Apple’s Font Rendering and high DPI displays

The release of a beta of Apple’s Safari for Windows earlier this week has resulted in an interesting flurry of activity in web designer circles. Nevermind the instant security bugs and the quick release of fixes from Apple. I’m talking about typography.

The day that the beta came out, Jeff Atwood asked “What’s wrong with Apple’s font rendering?” He pointed out that others had discussed this before, but it wasn’t until the difference was visible side-by-side on the exact same machine with the exact same fonts (and with presumably the exact same font libraries) that it became truly surprising. Joel Spolsky responded with the answer: Apple and Microsoft have very different priorities when it comes to font rendering, and at current screen sizes and resolutions, Apple’s total respect for the letter shapes can mean blurriness. Their diligence becomes especially impressive when you consider the work that Apple must have had to go through to get Safari to run on Microsoft’s home turf but render fonts the way it would on Mac OS X.

Dave Shea piped in with his own opinion and a caveat: I like Mac’s look better, but I think Microsoft’s is a better choice for the medium. But more importantly, he points out that as soon as higher-DPI screens are available, the whole question will be moot. Microsoft’s deference to the pixel grid will be essentially meaningless. Which brings us back to what Jeff Atwood does best: a big post with research and quotes and numbers showing how far screens have come since the release of the PC AT and Macintosh. Not far. The sad realization:

Short of some kind of miraculous technological breakthrough, I can’t see computer displays reaching 200 DPI in “a few years”. It’s unlikely we’ll even get there in ten years. I’d love to be proven wrong, but all the evidence of history– not to mention typical consumer “bigger is better” behavior– is overwhelming.

Can e-ink or OLED be the miraculous technological breakthrough we need? Possibly, but neither of them are yet ready to replace CRTs or LCDs.

[1] The always brilliant Joel ends with a great metaphor about how people usually prefer what’s familiar. He doesn’t say it, but I think he was implying that this is a big contributor to entrenchment in computing holywars: Mac vs. PC, vi vs. emacs, KNF vs. OTBS.

Comments (7)

  1. Chris Different wrote::

    I can’t see computer displays reaching 200 DPI in “a few years”

    Problem is, as Jeff is also wont to be, he’s wrong. The newest MacBook Pro has an available display at 133 dpi. The iPhone display has 160 dpi. There’s no technical obstacle to a large 200 dpi display.

    It’s not a matter of hardware technology, it’s that software hasn’t kept up its end of the bargain. This is changing with Leopard (I don’t know if Vista fixes it on Windows or not).

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 12:31 #
  2. Plutor wrote::

    Actually, if you read Jeff’s post, he mentions that. 133 sounds close to 200 dpi, but we’ve got a long way to go. And 160 dpi on a 6-square-inch-screen is a lot different than on even a 15-inch-diagonal screen.

    To reach 200 DPI, that same 15.4″ laptop display would have to pack in 2560 x 1600 pixels. Imagine a 30″ Apple Cinema HD display shrunken by half, and you’ll get the idea.

    And that still doesn’t change the fact that it took 20 years to get there from 72 dpi.

    But I’m not sure what your last point means. What’s changing with Leopard, the way Apple’s font rendering works? And which part of the bargain hasn’t software kept up with? How does the software avoid making the decision that Microsoft and Apple are on different sides of?

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 12:44 #
  3. Plutor wrote::

    Aha, maybe you were refering to the DPI scaling stuff in Leopard. Vista has this, too, apparently, but I don’t think it really applies. It helps scale things to bigger (in terms of pixels) with higher-dpi screens so that they appear the same size as on lower-density screens. But it doesn’t really change the fact that there’s a disagreement at current sizes.

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 12:53 #
  4. Sebhelyesfarku wrote::

    I have a Nokia N80 with a ~220 dpi screen. And the entire UI is SVG vector based, resolution independent. Apple can suck my dick.

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 15:59 #
  5. dt wrote::

    Operating systems lack of support for scalable, resolution independent user interface is the primary factor limiting historical increases in display pixel density.

    Everybody takes it for granted in printers–ever since Postscript it hasn’t mattered what the resolution of the printer was, everything still prints at the same size and the higher the res the better. Why can’t people make the same logical leap for displays?

    LCD display manufacturers would love to sell their product with double the current pixel density for the simple reason that pixel defects become much less noticeable, allowing factory yields to go way up. Lack of OS support for scalable UI has forced them to continue shipping coarse displays on which every defect is glaring.

    The GPUs in average personal computers today have more than enough processing power to handle the additional pixels.

    It’s the software, stupid.

    Sunday, June 17, 2007 at 17:36 #
  6. Plutor wrote::

    Hm, that’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about the vicious circle: lack of higher-density screen support in OSes means display manfacturer don’t want to work on them, and a lack of existing screens means Microsoft and Apple don’t want to work on the feature. It’s nice to see that with Vista and Leopard that someone may have taken the higher ground. (I don’t run Vista or Mac OS X, so I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of either solution.) Perhaps with better support, it’s only a matter of time until we see competition on this front, instead of “6ms!” “5ms!” “4.5ms!” nonsense.

    Monday, June 18, 2007 at 07:35 #
  7. Pat wrote::

    It will probably take some time before computers/laptops will feature this high dpi displays. I know we’ll get there but not sure when. :)

    Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 14:37 #