Computer font: Wikis


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This article is about font technology. For information about the typographic appearance of individual font sets, see Typefaces.

A computer font (or font) is an electronic data file containing a set of glyphs, characters, or symbols such as dingbats. Although the term font first referred to a set of metal type sorts in one style and size, since the 1990s most fonts are digital, used on computers.

There are three basic kinds of computer font file data formats:

  • Bitmap fonts consist of a series of dots or pixels representing the image of each glyph in each face and size.
  • Outline fonts (also called vector fonts) use Bézier curves, drawing instructions and mathematical formulae to describe each glyph, which make the character outlines scalable to any size.
  • Stroke fonts use a series of specified lines and additional information to define the profile, or size and shape of the line in a specific face, which together describe the appearance of the glyph.

Bitmap fonts are faster and easier to use in computer code, but inflexible, requiring a separate font for each size. Outline and stroke fonts can be resized using a single font and substituting different measurements for components of each glyph, but are somewhat more complicated to use than bitmap fonts as they require additional computer code to render the outline to a bitmap for display on screen or in print.

A bitmap image can be displayed in a different size only with some distortion, but renders quickly; outline or stroke image formats are resizable but take more time to render as pixels must be drawn from scratch each time they are displayed.

Fonts are designed and created using font editors. Fonts specifically designed for the computer screen and not printing are known as screenfonts.




Early computer fonts had to be very crude because of the relatively small storage capacity and slow speeds of early computers and peripherals. In the computer industry, early fonts were formed in a variety of ways. Digitally controlled analog circuits were used initially because of the extremely high cost of memory and the speed with which characters could be rendered. By the 1960s this technology was relegated to high-speed microfilm devices. These machines could record the equivalent of 20 type written pages per second, but the falling prices of computer memory and processing power made this complex method of producing characters obsolete by the mid 1970s.

The 1960s also brought the advent of pen-and-paper based graphics devices. Pioneered by Calcomp, the small software systems delivered with these devices included facilities for annotating graphics output using what have come to be called “stick” fonts. Each letter definition stored in the software consisted of a minimal number of line segments that approximated the letter’s appearance. A "C", for example, was seven line segments forming an octagon with the right side missing and stretched vertically to make the letter have the normal aspect ratio. Because the software included facilities for scaling and rotating any lines drawn, the characters could be drawn in any size and at any orientation. However, regardless of how large the characters were scaled, a ‘C’ still consisted of the same seven thin line segments.

During the period of popularity of microfilm devices and Calcomp plotters in the late 1960s, Dr. Alan Hershey, a mathematician at the Naval Weapons Research Laboratory launched an ambitious project to create a digital typography system for himself. Since there were no font definitions available to him, Hershey set out to create his own. Incredibly, he did this by drawing the characters on graph paper and filling out coding forms with the coordinate data to form the characters. Because of the low resolution of the available output devices, Hershey created fonts based on the same stick technology used by Calcomp, but with enough extra sticks added to give the illusion of normal text rather than the ultra thin computer output that had preceded his work. The down side of this choice was that he had to digitize each size font he wished to use. Once he started, apparently Hershey couldn’t stop – he digitized roman fonts with and without serifs in several sizes, then did italicized fonts, and then went on to create Russian fonts and several thousand Chinese characters. In 1972 he released this software to the National Center for Atmospheric Research whence it spread to the rest of the world

ISSCO, a San Diego software company, created outline fonts in around 1977. Here each letter was defined by an outline made up of straight lines and arcs.

In the 1980s, computer fonts took a giant leap forward with the creation of Postscript by Adobe Systems. Popularized through its use on the Macintosh platform, the best computer fonts finally achieved a degree of maturity where they were taken seriously by the rest of the printing industry.

Adobe standardized a font definition format called Type 1 that allowed font vendors from the printing industry to enter what was becoming the much larger market of computerized fonts. Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify exactly who were the originators of most of the technologies that have emerged as important in computer fonts.

Type 1 fonts popularized the use of Bezier curves (named for the French pioneer in CAD-CAM) to define curved sections of character outlines and specified methods for encoding hinting, a collection of methods for improving the appearance of characters when render in small sizes. Other computer font vendors such as Bitstream were able to market their fonts to a much greater extent through the use of the Type 1 de facto standard.

By the 1990s Microsoft, mainly through its market dominance, has to some extent supplanted Adobe’s Type 1 standard with TrueType font technology licensed from Apple Computers, and the several TrueType fonts delivered with Windows must surely be the most widely used computer fonts in the world. TrueType hinting differs from Type 1 hinting in that more hinting information is stored within the fonts and there is less reliance of hinting algorithms within the rasterization software used to render the characters.

Font types

Bitmap fonts

An assortment of bitmap fonts from the first version of the Macintosh operating system.

A bitmap font is one that stores each glyph as an array of pixels (that is, a bitmap). It is less commonly known as a raster font. Bitmap fonts are simply collections of raster images of glyphs. For each variant of the font, there is a complete set of glyph images, with each set containing an image for each character. For example, if a font has three sizes, and any combination of bold and italic, then there must be 12 complete sets of images.

Advantages of bitmap fonts include:

  • Extremely fast and simple to render
  • Unscaled bitmap fonts always give exactly the same output
  • Easier to create than other kinds.

The primary disadvantage of bitmap fonts is that the visual quality tends to be poor when scaled or otherwise transformed, compared to outline and stroke fonts, and providing many optimized and purpose-made sizes of the same font dramatically increases memory usage. The earliest bitmap fonts were only available in certain optimized sizes such as 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 18, 24, 36, 48, 72, and 96 points, with custom fonts often available in only one specific size, such as a headline font at only 72 points.

The limited processing power and memory of early computer systems forced exclusive use of bitmap fonts. Improvements in hardware have allowed them to be replaced with outline or stroke fonts in cases where arbitrary scaling is desirable, but bitmap fonts are still in common use in embedded systems and other places where speed and simplicity are considered important.

Bitmap fonts are used in the Linux console, the Windows recovery console, and embedded systems. Older dot matrix printers used bitmap fonts; often stored in the memory of the printer and addressed by the computer's print driver. Dot matrix printers are still used on carbon paper business forms. Bitmap fonts may be used in cross-stitch.

To draw a string using a bitmap font, means to successively output bitmaps of each character that the string comprises, performing per-character indentation. Also true type fonts, bitmap fonts can be monospaced (i.e.. every character is plotted a constant distance from the previous character that it is next to, while drawing) or proportional (each character has its own width). However, the particular font-handling application determines how each font will be displayed.

Monochrome fonts vs. fonts with shades of gray

Digital bitmap fonts (and the final rendering of vector fonts) may use monochrome or shades of gray. The latter is anti-aliased. When displaying a text, typically an operating system properly represents the "shades of gray" as intermediate colors between the color of the font and that of the background. However, if the text is represented as an image with transparent background, "shades of gray" require an image format allowing partial transparency.


Bitmap fonts look best at their native pixel size. Some systems using bitmap fonts can create some font variants algorithmically. For example, the original Apple Macintosh computer could produce bold by widening vertical strokes and oblique by shearing the image. At non-native sizes, many text rendering systems perform nearest-neighbor resampling, introducing ugly jagged edges. More advanced systems perform anti-aliasing on bitmap fonts whose size does not match the size that the application requests. This technique works well for making the font smaller but not as well for increasing the size, as it tends to blur the edges. Some graphics systems that use bitmap fonts, especially those of emulators, apply curve-sensitive nonlinear resampling algorithms such as 2xSaI or hq3x on fonts and other bitmaps, which avoids blurring the font while introducing little objectionable distortion at moderate increases in size.

The difference between bitmap fonts and outline fonts is similar to the difference between bitmap and vector image file formats. Bitmap fonts are like image formats such as Windows Bitmap (.bmp), Portable Network Graphics (.png) and Tagged Image Format (.tif or .tiff), which store the image data as a grid of pixels, in some cases with compression. Outline or stroke image formats such as Windows Metafile format (.wmf) and Scalable Vector Graphics format (.svg), store instructions in the form of lines and curves of how to draw the image rather than storing the image itself.

A "trace" program can follow the outline of a high-resolution bitmap font and create an initial outline that a font designer uses to create an outline font useful in systems such as PostScript or TrueType. Outline fonts scale easily without jagged edges or blurriness.

Bitmap font formats

A bitmap color font for the Amiga OS.

Outline fonts

Outline fonts or vector fonts are collections of vector images, i.e. a set of lines and curves to define the border of glyphs. Early vector fonts were used by vector monitors and vector plotters using their own internal fonts, usually with thin single strokes instead of thick outlined glyphs. The advent of desktop publishing brought the need for a universal standard to integrate the graphical user interface of the first Macintosh and laser printers. The term to describe the integration technology was WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). The universal standard was (and still is) Adobe PostScript. Examples are PostScript Type 1 and Type 3 fonts, TrueType and OpenType.

The primary advantage of outline fonts is that they can be easily transformed by applying a mathematical function to each vector point, scaling them without causing pixellation. Outline font characters can be scaled to any size and otherwise transformed with more attractive results than bitmap fonts, but requires considerably more processing and may yield undesirable rendering, depending on the font, rendering software, and output size.

Outline fonts have a major problem, in that Bézier curves cannot be rendered accurately onto a raster display (such as most computer monitors and printers), and their rendering can change shape depending on the desired size and position.[1] Measures such as font hinting have to be used to reduce the visual impact of this problem, which require sophisticated software that is difficult to implement correctly. Many modern desktop computer systems include software to do this, but they use considerably more processing power than bitmap fonts, and there can be minor rendering defects, particularly at small font sizes. Despite this, they are frequently used because people often consider the processing time and defects to be acceptable when compared to the ability to scale fonts freely.

Stroke-based fonts

A glyph's outline is defined by the vertices of individual strokes and stroke's profile. Its advantages over outline fonts include reducing number of vertices needed to define a glyph, allowing the same vertices to be used to generate a font with a different weight, glyph width, or serifs using different stroke rules, and the associated size savings. For a font developer, editing a glyph by stroke is easier and less prone to error than editing outlines. A stroke-based system also allows scaling glyphs in height or width without altering stroke thickness of the base glyphs. Stroke-based fonts are heavily marketed for East Asian markets for use on embedded devices, but the technology is not limited to ideograms.

Commercial developers included Agfa Monotype (iType), Type Solutions, Inc. (owned by Bitstream Inc.) (Font Fusion (FFS), btX2), Fontworks (Gaiji Master), which have independently developed stroke-based font types and font engines.

Although Monotype and Bitstream have claimed tremendous space saving using stroke-based fonts on East Asian character sets, most of the space saving comes from building composite glyphs, which is part of the TrueType specification and does not require stroke-based approach.

Font formats

Type 1 and Type 3 fonts

Type 1 and Type 3 fonts were developed by Adobe for professional digital typesetting. Using PostScript, the glyphs are outline fonts described with cubic Bezier curves. Type 1 fonts were restricted to a subset of the PostScript language, and used Adobe's hinting system, which used to be very expensive. Type 3 allowed unrestricted use of the PostScript language, but didn't include any hint information, which could lead to visible rendering artifacts on low-resolution devices (such as computer screens and dot-matrix printers).

TrueType font

TrueType is a font system originally developed by Apple, Inc. It was intended to replace Type 1 fonts, which many felt were too expensive. Unlike Type 1 fonts, TrueType glyphs are described with quadratic Bezier curves. It is currently very popular and implementations exist for all major operating systems.

OpenType font

OpenType is a smartfont system designed by Adobe and Microsoft. OpenType fonts contain outlines in either the TrueType or Type 1 (actually CFF) format together with a wide range of metadata.


METAFONT uses a different sort of glyph description. Like TrueType, it is a vector font description system. It draws glyphs using strokes produced by moving a polygonal or elliptical pen approximated by a polygon along a path made from cubic Bézier splines and straight line segments, or by filling such paths. Although when stroking a path the envelope of the stroke is never actually generated, the method causes no loss of accuracy or resolution.

See also


  1. ^ Stamm, Beat (1998-03-25). "The raster tragedy at low resolution". 

External links


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