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Typography in bits: For a few pixels more  

It’s been a while since I visited the bitmap fonts of old computers (see the bottom of the post for links) there are still some to look at!

There are a lot of subtle variations here as machines often used an off-the-shelf video chip and then made a few tweaks or had them slightly customized.

TRS-80 Color Computer & Dragon – custom MC6847 (1982)

Specifications

Serif/Sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
Lowercase ASCII
256×192 (32×16 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

TRS-80 system font

The initial model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – affectionately known as CoCo – as well as the UK’s Dragon 32 & 64 computers used the Motorola MC6847 character generator and so used the same embedded font.

Unusual characteristics

  • No lowercase
  • Serifs on B&D
  • Over-extended ‘7’
  • Asterisk is a diamond!
  • Square ‘O’
  • Cute ‘@’
  • Thin ‘0?’
  • Tight counter on ‘4’
  • Unjoined strokes on ‘#’

Rationale

The font has some rough edges although the softer fuzzier look of a CRT TV almost certainly fuzzed those out like many home computer fonts at the time. The awful dark-green on light-green color scheme wasn’t helping though.

Influences

Has similar proportions and characters to much of the Apple ][ font but feels like they tried to make the characters more distinguished on low-quality TV’s hence the serifs on B & D and the differentiation between 0 and O.

Technical notes

Motorola actually offered custom versions of this ROM so it would have been entirely possible to have an alternative character set.

TRS-80 Color Computer v2+ (1985)

Specifications

Serif/Sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
256×192 (32×16 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

TRS-80 v2+ system font

The follow-up v2 model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – also known as the Tandy Color Computer used an enhanced Motorola MC6847T1 variant.

Unusual characteristics

  • Serifs on B&D, over-extended 7 as per v1
  • Ugly ‘@’
  • Very soft center bar on ‘3’
  • Tight counter on ‘4’
  • Tight top of ‘f’

Rationale

In general a much-improved font over the v1 fixing the oddities with the asterisk, O, 0, 3, 4, S, ? and # as well as making the slashes straighter and reducing the boldness of comma, colon, semi-colon and apostrophe although the @ and 3 are worse than the previous version.

Influences

Based on the previous model however lower-case does have some resemblance to Apple and MSX. This may in fact be a custom version as the spec sheet for the T1 variant has bold versions of ,;:.’ glyphs, shorter descenders on y and g, more curvature on p and q, stronger curves on 369, tighter t, semi-broken #

Technical notes

You can identify CoCo2 models that have the lower-case as they say Tandy on the screen not TRS-80.

Tatung Einstein (1984)

Specifications

Serif/Sans
5 pixels
6 pixels
ASCII
256×192 (32×24, 40×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Tatung Einstein system font

The Tatung Einstein TC-01 was a British Z80 based machine launched in the UK that never really took off with the public but had some success in the game development word being a compiler and debugger for other more popular Z80 systems thanks to its CP/M compatible OS and disk system (it came with the same oddball 3″ disks used on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3 and Amstrad CPC/PCW range).

Unusual characteristics

  • Odd missing pixels on ‘9S’
  • Little flourishes on ‘aq’
  • Massively tall ‘*’
  • Chunky joins on ‘Kv’
  • High counters and bowls on ‘gpqy’

Rationale

Given the 40 column mode the generous spacing in 32 column mode makes sense and the font isn’t too bad. Many of the negative unusual characteristics would be lost on a CRT.

Influences

It feels like the Sinclair Spectrum font with some horizontal width sacrifices.

Commodore 128 (1985)

Specifications

Sans
7 pixels
7 pixels
PETSCII
640×200 (80×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Commodore 128 80-column font

While the follow-up to the Commodore 64 used the exact same font at boot – it had the same VIC-II video chip – switching it into 80-column mode reveals a new font with double-height pixels powered by the MOS 8563 VDC.

Unusual characteristics

  • ‘£’ aligned left not right, thin strokes
  • ‘Q’ fails to take advantage of descender
  • Cluttered redundant stroke on ‘7’
  • Rounded ‘<>’

Rationale

Quite a nice font with very little weirdness that probably looked good on any monitor at the time although TV’s probably struggled to display detail with such fine verticals on some letters.

Influences

Technical

Switching to 80 column mode could be achieved by using the keyboard or the GRAPHIC 5 command.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (TMS9918) (1985)

Specifications

Serif/Sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
256×192 (32×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

TI-99/4A system font

The follow-up v2 model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – also known as the Tandy Color Computer used an enhanced Motorola MC6847T1 variant.

Unusual characteristics

  • Lower case is small caps
  • Serifs on ‘BD’
  • Square ‘O’
  • Poor slope on ‘N’
  • Bar very tight on ‘G’

Rationale

The lower-case small caps feels quite awful and appears to be an attempt to avoid having to deal with descenders. Other fonts brought the bowl up a line and descenders look a little off instead although some machines like the Sinclair QL just left space for them.

Influences

Based on the previous model however lower-case does have some resemblance to Apple and MSX.

Oric Atmos (1983)

Specifications

Serif/Sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
240×200 (40×28 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Oric Atmos system font

The follow-up v2 model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – also known as the Tandy Color Computer used an enhanced Motorola MC6847T1 variant.

Unusual characteristics

  • Bold ‘{}’
  • Vertical line on ‘^’
  • Awkward horizontal stroke on ‘k’
  • Square ‘mw’

Rationale

Not a bad choice although I suspect cheaper TV’s would struggle with the non-bold and tight spacing which is probably why they went with high-contrast black-and-white.

Influences

A complete copy of the Apple ][ system font with only a few tweaks to remove over-extension of 6 and 9 and unbolding [ and ] but they forgot { and } weirdly. Additions of ^ and £ don’t quite fit right.

This post is part of a series on system fonts, including:

[)amien

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