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I have an older iMac, without a true retina display. I want to be able to scale the user interface like the retina macs do, but I can't seem to find a way to do that. screenshot from Apple Support

Does anyone know a way to trick the computer into thinking it has a retina display, so the options are available in the Display PrefPane? That, or some utility that might let me access those settings.

Note, I'm not really talking about HiDPI mode, I've done that, it only has the option of pixel doubling. I want the variable scaling that is available on true retina displays.

I'm running mountain lion on a 2.5 GHz i5 iMac, about 1.5 years old.

Edit 9 years later: This question seems to confuse people into thinking it's about screen resolution, but it's only about interface scaling. I'm pretty convinced by now it's not easily possible, but answers talking about resolution are missing the point.

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  • Well variable scaling is just a fancy way of adjusting the DPI, right?
    – duci9y
    Jan 7, 2013 at 9:05
  • Um, I suppose? but enabling HiDPI mode doubles the pixels with no other options, whereas the retina displays give a sliding scale as to how big you want the interface elements to be. Jan 7, 2013 at 14:58
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    @MarkHubbart With quickresapp.com you can set your resolutions to things you've never seen before, including a HiDPI mode, which is as close you can get to a Retina Display on a standard computer.
    – Simon
    Sep 15, 2013 at 15:16
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    Um thanks, MarketingBot, for that comment that's actually clipped directly from the app's website. Pretty sure I made it clear that HiDPI isn't a solution :/ Pixel doubling (which is what HiDPI mode does) on my 1920x1080 display leaves me with a minuscule 960x540 screen area; too small for most things. Sep 22, 2013 at 21:24
  • Any updates on this with the latest Maverick?
    – yurkennis
    Oct 23, 2013 at 14:47

6 Answers 6

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I don't see how this would be possible, its a hardware limitation.

The 15in Retina comes with a resolution of: 2880x1800 but the resolution is set to 1440x900 by default and has its pixels doubled.

That is why when you do doubling of pixels you get a smaller resolution because there is only so many pixels on the screen in which everything can be displayed.

The Retina mac's scale the UI by removing the pixel doubling. The screen it self has a high densit of pixels, meaning that a particular window can take up a smaller area by filling in those pixels.

However with a 1080p there are far fewer pixels/lower density and it is not physically possible to scale things to fit.

Theoretically it is possible but would require real time rendering of everything which would take time + processor usage. As compared to the Retina which has a hardware solution.

It is not the best explanation but I hope it delivers the point. --EDIT

UI is designed based on pixels, so a button is placed on a form and it dimensioned to take up say 100 pixels wide and 20 pixels high. On a lower resolution screen it will look much bigger because of the density of pixels, as compared to a higher resolution where the user has the option to allow the UI to take up single pixels so its small or more than 1 pixel so it looks big.

So with that 100 x 20 pixel button, on a 19in screen: At a resolution of 100 x 20 it would take up the whole screen because there are only 100 pixels for the UI to be able to fill up horizontally and 20 vertically. If you had a higher resolution screen the UI is able to take up less space because of the higher pixel density. So the same monitor with a resolution of 400 x 80 will have the button take up a quarter of the screen, and if you allow it to double its pixel then the button will take up 200 x 40 pixels, looking bigger but better/more crisp because of the extra pixels.

That is why higher resolution screens have smaller UI, because the pixels are super close together and theres a lot of them allowing us to decide how we want it scaled, ie. how many pixels we allow for each designed pixel.

When Developers design UI they set anchors on everything, that is why when you change the size of the form it dynamically adjust the size of the buttons, boxes etc.

When I say hardware rendering I mean the pixels are placed per pixels or simply multiplied by the current ratio. So at full resolution 1 pixel is 1 pixel on the screen. At a different resolution 1 pixel might be allocated 2 pixels.

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  • Are you really sure it's a hardware limitation? I had simply assumed that the scaling was done via software in the GPU. As for the screen real estate argument, retina macs have the option to scale at ratios close to 1.25x, if you choose a small amount of magnification. This would put a 1080p screen at a virtual 1536x864 size, which is actually quite reasonable, and still better than 720p. If you can show that there truly is some sort of hardware limitation (which seems unlikely to me) I will gladly accept and upvote your answer. Mar 13, 2016 at 6:18
  • @marcuserronius almost certain, it is the limitation of the screen and the number of pixels on it. I will draw out an examples tomorrow that should prove to be a good explantation.
    – Rio
    Mar 14, 2016 at 4:36
  • @marcuserronius Added a bit more, I am personally not satisfied with my explanation but will keep adding as necessary lol.
    – Rio
    Mar 15, 2016 at 13:39
  • Not a hardware issue. The slider available on retina displays (as shown in the question) is show at 2:1 by default also allows for 4:1, 3:1, 1.5:1 ie modes other than 200% zoom/hiDpi mode. Sure there may be scales at which the interface may be fuzzy, but this is different from running at a non-native resolution as scaling is done on the cpu/gpu, not on the monitor.
    – Thurstan
    Oct 28, 2018 at 6:42
  • It is not a hardware limitation. I currently run my 1080p displays at 1440p using switchresx to decrease the size of everything on the screen, so there is more space. Dec 5, 2018 at 1:47
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This article https://www.portableone.com/Tech-News/Enabling-Retina-mode-on-non-Retina-displays-here-s-how shows how to enable 2x DPI scaling on non retina displays. Just execute this from the terminal and restart:

sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/com.apple.windowserver.plist DisplayResolutionEnabled -bool true

After restarting a new HiDPI resolution is available in the preferences:

display preferences

Confirmed to work on macOS Monterey.

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  • Again, HiDPI is not what I was looking for, as it only offers 2x scaling. I appreciate the attempt, but it does say that in the question, and in my responses to the other people who suggested HiDPI mode Sep 7 at 16:34
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In the Displays System Preference pane, non-Retina displays will still offer at least one scaled resolution.

enter image description here

There's a "Show All Resolutions" checkbox which shows other sizes. (Alt-clicking on the "Scaled" button would also reveal more choices on some OS versions.) Apps such as SwitchRes may be able to show even more.

However, of course, scaling a non-Retina display is just going to make everything very large, with the related reduction of 'actual' Desktop real-estate.

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It's impossible to do it natively. But if you're still interested to do it via a third party app, you could use resolutionator and turn on the "silly resolutions" in the settings.

The reason that Apple didn't implement this function for non-retina models is because that text would not be readable anymore using these resolution. Retina displays have high DPI (pixel density pixel/inch^2). Retina display doubled the pixel count both horizontally and vertically, which means 4 times of the non-retina pixel count. Now say you want to display a 1500x1500 image, it might look big in the non-retina display but it would look tiny on the Retina display due to the high resolution (in fact everything is 2 times smaller) - and that's why Apple doubled all UI elements in size, rendering what you see on the display the same size of the non-retina ones while still being sharper. What you're asking, the "more space" option, is merely an option from Apple to opt out from the UI element up-scaling.

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  • As said, I wasn't looking for a solution to changing the resolution. I was looking for only the interface scaling. I understand that there is probably no good answer for this question, but if the answer is telling me alternative ways to set the resolution, it's missing the topic. Jun 2 at 18:56
  • Also, the "More Space" option is not opting out of pixel doubling, it controls multiple levels of scaling the interface, ie. 1x, 1.25x, 1.5x, 2x, 2.5x... and that's the part I was interested in. Jun 2 at 18:58
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No, its missing the requisite hardware support.

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AFAIK the entire OS X UI is actually fully scalable. Much like how pdfs function. If that is true, it should be possible (theoretically) to enable Retina scaling on any display.

I'd actually like that feature as well on my 25" QHD monitor.

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  • Welcome to Ask Different! I can't quite tell if this is a definite answer or a speculation that would be better served as a comment. If it is an answer, consider rewriting so that it gives a definite and concise answer to the the original question.
    – Allan
    Jan 3, 2017 at 0:53

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