The future looks very small.

I have a new toy. I didn’t get it because I’m hip, although I am, I got it because we’re trying to prepare Unity 7 on the Trusty Tahr (Ubuntu 14.04 LTS) for the next generation of hardware that will be sitting on everyone’s desk (or lap, or table in the coffee shop) within a few years. I got a laptop with a high-DPI (dots per inch) 4K display and a sensitive touchscreen.

This particular piece of furniture is a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, sporting a 3200×1800 pixel 10-touch touchscreen in a 13 inch form factor. That works out to a pixel density of about 280 pixels per inch, much more refined than my main laptop (a Lenovo ThinkPad T410, 1440×900 at 14 inches) which sits at 120 pixels per inch and the external monitor I have attached to it (a Benq FP22W, 1680×1050 at 22 inches) at 95 pixels per inch. Sure, spec ennui, but it’s germane to the topic here.

The problem is that out of the box, most GUI software assumes it’s running on a display device, regardless of its dimensions, with a dot pitch of 96 dots per inch. It’s true for Microsoft Windows and it’s true for GNU/Linux, although I’ve been out of the Apple Macintosh world long enough to plead ignorance there. I know it’s true of Microsoft Windows because the Yoga 2 Pro came with Microsoft Windows 8.1 preinstalled by the manufacturer, and I had a brief chance to test it out before I got to work. IE displayed web pages in teeny weeny characters, and when I opened COMMAND.COM (or whatever the name of the command console is these days) to create a rescue image, it defaulted to using 8×8 bitmapped fonts. The eyestrain finding the reconfiguration option felt like it caused my corneas to bleed.

We have the same problem in Ubuntu. When I installed a prelease image of Trusty on the Yoga 2 Pro the GRUB2 menu was so tiny I couldn’t read it (bitmapped fonts again). Fortunately, the default was sensible and the system booted OK. Unity 7, of course, was similarly unusable, as was the Terminal, the Browser, and pretty much everything else. Ouch.

The problem is rooted in the fact that it’s an invalid assumption that all display devices have a dot pitch of 96 pixels per inch. I already experience this with my dual monitor setup, but it’s less noticeable with 120 vs. 95 DPI. This is just not a valid assumption.

See, a character in a 12 point font needs to appear to be 12 points. That’s 1 pica. One sixth of an inch. The size of a 12 point character should not vary depending on the resolution of your monitor. There’s a caveat, though, in that when I said ‘appear’ what I meant was at a comfortable viewing distance. Turns out that for the best human interface we do in fact want the absolute size of text to change depending on the viewing distance so that there is a constant angle subtended by the display. Er, that means things that are father away need to be bigger so they seem the same size. Got it? Think: projectors. Turns out people use phones and tablets up close, so smaller is OK, but they use their laptops and desktops farther away so smaller is no good.

This is where I need a diagram as a visual aid, but I’m afraid my drawing skills have rusted out and are at the shop for repairs. If someone wants to contribute one, that’d be great.

So, what we need to do for Unity running on the desktop is to figure out the physical dot pitch for each physical display connected to the system, and calcluate the scaling factor that would convert to a fixed 96 pixels per inch, then scale the fonts by that much. Other metrics need to be expressed in terms of ems (another measure based on the current font size — a term that comes from the days of hot metal) and graphics scaled accordingly.

But wait, we don’t want to scale windows if we don’t have to. We don’t want to waste the “retina” display, we just want text to be readable (and controls to be usable). At this point, we’re looking at making sure the Unity Launcher, the Unity panel, the Quicklists, and the Shortcuts are all usable out of the box on a high DPI display, because I have one and I tell you it’s not too usable right now.

A lot of applications are not going to work perfectly on high DPI, including the browsers and the office suites. We’re thinking of adding some optional window scaling through Compiz to help out with those but time is rapidly flowing and there’s a lot of work to do. Stand by for updates. As always, patches are welcome.