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The best open-source fonts


June 21 2014

In this blog, I list the best open-source fonts out there, discuss getting lining numbers in Georgia (yes, it can be done without buying Georgia Pro...kinda sorta), and somewhat revise my outlook on web fonts for body text.

==Best open-source fonts==

I am listing the best open-source fonts out there by category. An open source font is one I can freely download, use in any program (open source or not), modify, and share with others (either with or without modifications). So, without further ado:

==Best Serif Font: Bitstream Charter==

Matthew Carter, the same font designer who gave us the legendary Verdana and Georgia fonts, has made one font which has become open source: Bitstream Charter. This is one of the first digital typefaces, having come out back in 1987.

While the bold form looks a little distinct for my tastes at large font sizes (it’s perfectly good at body text sizes), the regular weight is very attractive at all font sizes. I use it for my PDF resume with excellent results.

It was donated as a postscript font to the X Consortium back in 1992 under open-source license terms. For years, it was a beautiful printing font but not the best screen font; ttfautohint has made it possible for it to finally be used as a web and screen font at body text font sizes.

Matthew Butterick has converted it in to modern font formats; I have used ttfautohint to make it a really nice web font. It is available for download here:
Here is a demo:
==A possible improvement to Bitstream Charter==

For screen rendering, I find Charter’s "E" and "F" to have serifs that are a little too large, so I have created a modified version of Charter with smaller serifs in the uppercase E and F letters:
It can be seen here on the screen:
==Best Sans-Serif Font: Source Sans Pro==

The best grotesque (Sans-serif) open source font is Paul Hunt’s very beautiful Source Sans Pro. Commissioned by Adobe to use in their open source applications, it makes for a very good font, both on the screen and on paper. I use a modified (and renamed) version of it for headings on this web page; I also use it for the web site’s body text on mobile browsers and will make it the body text within a year once I feel holdouts still using Windows XP without clear type have finally upgraded their systems.

Source Sans Pro also wins a prize for being the best open source Multi Master font out there. Source Sans Pro’s weight can actually be dynamically changed to be any value, as I demonstrate here:
Not only is Source Sans Pro available for download on Sourceforge, but also I have a mirror of it here:
Here is a demo of my derivative of Source Sans Pro:
==Best Monospace vector font: Cousine (OFL)==

A few years ago, RedHat comissioned Steve Matteson to make Liberation Mono, a monospace font that is the same size as Microsoft’s Courier New. Google then paid for the font to be released as an OFL font as part of their Google Web Fonts.

Unlike the majority of open source fonts, Cousine has full delta hinting, which means it looks very good, even on older Windows XP systems without clear type as well as in terminal applications when the font is configured to be rendered with any anti-aliasing.

Recently, Google “updated” the license of Cousine to no longer be OFL licensed, and removed the delta hinting that has made Cousine such a beautiful terminal font. I have an older OFL version of Cousine available for download:
Here is a demo (note that the left smart quotes in this Cousine variant, called WTerm, have been modified, and that Cousine, unlike WTerm, has an italic/oblique, bold, and bold italic form):
==Best monospace pixel font: Misc-fixed 7x14==

Like Bitstream Charter, this font dates back to the 1980s. Unlike Bitstream Charter, we do not know who originally made this font. Misc fixed 7x14 is one of the terminal fonts that comes with the X windows system. I have been using this font since 1995 and still use it today as my preferred terminal font.

It’s very readable and small enough that two terminals fit side-by-side on a 1366x768 (or even 1280x800) screen, and three terminals fit side-by-side on a 1920x1080 (HD) screen.

The font comes with Linux; Macintosh users can get it via the XQuartz package. I have made a Windows conversion of this font which works well in Cygwin (right click on a terminal, choose “options”, then choose “text”), PuTTY, or even MSys’s RXVT terminal:
More information about this conversion is in a previous blog entry:
Here is a screenshot with this font:
==Honorable mention: PT Sans Narrow==

PT Sans Narrow gets an honorable mention as the best open-source condensed font that I have found. PT Sans has a very distinct style to it; for example, the "3" is very angular. To me, PT Sans Narrow feels a little like a Trebuchet Condensed font.

In my previous gig, we used this for PDF reports when we needed to fit a lot of text on a single line, with very good results.

I have a mirror of the font here:
==Georgia with lining numbers==

I mentioned in a previous blog that Georgia originally had lining numbers. As it turns out, Microsoft kept Georgia’s lining numbers in the version of the font for Windows 3.11. Keep in mind that these are proportional, not tabular, numbers.

This font is an earlier version of Georgia; in particular its language support is far less extensive than more recent versions of Georgia — it only supports characters in earlier versions of the Windows-1252 code page without the Euro symbol.

For people interested in a free version of Georiga with lining numbers, I have made a mirror of the older Georgia here:
==Web fonts for body text==

In my last blog, I mentioned that we might not be ready for web fonts in body text, because of holdouts still using Windows XP without clear type. It is true that back in 2011 one could not readily use a web font for body text without non-cleartype users complaining, but the number of such people has certainly greatly decreased.

Fonts with modern hinting technologies only look bad in Windows XP without clear type enabled systems in the following browsers (mostly outdated):

  • Opera 12
  • Older versions of Firefox
  • Chrome (But not as bad as Opera and older Firefox)

For people using Opera 12 or and older Firefox in Windows XP, please update your browser. Opera 12 is scheduled to no longer get security updates and any version of Firefox which doesn’t mandate clear type rendering for clear type is unpatched.

All users in Windows XP should enable Clear Type:

  • Right click on the desktop
  • Click on “Properties”
  • Select the tab above marked “Appearance”
  • Press the button marked “Effects”
  • Select “Clear Type” as the way to smooth font edges

Better yet, Windows XP users really should replace their systems with either Windows 7 or Linux; Windows XP is no longer getting security updates (no, the security updates for the point-of-sale version of XP do not protect the entire system) and is a security incident waiting to happen. And, yes, modern web fonts tend to look better in Linux and Windows 7 than they do in XP.

I will update my web page to use my Source Sans Pro derivative for all body text in early 2015 — I am giving holdouts who still use XP and who still haven’t enabled Clear Type eight months after Microsoft has stopped supporting XP. The mobile design of this web page already uses a webfont for body text, as well as the compact blog index:

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