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For this installment of the First Look series, James Williamson reviews the current implementation and future direction of web fonts: downloadable font resources that can be retrieved with the CSS @font-face declaration. The course begins with the evolution of online typography and current CSS font capabilities, and then dives into the W3C CSS Fonts Module specification, showing how to utilize web fonts, ensure cross-browser consistency, and how to use CSS3 to enhance the styling of web fonts. Font hosting services and tools such as TypeKit and the Google Fonts API are demonstrated. Exercise files accompany the course.
In our last movie, we covered some of the basics of font rendering. In this movie I want to go a little further and discuss the specifics relating to platforms and browsers, and how they can affect how fonts are rendered on screen. Take for example these screen shots from Typekit's Browser Comparison tool. It is easy to see how different the same text can look, not only across multiple systems, but also among multiple browsers on the same system. Let's take a closer look at why this is happening.
We'll start with Apple, since it deals with fewer variables than Microsoft's. Apple's type rendering engine, Core Type, uses sub pixel rendering and is programmed to preserve the design of the typeface over pixel grid fidelity. It's also worth noting that font hinting is ignored it completely, meaning that whether the font is hinted or not isn't as important on the Mac. Whether this is successful or not is largely a matter of taste. While text in general looks great on a Mac, at smaller font sizes the text tends to look bolder and a little blurrier than it does in other systems.
It's important to note as well that all browsers on a Mac use the Core Type rendering engine, which means you should see consistent rendering on a Mac regardless of which browser is big used. Text rendering on a Windows system however is a bit more complicated. First, systems can use any of the three rendering options, no anti-alias, grayscale anti-aliasing, and subpixel rendering. Second, depending upon which version of Windows you're using, we'll use one of Microsoft's two proprietary subpixel rendering engines.
The older ClearType or the more recent version of ClearType, which contains DirectWrite. DirectWrite is more comparable to Mac Core Type rendering, as the anti-aliases in with the x and y-axis, whereas the older ClearType only anti-aliases along the x-axis. Microsoft has a slightly different approach to rasterizing text than a Mac as well. As a general rule text rasterization in Windows attempts to a line characters to the whole pixel grid.
This can cause subtle details to be lost at smaller sizes and text render either lighter or bolder than it actually is. I should point out that many feel that this adherence to the pixel grid actually creates text that is more readable at smaller sizes. When ClearType is enabled, body copy to this render a little better but headlines are larger text may become jagged, based on the single directional anti-aliasing. DirectWrite produces better results overall, but it isn't as widely used on Windows-based systems yet as it's relatively new.
So how do you know which rendering your viewers will see on Windows clients? This is where we gets a little tricky. Now Windows XP has ClearType disabled by default, while Vista and Windows 7 have ClearType enabled. What's more, users can change their settings in Windows to either display no anti-aliasing, standard, which is Windows grayscale anti-aliasing, and ClearType or DirectWrite if it's available. This changes depending on which browser is being used as well. Browsers other than Internet Explorer and Internet Explorer 6 use whatever the system's current setting is, which is likely to be grayscale anti-aliasing for Windows XP and ClearType for Vista and Window 7.
In Internet Explorer versions seven and eight have an independent setting for their browsers, which is initially set to clear type and will override the system's current setting. In Internet Explorer 8, it even goes one step further and it forcibly changes the entire OS to ClearType when its installed, meaning that all other browsers will use ClearType as well unless the setting is manually changed back. Internet Explore 9 uses the DirectWrite rendering engine for its type rendering. Now I can see where all that information might have caused a little bit of confusion, so I want to summarize for a moment.
Most of your viewers will see your pages rendered in one of these basic modes. Mac users will see the Core Type rendering regardless of which browser they use. Those on Windows XP will most likely see grayscale anti-aliasing, unless they manually enable ClearType or install Internet Explorer 8. Windows Vista or 7 users will most likely see ClearType, unless it disabled in their system or browser. What this means more than anything else is that the process of rasterizing font outlines into pixelated text is not a straightforward consistent process.
Whether the translation is successful or not is often a matter of taste. PC users tend to think to text on the Mac looks fuzzy, while Mac users tend to think text on a PC looks jagged and rather unsophisticated. As a designer you have to come to terms with the fact that the majority of the process is entirely out of your hands. So what can you control? Now first you can choose your fonts very carefully. Look for fonts that are well-designed and professionally hinted. Whether a font will be used for a smaller body copy headlines or a mixture of those can dramatically affect this rendering quality and should be taken into consideration when choosing fonts, not all fonts work well at small sizes.
Finally test thoroughly, understanding that some of your audience may see the font in a less than desired rendering quality. If you can, use tools like Adobe's Browser Lab or Typekit's font preview tools that allow you to test or preview your fonts in various browsers and platforms before committing to a design. In the end, understanding how font rendering works can help you prepare for its eventual consequences.
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