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How can I set my resolution to use 8-bit color on Windows XP?

I can only pick 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit color. I know 8-bit is possible because if I have two monitors, and I run a really old game that changes the resolution to something like 640x480 @ 256 colors, the other monitor still displays things (albeit in a really ugly manner).

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If I may ask, why do you wan't to lower it down to 8-bit? –  Specur Nov 16 '10 at 18:16
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i want to run a lot of VMs whose displays i need to see, but don't care how it looks. im thinking this will run faster as it'll need less video processing power? –  Claudiu Nov 16 '10 at 19:45
    
That's not true, it doesn't require more video processing power. Since it's just desktop 2D graphics. Stick with the 32-bit. –  Specur Nov 16 '10 at 21:00
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wouldnt it need more VRAM at least? 2.5 megs instead of 5 megs for 1280x1024 –  Claudiu Nov 16 '10 at 21:35
    
Another good reason is for testing purposes. I'm writing software that needs to run all the way down to 8-bit color, but when I spun up an XP VM to test this, I find it not an option. Luckily, you'd already asked! +1 –  Cody Gray Dec 30 '13 at 12:03
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes it is possible to set 8 bit color depths on XP. It's just a little hidden:

  1. From Display Properties, click "Advanced".
  2. Go to the "Adapter" tab
  3. Click on "List All Modes..."
  4. All of the supported 8 bit/256 color modes will be listed in this window. Select one and click OK, then click OK at the next Window and your display mode will change.

I think you may get popups from Windows telling you that your color depth is too low.

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i could also do it programatically from python - nice to know there is a manual way to do it –  Claudiu Mar 7 '11 at 23:06
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I think it is deliberately not possible to move to 8-bit as a desktop option. XP only allows older apps to force the issue because otherwise their palette switching tricks simply wouldn't work (without some sort of palette switching emulation that would seriously impinge performance).

Performance-wise 8-bit addressing will be far slower on modern architectures, not faster. While you would in theory be pushing less data around the graphics chipsets are designed to operate in 32-bit blocks to addressing smaller values actually takes more effort. Also most application objects will still be processed as a true-colour image only being translated down as needed before being pushed to the screen's frame-buffer for each update.

Another common reason for dropping colour depth used to be limited graphics RAM. As a 1920*1200@32bit image is less than 9Mbytes no modern graphics card in a desktop machine is going to struggle to hold that even accounting for fancy effects and memory consuming techniques like triple buffering and some window having its own large surface processed separately as a frame-buffer by the GPU.

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On a modern system (e.g., Pentium M 1.7Ghz with a WUXGA display), 8-bit video performance is indeed possible and worthwhile:

  • I can play 1920x1080 video without lag
  • The GPU and CPU run much cooler, resulting in less fan noise
  • Overall improved battery life
  • Colors are not pretty, but most video and photography look fine
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