Vista puts Mac OS X font rendering to shame

Summary:[Update 8/24/2007 - Some people are still going around accusing me of stacking the deck and fabricating evidence against Apple by disabling sub-pixel rendering on Mac OS X.  It turns out that there is a problem with the default "automatic" font setting which is suppose to detect if the display is an LCD or CRT.

[Update 8/24/2007 - Some people are still going around accusing me of stacking the deck and fabricating evidence against Apple by disabling sub-pixel rendering on Mac OS X.  It turns out that there is a problem with the default "automatic" font setting which is suppose to detect if the display is an LCD or CRT.  The original Mac OS X sample I got from my colleague at the CNET/ZDNet office in San Francisco was a PowerPC Mac running Mac OS X 10.4 with a nice 24" Dell LCD attached to it.  The automatic setting on the Mac failed to detect the display was an LCD and it turned off sub-pixel rendering.

At first I thought this was because my colleague was running in portrait mode and the Mac was smart enough to turn off sub-pixel rendering for portrait mode but that was not the case.  A Mac right next to it was running the same kind of Mac with a 24" Dell LCD in normal landscape mode and its automatic setting failed to detect the presence of an LCD display and automatically disabled sub-pixel rendering.  That is a problem with the Mac default automatic setting and not an attempt to sabotage the Mac.  But even with the improved setting on the Mac, it still produced a more blurry font.

As I explained below, this is because Apple chose a different design philosophy which prioritizes the purity of typography with the size and spacing of the fonts more than it acknowledges the limitations of the pixel grid and all modern displays.  While that may be the right design decision if we're talking about pre-press and typesetting applications or for a future display technology capable of 200+ DPI resolution, it's the wrong approach for desktop and browser font rendering.  Jeff Atwood explained this best when he says: "Apple is asking us to sacrifice the present at the altar of the future"]

One of the first things I noticed when I switched to Windows Vista earlier this year was how much of an improvement in font readability Vista has over earlier versions of Windows for the screen fonts.  Windows XP had an older version of "Clear type" that I was never satisfied with so I always ended up using zero font smoothing technology.  The fonts in XP were either too thin or too thick and it just didn't work right with Clear type.

But I got an even bigger shock when I looked at a Mac this week.  I was at a colleague's desk and noticed how messed up his fonts were on his shiny Mac so I asked him to capture a screen shot of his Safari web browser pointed at the bnet.com website and send the image to me.  Once I got the image I went ahead and captured a portion of the screen with black text on white background and created a 300% zoom of the image.  Then I created a comparison chart of the fonts side by side along with the magnified version below.

Comparison of font rendering technology

Mac OS X 10.4 Windows Vista Windows XP
Clearly, Mac OS X was the blurriest and faintest of the three major operating systems and it's the least readable by far and even pales in comparison to Windows XP.  Windows Vista using sub-pixel rendering (which works best in landscape display mode) clearly has the best font rendering technology.

Update 1:30AM - Reader "tombalablomba" submitted a screenshot of Ubuntu and Firefox in the talkback section so I've added the following comparison for it.  Thanks!

Mac OS X 10.4 Windows Vista Ubuntu/Firefox
I would probably rate Ubuntu and Firefox same or slightly better than Windows XP but below Vista.  The font looks clean but it's too thin and the "e" doesn't look as true to the typography like Vista and Mac.  Mac OS X 10.4 is true to the typography but it's way too faded out and it doesn't use sub-pixel rendering sticking only with grey scale edges.  Vista seems to strike the right balance of typography and readability.  [Update 2:40AM - the sample submitted for Ubuntu may have been tweaked to be thinner to the user's liking and it's using a different font than Vista or Mac OS X.

While font technology isn't what's typically considered a killer application or killer feature, it is by far one of the most important usability features in an operating system.  We simply cannot place a price tag on eye strain and someone who works all day long in front of a computer like me greatly appreciates the font rendering technology in Windows Vista.  Mac OS X might have the fancier animated UI but I can't imagine myself looking at those fonts.  Even if you gave me a brand new MacBook Pro - which I happen to think is a very nice though expensive notebook - the first thing I'll do is install Boot camp and Windows Vista.

[Update 2:40AM - Some insist that this is simply a difference in design philosophy from Apple where typography and being faithful to font size is king.  They argue that is Apple is geared for its desktop publishing roots.  I can’t accept that for the following reasons.

  • What percentage of Mac users sit around all day doing nothing but pre-press work?
  • Even if a Mac user works in the desktop publishing industry, do they need that while surfing the web or looking at desktop screen fonts? What In the world do you need to pre-press a web browser for?
  • I can understand prioritizing the font size and typography for something like PageMaker or QuarkXPress, but do it there and leave the desktop and browser fonts alone.
  • There’s nothing to prevent a Windows computer application from doing its own pre-press rendering.

I don't care if someone is using a 30" LCD with 2560x1600 resolution; you're not going to remove the need for sub-pixel rendering and sub-pixel shifting to account for the pixel grid. You must respect the grid if you want to respect the user's eyes.

Managing a desktop operating system and web browsing is NOT a Desktop Publishing pre-press application and therefore trying to prioritize the font typography and size above ALL else is simply the wrong solution for the problem at hand.]

Update 12:20PM - Reader "saddino" submitted a screenshot of Mac OS X with sub pixel rendering turned on.

Saddino submitted Windows Vista Mac OS X 10.4
It looks like it's been tweaked quite a bit and the word "Insight" has been made too thick to the point that the dot in the "i" is only one pixel away from the letter "n" in bnet.  While it's certainly better looking than the screenshot I got from my colleague who uses a 24" LCD with default Mac settings, it's still not as clear as the Vista rendering.  But why should a Mac user have to turn this on when Apple only sells LCDs?  Soundn't things "just work" on a Mac?

The improved settings still doesn't look good because it's too thick and the word "Insight" looks very exaggerated.  Look at the horizontal line in the letter "e" and it clearly looks blurry.  Clearly the Mac font rendering technology has been designed for a display technology that does not yet exist.  So even with sub-pixel rendering, the Mac fonts still don't cut it.

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Topics: Windows, Apple, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems

About

George Ou, a former ZDNet blogger, is an IT consultant specializing in Servers, Microsoft, Cisco, Switches, Routers, Firewalls, IDS, VPN, Wireless LAN, Security, and IT infrastructure and architecture.

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