Fractional Desktop Scaling

In my last computer upgrade, I went from a Lenovo X240 (screen resolution: 1366×768 on a 12.5″ display) to an X1 Carbon 4th Gen (screen resolution: 2560×1440 on a 14″ display). As it turns out, at its native resolution the Ubuntu Unity desktop on the X1 Carbon is simply too small to read. This wasn’t a problem until recently as I did most of my computing with an external monitor. But now I find getting up 2 flights of stairs difficult, I’m doing a lot more using the built-in panel, and experiencing this issue. Fortunately, X11 as shipped in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS has some sort of support for desktop scaling. Unfortunately, it’s a bit rudimentary. I use a scaling of 1.38, but still find that some dialogs look shonky and I have to do extra adjustment for some apps. But it’s just about workable.

I am considering an upgrade to Ubuntu 18.04 LTS where, famously, they have switched from Unity back to GNOME. GNOME does not support fractional scaling with X11 – you can only scale in whole numbers. It does do it with Wayland, experimentally, but Ubuntu decided (after giving it a go in the test releases) not to make Wayland the default for 18.04. I’d like to try this out, but the instructions I found online to do so don’t work with the LiveUSB version – so I’d have to take the plunge before being able to even try it.

So it seems I get the choice of 1x (everything too small) or 2x (everything too big). This is a significant loss of functionality; the X1 Carbon comes with screen options of 2560×1440 and 1920×1080, and it perversely makes me think I would have been better off getting the one with the lower resolution screen! As it is, using 2x gives an effective resolution of 1280×720, which is lower than the resolution of the X240 I used to use. The loss of vertical height is a particular pain point.

Can any reader of my blog suggest a way to solve or mitigate this problem? Is there a “compact” theme for GNOME that still looks like Unity? Are there ways of setting particular apps, like Firefox, Thunderbird or LibreOffice, to use less space or have a default zoom?

4 thoughts on “Fractional Desktop Scaling

  1. As far as Thunderbird and Firefox go, you can change the pref:


    to do app specific scaling.

    Just changing it to a positive value. -1 means use the system.

  2. Yes, I’ve discovered this. The problem is, of course, that if you aren’t using the system value, and switch regularly between two monitors, you have to keep changing it. People wrote addons to automate this, but of course addons can’t set prefs any more :-(

  3. I’m running Fedora 27 with gnome and X. The way I deal with this is that I have the “master” scaling at 1x, but in gnome-tweak-tool, I can still change the font scaling to 1.5, which means the text is at least readable. It makes some toolbar icons a bit small, but that’s about it.

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