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Typography in 16-bits: System fonts  

With the 8-bit system fonts post being so popular I just had to jump right in and look at the system fonts available on the 16-bit machines!

IBM CGA Adapter (1981)

Specifications

Bold serif
6-7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
320×200 (40×25 text)
640×200 (80×25 text)
IBM
Download in TrueType

IBM CGA system font in low resolution IBM CGA system font in medium resolution
The IBM PC’s first color graphics card was known as the Color Graphics Adapter.

Unusual characteristics

  • Mix of serifs and non-serifs depending on space
  • Off centre ‘|+:’
  • Squished ‘Q’ to avoid using descender
  • Wide ‘0’
  • Bubbly ‘!’
  • Inconsistent ‘t’ point and lack of serif on ‘j’

Rationale

The large bold letters work well on the low-resolution displays at the time and many of the quirky were unlikely particularly noticeable there.

Influences

Unknown.

Apple Macintosh (1984)

Specifications

Bold sans
1-11 pixels
10 pixels
Mac OS Roman
512×342
Susan Kare
Download in TrueType

Apple Macintosh 'Chicago' system font
Apple’s second attempt at a GUI (after the Lisa) was the Macintosh. The system font was called Chicago initially as a bitmap font which was replaced with a scalable TrueType version. With Mac OS 8 it was replaced with the similar Charcoal typeface and then dropped entirely in Mac OS X which uses Lucida Grande for the UI.

This font was dusted off again in 2001 and with a few minor tweaks became the system font of the iPod (classic & mini) until the higher resolution color display model.

Unusual characteristics

  • Proportional letters not fixed-width
  • Some symbols are not bold at all ‘#%”/\*@^`’
  • Lovely flourish on ‘&’
  • Curve on ‘a’ actually touches the lower bowl
  • Designed specifically to avoid diagonal strokes (jaggies) on the Mac’s low-res screen

Rationale

The high-resolution display let the designers really pay attention to detail and even though it was a 1-bit monochrome display it really looks beautiful for the time. It was little wonder that when Jobs went to NeXT they went with incredibly high-resolution monochrome displays again (at least initially and with 2-bit grayscale).

Influences

It’s unlikely they were digital.

Commodore Amiga 1.x (1985)

Specifications

Bold serif
6-7 pixels
7 pixels
ISO 8859-1
320×200 (40×25 text)
640×200 (80×25 text)
320×256 (40×32 text)
640×256 (80×32 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Commodore Amiga 1.x 'Topaz' system font in low & high resolutions Commodore Amiga 1.x 'Topaz' system font in medium-resolution

The Amiga started with ex-Atari engineers desperate to design a 16-bit machine. It would eventually be purchased by Commodore and offer incredible graphics and sound that put Macs and PCs of the time to shame. Despite shipping with many fonts and supporting proportional text the default system font was a traditional fixed-width font called Topaz/8.

Unusual characteristics

  • As well as some letters touching some symbols such as ‘\/’ touched horizontally allowing nice ASCII art
  • Unusual lower-case ‘g’ somewhere between double and single story
  • Unusual almost comic-like ‘!’
  • Some non-bold pixels for flourishes on ‘t&’
  • Pixels missing on some curves ‘aS’ especially obvious in low resolution
  • Over-extended ‘r’ looks odd in any resolution
  • Alternate Topaz/9e – 10×9 (2 for descenders) – modified some glyphs like ‘g’ and available from Preferences as Text 60

Rationale

The Workbench booted in white-on-blue (shown) and was intended for use either with their own Commodore monitors or home TVs. Despite the choice of a serif font it worked quite well on these displays although interlace was quite unusable without specialized displays.

Influences

Very similar to the IBM CGA system font, very likely to be derived from there.

Technical

The Amiga shipped with it’s own font editor called ‘Fed’ found on the Workbench Extras disk in the Tools folder.

Commodore Amiga 2.x (1991)

Specifications

Bold sans
6-7 pixels
7 pixels
ISO 8859-1
Configurable
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Commodore Amiga 2.x 'Topaz' system font in low & resolutions Commodore Amiga 2.x 'Topaz' system font in medium resolution

Commodore’s update to the Amiga saw all sorts of changes in the ROM and Workbench for the GUI including some revisions to the font and the ability to change what font the workbench used.

Unusual characteristics

  • Over-extended top of ‘1’
  • Open elements on ‘%@’
  • Messy ‘Q’ is hard to distinguish
  • Alternate Topaz/9e – 10×9 (2 for descenders) – modified some glyphs like ‘g’ and available from Preferences as Text 60

Rationale

The Workbench booted in black-on-grey (shown) and the new font looked a lot more friendly as well as being a more legible choice for home TVs.

Influences

Obvious modification of the prior 1.x font to remove serifs and improve legibility.

Technical

WBScreen allowed you to choose which font to display in Workbench including some of the proportional fonts included.

Atari ST Low/Medium Res (1985)

Specifications

Bold sans
6-7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+proprietary set
320×200 (40×25 text)
640×200 (80×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Atari ST system font in low resolution Atari ST system font in medium resolution

The Atari ST was Atari’s answer to the Commodore Amiga after they failed to purchase back the talent and technology. The machine’s GUI was based on GEM from Digital Research.

Unusual characteristics

  • Descenders are cut very short on ‘pq’ despite ‘gy’ not following this style
  • Inconsistent positioning between ‘,’ and ‘;’
  • Ugly braces ‘()’ from the 8-bit font retained

Rationale

The font was very clear and worked well in both square pixel (low resolution) and rectangular pixel (medium resolution) modes.

Influences

Almost identical to the Atari 8-bit font but with the capital letters, symbols and numbers extended a pixel higher (inverse symmetry was no longer a concern) and more consistent/cleaner lower-case letters ‘sj’.

Technical

It is possible to change the system fonts used by the GEM desktop using the ST Font Loader.

Atari ST High Res (1985)

Specifications

Bold sans condensed
6-7 pixels
12 pixels
ASCII+proprietary set
640×400 (80×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Atari ST high-res system font

Unusual characteristics

  • Very tall letters – some glyphs 14 pixels high but still only 6-7 pixels wide
  • Avoids every trace of a serif except usual ‘Iil’ monospace hack
  • Short descenders on ‘pq’ still
  • Inconsistent choices for ‘c’ and ‘R’ and ‘w’

Rationale

Given that this screen mode was only available on high-resolution monitors it is very rectangular and failed to really take advantage of the unique situation in which it would be used.

Influences

Very likely based on the medium resolution font with some redrawing.

IBM PC VGA (1985)

Specifications

Bold serif
6-7 pixels
10 pixels
ASCII+code pages
640×400 (80×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

VGA DOS system font

Unusual characteristics

  • Very tall letters – some glyphs 14 pixels high but still only 6-7 pixels wide
  • Top bar of ‘T’ is two pixels thick
  • Too-high double quotes ‘”‘ also styled inconsistently
  • Another bubbly ‘!’ like the Amiga’s Topaz 1
  • Inconsistent sizing between ‘,’ and ‘;’
  • Very large ‘$’ even bigger than the capital ‘S’

Rationale

A reasonably nice serif font that gave a serious look if somewhat inconsistent in places.

Influences

Almost certainly based on the original CGA font.

Technical

Can be overridden by tools like fontedit.com.

For more analysis read Typography in bits: Other English micros or Typography in 8-bits: System fonts

[)amien

19 responses  

  1. The iPod mini did not use Chicago like the iPod classic, but rather Espy Sans Bold.

    Sid – April 18th, 2011
  2. The VGA screen was 720×400, not 640×400. A 1-pixel-wide space was maintained between most characters. This led to an unfortunate “seam” between characters that were meant to produce display effects (like the on-off-on-off etc. “checkerboard” shaded character #177).

    The IBM CGA 8×8 font is missing on both your 8-bit system and 16-bit system weblog posts — do you plan to cover it? It’s pretty iconic.

    Jim LeonardApril 18th, 2011
  3. Yeah, this one: http://df.magmawiki.com/images/0/0e/CGA8x8thick.png
    It’s a bit similar to the Amstrad one.

    Sid – April 19th, 2011
  4. Chicago was carefully designed to be readable when “greyed out” (masked with a monochrome checkerboard pattern) for disabled menu entries. Most likely the Atari ST high-resolution font was done that way as well for exactly the same reason.

    Mattias Engdegård – April 21st, 2011
  5. Thanks for linking to my TrueType conversion of the CGA font!

    I need to dust it off and do a proper version 2.0 with all the symbol characters from the DOS code page; I did the conversion ten years ago, back when Unicode support was still very patchy.

    codeman38April 26th, 2011
  6. I’ve created the “IBM PC VGA (1985)” (Perfect DOS VGA 437) a long time ago and just to be clear: it was based on a screen capture of the screen on VGA mode, using codepage 437, and no redrawing has taken place at all.

    I think the actual character format depends on the graphics chip (I’ve seen captures of VGA-mode monitors with different fonts), but when I did the font, I copied it as faithfully as possible (hence the name “Perfect”), just so it could be used to replicate ANSI screens in graphical systems. It *is* somewhat inconsistent at places, but I guess that’s how engineers designed fonts in the 80’s. :)

    zehNovember 8th, 2011
  7. In “even though it was only monospaced” where I think you mean “monochrome” on the Mac Chicago rationale.

    Hamilton-Lovecraft – November 15th, 2012
  8. @Hamilton: You’re totally right – corrected now thanks!

    [)amien

    Damien GuardNovember 15th, 2012
  9. @zeh: The fonts were stored in the adapter’s ROM, so there was occasionally some variance in the font if it was not an IBM adapter (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VGA_compatible_text_mode). Also, what most people think of as the ‘VGA’ font was based on the original IBM PC’s MDA font (Monochrome Display Adapter — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monochrome_Display_Adapter), which also stored the font in ROM and had a 720×350 resolution. However, MDA could only draw full characters, not individual pixels. The CGA adapter was released the same time as MDA and the font development was likely done simultaneously.

    On a related tangent, the MDA resolution and monitors were also supported by the Hercules Graphics Card (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hercules_Graphics_Card), which was the first ‘high-resolution’ PC graphics system, albeit without color.

    Shane BentingNovember 15th, 2012
  10. Would just like to point out that the Amiga series of computers (and their kernel/operating systems) are 32 bit – the 68000 CPU is internally 32 bits (has 32 bit address- and data registers) but a 16 bit memory bus externally, but Amigas used more than the 68000 CPU, such as the 68020, 68030, 68040 and 68060, all of which have a 32 bit memory bus externally.

    Rohan – May 29th, 2014
  11. @Rohan “bitness” has always been a fuzzy classification at best. These 68000 machines were generally referred to as 16-bit machines – the Genesis even had 16-BIT plastered across the enclosure.

    Damien GuardMay 29th, 2014
  12. Actually, the IBM VGA adapter font is much closer to the one from the Monochrome Display Adapter for the original IBM PC than it is to the one from the Color Graphics Adapter.

    John SavardMay 29th, 2014
  13. The early Amiga models most people remember were more on the 16-bit side of the spectrum. The latter Amiga 1200, Amiga 4000, and Amiga CD32 game console were definitely on the 32-bit side.

    RonMay 29th, 2014
  14. I would call the Amiga and Atari and Mac 32-bit. Because that’s what the software saw, the only 16-bitness in them was the data bus – they even had a 24 bit address bus.

    If they were 16-bit, then the IBM-PC was 8-bit, because it used an 8-bit data bus (20 bit address bus).

    Resuna – May 30th, 2014
  15. @Resuna The size of the data-bus is exactly what is being referring to when talking about an 8/16/32/64-bit CPU. Motorola’s own documentation refers to the 68000 as a 16-bit CPU.

    The size of the address bus and/or register sizes is not considered. If it was then the 8-bit Z80 machines like the Sinclair Spectrum would be considered 16-bit because they have a 16-bit address bus to access the 64K of RAM and registers to make that possible.

    Atari, Mac and Amiga did get 32-bit versions later on when production moved on to the 68020, 68030, 68040 etc.

    The original IBM PC XT did have an 8-bit data bus but the model was short lived and replaced quickly by the IBM PC AT. Conversely the Atari ST and Amiga for most people was the 1040ST and the 500.

    [)amien

    Damien GuardMay 30th, 2014
  16. @Damien Guard: I think it’s more accurate to say that the data bus size _was_ what was referred to back in the day. Nowadays it’s the general timbre of the instruction set architecture. So the z80 is 8-bit by every standard; the 68000 — especially the oddball 68008 — are less clear cut. E.g. the original Pentium has a 64-bit data bus but AMD64 is recognised as the x86’s move into 64-bit computing. Similarly the 386SX is nowadays described as one of Intel’s first generation 32-bit processors that just happens to have a 16-bit bus.

    The definition changed. Which is forgivable for such an arbitrary and near-useless metric.

    Thomas Harte – May 30th, 2014
  17. Fun Trivia: The “ST” in the Atari ST line actually stood for “Sixteen/Thirty-Two” in acknowledgement of the hybrid nature of the processor, and the TT (which used a 68030) of course stood for “Thirty-Two/Thirty-Two”

    Chris – September 1st, 2014
  18. @Damien: The original IBM PC was just IBM PC, it was based on 8088 and was introduced on August 12, 1981. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Personal_Computer It was supposed to use newer 16-bit Intel technology 8086 (as opposed to previous 8080 and 8085 that Z80 was comparable and compatible) but IBM decided on cheaper version 8088: “Introduced on July 1, 1979, the 8088 had an 8-bit external data bus instead of the 16-bit bus of the 8086.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intel_8088
    IBM PC XT had the same processor and only IBM PC AT with 80286 was true 16-bit.

    @Jim Leonard: VGA is and was always 640 x 480. Hercules Graphics was in text mode the same as Monochrome Display Adapter at 720 x 350. There are many character matrices based on display technique, however, original matrix was 9 x 14, but only 8 x 14 was actually used for letters as 1 pixel column was used for spacing (actually it was mostly 7 bit wide but lowercase “m” and block graphics were using 8 bits). In order to use block characters to draw tables, there was special mode that multiplied 8th column into 9th so block characters seemed continuous.

    And I do remember that from own memory as I was writing TSR utilities that drove localization of keyboard and letters in graphic card memory (yes, some allowed it to be changed).

    MacMladen – October 5th, 2015
  19. If you are interested in PC-Fonts, here is an option for a complete font-pack for free:
    http://int10h.org/oldschool-pc-fonts/fontlist/
    There are also 8×8 px fonts inside, PC-Clones and BIOS fonts, that might be of your interest.
    Didi

    Didi – February 15th, 2016

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