Icons Look too Small? Enable Fractional Scaling to Enjoy Your HiDPI 4K Screen in Ubuntu Linux

A few months ago, I bought a Dell XPS laptop with a 4K UHD screen. The screen resolution is 3840×2400 resolution with a 16:10 aspect ratio.

When I was installing Ubuntu on it, everything looked so small. The desktop icons, applications, menus, items in the top panel, everything.

It’s because the screen has too many pixels but the desktop icons and rest of the elements remain the same in size (as on a regular screen of 1920×1080). Hence, they look too small on the HiDPI screen.

hidpi screen icons too small in ubuntu
Icons and other elements look too small on a HiDPI screen in Ubuntu

This is not pretty and makes it very difficult to use your Linux system. Thankfully, there is a solution for GNOME desktop users.

If you too have a 2K or 4K screen where the desktop icons and other elements look too small, here’s what you need to do.

Scale-up display if the screen looks too small

If you have a 4K screen, you can scale the display to 200%. This means that you are making every element twice its size.

Press the Windows key and search for Settings:

settings application ubuntu
Go to Settings

In Settings, go to Display settings.

display settings scaling ubuntu
Access the Display Settings and look for Scaling

Here, select 200% as the scale factor and click on Apply button.

scale display ubuntu
Scaling the display in Ubuntu

It will change the display settings and ask you to confirm whether you want to keep the changed settings or revert to the original. If things look good to you, select “Keep Changes.”

Your display settings will be changed and remain the same even after reboots until you change it again.

Enable fractional scaling (suitable for 2K screens)

200% scaling is good for 4K screens however if you have a 2K screen, the 200% scaling will make the icons look too big for the screen.

Now you are in the soup. You have the screen looking too small or too big. What about a mid-point?

Thankfully, GNOME has a fractional scaling feature that allows you to set the scaling to 125%, 150%, and 175%.

Using fractional scaling on Ubuntu 20.04 and newer versions

Ubuntu 20.04 and the new versions have newer versions of GNOME desktop environment and it allows you to enable or disable fractional scaling from Display settings itself.

Just go to the Display settings and look for the Fractional Scaling switch. Toggle it to enable or disable it.

When you enable the fractional scaling, you’ll see new scaling factors between 100% to 200%. You can choose the one which is suitable for your screen.

enable fractional scaling
Enable fractional scaling

Using fractional scaling on Ubuntu 18.04

You’ll have to make some additional efforts to make it work on the older Ubuntu 18.04 LTS version.

First, switch to Wayland from Xorg.

Second, enable fractional scaling as an experimental feature using this command:

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

Third, restart your system and then go to the Display settings and you should see the fractional scaling toggle button now.

Disabling fractional scaling on Ubuntu 18.04

If you are experiencing issues with fractional scaling, like increased power consumption and mouse lagging, you may want to disable it. Wayland could also be troublesome for some applications.

First, toggle the fractional scaling switch in the display settings. Now use the following command to disable the experimental feature.

gsettings reset org.gnome.mutter experimental-features

Switch back to Xorg from Wayland again.

Multi-monitor setup and fractional scaling

4K screen is good but I prefer a multi-monitor setup for work. The problem here is that I have two Full HD (1080p) monitors. Pairing them with my 4K laptop screen requires little settings change.

What I do here is to keep the 4K screen at 200% scaling at 3840×2400 resolution. At the same time, I keep the full-HD monitors at 100% scaling with 1920×1080 resolution.

To ensure a smooth experience, you should take care of the following:

  • Use Wayland display server: It is a lot better at handling multi-screens and HiDPI screens than the legacy Xorg.
  • Even if you use only 100% and 200% scaling, enabling fractional scaling is a must, otherwise, it doesn’t work properly. I know it sounds weird but that’s what I have experienced.

Did it help?

HiDPI support in Linux is far from perfect but it is certainly improving. Newer desktop environment versions of GNOME and KDE keep on improving on this front.

Fractional scaling with Wayland works quite well. It is improving with Xorg as well but it struggles especially on a multi-monitor set up.

I hope this quick tip helped you to enable fractional scaling in Ubuntu and enjoy your Linux desktop on a UHD screen.

Please leave your questions and suggestions in the comment section.

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  • I have 3 monitors. Two 4K 43″ and one HD 24″.
    I have an AMD/MSI 5700XT GPU.
    When I attempt to use fractional scaling the APPLY button either disappears or grays out.

  • Windows does fractional scaling well, but I am not sure if it affects performance in Windows like it does with Linux?? Some blur happens no matter what with fractional scaling. Best to use 100% or 200% scale. Unfortunately, many resolutions fail to properly address this fact unlike Apple’s Macs which their retina resolutions work well with whole scaling. If you plan to use Linux best to choose wisely on screen resolution.

  • A note on jerky transitions returning from xscreensaver due to Fractional Scaling settings: Just a heads up: ran into an issue where upon returning from the screensaver, back to where you left off before it came on, I suddenly encountered an issue where the screen became jerky, especially if when watching a movie. Specifically, I noticed that on return back to the desktop, the transition was very jerky, almost as if the monitor was jumping from one resolution to another in the transition. This change came about, when I restored my hard drive image back to a previous state, and changed the Settings, Display, Fractional Scaling. That notice right below in smaller text: “May increase power usage, lower speed, or reduce display sharpness”. Didn’t give it much thought, but checking this on makes a world of difference on my setup, which is already pushing it for 4K resolution: a 3rd Gen I7 Optiplex 7010, GT1030, Ubuntu 22.04. The difference is immediate. If you encounter this, bumpy transition and poor video performance afterwards, go straight there and don’t do fractional.

    I’m loving the setup now, booting to an SSD, using mpv and having it cycle through images and videos stored on a mechanical 500g hard drive. Had issues getting it to use a folder on the hdd, I simply could not get it to work, instead opting to have xcreensaver look for the files on the home directory, and then using a m3u playlist referencing videos on the hdd. Seems to work well this way, even with an under powered 7010.