Gnome desktop & HD scaling tricks

Updated: August 13, 2021

Linux desktop usage problems and challenges come in many guises and forms. Then, you find yourself with monitor that offers HD resolution (or higher), only shown on a relatively small canvas of pixels, e.g.: a laptop, and you gain a whole new set of problems and challenges.

For a few years now, I've contended with the topic of HD displays, HD scaling and such. My first encounter was back in 2014, with my IdeaPad Y50-70 laptop, which has a 4K 15.6-inch display. Then and there, Unity handled scaling all right, better than Windows 8.1. Fast forward to my Slimbook Pro2. This is where things got rather serious, as I started using this laptop for day-to-day productivity work. In fact, the Plasma desktop is truly the only environment that offers really good scaling results. So the question is, if you prefer Gnome, what options do you have vis-a-vis HD scaling?

Teaser

Full-integer choices & font scaling

The big problem with the display scaling in Gnome is that, by default, the user only has a choice between the standard 100% scale and supersized 200%. This works well for say 4K displays, perhaps, but for anything else, the end result goes from tiny to HUGE. The alternative is to tweak font size and scale.

Default scaling options

Enter Gnome Tweaks

To be able to change font settings, you need Gnome Tweaks - no default tool is available. I've already outlined the necessity for this utility in tons of my articles, like say Fedora 33 tweaks, CentOS 8 perfect desktop guide, or the more recent Rocky Linux 8 guide. Grab the tool, launch it, and then go the Fonts category in the sidebar.

Tweaks, fonts, default

What you see in the example above isn't necessarily what you will see in your specific Gnome desktop. Here, I'm running a customized Alma Linux desktop, tweaked much like the other systems above, with Ubuntu fonts instead of Cantarel, new icons and whatnot. But that doesn't change the exercise. If you cannot use the display scaling option, you can increase the font size and/or the scaling factor for the fonts. The last option gives you a high degree of granularity - you can use individual percentage points.

The end result will be quite similar. With font size, you can control individual elements - like the window interface or title. With scaling, you can "blow" up all fonts, regardless of the size. You can also combine the two methods.

Font size increased

Scaling set to 125

The downside of this approach is that the interface itself does not change - the windows retain their size, and this affects any buttons, panels, and alike. This means that you can make text more legible, but you won't necessarily have a more ergonomic UI to work with.

Experimental fractional scaling

Now, there's more we can do. Technically, Gnome does support some level of fractional scaling - quarter point increments. You can then use values like 125%, 150%, 175%, and alike, which should offer you the desired level of flexibility. Combined with font scaling, you ought to be able to find a comfortable setting. This is not as good as what the Plasma desktop does, but then, it's still a decent thing.

To turn the experimental option on, open a terminal and type (as your user):

gsettings set org.gnome.mutter experimental-features "['scale-monitor-framebuffer']"

I tested this in Alma Linux, which is based on RHEL 8. So we're talking a slightly older version of Gnome, which is encouraging, meaning, anything newer ought to work as well. Log out of your session, and then log back in. Now, go to the Settings > Devices, the Display section should have fractional values. The results are immediate.

Fractional scaling, before

Fractional scaling, after

Conclusion

While the Gnome desktop is behind Plasma when it comes to its scaling capabilities, you still get pretty decent and consistent results overall. This should satisfy most of your common usecases, like using an 1080p display on a 13-inch or 14-inch laptop display. Tweak the scaling up to 125%, maybe increase the fonts by 1pt, and you should be fine. It's a shame this feature isn't available by default in most Gnomes, as it hampers the user experience.

Anyway, hopefully this last installment in my HD scaling saga will help you get more fun from your Gnome desktop. We're not done, of course. My next challenge is to tweak Linux on the old 4K IdeaPad, just recently installed and configured, Kubuntu specifically, that is, and see how things work out there. That should be a UHD task, then. I may also do another app-focused article, with yet more tweaks for Qt-based and Gtk-based software. We shall see, like literally. Hi hi. See you around.

Cheers.

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