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This is why your external monitor looks awful on an M1 Mac

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Q&A with the developer of BetterDummy: from macOS secrets to his motivations
Interview Folks who use Apple Silicon-powered Macs with some third-party monitors are disappointed with the results: text and icons can appear too tiny or blurry, or the available resolutions are lower than what the displays are capable of. It took an open source programmer working in his spare time to come up with a workaround that doesn’t involve purchasing a hardware dongle to fix what is a macOS limitation. István Tóth lives in Hungary, and called his fix BetterDummy. It works by creating a virtual display in software and then mirroring that virtual display to the real one, to coax macOS into playing ball. The latest version,1.0.12, was released just a few days ago, and the code is free and MIT licensed. One issue arises when you plug certain sub-4K third-party monitors into your M1 Mac. This includes QHD monitors with a resolution of 2560×1440. The operating system either displays the desktop at the native resolution of the monitor – in which case text and user-interface widgets appear too small – or offers an unusable blurry magnified version. The blurring is because macOS isn’t enabling its Retina-branded high-pixel-density mode called HiDPI, which would result in crisp font and user-interface rendering. For instance, if you have an M1 Mac connected to an external monitor with a native resolution of 2560×1440, and you try to run it at 1280×720 to make it easier to read, even though you satisfy the pixel density requirements of HiDPI, you still get a scaled blurry mess and not a crisp HiDPI view – because macOS won’t enable its Retina mode. On top of this, M1 Macs may offer resolutions lower than what an external third-party monitor is actually capable of, with no way for users to add more options or fine-tune them. For example, you might find that your 5120×2160 ultra-wide monitor is only offered a maximum of 3440×1440. There are tonnes of complaints about this from users on support boards and forums; even a petition for people to sign to get Cupertino’s attention. We asked Apple if it planned to address these shortcomings in macOS, but spokespeople were not available for comment. Tóth reckons the reason for much of this is that the Arm-based Macs use graphics driver code based on iOS and iPad OS, which do not need to support that many displays – and certainly not any they can’t understand. Macs with x86 processors, meanwhile, can enable HiDPI on sub-4K displays as well as allow the user to configure the available resolutions. Enter BetterDummy – an app that tricks macOS into thinking an actual 4K display is connected so that HiDPI rendering is enabled and works. It also allows people to create and tune their own resolutions if they’re not available from the operating system.

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