Customizing screen resolutions with xrandr

Screen Makeover

Article from Issue 251/2021
Author(s):

You can boost productivity on an old laptop using xrandr to quickly and easily gain some extra screen real estate.

If you are anything like me, you may have an old laptop from the mid-2010s lying around that still works well but has some obvious deficiencies. While the hardware is mostly fine, the 15.6-inch screen has bezels that encroach well into where we now expect to see uninterrupted screen space. With a few modifications, this old laptop is a perfect candidate for a backup Linux machine for when your main laptop inevitably fails (even if you do need to carry the charger with you at all times). After buying a pair of 4GB DDR3 sticks and the least expensive 120GB SSD you can find and installing Ubuntu, this old laptop runs great, but the screen still feels like something from the Windows ME days. All you need is a few simple terminal commands using xrandr on Ubuntu [1] to bring the 1366x768-resolution screen up to something a bit more reasonable, greatly improving your overall experience.

There are a few caveats, however. One is that bumping up the resolution will likely cause text to appear fuzzy and less crisp. This is something that most users can become accustomed to in time. It won't look pretty, but at least you will be able to have more than one document or program window open at the same time. Another caveat is that you will likely experience, at the very least, some tearing when moving windows around – nothing that will affect performance in any meaningful way, as long as you don't need high graphic fidelity. Lastly, and obviously, you should probably avoid using this laptop for any video or image production because having an accurate representation on your screen is paramount for those kinds of tasks. With these caveats in mind, let's break down the process.

Custom Resolution

First you need to determine the base X Window System [2] configuration to which your custom resolution will be added. To do this, open a terminal window and run:

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