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Fonts in 2014


June 11 2014

In today's blog, I discuss web fonts in 2014.

==New in 2014==

Both Firefox and Safari have fixed their bugs with printing pages that use a web font. This makes web fonts finally a solution for both on-screen and on-paper rendering of web pages.

Windows XP has reached its end of life. There are people and corporations stubbornly holding on to this now-dead operating system, of course, and, more to the point, there are people on fixed incomes who may not have had a chance to scrape together enough money to get a computer that can run anything newer than Windows XP. As one example: My old Thinkpad 600X -- a computer from 1999 -- ran XP fine but would not even boot in to Windows 7. Another data point: Just two years ago, a friend of mine bought a refurbished computer (a Thinkpad, to boot) running XP which could not be readily upgraded to Windows 7.

Point being, Windows XP is still out there. World wide, 16% of users are still using it. While XP does support Clear type, enabling it is well hidden (Control panel -> Display -> Appearance -> Effects) and there are many XP users out there who haven't done that. Indeed, while Internet Explorer 8 forces Clear Type font rendering in XP, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera do not. (Firefox in Windows XP, however, will usually use Clear Type to render web fonts, but Chrome, which has a higher browser market share, does not).

Bottom line, while every day fewer and fewer computers are using older font rendering technologies, there are still enough of them out there that I still feel uncomfortable using a font without delta hinting (one that looks like discrete pixels on a low-resolution display) for body text.

To make things worse, since there have been bugs in font rendering engines which could have been used to allow attackers to break in to desktop computers via "drive by download" attacks (when, upon visiting a web page, someone's computer gets infect by malware), browsers strip out delta hinting information from fonts download from the web. So, even if there was a beautiful web font out there with delta hinting, those delta hints will not render in an old XP system, and the font will almost always look grey and blurry (I will mention an exception to this rule below).

This leaves us with very few choices for body text out there.

==Fonts for body text==

There are only seven "web safe" fonts (fonts installed on pretty much any computer out there, including Linux) with full delta hinting: Comic Sans, Courier New, Times New Roman, Trebuchet, Arial, Georgia, and Verdana. In more detail:

  • Comic Sans. This is a very polarizing font; people either love it or hate it. It's a very feminine font, so I can see why insecure "macho" men are repelled by it. As a practical matter, it's too stylized to make for really readable body text.

  • Courier New. This is a rather ugly monospaced font. While usable for code samples when I have to use a 100% web safe font (such as using an HTML email editor which forces me to name the font), it otherwise should not be used.

  • Times New Roman. This is a great printing font when something has to be readable in a small space. On the screen, not so great -- it looks rather bland and plain, and is harder to read than a good screen font.

  • Trebuchet. This was a great choice a decade ago when designers still had to use web safe fonts for all the fonts on their page, yet wanted to use a font with a bit of a flair. It's good for headings, but has some readability issues when rendered using Clear Type (the M and W look a little off). I use it as one of the fallback fonts for headings when the browser can not or will not install a web font.

  • Arial. This font is the most popular font with young "hipster" web designers for body text. I can see why they like the choice -- while not the most readable web safe font out there, it is probably the most aesthetically pleasing one. As an aside, some font stacks (list of possible fonts to use for a web page) put Helvectica before Arial, but that may not be a good idea because Windows users sometimes install programs that add a Helvectica that is a really ugly, unreadable mess on the screen.

  • Georgia. A beautiful serifed screen font with full delta hinting designed by Matthew Carter. Its only real defect is that it only has old-style numerals, which do not look as good as lining numbers for on-screen text. Carter is not responsible for the old-style numbers; the original Georgia had lining numbers but Carter's supervisor, Robert Norton, forced the numbers to be old-style at the last minute.

  • Verdana. Hands down the most readable web safe font out there. It's really beautiful at 9 or 10 point. At 12 point or bigger, it remains really readable, but looks a little gawky and awkward.

For this web page, I use a large version of Verdana because, for me, readability of body text is more important than aesthetics.

Since Verdana's bold is really heavy (it would better be described as "Verdana Black"; the reason Verdana is so heavy as a bold is because the technology Verdana was made for -- pixel rendering on low-resolution screens -- forced the bold to be twice as heavy as non-bold), in places with a lot of bold text I use Arial as the bold font along with Verdana for non-bold text. While not a perfect match, it looks better than having a lot of Verdana bold on a page.

There actually is a better solution out there: Verdana Pro Semi Bold. The main problem is cost: It would cost me $40 each year to add that single typeface style to my webpage. Since this is a noncommercial page that is already losing money for me, it's hard to justify yet another expense when I have three mouths to feed.

As an aside, Georgia Pro has lining numerals, solving one particular issue. Unfortunately, since it is a web font, it does not have delta hinting, so loses the one big advantage Georgia has: Readability on older computers. Sure, one could use Georgia Pro with lining numbers for numbers and normal Georgia for the rest of the text, but having a blurry-looking font next to a clear delta-hinted font would be a jarring experience (it would look OK on computers using modern font hinting).

Since a semi-bold does not need delta hinting as much as a font with "regular" weight, combining Verdana Pro Semi Bold (without delta hinting) with Verdana (using delta hinting) looks good, even on systems with old font rendering technologies.

==One possible web font==

One web font that is remarkably readable, even when using older font rendering technologies, is Matthew Butterick's really beautiful Equity font.

While it is a little blurry around the edges when rendered with older font rendering technologies, it is still perfectly readable at 12 point or larger. It looks really great on systems with modern font rendering technologies.

The font is remarkably affordable, especially considering that it comes with a license to use it as a web font (as long as its used for one's own web page -- companies need to buy a separate, inexpensive license).

The font has a true italic, which I find a little jarring for a screen font (many fonts these days have an "italic" which is really an oblique with a couple of letters stylized differently), but I applaud Butterick for being one of the relatively few designers who has done the work of making a real italic font.

This is a font I will proably get down the road when I can pull enough funds together to do so. I don't plan on using it for my web page, however (except possibly my resume); it's a little more formal looking than the design I like my web page to have.

==See also==

Embedding web fonts - Webkit @font-face bug - IE8 @font-face bug - Web typography - On web site design - RMS on Jobs; Raspberry Pi (I briefly discuss C|Net moving away from webfonts at the bottom) - Slashdot and more (I discuss why I changed from Ubuntu to Source Sans for my page's webfont) - Web typography (2012) - Web font rendering

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