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)

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 center ‘|+:’
  • Squished ‘Q’ to avoid using descender
  • Wide ‘0’
  • Bubbly ‘!’
  • Inconsistent ‘t’ point and lack of serif on ‘j’


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



Apple Macintosh (1984)

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


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 gray-scale).


It’s unlikely they were digital.

Commodore Amiga 1.x (1985)

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 descender) – modified some glyphs like ‘g’ and available from Preferences as Text 60


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.


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


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)

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 descender) – modified some glyphs like ‘g’ and available from Preferences as Text 60


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.


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


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

Atari ST Low/Medium Res (1985)

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


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


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 lowercase letters ‘sj’.


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

Atari ST High Res (1985)

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’


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.


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

IBM PC VGA (1985)

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’


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


Almost certainly based on the original CGA font.


Can be overridden by tools like fontedit.com.


22 responses

  1. Avatar for Sid

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

    Sid 18 April 2011
  2. Avatar for Jim Leonard

    The VGA screen was 720x400, not 640x400. 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 8x8 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 Leonard 18 April 2011
  3. Avatar for Mattias Engdegård

    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 21 April 2011
  4. Avatar for codeman38

    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.

    codeman38 26 April 2011
  5. Avatar for zeh

    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. :)

    zeh 8 November 2011
  6. Avatar for Hamilton-Lovecraft

    In "even though it was only monospaced" where I think you mean "monochrome" on the Mac Chicago rationale.

    Hamilton-Lovecraft 15 November 2012
  7. Avatar for Damien Guard

    @Hamilton: You're totally right - corrected now thanks!

    Damien Guard 15 November 2012
  8. Avatar for Shane Benting

    @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. Also, what most people think of as the 'VGA' font was based on the original IBM PC's MDA font Monochrome Display Adapter, which also stored the font in ROM and had a 720x350 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, which was the first 'high-resolution' PC graphics system, albeit without color.

    Shane Benting 15 November 2012
  9. Avatar for Rohan

    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 29 May 2014
  10. Avatar for John Savard

    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 Savard 29 May 2014
  11. Avatar for Damien Guard

    @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 Guard 29 May 2014
  12. Avatar for Ron

    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.

    Ron 29 May 2014
  13. Avatar for Resuna

    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 30 May 2014
  14. Avatar for Damien Guard

    @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.

    Damien Guard 30 May 2014
  15. Avatar for Thomas Harte

    @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 30 May 2014
  16. Avatar for Chris

    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 1 September 2014
  17. Avatar for MacMladen

    @Damien: The original IBM PC was just IBM PC, it was based on 8088 and was introduced on August 12, 1981. 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." 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 5 October 2015
  18. Avatar for Didi

    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 8x8 px fonts inside, PC-Clones and BIOS fonts, that might be of your interest. Didi

    Didi 15 February 2016
  19. Avatar for Alastair C Parker

    Wow! Looking at a 4-colour Amiga Workbench screen from various Amiga Web sites on my 16 Megacolour (16.8 million colour) Samsung NP350V5C laptop PC makes me feel old. (I am 48 now.) One thing I hated about Amiga fonts (especially the default Topaz 80) was that lower-case Ms looked a little like upper-case ones, and it used to drive me nuts. I had my very first Amiga (an A500) way back in 1988, and I upgraded to an Amiga A1500 (a cheaper version of the Amiga B2000 in the UK) in circa 1991-1992 (I cannot remember the exact year.) I also bought my very first hard disk drive for the A1500, which was a GVP "Hard Card" with a 105 MB Quantum hard disk drive attached to it. Unfortunately, after formatting the hard disk drive (professionally by my local Amiga dealer in Tottenham Court Road in London, Diamond Computers), I lost 5 MB, leaving me with only a 100 MB hard disk drive. The cheek of it! Nevertheless, back then, 100 MB was huge (especially if you were only storing plain text.)

    I used a lot of nice PC-style business software packages on my Amigas, including Arnor Protext (word processing), Precision Software Superbase Professional (database), and of course, cool Amiga graphics and music software, such as Electronic Arts Deluxe Paint 1,2 and 3 (kind of like Adobe Photoshop for their day), AEGIS Sonix, and Microillusions Music-X MIDI software, the latter with my Roland D-10 digital synthesizer.

    I was also a big Amiga Public Domain (PD) software fan (especially with Amiga demos.) Some days I would sit for ages at home watching and be listening to my brill Amiga demos through my Yamaha AX-500 hi-fi stereo amplifier and JBL TLX 7 GI stereo speakers, and also predicted what they would be like if running in a full 16 Megacolours and full CDQ (CD Quality) stereo sound and music. The funny thing is, in 2018 I listen to brill Amiga demo-like Spacesynth* music and watch the visuals in a full 16 Megacolours and nearly CDQ digital music on YouTube (other brill digital video-sharing Web sites are available), on my 64-bit Samsung laptop PC, so my Amiga dream realized at last, albeit on a different microcomputer platform (the PC.) What a way I have come from a 16-bit 7.16 MHz CPU-based Amiga A500 and A1500 (the latter machine with only 3 MB of RAM and the aforementioned 105 MB hard disk drive), 4,096 colours and 4-channel digital stereo sound (or 4-note polyphonic in music synthesizer terms) to my current 64-bit 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5-based Samsung laptop PC with 6 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard disk drive (not an SSD). a built-in DVD writer drive, 16.8 Megacolour Hi-Def graphics and 16-bit CDQ digital stereo sound. As a side note (no music pun intended), this must be why many chords in Amiga demo songs were played as arpeggios, rather than full chords, because otherwise the polyphony would be taken up very quickly, and there would be no free Amiga sound channels available for other sounds (for example, drum samples.)

    To come back to the subject of Amiga fonts, I used to love seeing them in Amiga games and demos, in all their different styles. So many Amiga demo fonts were so original, too. It's such a long time ago, but I think my favourites were from Red Sector and Cryptoburners. I wonder if the latter Amiga demo group was so-named because of the way they cracked encrypted Amiga game copy protection. Just an idea, but if any of you know what the real reason is, can you please tell me? Thanks.

    *Spacesynth was actually the name of a cool sound that I programmed on my Roland D-10 digital synthesizer way back in (I think) 1989. And then what happens? MIDI musicians in the 21st century "steal" my Roland D-10 digital synth sound name to mean a new genre of electronic music. The cheek of it!

    Anyway, thanks for reading.

    Alastair C Parker (a mega electronic music fan since the 1970s and Amiga fan since 1988!)

    Alastair C Parker 23 June 2018
  20. Avatar for scruss

    GS/OS on the Apple IIgs had an interesting system font: Shaston - http://www.kreativekorp.com/software/fonts/apple2.shtml#shaston

    It rendered nicely on analogue CRTs, but seems overly clipped when viewed on a crisp digital display.

    scruss 18 August 2018
  21. Avatar for rdap

    Regarding the inspiration for the Color Atari ST fonts: They're a lot more similar to the Commodore 64 than the Atari 8-but computers. While lowercase is mostly indistinguishable between all three systems named; the uppercase letters on the Atari ST are nearly identical to those on the C64, and not similar at all to the Atari 8-bit line... While the designers of the Atari 8-bit line went on to develop the Amiga, you must also keep in mind that most of the developers of the Atari ST were engineers that Jack Tramiel brought with him from Commodore. The C64 is more than likely what really inspired the color system font for the ST. As for the monochrome font, that came from Digital Research. Versions of GEM for other platforms use the exact same font. The fonts for icon labels in both color and monochrome modes also came from Digital Research.

    One quirk of the Atari ST system font is that there are four graphics characters that can be arranged to form a rough facsimile of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs.

    rdap 13 July 2021