The Personal Computing Paradigm
Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering
When Mac OS X 10.1 and 10.2 came out, I wrote about my disappointment with Mac OS X’s font rendering. Thanks to Apple’s font smoothing technology, most everyone agrees that OS X does a great job of drawing text at larger sizes. It also does a comparatively good job at smaller sizes, for fonts that were designed for printing. For instance, I think most PDFs look better in Preview than in Mac OS 9 or on Windows.
Opinions differ, however, about the role of screen fonts at small sizes. Fonts such as Geneva and Chicago were designed for the screen, and the smaller sizes were hand-tuned down to the pixel. I think this made them exceptionally easy to read on-screen. Others think that screen fonts look chunky and prefer the way OS X draws regular fonts using font smoothing. I think that at small sizes font smoothing makes the text blurry and harder to read.
In theory, it should be possible to satisfy both preferences, but through several different decisions Mac OS X comes down on the side of font smoothing:
- It draws the user interface with Lucida Grande instead of Geneva and Chicago (or Charcoal), and in most cases this is not configurable.
- Font smoothing can be turned off for small sizes, but Lucida Grande and the other new fonts were not hand-tuned, and so the character shapes don’t look very good.
- Older fonts like Geneva continue to have readable character shapes with font smoothing off, but Mac OS X calculates the spacing differently, making the letters run together.
Over the years, Mac OS X has gained options for controlling the style of the font smoothing, and the font renderer has improved in that smoothed fonts are drawn darker than before, though the edges are stilly blurry. But the changes have not been enough to make fans of screen fonts happy, as this letter from ATPM reader Neil Rubenstein demonstrates:
I was searching the Web looking for help regarding OS X’s fonts. I came across your comments in “Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions” and saw that you were writing about exactly the problem I’ve been having.
For me, OS X is impossible to look at. It is primarily for this reason that I have been staying with 9.2.2. I keep thinking I’m losing my vision when I view OS X, or that I must be missing something related to settings of font sizes, or shadowing, or anti-aliasing. I currently have 10.3.9 installed, and have seen the same problem from my earliest attempt to view OS X.
I’m using a Titanium PowerBook G4—which is the best laptop for using OS 9. I’d love to purchase a new 17″, but will stay with Ti’s for the foreseeable future, because OS X is just too hard on my eyes.
I’ve just spent about one hour twiddling with settings in OS X—with no success. After rebooting in OS 9 I breathe a sigh of relief. It’s as if my 20/20 sight has been restored after a period of visual impairment.
Am I missing something? Is there some way to approximate the visual clarity I experience with OS 9 while using OS X by changing some settings? Does my inability to adapt to the OS X visual experience indicate some kind of visual handicap on my part? Surely I’m not the only one who has had this problem?
Any comments, suggestions or help you might offer will be most appreciated.
I am 20/30 without glasses and, as far as I know, do not have any visual handicaps. After more than five years of using Mac OS X—and two upgrades to sharper, brighter displays—I still find it tiring to read large blocks of smoothed text (with or without glasses). Unfortunately, there is no setting to go back to the OS 9 font renderer, and I have no expectation that there will ever be one. However, there are a number of things you can do to make text on OS X easier to read.
I much prefer the Strong font smoothing style, as it makes the text blacker. Turn off smoothing for font sizes 9 and smaller. This prevents very small text from looking like smudges. However, you do want sizes 10 and larger to be smoothed:
Lucida Grande 10 in the Finder, Smoothed
Lucida Grande can look blurry when smoothed; but, because of the character shape and spacing problems mentioned above, this is probably preferable to the way it looks without smoothing:
Lucida Grande 10 in the Finder, Unsmoothed
Verdana is my favorite Microsoft product. It is extremely readable when unsmoothed and looks good at various sizes and weights. Amazingly, Mac OS X can draw it without running the letters together. Many applications let you choose the font for body text, and I often choose Verdana. (For reading e-mail, writing code, and Terminal, I prefer ProFont or Monaco, two monospaced fonts that OS X is able to render well.) Here’s what a Web page looks like with Safari’s default font:
Times in Safari, Smoothed
And here is what it looks like with Verdana:
To keep the text readable, go to Safari’s Advanced preferences and set it to not use font sizes smaller than 9. I also like to override the font smoothing threshold in Safari so that sizes 9–12 are unsmoothed. This can be done by entering the following command into Terminal:
defaults write com.apple.safari AppleAntiAliasingThreshold 12
You can also experiment with defining a custom style sheet in Safari so that Web pages cannot override the default font.
When creating documents, use Verdana for writing and editing, even if you want to use other fonts for printing. Don’t use the Font menu to format your text. Instead, use your word processor’s styles feature to tag it. Set the body text styles to use Verdana while you’re writing and editing. (Section headings are larger and thus easily readable in any font.) At the last minute, you can edit the body text styles to quickly change all the occurrences of Verdana to fonts that are more suitable for printing.
The letters in Verdana are rather wide. This isn’t a problem for pages of text, since the lines will wrap and simply take up a bit more vertical space. However, there are times when horizontal space counts, such as in a mail program or spreadsheet. In those cases, I like to use Osaka:
Osaka 9 in Apple Mail, Unsmoothed
Verdana 9 in Apple Mail, Unsmoothed
I don’t think the character shapes and spacing are quite as nice as with Verdana (or Geneva on OS 9), but it is fairly readable and has very narrow letters. For comparison, here’s what it looks like in Lucida Grande:
Lucida Grande 9 in Apple Mail, Smoothed
Use Other Applications
If an application that you use doesn’t allow you to control the fonts that it uses, you might want to look for an alternative application that does. The Finder always uses Lucida Grande, as shown above. Path Finder, however, lets you change the font:
Verdana 9 in Path Finder, Unsmoothed
It also lets you control the icon size separately from the font size, so you can use a small font without squishing the icons together.
Also in This Series
- How Cool Is Your Mac? · May 2012
- Mac OS X’s Increasing Stability · August 2006
- Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering · January 2006
- E-Mail Archiving with Eudora and Mail.app · January 2003
- Grab Bag · October 2002
- Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions · September 2002
- Mac OS X 10.1—First Impressions · October 2001
- Mac OS X Tips · June 2001
- Mac OS X—Finally · May 2001
- Complete Archive