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ATPM 15.06
June 2009


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by Mark Tennent,

Sitting on the Font Fence

There are times when we could gladly throttle Steve Jobs and whoever makes decisions about the contents of Mac OS X. Currently it’s the old chestnut of font handling, for which we would like to string-up someone at Apple from an infinite loop. Along with a representative from Linotype.

Like many designers who’ve been in the business for some years, we have an eclectic mix of fonts dating back well into the last century. Many are complete libraries we’ve picked up, usually as an added extra with other software or equipment. First was the Bitstream library circa 1990. In those days, a few thousand quid’s worth and the fonts all “nearly” types. Bitstream versions of famous fonts come with a book of cross-referenced names. Gill Sans in Bitstream parlance, is Humanist 521; Méridien becomes Latin 725, and so on. All looking almost the same as their more famous versions, but not quite. Letter-spacing differences between the different cuts can ruin documents.

The arrival of our Adobe library a year or so later was followed by URW’s, Monotype’s, ITC’s, Linotype’s…plus all the smaller foundries. Other typefaces have come from clients with their own bespoke fonts such as John Lewis, the Tate Gallery, and Superdrug. We have a heavy investment in typefaces and have always used a manager to control them: MasterJuggler was followed by Suitcase, then Font Reserve (the all-time best), before Suitcase Fusion 12 took control of our typeface library.

Apple, the chosen system for all discerning creative types, has never built its own font manager. Font Book, its latest attempt at a font organiser, is lightweight at best and does not automatically open typefaces when software calls for them. The only previous Apple attempt dates to 1985-ish, called Font/DA Mover.

After much agonising and largely because of an excellent review in Macworld accompanied by a half-price offer, we shifted recently from Suitcase Fusion to Linotype FontExplorer Pro, and then our problems began. The move being because the latest version of Suitcase Fusion will not open fonts for earlier versions of Adobe’s CS suite or QuarkXPress 6, only the most recent. On the other hand, FontExplorer has plug-ins for them all, as far back as QuarkXPress 6 and Adobe CS1. It seemed the best direction to go since we still have to work in legacy software as well as the most current.

Despite all attempts to clean our typefaces, running FontDoctor over them umpteen times to correct any glitches and creating new, organised libraries, FontExplorer tells us many thousands of our typefaces will not work. It thinks their printer font is separated from the outline font, despite the two obviously being together in the same folder. We even converted our entire library to D-Fonts without success—this combines all the font’s attributes into one unified file. FontExplorer still insists the fonts are broken. The same fonts which Suitcase and Font Reserve, et. al., have had zero problems with for more than 10 years.

Then there are the plug-ins. FontExplorer should install a range of plug-ins for Adobe and Quark’s software. It scans your hard disks and finds the relevant applications, but in our case not all of them. Instead it found parts of the Adobe CS2 suite, but not all, even though they are in the same folder, automatically created by Adobe’s installer. This is easy to fix by manually “finding” the relevant plug-ins folders, but we shouldn’t have to do this. In addition, it told us that InDesign CS2 had version 5 of a plug-in, but we should downgrade it to version 3. Why?

Finally, FontExplorer crashes our system so that it needs a total reboot. Clicking on any option in FontExplorer that opens a dialogue box needing name and password freezes the whole Mac. Not any wimpy restart, either, but a rigid digit on the start button, followed by a jolly good fscking afterwards to correct disk errors. According to customer support at Linotype, this is a known problem which will be fixed in the next version due to be released “soon.”

It took FontDoctor a few hours to extract our 10,000+ fonts, check them out, and create a new combined library with alphabetical folders inside, one for each foundry. We reinstalled FontExplorer and stopped it from managing its own font folder, via the setting in its preferences. The foundry folders have been copied to FontExplorer one-by-one as a new set, which have been filed into a folder under the Set tab.

This has been mostly successful, but some fonts are double-listed with printer fonts listed as missing in one and not the other. Deleting the “broken” versions also deletes the good.

The moral of this being, don’t let FontExplorer manage its own library. Instead, do it manually or better still use the excellent FontDoctor and consider whether Suitcase Fusion might still be the better bet. However, now that it is up and running, FontExplorer isn’t all bad and seems much faster at opening fonts than Suitcase Fusion for documents containing a lot of typefaces in such as magazines or books. It also intercepts calls for typefaces from a whole bunch of programs such as Mail and Safari, ensuring we can see spam in all its glory, exactly as it was meant to be seen.

• • •

Why is it that when you are walking home from a night out, all the buses seem to have disappeared, especially if it’s pouring with rain and you can’t find a cab? Get within 100 yards of home, three double-deckers will drive past, bonded together like an Aussie road train.

Years gone by as a student, driving double-deckers was a part-time job. Just such a night saw me at the wheel of a fully-laden Daimler on the 5 route going north along the A23. Turning right at the mini roundabout into Carden Avenue, the power-steering packed-up. The only option was to stand up and heave on the steering wheel to get the 10 tons of bus round. Otherwise, we would have crashed through the garden wall, which anyone who knows the area will tell you is high and robust. Installing Suitcase Fusion 2 has left us with exactly the opposite feeling.

As long-term Suitcase users we couldn’t wait to uninstall FontExplorer and get back into a comfort zone even though Tobias Meyerhoff, Linotype’s project manager, called from Germany to help sort out our problems with FontExplorer Pro. Both he and Jim Kidwell from Extensis are vying to be the most helpful on a forum at Macworld.

Packing Your Suitcase

Installation was a little awkward, involving the entry of a long serial number (which thankfully, copied and pasted), but then the installer asks for name and password three times in rapid succession. Dial them in…click, dial them in…click, dial them in…click. All in the space of a nanosecond or two.

FontExplorer’s installation uses a registration document: select the file from within FontExplorer instead of typing in 16 digit serial numbers. Quark and Adobe could learn a thing or two from this.

Suitcase Fusion 2 found and imported the font vault that had been generated by Suitcase Fusion 1. It had no concerns about the fonts FontExplorer rejected. Similarly, Suitcase installed plug-ins for the applications for which it can open fonts automatically, as well as making a list of other programs it can work with such as Mail, Safari, Dictionary, and TextEdit. There are pros and cons to this, and FontExplorer has a few more options in its similar Font Request preferences. It is odd getting messages from Mail that it wants to open Warnock or some such font.

When installing FontExplorer Pro a few days earlier, it could only find one copy of QuarkXPress 8 and InDesign CS2. Tobias explained that it looks for the disk with the most up-to-date system. At that time, we had six active hard drives containing various copies of Mac OS X 10.5.6, 10.5.7, and 10.6, the latter being the only one FontExplorer recognised. FontExplorer’s Preferences will let you choose other copies of programs to install plug-ins for whereas Suitcase Fusion 2 seems to bung them in everywhere.

Suitcase Fusion runs as a daemon, which means that although the program itself does not need to be active all the time, fonts will still auto-activate. Along with the daemon is a control panel in System Preferences.

We find Suitcase’s interface a little cartoonish but friendly enough. A bit like Mac OS X beta with its large blobby buttons, and slightly confusing as tools are scattered around the main window. The user interface in FontExplorer Pro may be less colourful, but it is easier to understand and use.

As for features, both FontExplorer Pro and Suitcase Fusion 2 match each other, with Suitcase possibly winning with its much-vaunted, tear-off font sample windows, which can hover on-screen over document pages. This is to demonstrate what the chosen typeface will look like, in-situ. A bit of a gimmick which might suit some.

Alternatively, FontExplorer has better search functions and more information about each typeface. For example: NewJohnston can be found in FontExplorer by searching for the name, whereas Suitcase only knows it as NJ—nowhere is it listed as NewJohnston. This is quite a serious omission in our opinion.

Which Is Best?

We have problems with both. FontExplorer’s are limited to its rejection of some fonts that Suitcase and FontDoctor are happy to accept. This is arguably a good thing so that FontExplorer doesn’t activate damaged fonts.

Suitcase, on the other hand, can run incredibly slowly, which we thought may be a problem with our typefaces. We would love to get a whole new library fresh from the foundry so that we could abandon our decades-old fonts, but that is as unlikely to happen as MPs are to repay all the expenses they have fiddled…err…claimed over the years. Unless Adobe, Linotype, or Extensis suddenly becomes extremely generous towards us—with typefaces that is, not MPs repayments.

To test Suitcase Fusion against Linotype FontExplorer, we opened the same documents using both programs in succession. All the files had been made while running Suitcase Fusion 1 and saved with the Extensis Font Sense identification details built-in, which Suitcase Fusion 2 is supposed to recognise. Except that it didn’t.

These are mainly illustrated books containing a maximum of three or four typefaces and half a dozen fonts, using the same typeface library as Suitcase Fusion 1. When they opened while running Suitcase Fusion 2, many fonts were missing or only the cyrillic versions activated, which are not in the documents. FontExplorer, on the other hand, opened them immediately with all the correct typefaces.

Current work, saved last week with Suitcase Fusion 1, opened incredibly slowly when running Suitcase Fusion 2 and even hung QuarkXPress 8. Activity Monitor shows QuarkXPress using 100% CPU as it opens the documents. Even saving them is a very slow process, and reopening equally as slow. Switch back to FontExplorer Pro and the documents opened immediately.

This is on a quad-core, dual-processor Mac with 6 GB RAM, so it’s not a horsepower problem. We checked the drives, repaired permissions, emptied caches, rebooted, looked for clashes. All the usual maintenance tasks. Even importing FontExplorer’s library into Suitcase had no effect.

Then we Googled for a solution. It took about two hours to find the right question to ask. Tucked away in a Quark forum is a recent post about documents opening slowly when Suitcase Fusion 2 is running because Suitcase checks every object in the document for fonts. The solution is to turn off the plug-in preference to activate fonts in embedded objects. Once done, documents open as fast as an MP changes their designated second home.

Until we found the plug-in “bug” we had given up with Suitcase Fusion 2 and ran gratefully back to FontExplorer. Suitcase has a huge problem yet we could find nothing about it in the manual, just a paragraph explaining about scanning graphics and how only Adobe Illustrator EPS files are saved with Font Sense metadata.

Taking this “bug” into account, and that Suitcase Fusion 2 cannot open fonts in early versions of QuarkXPress and Adobe’s CS suites, it is almost the clincher for us because we have to work in them from time to time. We are running with Suitcase Fusion 2 for the time being because it would be churlish not to.

FontExplorer Pro gives us an enormous feeling of security that we can always fall back to it, and will have to the next time we need InDesign 2 or QuarkXPress 6.

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Reader Comments (1)

Peter Teubner · June 2, 2009 - 10:23 EST #1
Very interesting article. I have used FontReserve from the beginning it was available and loved it. I then had to switch over to Suitcase and then Suicase Fusion. It works, but not as smooth as with the experience I had with FontReserve.

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