Linux Mint, HD scaling, fractional scaling

Updated: January 5, 2022

A couple of weeks back, I tried Linux Mint 20.2 Uma on my IdeaPad 3 laptop; 'tis a typical modern device, with a full HD resolution display stretched over a rather modest equity of about 14 inches. The test and the review were not that successful, mostly for various hardware-related reasons, but also partly because I struggled getting Mint to render correctly (ergonomically) on my FHD screen.

I tried using the built-in Display setting option, I tried font scaling, I manually made changes to the panel, but in the end, I wasn't that happy. Too many actions, not enough cohesion. There was no one-button solution for me. As it happens, in 2021, the only desktop environment that does scaling well is Plasma, and I'm including Windows into this equation. But that's not why we're here. I actually want to show you what you can do when it comes to HD scaling in Mint's Cinnamon desktop. Let's do it.

Teaser

Under the hood, GTK

As I've already shown you in my theming tutorials for Gnome and MATE, there is a great deal of similarity among many different Linux desktop environments, as they share the same common features and tech stack. The same applies to Cinnamon, as it happens. Now, why is this relevant? Because when you want to do HD scaling, the same capabilities and limitations come to bear.

Display, default

Remember my Uma review? For some reason, early on, the screen refresh rate was 77 Hz. Go figure.

For instance, by default, the Gnome desktop environment only lets you do either normal or 200% scale, which works for 4K devices, but not really for anything in between. Lo and behold, if you look in Mint settings, it's the same thing. But wait. Gnome supports fractional scaling, as an experimental feature. And so does Cinnamon!

I want 125%

In the Display section, if you click on Settings, you can activate fractional scaling. Alas, it won't be available right away. The fractional scaling button option will show now, but it won't be active. You have to restart the desktop shell, or log out and then back in.

Fractional scaling enabled

Fractional scaling enabled

Once I did that, I could now use values in between 100% and 200%, and even less than 100%. What I found confusing is the mention of the "virtual" resolution that this kind of thing would offer. Which is not how it should be! The resolution needs not change, only the rendering of elements on top of it!

This reminds me of the problems I encountered in Xfce, like say MX Linux MX-21. With xrandr there, you get supposedly scaled up desktops, but this only reduces the resolution and creates a washed, blurry display. And as it happens, with Cinnamon, you get the same result.

125%, blurred

Unfortunately, you cannot see the blurring in the screenshot, because it comes in 1:1 scale, which does not reflect how such an image shows on screen.

What makes the exercise even more frustrating is that I did use fractional scaling in Gnome in AlmaLinux, and there, the results were actually quite decent. The UI was bigger, but there was no blurriness. There was no effect of lost quality as would happen if you say zoom in on a photo. However, with Xfce and now Cinnamon, the fractional scaling change was quite rough.

To see whether I could make the display crisp, I also tried a few other tricks:

Lower resolution

Using 1280x720px feels so 2009.

Lower resolution, downscaled

This would be the ideal size, alas blurry. Again, you cannot see that in the screenshot.

Now, the sad part is that Cinnamon doesn't really have a built-in provision for small/HD scenarios. If you use font scaling, that works beautifully. But then, the system menu, the panel, the system tray, and the window borders don't change. You end up with small elements that create an even more jarring effect. In the past, Mint used to have so-called Big Button (BB) themes, which offered bigger, more grabbable window decorations, but I couldn't find those. And no matter what I did, the system tray refused to change.

Conclusion

Well, I must say I am a bit disappointed with my exercise. I had hoped I could have a well-scaled and clear display, but this wasn't meant to be. I can have one or the other, but not both at the same time. Font scaling works well in Cinnamon, but various theming elements just never change. Even if you increase the icon size for panel items (there's an option for that), the system area ones never do. And the window button controls are just too small for comfort.

Please do remember that Cinnamon does disclaim the fractional scaling functionality. Yes, it is experimental. But considering we've had FHD 13-inch and 14-inch laptops around for years, plus the fact Plasma can do all of this without any great fussing, plus the fact the same fractional scaling option offers better results in stock Gnome, this isn't a good outcome overall. Anyway, for now, your best bet is font scaling. Hopefully, these issues will be ironed out soon, because I would like to try using Mint beyond my initial test, to see how it fares in day-to-day scenarios. But at the moment, it's not ergonomically robust enough. The article ends here.

Cheers.

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