« | August 2007
August 28 2007
Bruno Fernandes: Bribery baby
How would you like to be paid to watch a movie? Or in a different light, how would you like some free software? Keep reading.
Last night I had the pleasure to watch The 11th Hour, the DiCaprio-produced environmental and social-responsibility wake-up flick. I knew before going in that I agreed with the perceived sentiment, but at the same time didn't know how this title would go about telling its story. The narration is sparse and the movie consists mainly of interview segments pieced together with news and other footage of various disasters and surveys of the world around us. The film makers interviewed more than 50 scientists, ecologists, professors, authors and other experts, including Stephen Hawking, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, David Orr, Paul Hawken, Kenny Ausubel, Mikhail Gorbachev and Theo Colborn. This is not a movie “about global warming” - that's only a single topic of this 95 minute reality-check.
Over all it was a concise and poignant film. We could have watched another thousand scientists and experts interviewed for another three weeks and the messages would ring no more true. The human race has a problem. That's us folks! It's not the environment that has the problem, it's only showing the signs of our abuse.
Some days it's hard to have faith in humanity. Every day in supposedly beautiful Ontario I see people treating the streets and parks as their own personal trash heap. You can't travel anywhere, even a five minute walk from any neighborhood, without seeing at least the littered evidence of carelessness and self-importance. Whether you believe or doubt the dire predictions and immediate causes of global climate change, you need only look around you to see the abuses I mentioned by others in your neighborhoods.
Everyone should see this movie, but I don't believe for a second that writing about it here will convince someone who simply doesn't give a damn to stop for two hours and soak it in. But maybe, just maybe, you might be able to convince a couple of people you know to make the effort. And like the old shampoo commercial, they'll tell two friends and so on... While the vast majority of people might say they "care" many of them also think it's “someone else's problem” - the problem is with all of us. And the only way to make a difference is to actually MAKE a difference. Change something you do, something you buy, anything. Start somewhere. Start here.
To increase motivation, how about offsetting that movie ticket price with free software? I'll give away full Mira registrations to the next 50 people who go out to see The 11th Hour. You just need to email me a scan or digital photo of your ticket stub and at least one sentence telling me about something you already do, or will do, that demonstrates you care about the world we live in.
Is this collusion or bribery? Well, I don't have any association with the movie or film makers, I simply give a shit about where I live and where my children will live. If you want to find out more about collusion, bribery, misappropriation, deceit and unlawfulness, I suggest you go take a look at this other site.
To other developers out there, how about matching my offer? No more, no less, just give away a few copies of your software to those willing to show they give a damn and are willing to do something about it. I'll be glad to provide or create custom artwork to help you promote this event if you need it.
August 27 2007
Bruno Fernandes: Sunny, stop chewing that!
The site's been unavailable a few times today and believe me, no one is more upset and stressed about it than me. Except perhaps Sunny. The little guy thought he was at fault for having chewed through dad's internet pipe, so I had to reassure him it was just our host's, and Cisco's, crappy equipment.
Everyone's feeling more relaxed now and the site seems to be humming along again. The boys at Dreamhost are still working out their issues, so if you notice anything drastically broken for the rest of the night, please have some patience and please try back again later.
Now excuse me while I go take a closer look at Media Temple's web site...
August 21 2007
Bruno Fernandes: Smoothya later
Why do so many issues have to be boiled down to philosophical debates? There's nothing wrong with philosophy, but something such as font rasterizing (converting a vector image into a raster image, also known as a bitmap) and anti-aliasing (collectively “rendering”) can easily be debated on a technical battlefront. At least arguments can be had putting forth facts rather than hypothesizing on philosophy and obvious flame-baiting. Because at the end of the day, that's all this recent hullabaloo has been. Hypothesis on Apples versus Oranges, err, Windows and flame-baiting for increased hits purported to be “readership.”
Adobe Illustrator CS2's custom font rendering
Credit where credit is due of course. The inspiration for this post came from a ZDNet TechBlog post linked by John Gruber on Daring Fireball. I think john needs to start a new Jackass-only feed. Frankly I'm amazed he can whittle down to a single winner every week, but this past one was just head and shoulders above.
Microsoft first introduced “Font Smoothing” in 1995 with its Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95. This technology anti-aliased screen type above specific point sizes to arguably make it more legible. I say arguably because it was possible for certain fonts to become quite muddy at small sizes and while they looked terrible without the anti-aliasing, they were nonetheless readable. A number of my machines spent a long time running Windows 95 before jumping directly to 2000 back in the day. Having painstakingly anti-aliased type and graphics by hand (pixel by pixel) since the mid 80's I was well aware of its benefits, so the Plus Pack was a welcomed addition for this feature alone.
Apple introduced their own font smoothing with Mac OS 8.5 in 1998, the same year Microsoft announced and demonstrated a new sub-pixel technique of font rendering for LCDs, called ClearType. This form of anti-aliasing uses multicolored pixels which, on an LCD, allows the turning on/off of the individual color elements (RGB) which make up every pixel. The technique therefore triples the effective unique horizontal image elements available to create a smooth edge. Microsoft first shipped ClearType on the desktop in 2001 with Windows XP.
Current operating systems from both Microsoft and Apple can use sub-pixel anti-aliasing for on-screen font rendering. This is where the fact reporting begins to break down in a number of the articles and rants recently written on this topic, not to mention the streams of comments following each one.
Mac OS X includes settings for font rendering in its Appearance Preference Pane. This preference pane is the first icon in the top left corner of System Preferences. At the very bottom of the window you can specify “Font Smoothing Style” to be either Automatic, Standard, Light, Medium or Strong and minimum font size to be either 4, 6, 8, 9, 10 or 12 and above. This part is important so read it carefully:
By default, Mac OS comes set to “Automatic”
Mac OS X 10.4 Appearance Preferences
The automatic setting will, as the name and description in the UI implies, apply the optimum smoothing setting depending on what type of screen the text is being rendered to (CRT, LCD, TV, etc..) When you install or use your Mac for the first time, there is no need to touch any font properties. You don't have to know anything about smoothing at all - it just works.
In Windows XP, still the more prominent non-Apple OS, font smoothing is not turned on by default. Read it again, George Ou. In Windows XP, font smoothing is not turned on by default. In fact, to turn this feature on you have to do a little digging in Display Properties, one of the Windows Control Panels. A quick way to reach this panel is to Right-Click on the desktop and select the last option from the pop-up menu, Properties.
Windows XP Display Properties' Appearance Tab, Effects Preferences
Once the panel comes up, select the Appearance tab in a similar vein to Mac OS. However, you won't yet see the option. Now click the button near the bottom right titled “Effects.” You should now see a check-box allowing you to enable font smoothing and select the method. Either Standard or ClearType - there is no automatic option which will support both LCDs and CRTs equally well.
In Windows Vista... Well, if you're running Vista may I suggest you install Windows XP for sanity and usability's sake.
That covers the most basic concept of the saga - how to actually turn on the font smoothing options (if needed).
I don't want to get into the topic of pixel grids, nor as I mentioned, philosophy. The fact of the matter is that Windows implements font rasterization pretty much the way it always has. Most of what exists in Windows today is about legacy, not about philosophy. Things are written or done a certain way because that's simply the way they were originally done and no one wants to rock the boat. Or the boat is so large it's nearly impossible to rock. For perspective, as a long-time dual-platform user, I still run multiple Windows systems to this day.
Mac OS X, as many have pointed out, is based on a number of older technologies and frameworks from NeXT along with plenty of new hooks designed to create the best operating and best looking OS. The process was not an instant one and is much more comparable to building a house, one brick at a time, starting with version 10.0. Apple has very much shown a new invigorated focus on style, from product design to advertising to user interfaces.
Text is most readable when one can most easily recognize the letter forms. Typographers have spent hundreds of years perfecting the printed letter form with the most subtle of details, many designed strictly to increase legibility. Early computers with low resolution screens, limited memory and slow processors weren't afforded the ability to use anything but bitmap fonts. These pixel based fonts often had to fit each letter form into an 8x8 matrix using only a single color.
Detail of original Commodore 64 font at 400% magnification
Imagine making letters using checkers on a grid. These blocky fonts on some computers benefitted greatly from analogue displays that smeared their appearance on screen. But blocky is still blocky. Not to mention the need to print something you'd written. You would really have very little idea of what it would end up looking like on paper.
When given the opportunity, artists creating logos and title screens for games and applications, long ago started filling in the jaggy spaces with additional pixels that averaged the colors of the foreground and background, creating a less harsh transition and appearance of smoothness to the eye. This is anti-aliasing and just one technique any respectable pixel pusher had to master.
Animated 5 second interval: Original artwork / hand-applied Anti-Aliasing
300% zoom of original and Anti-Aliased versions
Logo sample circa 1988 - Originally created in DPaint in Amiga OS (16 colors)
The desire for smoothness and appearance of higher resolution has been in the hearts of computer enthusiasts for over 25 years. With the desktop consumer revolution of the mid 90's, spurred in large part by Microsoft and the development of the Web, these machines, programs and technology were adopted by the masses. The same masses who had looked at clunky machines and displays from years gone by and easily dismissed them as either toys or overly complicated calculators.
Consumers today expect high quality and high usability. They don't need to learn the technicalities nor design philosophies of someone squirreled away in an office, lab or studio on the other side of the country. We want things to look good. Shiny, new, smooth, but of course recognizable and usable.
There's already so much to learn and keep track of that one shouldn't need to worry about whether or not two lines of text will print the way they're expected to. The way they were typed on the screen for instance.
In the simplest form, issues of disparity involve working with differing standards. That is, doing one thing at the time of creation and then doing something else at the time of viewing. Whether the final medium be paper, another screen or even the same screen in another application.
There are likely more font rasterizing and anti-aliasing algorithms (methods) than people reading this blog right now. You definitely encounter at least two of them on a daily basis, some people confronted with some three or four right on their own screens.
Whether using Mac OS or Windows, when you visit a web page that has employed any text as graphics, such as this one, you're seeing the font rendering engine of both your browser as well as that of the program the designer used to create the images. In the case of this site, all image-based text was created and rasterized with Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator's font handling is completely different than that of Photoshop, and they're both from the same vendor. Incidentallly, both use their own custom font rendering and neither use sub-pixel methods for screen display.
Your browser may likely be using a different font rendering engine than your operating system as well. This is certainly the case for anyone visiting with a Mozilla-based browser. Firefox and others may be using the FreeType font rendering library or even QuickDraw Text Rendering in Mac OS, which is apparently the case for newer versions of Camino. So when browsing pages with such browsers, you're not using your OS' default font technology either.
Safari in Mac OS uses Mac OS Quartz Text Rendering, a variant of which is also used in Safari for Windows, but something I have not verified myself to be 100% compatible yet. In Mac OS, applications using the system's text services are also able to specify their own tweaks to the font and glyph layout, normally used for special and other effects. So as Windows users have noticed a difference with text in their versions of Internet Explorer and Safari, so too will anyone running Mozilla browsers or any number of Adobe applications, just as a small sample. One last important item to consider is that font rendering and (page) layout are not the same thing - more on this further down.
Actual font rendering and layout in Safari and Camino (Mac OS 10.4.9 with LCD)
What's important here is that differences exist. At the end of the day as a consumer, one doesn't need to know the technology being used nor really the reason it was chosen, just that the end result is what's expected and found to be satisfactory.
Apart from size, screen fonts in Mac OS generally look as they would print on paper. The effect of optimal smoothing is such that you should forget you're looking at pixels and left with very readable and clean type. Viewing distance is compensated for by variable type size - another small detail many people forget about, and likely the subject of a completely different post.
It's obvious from some recent content on the net that this has caused some surprises for those not used to reading clear type (no pun intended). Windows font rendering produces characters in which individual pixels are much more pronounced and where the weight (seen as darkness or thickness) of type at different sizes is not quite proportional. I know some readers are thinking “but... it's... becau...” Well, let me stop you. I know why the fonts are rendered this way. Again, that's not the point.
I think some of the most shocking examples pitting one platform against the other have been unfairly composed, some of them I'd go so far as accusing of using doctored or false image samples. The biggest factor surrounding these stories not being the superiority of one implementation over the other, nor education, but simply page views, advertising and revenue. Buzz, plain and simple. Maybe it's the reason I'm whoring this post right now.
Actual font rendering and layout in Safari 2.0.4 in Mac OS 10.4.9
As an admirer of letter forms, a part-time student of typography and having worked with digital type of all kinds for over 25 years, I have a small bit of perspective. And to be honest it just bothers me when someone like George Ou tries to make something of nothing by using completely baseless comments, a serious lack of education or fact checking and possibly fake images. Again, there's clearly no attempt to report on facts or make any type of factual analysis. It's a simple smash and grab for page hits and it's worked. Over 69% of visitors to his story in fact prefer Mac OS treatment of screen fonts - obviously not by looking at the terrible, and non-real-world examples George has pasted up in his article. He states at the top of his piece:
Windows XP had an older version of “Clear type” [sic] 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.”
Is this the right person to be making any observations about type? Judge for yourself with the samples included below. XP's ClearType, though supplanted by that of Vista, clearly has some purpose and shows distinct benefit when used - on an LCD.
Actual font rendering and layout in Internet Explorer 6 in Windows XP Pro SP2
When using XP's Standard smoothing I'll agree, the fonts end up looking like a jumbled mess in many instances. Just look at the word “Courses” below, where the weight of each letter seems to have been chosen at random.
Actual font rendering and layout in Internet Explorer 6 in Windows XP Pro SP2
100% unaltered image crops from BNET
George does mention that XP also uses sub-pixel anti-aliasing, but obviously missed the fact that Mac OS does too. Instead, including some hideous image that clearly doesn't match any actual crops (see above and below). He's right of course in saying the Mac OS sample used didn't use sub-pixel precision. Jumping to the conclusion that it's “just the way it is” in Mac OS is fairly irresponsible though. I suppose he assumed it was like XP and only offered a basic setting.
Samples of “Mac OS,” Windows XP & Windows Vista posted by George Ou
100% and 300% image crops from BNET
The next good point made is that font technology greatly enhances readability and usability of a computer. If true, why does George prefer the rendering in Vista? It's clearly not plagued by as much color fringing and aliasing as XP, but there's still a shimmer and glimmer caused by the contrast of the colored pixels against the often thin base font glyph and white background. Go look at a Vista system for yourself if you don't believe me or can't see it in the image crops.
Windows Vista using sub-pixel rendering ... clearly has the best font rendering technology.”
Clearly those polled don't agree with George. My own personal opinion is that both XP and Vista produce unrealistic looking type at small sizes that is practically waiflike.
If it weren't enough to jump and trumpet these flawed examples, the “expensive Mac” tidbit is thrown in to sweeten the bait. When you're done reading, go over to dell.com and configure a notebook to match any MacBook Pro default configuration. Start with a simple Latitude model which is already a lower-end machine and then put things into perspective with better matches using the Precision and XPS lines.
Not even half way down his article and it's already painfully obvious that there's no technical coverage or analysis at all, just shoddy “reporting” and head-up-the-assness.
Completely contradicting his earlier points and forgetting all about usability and readability.
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.”
Respecting the viewer's eye has nothing to do with respecting pixel grids. It has everything to do with making type clean and legible. A designer has a further responsibility to set sizes and positioning appropriate for the context. Remember, by and large we don't care how, we don't care why. We're interested in the final result and what it tastes like. That's the consumer mindshare and it's catered to quite well in the case of Mac OS font settings.
Vertical alignment of of text in a web browser is not strictly an issue of the operating system's font rendering. In addition to some products having their own font rendering as mentioned earlier, web browsers have their own layout engines that must deal with information present in web markup as well as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). It is more likely that a particular page's vertical alignment has more to do with a browser's specific layout engine and the page designer's CSS than anything to do with its, or the OS', font rendering. Try taking the text from the bnet site and paste it with the same style into a Rich document in Mail or Word for example.
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?”
They do of course. The image posted in the article is clearly not from any current version of Mac OS running “default” settings. Default in Mac OS is “Automatic” font smoothing and in fact there's no way to even turn off the feature from the UI. On LCDs that means you'll be seeing Medium smoothing, which includes sub-pixel anti-aliasing. I'm not sure any of the examples shows a word rendered in a more “exaggerated” state, but rather in a more realistic state.
The improved settings still doesn’t look good because it’s too thick and the word “Insight” looks very exaggerated.”
This gem from ZDNet's “Technical Director” - oh boy. “This ZDNet story just doesn't fit or make any sense because it was penned by a douche.” He revised the story four different times, each time digging himself into a deeper hole in terms of credibility. But each time bringing in more traffic - over 4500 votes in the poll at the end as of this writing.
I hope no one is going to argue the importance of font rendering as an accurate representation of the printed page for design work, but this whole recent mess is simply one of subjective judgement of style as far as screen rendering in a web browser goes. It's my subjective opinion that the Mac OS font rendering, including sub-pixel anti-aliasing, is the most realistic and pleasing-looking. At the same time making it the most readable. If your opinion is to think otherwise, then you're wrong. ;)
Maybe instead of titling his article “Vista puts Mac OS X font rendering to shame” it should have been called “Rehashed Vista shilling here” or perhaps, “My name is George and I'm amazed anyone reads this shit.”
As mentioned, font rendering in Mac OS is primarily handled by Quartz Text Rendering, and this is what you will see in the majority of applications using the OS services. Text can also be rendered with the older QuickDraw Text Rendering which is also still present in Application Services.
Windows applications also have a choice of multiple Microsoft-created text renderers, though the majority of applications still seem to be using the GDI (Graphics Device Interface) which has been responsible for all the recent Internet Explorer samples posted. Microsoft introduced a more advanced renderer within WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) that is part of the .NET framework. This framework is an optional download for XP SP2 systems and comes pre-installed in Vista. It's likely we'll start to see more developers take advantage of the new text capabilities offered by this framework as .NET gains increased acceptance. Since this framework isn't used to generate the fonts seen in Internet Explorer nor in general cases on the desktop, it's not really of relevance to the main focus of this article, except to add another layer of possible variation.
Looking for every possible example of type rendering and layout would be a fairly heavy task and is not the intention here. Both Mac OS and Windows applications are free to implement their own text handling and rendering, so the possibilities for variation are in fact quite limitless.
August 9 2007
Bruno Fernandes: Of Mice Keyboards and Men
The long-time rumored Apple product refresh event came and went, leaving many of the net's blogs in a tizzy. Official invitations set expectations clearly with regards to the nature of the announcements. This was going to be a time for Mac press coverage, not the second coming of the Jesus phone nor the iPod that would walk on water.
Did that mean hopes weren't dashed or we'd see less rants this time around? Of course not. Apple unveiled new hardware in the form of a redesigned iMac, keyboards, speed-bumped Mac mini and refreshed Airport base station. iLife 08 and iWork 08 both debuted on the software front, introducing a brand new iMovie and spreadsheet application, Numbers.
There's plenty of coverage scattered around the net about each and every announcement along with the usual interpretation of Steve Jobs' tone and selection of words. The most recent gripes I've read have been about the keyboards. Specifically the re-assignment of keys.
Garrett Murray mentions in his blog having recently used one of the new keyboards at a local Apple Store.
The F3 key's special function is Expose: All windows. F3? Are they serious? F4 is Dashboard. Since when are F3 and F4 easy to hit keys? They're in no-man's land up there. And are we just supposed to stop using any other Expose functionality?
So why did Apple make all of these random changes? Truthfully, I'm not sure.”
Having worked closely with Apple for numerous years, I can assure you that despite some design decisions lacking customer appreciation, none of them are ever “random.” To a casual observer, the changes to the special key mapping on the new keyboards will be completely lost as they sit blinded by the physical design. To someone looking for a fight to pick, they'll be grounds for boycotting this product refresh and fodder for the gadget blogs. For students of design and those looking more closely at ergonomic factors, the changes make a lot of sense.
The special functions screened onto the F-keys are laid out on both new keyboards to compliment right-handed mouse use. This is clearly a design that will not be as functional to someone using the pointing device in their left hand, to the left of the keyboard, but it's a purposeful and thoughtful change nonetheless.
The first group of keys, Brightness control, Exposé (All Windows) and Dashboard are readily accessible to the left hand as it rests in the traditional home position on the keyboard. I'm not sure why Garrett calls this area “no-man's land” - surely all function keys would fall into his classification without further explanation.
All three of these functions are typically used in combination with a mouse, so it makes perfect sense to have them easily left-hand accessible. Brightness may not be used as extensively as Exposé nor Dashboard by some people, but the controls are invaluable when working in mixed or changing lighting conditions with digital images. Exposé and Dashboard are both designed to reveal interface elements for manipulation by mouse pointer. One would lift their right hand from the keyboard, invoke the function with the left hand and interact with the right hand on the mouse. If anythying, their old default locations of F9 and F12 seem “random” by comparison.
The second, and larger, group of keys is comprised of Playback control, Volume control and Eject. Like the first group there are only three functions represented here. These keys are all more readily accessible with the right hand as they'd primarily be used when not making use of the mouse. The Playback keys offer an alternative to screen-based buttons that one would click with the mouse and the Volume an alternative to an on-screen slider. The Eject key will typically require further action by one or two hands, either obtaining and inserting or removing and storing a disc from the computer.
It's true some cues have been taken from notebook keyboards, but these changes mark a significant logical and usability improvement in this author's opinion. With previous keyboard implementations, neither Exposé nor Dashboard were special functions. They were simply commands mapped to the plain function keys, either through the Exposé or Keyboard preference panes. This ability has not been taken away with the latest software updates and one can still map iterations of these commands to additional keys, mouse buttons or even pointer-activated screen corners.
I think I'll save a few other keyboard observations for another post. All in all I'm quite pleased with the redesign and I'll undoubtedly pick up one or two to replace some less-than-stellar third-party keyboards on some of the machines around here. There's no rush of course, since my primary machine is after all a notebook.
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