All the talk these days is of the new iPad and its magical screen. Apple isn’t the only one who can do that, you know. In fact, most display makers are looking forward to post-HD resolutions as one of the big selling points of the next generation of displays. Other tablets are already approaching iPad levels of pixel density and it would be foolish of the likes of Google and Microsoft not to be planning for it.
Fortunately, Microsoft is well aware of the trend and has plans in place for dealing with pixel-dense displays (or “Retina” to the vulgar).
The specifics are laid out with no quarter given to laymen in this post at Building Windows 8. The gist is that they have analyzed the expected range of display sizes and resolutions, and have identified a sort of “Goldilocks Zone” for the three general classes of resolutions: standard, HD, and quad-XGA (2560×1440). Inside this zone, text and UI elements aren’t blown up to cartoonish proportions or shrunk down to a size that’s frustrating to touch.
In the first case, buttons and text will be shown with no scaling. In the second case, they’ll be 140% normal size (i.e. elements 100 pixels wide will become 140), and in the third, 180%. Fifty and 100 percent increases apparently were not convenient to the Windows 8 team, though whether they decided on these numbers because of, say, certain sub-pixel scaling methods, or because 50 and 100 were too big, it is not known.
The alternative is a resolution-independent continual resize that would render every button and character the same size regardless of the size or resolution of the display. Unfortunately, the infrastructure is simply not in place for that: the way text is stored and rendered, the size and restrictions of web content, and much more prevent this more advanced solution. It’s on the way, but for now these scaling milestones will have to do.
The author of the post, Microsoft UX team member David Washington, admits that high-density screens make many familiar UI elements, such as pulldown menus and small close boxes, “increasingly burdensome.” A new ecosystem of gestures and visual elements will succeed them, presumably — Metro, for instance.
Lastly, Windows 8 thoughtfully includes native support for the SVG filetype as a development asset, so you can build good-looking scaling into your app more easily than with multiple or high-resolution bitmap images. How easy it will actually be to build for what is certain to be an incredibly diverse hardware ecosystem, we’ll soon find out.
The iPad (which gets a mention in the post as well) currently has the best screen on the market, but that’s an advantage that likely won’t last out the year. Whether Windows 8 and its apps will utilize equally well the promise of high pixel-density screens is yet to be determined, but it’s good to see the future of personal displays and devices being planned for and executed on by the majors.