Who invented font smoothing?

by Emmanuel Stapf (modified: 2014 Oct 12)

Facts

It's unlike me to complain (or maybe it's not, up to you to decide), but in the past few years it seems that software vendors have decided what was best for me and I really do not like this, especially when it affects 100% of the time I'm in front of my computer.

It all started when Windows XP (2000/2001) and Mac OS (2001) came out with smooth fonts. At the time, only Windows got it right. That is to say, you could disable it, period! On the Mac, you could and can still only disable it for a font size smaller than a certain value but you can only set this value at most to 12pt. How useless this is, especially when the Mac default font is more like 14pt! Basically, it means you cannot turn it off.

It's no wonder why a former Mac addict (from 1985 to 1999, the year when Apple decided not to support my expensive PowerPC with Mac OS X) such as myself will not go back to using Mac OS – at least not until they get rid of font smoothing.

Then Vista came along. But, Vista is now just like Mac OS, and maybe even worse since although you have a setting to turn it off, only half of the windows of the OS follow this setting – so in effect, you can't turn it off. This is actually ugly to look at. For me, among the zillions of reasons not to upgrade to Vista, that's the number one.

Then, Office 2007 came along and did the same thing. Even if your Windows XP has the setting off, Office is a bad application and still decides to use smooth fonts. This is why I'm sticking to Office 2003 until they fix this in a future version of Office.

But why this posting now? Simply because last night, Apple, like they do every two weeks, reminded me to update QuickTime on my laptop, but this time around, it also proposed "Safari" for Windows. I was curious and decided to install it. I was actually very excited to try it since IE and Firefox like to use a lot of memory and wanted to see how it would compare on that front. But my excitement was quickly turned down when font smoothing was enabled and like Mac OS the setting to disable it was pretty useless. For me this is a "Bye Bye" to Safari. It is sad, because the other Apple Softwares I've tried on Windows do not suffer from this problem.

Are you like me? Anyone want to join me on a crusade against font smoothing?

Why I don't like smooth fonts?

Maybe it is hard to understand for those who do not wear corrective lenses. But if you are like me with a moderate myopia, you know that without glasses everything you see is blurry. So when you wear glasses and something is blurry, you always wonder whether or not it is you who needs new glasses or if there really is something wrong.

When LCDs came along, there was no way for me to go back to CRT because I could finally get very sharp edges, no more blurry pixels. You now understand why when font smoothing was introduced, I could not stand it.

Conclusion

So basically, I'm not saying font smoothing should not exist, but that it is up to the user to decide what he prefers, not the OS nor the application.

Preemptive comment

Q: Why don't I use Unix instead?

A: If nothing changes in the next few months, when it will be time to update my laptop which is becoming quite old, I might just do that.

PS:

This is why in EiffelStudio this will never happen without the user's consent. Also, the blurriness of CRTs was what made EiffelStudio work great when using big fonts on Windows since I had to use them to reduce blurriness on my 1600x1200 CRT monitor. I still hope it is the case, but I haven't verified that since I've upgraded to a LCD monitor which does not need big fonts.

Update 03/23/2008: It turns out that the Mac limit of 12 is just a UI constraint and that you can change the limit to whichever value you feel like it, unfortunately like on Vista, most of the UI elements don't follow the settings including menus, lists, ....

Update 09/04/2008: I put together a web page on how to disable font smoothing on various OSes at http://dev.eiffel.com.

Update sometime in 2008: Looks like you can disable smooth font in Office 2007 but because the Segoe font they use is ugly when smooth font is disabled you have to trick the OS and replace the Segoe font by Tahoma and you get an Office that looks like 2003 at least from the font point of view.

Update 01/28/2009: Just tried Windows 7 and they seems to have fixed the bug and now you can really disable font smoothing throughout. The bad news is that they still use Segoe but they fixed it so that it looks ok when it is disabled. I applied the same fix as for Office 2007 and use Tahoma instead. Everything looks almost perfect, but still some dialogs are using a non-standard font size (9pt instead of 8pt as specified in the appearance control panel).

Update 02/24/2009: Just tried the beta of Safari 4 and they do respect your Windows setting for font smoothing. It is great to see most tools being good citizens.

Update 2010/08/06: A simpler fix for Windows 7 seems to edit some registry key settings. Here are the steps:

  1. Open Registry Editor.
  2. Navigate through HKEY_CURRENT_USER, Control Panel and Desktop.
  3. Set FontSmoothingType to 1.
  4. Set FontSmoothing to 1.
  5. Reboot.

The other thing you can do to replace the Segoe font by Tahoma is to remove segoe from the system and tell it to use tahoma instead:

  1. Open Registry Editor.
  2. Navigate through HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Fonts
  3. Remove the file name for all the Segoe UI entries (make sure not to delete the entries, simply wiping them out)
  4. Navigate through HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\FontSubstitutes
  5. Add the following entry: "Segoe UI"="Tahoma"

Update 2011/12/20: A fix for IE9 forced font smoothing by following the steps mentioned at http://www.softwareninjas.ca/dwrite-dll-wrapper

Update 2013/09/24: I found a nice article describing what I've observed recently on my system using aliased font on many websites, they are unreadable. More at http://annystudio.com/misc/anti-aliased-fonts-hurt/.

"Update 2014/10/12": Happy to report that the registry settings of Windows 7 (see above) are still working in the Windows 10 technical preview.

Comments
  • Peter Gummer (9 years ago 21/3/2008)

    Mac font smoothing style

    I used to have mild myopia, until I had laser surgery on my eyes five years ago. I don't think I had encountered font smoothing prior to then, but I do like the smoothing now: I don't perceive it as blurriness.

    Mac OS X has a System Preferences option, under Appearances, called "Font smoothing style". Have you tried "Standard - best for CRT"? On my LCD screen, it appears to have the effect of turning font smoothing off, as far as I can tell: when I lost my myopia I also lost my ability to see fine details at close range. What I can see clearly is that there is big difference when I zoom (holding down the Control key while moving the mouse ball): "Standard - best for CRT" shows various shades of grey surrounding the text, whereas all of the other font smoothing styles show shades of blues and reds and oranges around the text. I don't know how much of this is an effect of the zooming, but the fact that there's a clear difference when zooming makes me suspect your eyes may like the "Standard - best for CRT" style.

    Note that the change takes effect when you open an application.

    So what happens in our Vision2 applications? Is font smoothing always switched off?

    • Emmanuel Stapf (9 years ago 21/3/2008)

      The various style have an

      The various styles have an impact on how blurry it is but it still remains blurry to my eyes. This is similar to the effect setting that you can find on XP when for Standard' vs ClearType'.

      With respect to Vision2, we simply follow the OS decision so the user gets what he wants.

      • Bob MacLeod (8 years ago 15/5/2008)

        Font Smoothing

        I just read your entry, and I could not agree MORE! I hate font-smoothing. I guess my question about font-smoothing is this: Why take nice, crisp, clear Excel text, and make it blurry?

        I work with Excel all day. Font smoothing wears out my eyes.

        What is particularly frustrating for me is that I just got a new hard drive yesterday, and the guys upstairs loaded XP and Office 2007 for me. Now Excel doesn't have clear text anymore. I guess I fixed this myself when I got my last hard drive, but I have no idea what I did. I tried all of the standard "turn off font smoothing" steps to no avail. Maybe a reboot will do it...

        But bottom line isn't why I cannot get Excel to do it today. It's why in the world this is so cotton-pickin' difficult.

    • Franck Arnaud (8 years ago 16/5/2008)

      Greyscale vs. subpixel addressing

      The difference between the types of antialiasing (grey pixels vs. colour ones exploiting the banding of RGB on LCD screens) is explained here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subpixel_rendering

      I'm no big fan of subpixel rendering, I sort of see some colour leakage on medium-resolution LCDs, but greyscaling I find quite nice. Of course in all case the apps and the OS should respect the user setting!

  • d p (8 years ago 28/1/2009)

    Thank you for putting together that page on how to disable font smoothing on various OSes!

    That has been the only thing that has kept me from completely switching to Linux in the past. (and I could not figure out why they still looked ugly when smoothing was disabled)

    -Dan

  • Paul Kolston (6 years ago 25/1/2011)

    Cleartype in Word 2010

    I agree completely that all OSs should give the option of disabling font smoothing/anti-aliasing. have successfully removed Cleartype from Word 2007 by adding the following four Registry keys (as DWORD values):

    HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\12.0\Word\Options: NoClearTypeNW = 1, ClearTypeThreshold = 0, FontSmoothingThreshold = 0, BoldFontSmoothingThreshold = 0

    This works under both Windows XP and Windows 7. However, these keys cannot be added in the analogous location for Word 2010 (where "12.0" is replaced by "14.0") since the "Word/Options" tree does not exist.

    Does anyone know how to disable Cleartype in Word 2010?

    An alternative would be for me to use Mac Word 2011, but I suspect that font smoothing would be even more difficult to disable in that since uptil now I have not been able to completely remove font smoothing/anti-aliasing from my MacBook Pro (the methods I have found, such as using AppleAntiAliasingThreshold, are only applied to some of the fonts displayed, making everything look ugly). However, that computer does run Windows 7 really well as a native boot (installed using the Mac OS Boot Camp utility)!