by Thomas Phinney
I recently moved to a new laptop, which reminded me of a painful issue as I migrated my data and fonts and reinstalled my applications. Historically, Windows font management has well, sucked. How, why, and can it be improved? Recent developments offer some hope for the future. Here’s a brief rant on what font management is, how it has fallen down on Windows, some speculation on why, comments on recent improvements, and a batch of specific feature requests.
First, what is font management? A font management application allows you to preview fonts without having them active on your system, create groups of fonts, search your fonts by various criteria, and activate/deactivate individual fonts, families or user-defined groups on the fly. If you have thousands of fonts it’s pretty much essential, in my opinion. (OS X even has a lightweight font management capability with a built-in utility called Font Book – which is nice for average to middleweight users, but most publishing professionals still need something more heavy-duty.)
How has Windows font management sucked? Well, the number one issue has been that for whatever reasons, Windows font management applications have not had feature parity with their Mac brethren. Ever. Even when it’s supposedly the “same” application on both platforms. This held true even for Adobe’s own ATM Deluxe, and for major applications such as Suitcase and Font Reserve. We’d all release Windows versions of our applications with the same name, but not the same feature set, and usually a much much worse user interface. So user interface (and usability) and features have lagged far behind the same applications’ Mac counterparts.
Why is that? Don’t expect some Mac-superiority argument here (and in contrast to my usual policy of accepting almost all comments, flames on this topic or anything that looks likely to ignite a platform war will not be posted).
But it is true that the DTP revolution started on the Mac OS, and that even today the majority of the high end of the publishing market is Mac based – which is interesting considering that Adobe sells more units of software on Windows, and has for a while. But it is a minority of all users who have thousands of fonts, making them really need font management, and more of those particular users are on the Mac. Back in the mid 90s, perhaps 80% of the market for font management was on Mac OS. Based on trends in font sales and other data, I suspect that number has slid to something a lot closer to 65%. In other words, if you’re playing in the Mac font management market, there’s probably a viable Windows market as well, even if it’s not quite as big. Plus, having a viable Windows product will influence those Mac purchasers who want to be able to run the “same” thing on both platforms.
Now, for all my historical unhappiness on Windows font management, there have been some recent improvements:
1) Extensis recently released a much-updated version of Suitcase for Windows (11), which offers several cool new features, even if it does lag way behind its Mac sibling. Auto-activation, Font Sense (their tech for resolving font version issues), and a passable UI are all there, as well as the FontDoctor repair/diagnostic tool.
2) Linotype recently had a Windows “public beta” of their free font manager FontExplorer X. The first beta had enough issues that it definitely wasn’t practical for a work environment, but they’ve completed the public beta period, and I look forward to “the real thing” arriving Real Soon Now.
3) [Added in edit 10/7/2007] Font Agent Pro from Insider Software recently came out in its first-ever Windows version, which I am eager to take a look at.
(There are also a host of other font management applications on Windows, which I’ll list at the end.)
If/when Extensis and Linotype follow up on these with further offerings, I could be much happier about the state of Windows font management. Yet I still went ahead and installed ATM Deluxe on my new laptop (which is running XP – ATM Deluxe is not compatible with Vista). Why didn’t I move to something that has a future?
1) Well, the number one reason is that I have extensive sets defined in ATM Deluxe, and it seems that none of these other applications can import ATM font sets (as best as I can tell – I have not personally tried every application). considering that ATM Deluxe can export its font sets definitions to a plain text file with a completely obvious format, this seems like an oversight. After all, probably the majority of the entire installed base of Windows font management users are on ATM Deluxe. It doesn’t work on Vista, and hasn’t had a major new release in ten years. Isn’t this an opportunity? If you’re a font management vendor who doesn’t have a copy of ATM Deluxe handy, just drop me a line and I’ll happily send you a font sets file for reference.
There are a couple of other key features that would really encourage me to move to a new font management app.
2) Offer higher-order grouping of families, with more than four members in a family. Ideally, the names shown would be exactly the same as in my favorite Adobe applications, but I’d settle for something even vaguely similar – at least it’s easy to get something like the right kind of family grouping. (As best as I can tell, FontExplorer X seems to have this, but not in the main font browsing pane.)
For the geeks among you or people who are actually programming these applications, here are some gory details of how Adobe apps handle the font family and style names:
- for OpenType fonts, there are specific IDs in the name table to use (Windows Name IDs 16 and 17). Foe each of those one falls back to an old-fashioned TrueType name ID (1 and 2 respectively) if the newer ones aren’t present.
- Type 1 fonts from Adobe are all listed in a static text-file database, which I expect a third party could parse if they wanted to. It’s called fntnames.db and is in the Program Files\Common Files\Adobe folder.
- Third party Type 1 fonts are subject to some exhaustive algorithms to try to get long, friendly, typographic names that we can use consistently across platforms. I might be able to share this information (TBD).
3) Features to deal intelligently with really large numbers of fonts. Oh, for Diamondsoft’s Font Reserve for Mac OS! This was one thing they totally excelled at. Live filtering of fonts based on a range of criteria. Tabs with letters of the alphabet so you can simply see all your fonts that start with “M” without having to create a set to do it. A basic font classification system that tried to automatically classify all your fonts, and let you do the rest or even re-classify the ones it got wrong. Plus user-defined tags and the like. Ah…. (Fair disclosure: I was so taken with seeing a pre-release demo of Font Reserve 1.0 that I signed up to help them with their font classification system and database, back around the spring of 1996 I think it was. Of course, Also, their wonderful UI was coupled to less than stellar stability in some versions.) FontExplorer X and Suitcase come closest on these features, but both still have quite a way to go.
4) I also have a general bias on font management: reasonably or not, I think I should be able to install a new font management tool and figure out most of the basic functionality without reading a manual. I should be able to use drag and drop to tell it about new fonts. I have an expectation of simplicity and ease of learning that I am mostly disappointed on, though it seems that on Windows, again Suitcase and FontExplorer X come closest.
5) In terms of font information you can display and sort by, it ought to include font embedding info (embedding bits, a.k.a. fsType setting).
6) I should be able to organize sets in the font manager independently of the physical arrangements of fonts on my hard disk. I should be able to nest sets within sets as well.
So, if you’re a font management developer out there, I hope you take those few suggestions to heart.
There are a surprisingly large number of Windows font management apps out there. Here are the ones I know of with some links and comments. The last time I looked at this a couple of years ago, most of the low-end and shareware options didn’t support OpenType CFF fonts, but that has changed since then, so there are plenty of seemingly viable options.
FontExplorer X public beta 1 (0.9.1.2250) by Linotype. Stability/functionality are not ready for prime time in this public beta 1 version – I encountered several major bugs during installation alone. But the much-lauded iTunes-like User interface really does work pretty well, and the quantity/quality of information shown by each font is great, and the preview options are good. So this is one to watch… whenever it’s really released.
Suitcase 11 by Extensis. Glad to see a new version, but I really want to see something comparable to the current Suitcase Fusion from the Mac side of the house.
FontAgent Pro 3 by Insider Software. I have yet to look at this one.
MainType 2.1.1 by High-Logic. $49. Can download and install for a free trial period. I found the interface a bit cluttered and not entirely intuitive to me, but the feature list is impressive and the price is good. The customizable main UI so you can emphasize what you want and ignore what you don’t care about is very cool. Can display a remarkably wide range of information about any given font, but that doesn’t include the font’s embedding setting.
Font Navigator by Bitstream, bundled with Corel Graphics Suite and not available separately. Really first-rate and intuitive user interface, but it’s a pretty old product so it doesn’t give you the same level of information about each font that most of the newer products offer.
Typograf 4.8f by Neuber Software, $35 shareware, can download and try out for free. Tiny 1 MB download, pretty good set of features for previewing and showing info about each font, very clean install/uninstall process. Clunky UI has a sort of Windows 3.1 look and feel, though.
OT1 Font Manager 2.5.2, by J M Berthier. $39.99, limited demo version available.
FontExpert 2007 v9 by Proxima Software. $59, free 30-day trial version available. Very multi-paned UI and tons of buttons seems a bit overwhelming at first, but it does have a lot of functions.
AMP Font Viewer 3.8 by AMPsoft. Although they do call it a font manager, I found the “categories” (sets) functionality so clunky as to be pretty much unusable, in line with a generally primitive UI. It is available at no charge for personal non-profit use, however.
Printer’s Apprentice from Lose Your Mind Software
Font Fitting Room 220.127.116.11 from ApoliSoft. 30-day free trial, $29.95 for Standard version or $49.95 for the Deluxe version. The Deluxe one adds sets and the like.
X-Fonter 6.3 from Black Sun Software. $35 shareware.
(Let me know if I’ve missed something and I’ll add it. This post has been edited repeatedly to add more font managers – there are an endless stream, it seems!)