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I am using an iMac 5k display. The system display font is really too small but the only way the system gives, the casual operator, to change the size of the system display font is to reduce the screen resolution. This frustrates me since I have a 5k screen and I want to use it for fine lines and large text/fonts simultaneously.

Another solution is to put my nose up against the screen or wear reading/computer glasses – these solutions are not what I seek.

I would imagine that there is a way to change this font size setting by using the console/terminal.

Does anyone know how to do that and would you be so kind as to share the information?

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    You describe a situation that's a little more simple than the reality on MacOS. Each app gets to read the hints on overall UI sizing, but you will need to make changes on an app by app basis - like Safari zooming in or the same key shortcut in terminal to zoom the content if you like the overall resolution of 5k. If you change the font / text size under an app, UI layout breaks and controls break and text will overlap. Also, I slightly edited the language - I hope it attracts many thoughtful responses to a clear desire for nuanced control over the UI. +1
    – bmike
    Jun 6, 2020 at 10:13

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A not universal subset of user interface fonts can be changed while keeping the actual resolution the same. (Note that 'the Apple-sanctioned way' is detailed in bmike's answer.)

This effect is limited, not always a good idea, but easily achieved with the free tool:

TinkerTool.

An illustration of the capabilities:

Default values: enter image description here enter image description here

'Tinkered values': enter image description here enter image description here

Bigger 'tinkered values', also showing the limits of this method even in those applications that will respect these choices:

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This solution seems to be most useful if screen real estate is of great concern – like on a laptop – and 'the Apple-way' of scaling only offers 'not fine enough' choices for a user. For example if you prefer the smaller UI elements of a 'higher resolution' but would then need some slightly bigger fonts to avoid eye strain.

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    Great answer. I personally love zoom, get how the 1x//2x/3x rendering works technically so I can see which apps are programmed to take advantage of how the system lays out labels, text widths and makes the UI usable with text elements. But I also get many people have really bad experience coming to macOS from with other OS and “resolution” being the wrong name for what is being asked - to control the appearance and avoid illegible content.
    – bmike
    Jun 7, 2020 at 11:37
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    Thanks very much. That looks like a good option. Jun 7, 2020 at 12:55
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    My understanding is that TinkerTool is primarily an interface over defaults write commands. If that applies here, it would be very good to know what those commands are, so users don't necessarily need to install TinkerTool. Dec 4, 2020 at 14:01
  • @bmike You don't get it at all. It's not that other OSes have got it wrong, it's that MacOSX has got it wrong - on the same monitor, with (what MacOSX calls "Looks like") default resolution (1920x1050 on 23'', 2560x1440 on 27" monitor) the fonts are nicely readable, whereas on MacOSX they are ridiculously tiny. That's the problem. Jun 14, 2021 at 6:40
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    Thanks @MarekPříhoda I was sloppy in my comments. The point is I get how bad an experience the transition is to macos. Not that you or anyone else is wrong to expect things or need to wrangle this quickly and clearly. Is my comment better now?
    – bmike
    Jun 14, 2021 at 11:25
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There's no simple way to enlarge text across the board and not also affect the scaling. Worse, if you change the size without the app or system knowing, menus and labels will collide and clip. Smart apps know that you have 5k resolution and that the UI is scaled up and still draw fonts and lines crisply so the down side to reducing “resolution” is mitigated and in some cases eliminated letting you use resolution as a proxy for default font size.

Apple glosses over this distinction in the technical details behind this in the user guide, but adjusted the resolution of your primary display is the biggest lever you have to manage text size globally.

Set the resolution for your primary display
1. On your Mac, choose Apple menu > System Preferences, click Displays, then click Display.
2. Select Scaled, then select one of the options.


Next once you are happy with the size of the UI (dock / menu bar, etc...) and observe that other elements like lines, fonts, gradients are rendered with higher fidelity than the “resolution” allows, then go to the Accessability features to set system wide zoom and hover text. These further boost apps that aren’t on board with taking hints from the resolution and to convince yourself of quality of the rendering.

Lastly, you might want or need to make changes on an app by app basis for apps that don’t follow Apple’s system wide visibility and font sizing controls. As mentioned in the comments - the raw resolution never changes and the controls "hint" at what factor and detail to draw major aspects. Some apps respect this well, others you will need to use the zoom controls and hope they persist your adjustments across documents and when you quit those apps.

  • Safari uses zoom well and persists it per tab/window well.
  • Terminal app also uses zoom well and persists it per tab/window/shell well.

In addition to app specific zooming, Accessibility has a system zoom that is very responsive and powerful if you need to keep all the UI super detailed / small and zoom in on areas from time to time or semi-permanently to get larger view on apps that don't scale well to full retina resolution.

Zoom controls on macOS

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    Thanks for your answer... Yes but that reduces the display resolution which is not what I want to do. I want the increased system font size without compromising on the resolution. This is easy to do in Linux but OSX seems to not want you to have this option out of the box... Jun 6, 2020 at 10:03
  • You're welcome @Alexthecrate - the resolution isn't strictly reduced as you say. Apple has 1x and 2x and 3x resolution images embedded, so you still get super high resolution elements and control (in fact all 5k pixels are still used for fonts and the like) when you "decrease" the resolution. Use the zoom tool to inspect pixels in the Apple menu as you "decrease" the resolution. Yes the overall impression is less data is rendered, but the core resolution remains the same on all settings.
    – bmike
    Jun 6, 2020 at 10:11
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    Thanks again. I appreciate that the screen is still using all its pixels but it is effectively dropping the resolution and so there is less room on the screen. This is what I want to avoid. I am getting the impression that this may not be possible with OSX like so many other things... hmmm Jun 6, 2020 at 10:35
  • There is no way way to do what you seek, I fear @Alexthecrate Two good news, 1. Everyone is still free to answer here with a better one than mine. 2. You can use the zoom tools and learn how Apple apps make it easy to zoom and perhaps find some middle ground with most apps giving you exactly what you seek even though the OS can't trivially change just font sizings under the control of each app.
    – bmike
    Jun 6, 2020 at 11:29
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One big benefit (pun intended) of a super high resolution monitor on a relatively small screen is the increase in dpi. The beloved Retina display is not just the product of high resolution, but benefits from using ‘HiDPI’.

The bottom line, keep your screen at the high resolution you paid for, enjoy uniquely crisp and clear fonts.

Here’s the outline:

  1. Enable the feature by setting the register using your terminal (sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/com.apple.windowserver.plist DisplayResolutionEnabled -bool true)
  2. Reboot
  3. Change the display to ‘scaled” (same place you control resolution)
  4. Depending on your system, you should see options for changing the font size, or HIDPI setting beside each resolution option.

The last step changes how many dots you want to use to draw a font. For instance, if the norm is to use 12 x 12 dots to draw a character, the HiDPI feature will draw it using 24 x 24. That means your nose can move away from the screen for two reasons: larger font and because you haven’t taken down your resolution, super crisp rendering of each letter.

- E

PS: I used the word “relatively”. Retina displays use about 220dpi (the iPhone is above 300 dpi, or PPI). The iPhone “magic” comes from the density more than the “resolution” per se. I have a 4K monitor. I chose the smallest monitor I could find with 4K. Yes, smallest. I wanted “crisp”; that meant I wanted the highest density of dots possible. My 27”, 4K monitor has a dpi 168 (or PPI). A big, “crisp” improvement over 3440 x 1440 34” at about 100 dpi.

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If you use Apple's preferred scaling options, that will not decrease the fine-ness of fine lines.

Adjusting the Retina scaling does not reduce the pixels of the screen display, it just uses more of them to display some items. But it can still draw a 1 pixel thin line at the 5K density.

Also, you mention that you don't want to wear reading glasses: have you run a diagnostic on the wetware?

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  • If you recommend the OP to run a diagnostic on the wetware, then I would reccomend you to run a diagnostic on your brain, ysf Jun 14, 2021 at 6:45
  • @MarekPříhoda Straining your eyes when you need glasses can cause permanent damage. Do you have a helpful comment?
    – benwiggy
    Jun 14, 2021 at 7:06

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