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Fonts articles

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.

Also check out articles on 8-bit, 16-bit system fonts and English micros.

[)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 very seriously. This was a shame as the operating system and software was 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 is being the computer in the movie Weird Science.

Unusual characteristics

  • Some very 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 looks okay on low-quality TVs of the time with oddities lost in the blur. On sharper screens 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)
  • Very 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 very 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 loosing 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.

Also check out articles on 8-bit and 16-bit system fonts.

[)amien

Typography can be fun  

People are always surprised when they hear you’re interested in typography. The appreciation and interest in the shape of letters and symbols is definitely a little more unusual to find as a hobby but it’s actually quite fun!

Here’s a few ideas I hope will prove my point.

Play games

The Rather Difficult Font Game
This game shows you some text in a certain font then asks you to name the font from one of them in the list. It isn’t as difficult as the name sounds!

Deep Font Challenge
Head down to the shooting gallery to blow away the letters from the typeface he wants or doesn’t want.

Cheese or Font
Hmm, it’s odd how cheeses and typefaces often have similar names. See if you can tell the difference.

Kern Type
Many fonts contain extra information telling the computer how to adjust the spacing between individual pairs of letters. If you think of an AV for example the top of the V might start before the A ends or be very close. This game lets you move the letters around until you think you have optimal spacing then you can see how well you did.

Shape Type
The ultimate font game! See if you can reshape disported letters back to their original forms by adjusting the lines and bezier curves. The computer will score your efforts by comparing to the original.

Find a font

FontShop newsletter
This newsletter is both infrequent and interesting so it gets to come directly to my inbox. It contains interesting new fonts, news and designer spotlights and is a great way of discovering new typefaces to use.

IdentiFont
Asks you a series of specific questions about letters in the font on a continual process to narrow it down to the hopefully right one.

WhatTheFont
This tool is a little more automated, upload the picture and it should identify the letters although you may need to fine-tune the recognition (also available as an iPhone app)

So you need a typeface infographic
This flowchart takes you through a bunch of decisions to choose a typeface. Don’t expect to find anything too original though!

Smarten your site

If you have a web site you might want to look at using a custom font to help stand-out from the crowd now that they are compatible across many browsers. Yes, I should do this for damieng.com :)

Font Squirrel
Font squirrel have a great site full of many free fonts and have prepared the necessary font and CSS files required for the subset available for use on web sites.

Canva’s 2015
Canva’s Design School list 100 free fonts that they think you should be using. Some nice entries and a reminder that sometimes free fonts aren’t to be found in Google Web Fonts.

Google web fonts
Google have almost 300 fonts available in their free web font directory right now and with just a couple of clicks can provide the necessary HTML, CSS import or Javascript necessary to use them in your pages. The fonts are served up from their servers too so you don’t need to worry about files or bandwidth.

Fonts Live
Monotype’s hosted service is similar to Google’s but contains just their own commercial fonts including well-known ones such as Museo, Gill Sans, Bodoni, Rockwell and many of Microsoft’s typefaces. Prices start at about $40 a year for small sites (250k visits a month) but they have 30-day free trials.

MyFonts WebFonts
MyFonts have a huge collection of fonts – some 40,000+ – most of which are available to use on the web for the same price as buying the font. This makes it cheaper than FontsLive but you need to host the files and CSS on your own server.

Offline fun

Playing cards
These Helvetica based playing cards are very stylish, bold and modern. If you’re going to play cards why not do so with something a little different.

Typographical calendar
Get a daily dose of typography in this compact little desk calendar. The designer’s equivalent of a word-a-day.

Helvetica The Movie
Not just a movie about the design of this iconic font but also the modern movement it was part of. If you like this keep an eye out for Linotype: The Movie due in Feb 2012.

Typography t-shirts
Zazzle has a lot of typography t-shirts as does TypographyShop and Ugmonk.

Create your own

If any of that has been enough to pique your interest why not have a go at designing your own font?

FontStruct lets you start simply by building your own from a library of pre-build shapes you place on a grid. It’s like LEGO for typography and is very easy go get started.

If you have an iPad then you can also try out iFontMaker for an easy way to make hand-drawn fonts (it lacks fine editing facilities). I actually used a Pogo Sketch for my Damien Typewriter  but it is too soft so you could try other styluses. Once you’re done it publishes to their web gallery where you can download the TrueType font and a Web Font too.

If you enjoy that but crave more control then try the free FontForge editor which runs on many platforms and lets you create real fonts or hack apart other people’s (remember to not redistribute changes to other people’s fonts unless the licence allows it).

If you get stuck on some letters then try my favourite Designing Type book that devotes a page or two to each common character and shows how a number of well-known typefaces express it.

[)amien

First impressions of Snow Leopard  

I came home from work today to find my family pack upgrade version of Snow Leopard. It’s been a few hours, so here are impressions so far.

Packaging & installation

The packaging was very small and lightweight and eco-friendly compared to the big-plastic-box-monsters that come out of Redmond.

Installation went mostly smoothly apart from an abort-and-restart that seems to have been caused by my DVD drive flaking out on me. It’s been trouble since it came back from the Apple Store.

I had to run the separate Xcode installer to update that – it wasn’t automatically detected – which left me wondering if I need to manually install anything from the optional installs or not. Running Xcode before updating it not only failed to launch but left a background process I had to force quit with Actitity Monitor to let the installer upgrade it.

The less-is-more-approach followed through to disk space which freed up another 10.5 GB – impressive given that I had purged all the non-English language resources already using Monolingual and I elected to re-install the Rossetta PowerPC binary support.

Noticeable changes

Despite being an optimization release Apple squeezed a few features in to sweeten the deal the majority of which are documented at their site and in proper reviews. The ones I’ve encountered so far are:

Location services, detect time-zone

Screenshot of location aware time-zone in Snow LeopardGreat for travelling users like myself, it found my nearest city instantly.

AirPort status in menu bar

Pop-up menu now shows signal strength of all other networks. (Hold down alt when popping up this menu to see detailed connection stats)

Smoothing options

Gone are the Automatic, light, medium and strong options replaced with a single “Use LCD font smoothing when available” option that isn’t too good at detecting third-party displays but you can activate the old hidden options.

Subpixel quality

The rendering just looks plain wrong when booting. It has that awful colour-fringe that you see from time to time, the cause of which seems to be related to the default gamma (the curve on which digital colours become analogue levels) on Mac OS X changing from 1.8 to the PC compatible 2.2.

It seems however that the sub-pixel rendering algorithms haven’t been updated to correct this. There is absolutely no point in posting a screenshot as either your browser, screen or OS would make it appear different to how it did here.

Help is at hand though, you can head into the ColorSync Utility in your Applications folder and calibrate your display – just follow the instructions and set the gamma back to 1.8. It’s worth turning on “Expert” mode and spending a few minutes setting it up properly though.

Unable to open NIBs

No compiled nibs error in Snow LeopardI used to love opening up other people’s NIB files. You could in theory create your own customised versions of an applications interface. Localise it for yourself. Maybe even create a UK English version where Colour is spelt correctly.

No more.

Whether this was to save space or to prevent such hacking is anyone’s guess.

Compatibility woes

So far I’ve had a couple of things break:

  • Cyberduck quits on launch – beta replacement is out
  • Xbox 360 controller extension (I don’t use it anymore anyway)
  • iStat Menus fails to launch – I need this to replace menu time with timezones and a drop-down calendar

Features I was expecting

Given the lean-and-mean plus sensible small refinements I was expecting…

  1. Login Window keyboard shortcut – come on, seriously, with the secrecy at Apple surely you need this too?
  2. Uninstaller – AWOL since the transition from OpenStep to NextStep and sorely needed
  3. Language purging – I still don’t want French etc. on my laptop, odd omission given the reduction goals
  4. System update framework – Other apps could use this too you know guys – and put clever delta’ing support in
  5. Grab – STILL only saves in TIFF format. So I save it there, load into preview then into PNG. WTF??
  6. Safari – should have an option to force new windows to open in a new tab

I’d also love to see being able to pin documents to their dock icon and being able to push a window to an edge to tile like as these were two features I found useful in Windows 7. Talking of which when you hold the mouse button down on a dock icon it greys everything else out for a truly UAC-like moment every time you want to quit an app from the dock…

The Menlo font

Menlo and Vera Sans Mono overlaid for comparisonApple needed to replace the ageing Monaco as it has poor international unicode support, has just a single style and poor hinting (it uses embedded bitmaps to look good without anti-aliasing in Terminal).

Given Steve Job’s apparently love of typography would they commission a gorgeous new monospaced font as Microsoft did with Consolas? No.

In 2003 Bitstream released the family Bitstream Vera under a free licence which included a great Sans Mono with bolt, italic and bold-italic variants. It even has some capable hinting so looks pretty good without anti-aliasing although could do with a few delta’s to clean that up. While it was short on the unicode support several forks filled in the gaps such as Deja Vu and Apple took Vera Sans Mono, grabbed some of these additions (adding 2900 glyphs) and tweaked some of the existing ones. Specifically they moved the vertical bar up on EBH, widened MN, shifted il, changed 0 from dotted to crossed and move/resized punctation then packed it up in a True Type Collection file that stores multiple TTF’s in a single file.

While these changes themselves look quite good – it seems they were optimizing for 14 point – in the process they destroyed the hinting for these glyphs despite the tiny amount of change made.
Menlo on Windows in NotepadMenlo on Mac OS X in TextMate
Spot which ones Apple modified on these screenshots (curiously Windows refuses to use the TTC file as it believes it is corrupt).

Screenshot of Terminal preferences showing anti-aliasing forced for MenloApple is obviously aware it’s not a good job as the option to turn off anti-aliasing in Terminal when using Menlo is curiously disabled – this seems to be something hard-coded into Terminal.app as it doesn’t affect TextMate.

Boot Camp

Installation here was a little tricky as initially the installer told me that Boot Camp 64-bit was not supported on my computer model.

Whether they don’t support 64-bit Windows on a late 2007 MacBook Pro 17″ (MacBookPro3,1) or whether it was complaining about Windows 7 isn’t clear as there are no Windows 7 specific drivers on the disk.

All is not lost however as if you navigate into Boot Camp\Drivers\Apple folder you can run the BootCamp.msi or BootCamp64.msi from there and it does not seem to perform the check. All the drivers installed without complaint and the trackpad, mouse, audio etc. is working just fine.

[)amien