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Pixels 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.

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

For the love of pixels  

There’s something entrancing about the pixel. Square and elegant and when pushed by the right people they can form beautiful art, stunning animations and gorgeously crisp text.

But as resolution and pixel density increase these building blocks of the screen become smaller and individually insignificant especially as the dpi of displays hits 220+ppi. What once was a building block of art and design becomes nothing more than a indistinct element in a photo-realistic image or a glint in a faux-texture supporting a skeuomorphism.

And so the art style of the visible pixel is doomed… or is it?

Games

Screenshot of Sword and SworceryA resurgence in retro games over the last 10 years has helped keep pixels front-and-center (and sometimes off-screen to the right in the case of horizontal scrolling beat-em-ups).

Minecraft brought 3D pixel art to the mainstream with its wild success across PCs, iOS and even the Xbox. Some people say it’s despite the graphics but I think they’re part of the charm.

Skrillex Quest is a 3D Flash game with textures made up of large pixels and all manner of 8 and 16-bit style graphic corruption that lends to the retro feel while music from the man himself ensures your ears stays as overwhelmed as your eyes.

Sword & Sworcery: EP is a recent discovery for me but its gorgeous 2D landscape, fun story and great sound make for awesome atmosphere. It’s currently available on Steam for the PC or Mac and available from the iOS store too.

LucasArts Adventure Pack on Steam gives you a bunch of point and click adventures including two installments of Indy, Loom and The Dig. They also have a Secret of Monkey Island 1 & 2 Bundle that has updated graphics but your can toggle back to the pixelated 256-color VGA version at any time.

Scott Pilgrim The Game is a fun little horizontal-scrolling beat-up up created a couple of years back. Some of the graphic artists have some great pages up showcasing their pixel animating talents.

Home from Benjamin Rivers is a creepy whodunnit horror mystery where the story unfolds and changes based on your own actions. Who knew pixels could be so creepy.

Art

Fall City by Mark J. FerrarieBoy is a three-man team that has been creating isometric pixel art for years sometimes for magazines and adverts but primarily available as posters and wallpapers and now puzzles too.

Color Cycling revisits the technique of animating hand-illustrated Amiga artwork that achieved the effect of animation simply by cycling parts of the color palette. This effective technique was incredibly space efficient and was something every Deluxe Paint user tried (and likely failed) at some point.

Iotacons by Andy Rash are very low-resolution icons of various celebrities and well known pop-culture figures lovingly adorned in digital format and, on occasion, as a real-world cross-stitch.

DeviantArt have an entire category dedicated to pixel art many of which are lovingly animated. If the cuteness of these pixels doesn’t make you miss them then nothing will.

F David Thorpe produced some great loading screens for computers in the 80s despite their crazy technical limitations. Binary Zone has a great page that highlights some of his best.

Animated backgrounds from various fighting games look beautiful.

Fonts & icons

I’ve covered some great pixel fonts from older 8-bit and 16-bit computers already but there are plenty more great examples to be found:

FontStruct is an online tool that lets you build fonts from blocks and so lends itself well to people wanting to reproduce bitmap fonts. They have almost 500 fonts in their gallery already tagged with ‘pixel’

Semplice Pixelfonts has some beautiful proportional pixel fonts in TrueType format.

Guidebook has screenshots of various pixelated desktops throughout the years including shots of early Macintosh, Amiga, Atari, OS/2 and more.

Fashion

Star Wars pixel shirt from We Love FineThinkGeek have the I See Dead Pixels T-Shirt, the 8-bit tie and the less practical 8-bit hair bow.

WeLoveFine also have a great selection of 8-bit wears just flowing over with pixels.

Red Bubble have a Mac Cursor Icons T-shirt that the original Apple fans can appreciate.

Even sunglasses get the pixel treatment in black or blue… or even regular clear glasses.

In the real word

Cube Craft Pixel Pages consists of a bunch of icons you can print out, cut and fold to create a pixel-deep real-world rendering when placed against a solid surface.

My Desk is 8-bit happened when Alex Varanese wondered what a video-game would look like rendered on his desk. It’s a labor of love 1:18 long video with great chip music too.

Swedish Subway shows that the small square tiles that adorn the walls of subways can be put to creative use when you think of them as pixels such as this homage to video-games.

Playing Cards featuring pixel art including some from video games such as space invaders.

8-bit pop-up cards are a fun way to make a gift card with more pixel goodness.

A love of pixels can however go too far.

Dithering

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the screen resolutions and color capabilities of 8-bit and 16-bit computers. With such few colors available it was necessary to blend colors together to achieve the effect of more colors or shades. This tutorial at Deviantart is a good start although there are a few different algorithms available including the most famous Floyd-Steinberg and the ordered dithering of Windows older users may be familiar with.

Derek Yu, Pixel Schlet and Garmahis provide tutorials showing you how to do it by hand!

Further exploration for those still with me…

Teletext (aka Videotex, Ceefax) was a low-resolution graphics system long before the Internet. It was available in some countries such as the UK via television and some early computer systems (Prestel, Micronet) used it over incredibly slow (1200/75bps) modems although it had a certain charm.

Creating graphics and pages in it was quite a challenge and I actually have a Cambridge University IT Certificate for doing so while at school where we also used a special adapter with our BBC Micro to let them download programs by holding a TV aerial up and waiting a lot. The French also had a system based on this called Minitel which was shut down earlier this year :(

Of course for the ultimate pixels experience you could also just dive back in to the old games such as those provided by Good Old Games (PC) on the amazing World of Spectrum.

[)amien