ClearType, smoothed fonts and the bane of MS Sans Serif

Back in the days of Windows 3.1, 95, 98 and Mac OS 7 the operating systems used a bit mapped font as the default system font for the various windows and dialogs.

Apple replaced their venerable Chicago with a scalable version that took advantage of font smoothing and moved on. By Mac OS X they switched to entirely new fonts such as Lucida Grande.

Microsoft started their switch to the scalable Tahoma during the XP development cycle but there are a few areas where the old pixelated MS Sans Serif creeps through especially older apps that are trying to be compatible with pre-Windows 2000 systems.

It looks like Microsoft planned on replacing MS Sans Serif and indeed commissioned an OpenType replacement which they ship with XP called Microsoft Sans Serif but older dialogs and apps simply don’t use it – quite possibly because the spacing on buttons was so tight even a slight variance could result in a lost letter or two.

If you’re using ClearType then these instances of MS Sans Serif will show up like a sore thumb but help is at hand.

  1. Open your Fonts folder via Control Panel and drag MS Sans Serif somewhere safe in case you ever want it back
  2. Open your registry and navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\FontSubstitutes
  3. Right-click on the FontSubstitutes folder and choose New > String Value
  4. Over-type New Value #1 as MS Sans Serif
  5. Double-click on the new value and enter Microsoft Sans Serif
  6. Reboot (it really is necessary)

If you’re happy to trust me then here’s a registry file to do steps 2-5 for you. If you can’t find MS Sans Serif in your Fonts folder then you’ll need to go into Windows Explorer’s options and turn on “Show hidden and system files”.

In theory you could experiment with step 5 being Tahoma or the forthcoming Vista/Longhorn font Segoe but I think you’ll find the metrics are out.

Microsoft Sans Serif was designed to be as close to a drop-in replacement for MS Sans Serif as possible. It almost fits.


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