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)
256×256 (40×25 text)
512×256 (80×25 text)
Download in TrueType
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.
- 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’
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.
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)
256×192 (34×24 text)
Download in TrueType
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.
- Some very quirky decisions especially in lower-case
- Awful character alignment especially on ‘q’
- Uneven descenders on ‘gy’
- Mismatched ‘.,;:’
- Weird serifs on ‘adu’
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.
Despite some similarities in the upper-case to the Apple ][ font it doesn’t take many cues from anywhere else.
Amstrad PCW (1985)
720×256 (90×32 text)
Download in TrueType
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.
- 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
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.
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)
Download in TrueType
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.
- Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)
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.
Identical to the BBC font except for ‘^|’
SAM Coupé (1989)
256×192 (32×24 text)
512×192 (85×24 text)
Download in TrueType
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.
- Rather ugly ‘*’ asterisk
- Inconsistent ‘.,;:’ set
- Inconsistent ‘ and “
A smart font that despite the various inconsistencies looked good on a quality display in both high and low-resolution modes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 :)
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
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 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.
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.
Get a daily dose of typography in this compact little desk calendar. The designer’s equivalent of a word-a-day.
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 peoples (remember to not redistribute changes to other peoples 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.
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.
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
Great 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)
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.
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
I 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.
Whether this was to save space or to prevent such hacking is anyone’s guess.
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…
- Login Window keyboard shortcut – come on, seriously, with the secrecy at Apple surely you need this too?
- Uninstaller – AWOL since the transition from OpenStep to NextStep and sorely needed
- Language purging – I still don’t want French etc. on my laptop, odd omission given the reduction goals
- System update framework – Other apps could use this too you know guys – and put clever delta’ing support in
- Grab – STILL only saves in TIFF format. So I save it there, load into preview then into PNG. WTF??
- 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
Apple 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).
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.
Spot which ones Apple modified on these screenshots (curiously Windows refuses to use the TTC file as it believes it is corrupt).
Apple 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.
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.
I know, I said there would be a good chance that the next version of Envy Code R would be out this weekend but the annoying sizing, thickness and cropping issues that came up at some sizes above and below the optimum 10 point were really annoying me.
Many articles later, some playing around with Microsoft Visual TrueType and much frustration and experimentation later I think I’m on the right path.
Here is how Envy Code R is looking on Windows right now with standard font smoothing.
ClearType doesn’t look as good and I’m still learning the black art and the implications of each type of hinting instruction.
Strangely, these hints seem to be ignored on the Mac which is still rendering everything a little too thick especially on curves. Perhaps that is why so many developers create a Mac-specific version?
Once I’m happy with how the regular version works I’ll put it online for download and then whip the bold and italic variants in to shape and any feedback into regular for the proper 0.7 release.
A newer version of Envy Code R is available.