
    Aug 27, 2021 at 22:04
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It seems that it depends on the model of the mac, instead of the OS. And the monitor. https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT206587

It might be a marketing strategy to allow this feature on certain brands. My MacBook is retina, so it has "HiDPI mode" capability. Yet apple doesn't allow me to use this ready feature. They certainly know about it.

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I had success with RDM as well to sync my 1080p monitor to my 1440p mointor. Though i have a bit pixelation of text on 1080p screen because of less pixel density. Are anyone aware of a way to blur a 1080p screen so the pixelation is more smooth. I would imagine a tiny blur might be able to improve it.

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I have just run into this problem switching from a Dell laptop that blew up to a new 2019 Mac Book Pro.

On Windows, I could use my 4k external monitor and scale some elements up and it worked most of the time very nicely.

I really think it is upsetting not being able to use my monitor at the full resolution without everything being absolutely tiny.

I have just found a script that supposedly can at least give me more scaled options so I can get an as high resolution as possible...but it still won't be 4k!

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  • Could you add that script to the answer to help others too ? See How to Answer for great suggestions on answering :)
    – anki
    Jan 17, 2020 at 14:41

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