Fonts and the popularity of various operating systems

Gus Winterbottom's picture

This blogger (http://scobleizer.com/2006/08/17/linux-achilles-heel-fonts/) says that what keeps him from using Linux is "readability, fonts, and aesthetics." That is, he won't use Linux because the fonts are so bad. He goes on to say that Microsoft and Apple are winning the operating system wars because type designers (he specifically mentions Matthew Carter) don't work for free.

Then, a columnist at ZDNet picked up on this topic (http://blogs.zdnet.com/hardware/?p=70). He says that Windows fonts are better than Mac fonts are better than Linux fonts are better than personal electronics fonts (cell phones, MP3 players, etc.), and that Linux could pick up users by improving its fonts. He says readability and quality fonts are important to users who spend a lot of time on their computers, and that "bigger, clearer icons and better fonts" are reason enough for him to upgrade to Windows Vista (I assume he means the Aero user interface).

So it looks like computer geeks sometimes notice fonts and think about readability (whatever that means to them), but does anybody here think fonts do or could influence the general user population in their choice of OS, or make them switch from one OS to another?

dezcom's picture

I don't think between Mac and Windows because they both have plenty of good fonts. Linux users choose it for other reasons but it would not hirt for Linux to support Opentype fonts and get a better rendering technique.

ChrisL

paul d hunt's picture

who does work for free? besides the independently wealthy philanthropist?

hrant's picture

The ZDNet guy is right.

hhp

Si_Daniels's picture

I think it comes down to more than money. I think the companies that do type best have small, centralized typography teams (or maybe just one well respected font-guru), that can set certain standards, pool resources and aid cross-group collaboration.

Even if occasionally their advice is circumvented or ignored certain standards can be maintained, even when budget is tight.

I could be wrong but I don’t think Sony or Motorola have font teams, and I think that goes a long way to explain the quality of the type used on their products.

Edit: I've said this before, but what Linux really needs is a font dictator, a NickNeg style figurehead who can lay down the law with respect to font and font rendering quality, and can put corporations, governments and other supporters through the mangle to extract funds to pay real type designers and engineers to do the hard work.

blank's picture

I used Linux for years before making the switch to OS X, and the fonts were fine. I think that for most users, the 100+ DPI fonts are fine, although if all those nerds coding Photoshop/Illustrator replacements don't get Opentype and anti-aliased rendering working well under X their efforts will be mostly wasted.

The real problem with Linux is that if you aren't a *nix programmer and you want to do more than surf the web and edit OpenOffice documents, the software available for Linux pretty much sucks. It also doesn't help that if you want to use Linux you eventually have to deal with Stallmanism and free software zealots. Some of those people are completely crazy–which is why I personally ditched Linux for *BSD servers and Mac OS on the desktop.

I still don't know what the Vista fonts look like, and since my Windows box has now been relegated to serving as nothing more than a standalone torrent client, I'll probably never see them. Somehow I doubt that I'm missing much; Microsoft's attempts to emulate Apple's eye candy have always been pretty ham-handed.

Si_Daniels's picture

>Apple’s eye candy

With the exception of Zapfino, I think Apple has always had a great track-record of providing high-quality work-horse fonts, starting with the original custom work and more recently the licensed fonts. To claim these are 'eye candy' seems out of order - especially strange to make this claim on typophile rather than a Linux fan-boy site.

>I still don’t know what the Vista fonts look like, ... Somehow I doubt that I’m missing much;

A strange comment for someone who specifies "Verdana, Arial..." on thier Web site ;-)

vinceconnare's picture

haha Apple ripped off Comic Sans.. like nails scrapping on a Chalkboard. No one ever say's who the twat that made it is.. and it's an unhinted bit of shite.

Si_Daniels's picture

Mac OS does not use hints - so why bother hinting the font? My understanding is that the 'no hints' policy was an aesthetic decision - all fonts look equally good/bad when blurry - with the side-effect of reduced font development costs.

Despite the development savings, I think this displeased some of the font people who saw TrueType hinting as an Apple invention that was still relevant to on-screen legibility. Cheaper & faster is not always better :-(

hrant's picture

> font dictator

My kinda thought. Despotype. Huh, cool name for a foundry.

> I used Linux for years before making the switch to OS X

Well, that's because moving to OSX you never
realized how good onscreen text can actually be. :-/

When it comes to fonts at least Apple has nothing worth emulating these days.

> all fonts look equally good/bad when blurry - with
> the side-effect of reduced font development costs.

Bingo.
With the de rigeur "blurry is good for you" evangelism.

hhp

Gus Winterbottom's picture

It seems to me that there are two separate issues here. The first is improving the font rendering system in various distributions of Linux, Gnome, KDE, etc. Fixing this needs the attention of one or more Linux developers with font expertise. I could speculate on why this has been a low- or non-priority, but I really don't know. Fonts are certainly recognized as a problem in Linux -- just google "linux fonts".

(Later edit: I am aware of things like Xft, FreeType, and FontConfig, but it's not clear that these solve the issue 100%. The problem relates to Apple patents on hinting and anti-aliasing, aka the "byte code interpreter." Of course the BCI has been reverse engineered, but the result isn't legal in various countries.)

The second issue is whether the typographic community is comfortable making fonts available under the free/libre/open software concept (not to be confused with freeware/gratis). Since I enjoy having my head attached to my shoulders, I'm not going to pursue this issue any further, except to note that it has been discussed here to some extent:

http://typophile.com/node/16620
http://typophile.com/wiki/good_libre_fonts
http://typophile.com/node/571
http://typophile.com/node/8407
http://typophile.com/node/14914

I also seem to recall an effort to start a typographic intellectual property commons (not SIL, I think) but I can't find a reference to it now when I need it.

hrant's picture

Dude, "despotype" gets zero hits on Google.
Somebody's gotta start a new foundry with it, come on.

hhp

Gus Winterbottom's picture

hrant, despotype is inspired. Despotype.com is available, too. Of course, it does lead to marketing slogans in very bad taste.

Thinking about Apple holding the patents on TrueType hinting but not using them, in conjunction with despotype, reminded me of Apple's 1984/Big Brother commercial. Which was ironic because it was IBM that had the cheap, open, uncontrolled system that anybody could build, while Apple had the expensive, closed system that they kept under iron control. Still do, too.

Nick Shinn's picture

I just replaced my old Sony monitor with a new Apple screen, so things have gone from fuzzy to sharp. The resolution is so fine and bright now that Apple's blurry font rendering is not an issue. Especially as the screen has so much on it, and I'm much father away than when reading a book. Sure, it could be a tad sharper in theory, but the blurriness now is of the order of a little letterpress ink spread.

hrant's picture

> Apple holding the patents on TrueType hinting but not using them

squatypatent.com

> the blurriness now is of the order of a little letterpress ink spread.

Let's not exagerate.

hhp

aluminum's picture

Bitstream came out with Vera:

http://www.bitstream.com/font_rendering/products/dev_fonts/vera.html

So, at least one foundry decided to donate to the open source cause...

blank's picture

A strange comment for someone who specifies “Verdana, Arial…” on thier Web site ;-)

Even Microsoft gets something right now and then, and the hit the nail on the head with the web fonts. I've considered resetting the design with Myriad, but honestly, I think Verdana's pretty hard to beat for on-screen rendering.

Si_Daniels's picture

>So, at least one foundry decided to donate to the open source cause…

(edit) er, no actually the fonts were licensed to GNOME

>The second issue is whether the typographic community is comfortable making fonts available under the free/libre/open software concept

Sorry to beat a dead horse, but of course they'll be "comfortable" - providing only that the client (whether that be Microsoft, GNOME or whoever) pays for it.

Scott Thatcher's picture

I usually do more lurking around here than posting, but since this topic has come up, I have to ask this question: what do you think makes font display good or bad on a computer system? I read stories like the blog linked above, and often there aren't enough specifics given beyond the statement that fonts are "terrible" on one system or another.

Is it really that people just have different tastes? For example, I find the antialiasing in Linux, even without support for the bytecode interpreter, to be much easier on my eyes than anything from a Windows box. I don't like the non-anti-aliased look for some fonts that presumably have good hinting under Windows, and I don't like the various anti-aliasing options that are available under Windows. I haven't found a setting that doesn't make some parts of the stems of characters almost disappear entirely. That problem, to me, is much worse than anything I've seen in Linux. On the other hand, my experience with Linux is that the anti-aliasing produces (on the whole--there are some exceptions) very readable text that doesn't ever disappear from over-blurring.

I found once an article with the opposite opinion, and it finally turned out that that author viewed any text that wasn't crisp black-on-white with no anti-aliasing as being unreadable.

So, to sum up, I'd be very interested in the precise details of font rendering that others feel makes or breaks a system. Is there any concensus, or is it really personal preference?

Scott Thatcher

brampitoyo's picture

This calls for side-by-side screen comparison, don't you think? Then we might be able to judge things objectively.

k.l.'s picture

As regards Mac OSX vs Windows vs Windows+ClearType, there were screenshots in an older thread.

As regards "objectively", well. [Comparing Simon Daniels' and Scott Thatcher's posts makes it pretty clear that]* The standards by which font rasterization is judged to be "good" or "bad" can be very different.
Microsoft's position is that a font is well rasterized if it has high black/white contrast and as little grayscaling as possible. (I exaggerate a bit.) Scott Thatcher's, Nick Shinn's (and my) position is that OSX's "blurry" grayscaling is highly readable too -- and as Nick indicated, future higher resolution screens will contribute to make this kind of grayscaling look better than on cheap low-res screens. It is two contradicting philosophies: Counting Pixels vs Scanning Word Images. (Again, exaggerating a bit.) Only then, other factors come into play: MS requires hinting, Apple doesn't, and I think Adobe CS app's do well without hinting too.
From a font production side the question arises: Is it worth the extra efforts for a slightly better look on low-res screens? And from a user's side: Which OS serves me better -- one that allows for a handful of very well rendered fonts (very well means: with high contrast, measured by MS' standards), or one that renders all fonts well (which means: they look a bit "blurry" from MS' point of view)?
The much-cited "blurriness" is exactly the merit of grayscaling, for it takes into account that one scans word images, that screen resolutions have become a bit higher so you don't have to, and cannot, count pixels any more. Amusingly, Windows' rasterizer(s) trained people to consider a font to look good if it looks like a black/white pixel font. But I think former Mac OS9 users very well understood the improvement that ATM finally offered by introducing grayscaling; suddenly you could read text that you could only guess at before, say, when typesetting italics, and one could even go down with PPEM sizes. The funny thing however is that since grayscaling, people tend to use PPEM sizes much smaller than they could use when type was rasterized in black/white, and of course that leads to unreadable results again ...
I am convinced that it is rasterizers that have to be intelligent, not fonts. At least from the distance it is telling that it was Apple who (as co-inventor of TT) decided to forget about hints in their systems' rasterizer.

* Consider it as being deleted.

hrant's picture

> Is it worth the extra efforts for a slightly better look on low-res screens?

Yeah, you're right, we should stop making new text fonts too.

> Which OS serves me better — one that allows for a handful of very
> well rendered fonts (very well means: with high contrast, measured
> by MS’ standards), or one that renders all fonts well

Ah, but the OS that serves Apple best is evidently one that renders all fonts poorly.

Also, it's a mistake to equate anti-aliasing with blurriness.
http://www.themicrofoundry.com/manademo/

hhp

Si_Daniels's picture

Karsten,

>Comparing Simon Daniels’ and Scott Thatcher’s posts makes it pretty clear that the standards by which font rasterization is judged to be “good” or “bad” can be very different.

Whoa, can you go back and re-read my posts? There was nothing negative about my explanation of Apple's approach in OSX. Why are you putting words into my mouth? I didn't say Apple's approach was bad or that I prefer crisp type to blurry type. In fact I only wrote about the Apple rendering philosophy and the reaction from hard-core TrueType purists within Apple. I didn't even mention Microsoft's approach.

k.l.'s picture

Hello Mr Daniels, sorry! After describing Apple's philosophy you wrote

Despite the development savings, I think this displeased some of the font people who saw TrueType hinting as an Apple invention that was still relevant to on-screen legibility. Cheaper & faster is not always better :-(

which I interpreted as being your opinion, but now I see that you were citing "some of the font people", and I didn't realize that "some of the font people" meant to be Apple's font people ...
Plain misreading on my part.  :(

Karsten

k.l.'s picture

H.P. Also, it’s a mistake to equate anti-aliasing with blurriness.

Do you think going back to pixel fonts (whether b/w or grayscaled) is a solution? The idea of pixel fonts always reminds me of my first attempt at digital fonts on my Atari 1040ST with Signum!2 or Signum!3; I also remember my delight when I got to know that there were font formats that used outlines which were converted to pixel images on demand.  :)
Of course pixel fonts can be a good thing for some handheld devices.

K.L. Is it worth the extra efforts for a slightly better look on low-res screens?
H.P. Yeah, you're right, we should stop making new text fonts too.

First, I think Apple's method is ok, and the higher the resolution of the screen, the better are the results.
But my point was, maybe it's possible to improve rasterizers a bit so they don't require hints on font level? (Say, if required for small PPEM sizes, fonts could be autohinted by the rasterizer before being rasterized.)

Si_Daniels's picture

>Plain misreading on my part. :(

That explains it. Thanks.

Scott Thatcher's picture

K.L. But my point was, maybe it’s possible to improve rasterizers a bit so they don’t require hints on font level? (Say, if required for small PPEM sizes, fonts could be autohinted by the rasterizer before being rasterized.)

The work-around to Apple's patent on the bytecode interpreter by the Freetype people was to create an auto-hinter that does what you describe. The natural question is "How well does it work," and that I can't answer.

Scott

hrant's picture

> Do you think going back to pixel fonts (whether b/w or grayscaled) is a solution?

1) I don't think it's "back".
2) What's the screen made of again? :-)

Maybe I'm partial to bitmaps for the same reason you're not: the oldschool systems. I had decent success with my Commodore-64, in Armenian and Arabic no less! There is a purity to it, sort of like cutting a metal font for a single size (I presume). And it's a functional purity, not some romantic affectation; you design what needs to be seen.

> maybe it’s possible to improve rasterizers a
> bit so they don’t require hints on font level?

It's clearly not "a bit".
This was the promise of Postscript, and the non-delivery of this promise is the main reason the introduction of Truetype was justified. We still don't have a really good "automatic" renderer. Yes, it seems it would be possible to make one; but it also seems it's extremely difficult = would cost more money to develop than this field has at its -altruistic- disposal.

hhp

Si_Daniels's picture

> Do you think going back to pixel fonts (whether b/w or grayscaled) is a solution?

iPod uses bitmap fonts - 50 million users can't be wrong.

k.l.'s picture

iPod uses bitmap fonts - 50 million users can’t be wrong.

When I added, of course pixel fonts can be a good thing for some handheld devices, there was no polemics in it.
The title of the thread suggests "big" OSses on "big" computers to me. But since they also drive handheld devices, these are indeed part of the picture.

dan_reynolds's picture

iPod uses bitmap fonts - 50 million users can’t be wrong.

But you don't really "read" your iPod.

Rob O. Font's picture

"The real problem with Linux is that if you aren’t a *nix programmer and you want to do more than surf the web and edit OpenOffice documents, the software available for Linux pretty much sucks"

I can't get get past this either, or more specificaally, the conversion of all my databases into open source applications might just kill me. But, just for kicks, what would be the specification of a Linutype™ cores set?

"Thinking about Apple holding the patents on TrueType hinting but not using them..."

I think this is fair, but inaccurate : I believe Apple does use hints below the user-defined anti-aliasing switch in the appearance preferences. In addition, Apple only holds patents on 2.5 instructions; the DeltaP instruction, and the Set Projection Vector To Line / Set Freedom Vector To Line combo. All the rest are prior art or something. Since these instructions are required for OS core font quality aliased fonts, but not anti-aliased, to some extent, Linux font quality is a waiting game, though not much longer.

"(edit) er, no actually the fonts (Vera) were licensed to GNOME"
Er, actually the Vera copyright allows all uses including derived versions, so it is freeware to all users.

"The work-around to Apple’s patent on the bytecode interpreter by the Freetype people was to create an auto-hinter that does what you describe. The natural question is “How well does it work,” and that I can’t answer."

I can. For readability purposes, auto-hinting One-size-fits-all outlines, i.e. fonts with no mastering capabilities, for low resolution (less than 200 ppi) aliased fonts, is hopeless. For the same purposes, auto-hinting One-size-fits-all outlines, for anti-aliased fonts, is hopeless below 96 or so. Many other possibilities exist with multiply mastered, or single master enabled outlines, and Linux might be a great future platform for typography, but not until the w3c makes some changes.

Scott Thatcher's picture

hrant: Maybe I’m partial to bitmaps for the same reason you’re not: the oldschool systems. I had decent success with my Commodore-64, in Armenian and Arabic no less! There is a purity to it, sort of like cutting a metal font for a single size (I presume). And it’s a functional purity, not some romantic affectation; you design what needs to be seen.

I hadn't thought of it from quite that direction before. Although I've recently become fond of Bitstream Vera for text terminals and system interface use in Linux, I have always prefered bitmapped fonts for coding and other purposes where the display on screen was the end goal.

However, I've never appreciated the black-and-white bitmapped look of fonts like Times New Roman or Garamond in something like Microsoft Word because I've never felt that the crisp, pixelated look matches what I'll see on the final printed page.

On another note, does anyone here know whether Windows applies hints before it applies antialiasing? If the stem width is hinted into one pixel width before it's anti-aliased, it might explain why some stems seem to me to almost entirely disappear after antialiasing.

Scott

Si_Daniels's picture

If you read some of the comments above and look at the issues I think that "user preference" is a bit of a red herring. In some cases the same users may want text to as accurately as possible reflect the appearance of the printed page, legibility isn't that important. In other cases you want to read or proof content. I think that's where the Windows vs MacOS differences come in. In other cases, say in the UI of a device, you're not reading extended text, just want the UI elements, phone numbers and song titles to be non-ambiguous - quirky(like on the RAZR) or blurry (like on the iPod) is good enough.

>On another note, does anyone here know whether Windows applies hints before it applies antialiasing?

My understanding, and I could be completely wrong, is that Windows (like other OS's) overscales and then down-samples to get the grayscale bitmaps - so hints are applied at the overscaled size unless the gasp table says not to apply hints.

The problem may relate to very thin fonts like Courier - where drop-out control essentially provides the bi-level bitmap. Even before ClearType people (HP?) were shipping bolder Couriers to overcome this problem on 600dpi printers.

Cheers, Si

hrant's picture

> Apple does use hints below the user-defined anti-aliasing switch

What is the OS-default setting for this?

> I’ve never felt that the crisp, pixelated look
> matches what I’ll see on the final printed page.

But it never can, aliased or anti. WYSIWYG is an illusion.

hhp

Si_Daniels's picture

> Apple does use hints below the user-defined anti-aliasing switch

This contradicts what I was told, but it might be true. An easy way to tell would be to produce a waterfall sample with a hinted font, and a copy of that font with hints stripped. Then diff the images.

Rob O. Font's picture

"What is the OS-default setting for this?
10 or 8. Why?

"This contradicts what I was told, but it might be true."
Then you were told wrong. Go to a Mac, and look.

"This calls for side-by-side screen comparison, don’t you think?"
I think a lot, but side-by-side they all fail somewhere, for someone, for some size for some font, for some screen, for some light, for some document, and the problem is very deepy embedded in a non-functional competitive spirit.

Hey SII, do you think your company's gonna publish a full description of the changes to the TT hint language any time soon?

Si_Daniels's picture

>Hey SII, do you think your company’s gonna publish a full description of the changes to the TT hint language any time soon?

You might want to ask Greg or Mike. If they have a document, I'd be happy to post it on microsoft.com/typography

Cheers, Si

Gus Winterbottom's picture

> The second issue is whether the typographic community is comfortable making fonts available under the free/libre/open software concept

>> Sorry to beat a dead horse, but of course they’ll be “comfortable” - providing only that the client (whether that be Microsoft, GNOME or whoever) pays for it.

sii, I was thinking more about the GPL and the requirement to make source code available and freely modifiable and extendable. Is anybody distributing their fonts under the GPL or copyleft? That's fundamentally different from giving fonts away as freeware (i.e., gratis), or donating them (that is, granting an unlimited perpetual license, with or without receiving a license fee) to LaTex or Gnome or whatever. Open/libre software, the GPL, and copyleft seem to me to be somewhat at odds with the strong intellectual property ethos I see in the font industry -- which I fully agree with, BTW.

Si_Daniels's picture

>I was thinking more about the GPL and the requirement to make source code available and freely modifiable and extendable.

No, I don't think so - you might want to see the notes published by Victor about the SIL license - I think this explains why he thinks GPL is no good for fonts.

However my original comment remains - I don't think many type designers would turn down a paid commission to create a font that the client may decide to distribute under GPL.

I think a lot of work-for-hire contracts for custom fonts would allow the client to do whatever they like with their property if they really wanted to.

That doesn't mean the designer would be totally happy with about it - I recall when we issued the Web fonts under a free license that allowed redistribution, one of the typographic engineers invovled was quite vocal on a public list about the folly of Microsoft providing free fonts.

hrant's picture

> 10 or 8. Why?

Because an OS default is like the word of god for most users. And I'm
betting it's 8, because then hints continue to not matter (to reading).

> the problem is very deepy embedded in a non-functional competitive spirit.

Indeed.
Not to mention the gamma difference!

hhp

Si_Daniels's picture

Guess again ;-)

Si_Daniels's picture

Give up? It's 12.

hrant's picture

This doesn't seem to make sense.
You go to the mall, walk in to the Apple store, fire up a browser, and all the text is anti-aliased at pretty much any size. Assuming the store machines have the default settings, what's going on? Are the OS/web fonts unhinted? Are they anti-aliased but still rendered with hints (below 12)? Or what? I don't get it.

hhp

Rob O. Font's picture

>You might want to ask Greg or Mike.
You don't think I'd ask you first, do you?:-)

>Are the OS/web fonts unhinted?
What's an OS/web font?

>Are they anti-aliased but still rendered with hints (below 12)? Or what? I don’t get it.
They are rendered aliased with hints below the selected number, and anti-aliased without hints above the selected number. Got it?

hrant's picture

> What’s an OS/web font?

I mean the fonts likely to end up being viewed in a browser (as text).

> They are rendered aliased with hints below the selected number

That's what I would have thought, but I don't think that's what I've seen.

Has the cutoff control been introduced recently, or has the default cutoff value been raised recently?

hhp

Si_Daniels's picture

12 was the number Apple gave me yesterday. I'm trying to get the okay to repost the complete answer they gave me.

>You don’t think I’d ask you first, do you?:-)

In this case Mike and Greg are the organ grinders and I'm the monkey, the web monkey if you will. If they want to publish some information (assuming they have it in publishable form) they'll send it to me and ask me to post it on the site. So in this case if the organ grinders say no, talking to the monkey won't help you.

dezcom's picture

Si, then who is the "Trunk Monkey"? :-)

ChrisL

Si_Daniels's picture

>Si, then who is the “Trunk Monkey”? :-)

Can't say. ;-)

>You don’t think I’d ask you first, do you?:-)

I checked and we're not sure what changes you're talking about - send me a mail at simonda@... and I'll set us up a conference call with Mike and Greg.

Cheers, Si

dezcom's picture

Si,
If you have not seen them, they are a good laugh:

http://www.trunkmonkeyad.com/

ChrisL

Si_Daniels's picture

I had to look it up at the Urban Dictionary...

"A small primate usually of the chimpanzee variaty that tends to jump from ones trunk and kick peoples asses."

I was going to suggest we have attorneys to do that ;-)

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