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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

Typography in bits: Other English micros  

I’ve been wanting to do a follow-up to the popular Typography in 8-bits: System fonts post and the 16-bit sequel for some time and recent Hacker News and ArsTechnica traffic reminded me that I’m not the only one nostalgic for chunky pixel fonts of old.

This time I’m focusing on a handful British machines that were much less well known around the globe which – all seem to borrow heavily from other machines!

Sinclair QL (1984)

Specifications

Condensed sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
256×256 (40×25 text)
512×256 (80×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Sinclair QL system font in medium resolution

The short-lived Sinclair QL was Sir Clive’s attempt at getting into the business market but the corner cutting on the CPU (a Motorola 68008 – the 8-bit data bus version of the 68000) and storage (Microdrives consisting of loops of high-speed tape instead of disc) meant it wasn’t taken seriously. This was a shame as the operating system and software were advanced for its time.

Unusual characteristics

  • True descenders making the font effectively 9 pixels tall
  • Single story lower case ‘a’
  • Over-extended ‘7’
  • Squished lower-case ‘f’
  • Aligns braces and brackets to tightly wrap contents
  • Soft curves on ‘gil’
  • Unusual join on ‘k’

Rationale

A rather tidy condensed font very similar to those used on LCD displays still today. Almost certainly looked good on a monitor although perhaps not using the system default colors shown here. Almost certainly too hard to read on a TV at the time.

Influences

Has similar proportions and characters to much of the Apple ][ font but with various visual improvements such as on the 6,9,2,$ etc.

Memotech MTX512 (1984)

Specifications

Condensed sans
7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
256×192 (34×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Memotech MTX512 system font in low resolution

Memotech were a peripheral maker who decided to get in on the action and produce their own machine in the 1984-1985 period that saw a lot of machines and failures. Despite some good specifications it never made a dent and its claim to fame being the computer in the movie Weird Science.

Unusual characteristics

  • Some quirky decisions especially in lower-case
  • Awful character alignment especially on ‘q’
  • Uneven descenders on ‘gy’
  • Mismatched ‘.,;:’
  • Weird serifs on ‘adu’

Rationale

This quirky font doesn’t look okay on low-quality TVs of the time with oddities lost in the blur. On sharper displays, it looks amateur and unfinished.

Influences

Despite some similarities in the upper-case to the Apple ][ font it doesn’t take many cues from anywhere else.

Amstrad PCW (1985)

Specifications

Serif
7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
720×256 (90×32 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Amstrad PCW system font in high resolution

Alan Sugar’s Amstrad didn’t waste any time after the CPC in going after the business market with a range of cheap machines for word processing and other general tasks. In the UK these machines could be found everywhere either paired up with Amstrad’s own daisywheel or dot-matrix printers.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)
  • Distinctive curves on ‘CGOQ’
  • ‘X’ looks like a different style because of high mid-point

Rationale

These machines came with their own monochrome monitors and were high resolution for consumers at the time. The font is not a bad choice and did allow for 90 columns of text but smarter alternatives existed in word processing programs such as Locoscript.

Influences

An almost direct copy of the Amstrad CPC font disguised by the double-height pixels. Actual changes are the 0 taking on the more oval shape, O and Q taking on the boxier shape and the apostrophe losing its slant.

The PCW was not alone in using an existing 8×8 font in a double-height manner. The Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, and Acorn Archimedes all used the same trick.

Acorn Archimedes/A series (1987)

Specifications

Bold sans
6 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
various
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Acorn Archimedes using double-height pixels
Acorn’s successor to the BBC Micro was a lovely piece of hardware with an all-new 32-bit RISC processor they developed dubbed ARM. While it did well in Acorn’s entrenched education markets it never found a foothold anywhere else. After various models they cancelled their upcoming Phoebe workstation (yes, named after the Friends character) and would concentrate on thin-clients before abandoning that and focusing purely on processor design where they had immense success. The ARM design now powers almost all the smart phones on the market today.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)

Rationale

These machines came with Acorn’s color monitors and were capable of running VGA-like resolutions. The GUI on these machines really missed an opportunity here to use a specifically designed font and to add proportional text printing and take on the Mac. Instead, these used a scaled fixed-width font like the Amiga and ST despite being a couple of years late to that party. Proportional fonts were supported later.

Influences

Identical to the BBC font except for ‘^|’

SAM Coupé (1989)

Specifications

Condensed sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
256×192 (32×24 text)
512×192 (85×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

SAM Coupé in high resolution

MGT were a third-party producer of expansion products for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum who bet their company on a Spectrum successor using VLSI technology that would ‘rival an Amiga’ at a fraction of the price. While the machine was impressive by 8-bit standards when it finally arrived somewhat late and more expensive than originally touted it failed to make a dent as the market went to the 16-bit machines and it took MGT down with it.

Unusual characteristics

  • Rather ugly ‘*’ asterisk
  • Inconsistent ‘.,;:’ set
  • Inconsistent ‘ and “

Rationale

A smart font that despite the various inconsistencies looked good on a quality display in both high and low-resolution modes.

Influences

Almost a direct copy of the Sinclair QL font. The upper-case are identical and a most lower case with some exceptions to squeeze the QL’s 9-pixel high font into 8 pixels. This is especially apparent in the over-extended 7, the slashes and the bracket alignments.

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

[)amien

Typography in 8 bits: System fonts  

My love of typography originated in the 80’s with the golden years of 8-bit home computing and their 8×8 pixel monospaced fonts on low-resolution displays.

It’s quite easy to find bitmap copies of these fonts and also scalable traced TTF versions but there’s very little discussion about the fonts themselves. Let’s remedy that by firing up some emulators and investigating the glyphs.

Commodore PET (1977)

Specifications

Regular semi-serif
5-7 pixels
7 pixels
PETSCII
320×200 (40×25 text)
Leonard Tramiel
Download in TrueType

Commodore PET

Commodore’s first business machine was the PET which came with a built-in monitor and a full character set unlike other machines at the time.

Unusual characteristics

  • Primarily sans-serif but serifs present on ‘BDJa’
  • Slightly stylized ‘£’

Rationale

The font is good choice for the original PET and its original monitor. It was unfortunately also used on the Vic-20 despite having half the screen resolution where it made a poor choice.

Influences

While not visibly influenced from anything else an almost direct rip of this font appears to have been used in the Apple Lisa debugger.

Technical

Unknown.

Apple ][ (1977)

Specifications

Regular condensed sans
3/5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
280×192 (40×24 text)
Signetics+?
Download in TrueType

Apple ][ system font

Apple’s first professionally built computer was the Apple ][ which from rev 7 onwards added lower-case letters.

Unusual characteristics

  • Uppercase letters can touch descenders on the line above as the full height is used
  • Only first 7 columns per glyph otherwise would have been 35×24 text
  • Vertical stems for ‘[]{}’ are 2 pixels wide (bold)
  • Very small slashes ‘/\’
  • Upper-case is consistent although ‘A’ is very angular, ‘G’ unpronounced
  • Lower-case less consistent – ‘gf’ has soft curves, ‘mw’ square, ‘nhr’ ignore curve of ‘u’
  • Numbers – unusual ‘3’ but ’96’ over-extend

Rationale

The font is well suited to the default high-contrast white-on-black (often green-on-black) given the machine was intended for use on their own monitors.

Influences

The upper-case, numbers and symbols were copied from the Signetics 64 × 8 × 5 character generator 2513 chip used in the Apple I and II in revision 0 to 6.

The later Texas Instruments TMS9918 Video Controller Chip used on Sega, Nintendo, Colecovision and TI/99 machines re-used this font with only a couple of pixels changed.

Technical

Changing the font requires replacing the 2 KB 2716 pinout ROM with your own EPROM or alternate ROM.

Atari 400/800 (1979)

Specifications

Bold sans
4-6 pixels
6 pixels
ATASCII
320×192 (40×24 text)
Scott Schieman
Download in TrueType

Atari 8-bit system font

Atari’s entry into the home computing market put out some very capable machines with all sorts of hardware tricks (the creative geniuses behind it would go on to form Amiga). The same font was used on all Atari 8-bit models from the original 400/800 to the XL and XE models in the late 80’s.

Unusual characteristics

  • 6 pixels uppercase causes some vertical imbalance especially on ‘9’
  • Braces are overly bold being 3 pixels wide.
  • Less than and greater than symbols are too tall.
  • ‘MWw’ make great use of width to nice effect
  • Bar on ‘G’ too low, ‘U’ overtly square, ‘X’ very blocky, ‘S’ does not extend enough

Rationale

The machine boots in a low-contrast blue-on-blue and is designed for use with TV’s which explains some of the odd characteristics above like the square U to distinguish it from the V. It is likely the 6-pixel choice is to allow the letters to be centered when using inverse letter mode.

Influences

Designed by Scott Scheiman (Source)

Technical

One byte per row, 8 sequential bytes making one glyph. You can reprogram this by poking address 756 with the page number of the new font (default of 226 for ROM location 0xE000).

POKE 756, 226

Acorn BBC Micro (1981)

Specifications

Bold sans
4-7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII only
320×256 (40×32 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

BBC Micro mode 1 system font

The Beeb, as it was affectionately known, has its own font which could display in three different modes – one wider and one narrower but many users might not recognize it all as it booted into ‘Mode 7’ utilizing a Videotex chip (used in the UK for text-on-TV and travel agents as well as in France for Minitel) that had a different font of its own.

Unusual characteristics

  • Drops bold in tight spaces e.g ‘$&@’
  • Outlines the tail on the ‘Q’ to make it much clearer
  • Unique and beautiful ‘*’
  • Does not extend low bar on ‘e’ as much as expected and ‘f’ seems to wide
  • Vertically squished ‘?’
  • Style of single-quote ‘ is inconsistent with comma

Rationale

The machine generally shipped with good quality monitors and the combination of high-contrast colors and this bold font made it very readable indeed.

Influences

It’s quite likely it was influenced by the Atari 8-bit font but with larger capitals and ascenders and a much more consistent look.

Technical

The system font is stored at 0xC00-0xC2FF with each character being represented by 8 sequential bytes (left pixel is high bit).
You can replace the font used by system text routine OSWRCH (0xFFEE) using the VDU command 23 followed by the ascii code and then 8 rows of data, e.g.

VDU 23,65,11,22,33,44,55,66,77,88

Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982)

Specifications

Regular sans
6 upper, 5 lower
6 pixels
ASCII + own
256×192 (32×24 text)
Nine Tiles
Download in TrueType

Sinclair ZX Spectrum system font

Sinclair’s successor to the ZX81 added color and lower-case letters – again preserving the uppercase and numbers from its predecessor but finally mapping them to ASCII. This font was re-used on Jupiter Ace and Timex machines but the ZX Spectrum was the most popular.

Unusual characteristics

  • 6 pixels uppercase leaves many unevenly balanced ‘BEFS’ and ‘X’ with ugly 2×2 center
  • Full stop is 2×2 pixels (bold) but colon, semi-colon and comma are not
  • Capital ‘MW’ are very slight with latter hard to distinguish from ‘V’
  • Uneven styling ‘c’ omits curves, ‘e’ is soft ‘g’ is not, ‘f’ and ‘k’ are thin
  • Only the copyright symbol uses to the top row of pixels

Rationale

While the machine has a default high-contrast scheme the video output was poor because of the quality of the RF modulator and home TVs it was connected to. It looks like the designer decided to increase spacing between letters after the ZX80 from one to two pixels which greatly limited what could be done with the letters themselves. This was likely done for the same reasons it was done on the Atari 8-bit – namely to allow the letters to be centered when using inverse text modes.

Influences

The font was mostly inherited from the ZX80. I was not involved with
that, so I don’t know who did it. Probably it was a combination of
John Grant, Jim Westwood and Rick Dickinson. It’s possible we added
lower case for the ZX81 or Spectrum (I can’t remember without
checking), and I do remember discussions about how “mostly moistly”
would appear.

Steve Vickers, email, 2nd February 2001

Technical

The system font is stored at 0x3D00-0x3FFF with each character being represented by 8 sequential bytes (left pixel is high bit). You can replace the system text routine (RST 10) by poking the new fonts memory address into the system memory map at 23606/23607 minus 256 bytes (the first 32 characters are non-printable, 32×8 = 256)

LOAD "newfont" CODE 49152, 768: POKE 23606, 0: POKE 23607, 191

Commodore 64 (1982)

Specifications

Bold sans
6 pixels
7 pixels
PETSCII
320×200 (40×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Commodore 64 system font

Commodore took to take their success with the PET and applied it to the home first with the VIC 20 and then later with the wildly successful Commodore 64.

Unusual characteristics

  • Inconsistent shapes/style across ‘147,&<>@Q’
  • 2×2 pixel of ‘.’ is not carried through to ‘;:!’
  • Ascenders not as tall as capital letters

Rationale

The bold font was essential for the low-quality TV’s Commodore were aiming at. The inconsistencies across the font may have been intentional to help make the letters look different (A vs 4, 1 vs I, 7 vs T) given the limitations of the displays or just poorly implemented (see below).

Influences

Lower-case is identical to the Atari 8-bit font and likely copied wholesale as they do not match the upper-case well. Symbols, numbers and upper-case are a bolded version of the PET font that looses the serifs and also could explain the odd reproductions of 1, 2, 7 & 4.

Technical

See comment from Paolo below for details!

Amstrad CPC (1984)

Specifications

Bold serif
6-7 pixels
7 pixels
PETSCII
320×200 (40×25 text)
Locomotive Software
Download in TrueType

Amstrad CPC system font

Alan Sugar’s foray into the UK market came a little later than the other 8-bits in 1984 with the Amstrad CPC series.

Unusual characteristics

  • Full use of 7 pixels for upper and 1 pixel for lower means glyphs can touch
  • Serif choice is unusual and not consistently applied because of space constraints
  • ‘0’ is wider than would be expected (copied from CGA font)
  • Very distinctive curves on ‘CGOQ’
  • ‘X’ looks like a different style because of high mid-point

Rationale

Sugar wanted the machine to look more professional than other home computers at the time. The choice of a serif based font to look like PCs which also featured serifs (at a higher resolution) reflects that desire.

Influences

Very similar to the IBM CGA font with some adjustments (fixes) to the horizontal positioning of some symbols. Many characters completely identical and some bearing style similarities too (wider 0, X choosing one side to be longer than the other). Some other characters bear similarity to the BBC Micro (Q uses the same trick to keep it distinguished) and a number of symbols and lower-case letters being the same where serifs would not fit.

The Amstrad CPC manual shows the system font but is different in some areas. It is possible it is a transcription problem (z is shifted up one pixel, missing pixels on ’37PRz~’ and extra pixels on ‘#b’ ) although it could have been an earlier version from the designer as ‘rG?’ are subtly different.

Technical

Redefine using the Amstrad BASIC command SYMBOL that takes an ASCII code and then 8 comma-separated values one-per-row in much the same way as the BBC with the VDU 23 command. SYMBOL AFTER must be set first e.g.

SYMBOL AFTER 32
SYMBOL 65,11,22,33,44,55,66,77,88

MSX (1983)

Specifications

Regular condensed sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII Extended
320×200? (40×25 text)
Microsoft?
Download in TrueType

MSX system font

The MSX differs from the other machines here in that it was a standard rather than a specific machine. It was very popular in Japan and did hit UK shores although I only knew a single person that had one apart from our school which had acquired several Yamaha models to control MIDI keyboards. Given the multiple manufacturers, it’s not surprising that some models had slightly tweaked fonts but the one shown here seems to be the most popular.

Unusual characteristics

  • Full use of 7 pixels for upper and 1 pixel for lower means glyphs can touch
  • Only 5 pixels wide for the letters
  • Pixels touching on the curves of ‘db’ etc. look quite ugly
  • Very angular curves on ‘5’

Rationale

An unusual choice that feels very quirky.

Influences

Most likely influenced by the Apple ][e.

Technical

Unknown.

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

[)amien