Sunday 03 April 2005

Bitstream Vera? Not for me, thanks!

Commenting on Burningbird’s recent switch to Georgia for her main content font, Aristotle Pagaltzis wrote:

As far as sans-serif fonts go, choices are unfortunately limited on the web. Arial rather sucks. You could do the typical thing and use Verdana like the other 348,893,474,681 websites out there. If more individuality is what you’re after, you can try Lucida Sans for Windows people and Lucida Grande for MacOS X folk.

I wish the Bitstream Vera (download) family would spread beyond the Linux crowd; not hard, considering it’s free in both senses. These fonts are great: the Serif is very similar to Georgia, and is decent; the Sans is great, Verdana-ish but warmer, more elegant, more readable; and the Sans Mono is just drop dead gorgeous.

I’d downloaded the Bitstream Vera family a while ago (from the Gnome site) but hadn’t got around to installing the fonts. Aristotle’s comment encouraged me to try them—mainly because I’ve been unhappy with how Firefox (for both Windows and Macintosh) renders macron characters in Georgia, such as the lower case macron characters that I use a lot when transliterating long “o” and “u” vowels in Japanese. For example, in the title of Miike Takashi’s film, Chūgoku no chōjin (The Bird People in China).

So I could see the differences more easily, I prepared a comparison chart (using inline CSS to apply the different fonts, with the font size set to 1em). Of course, what you see next will depend on your OS and installed fonts.

Macron Font Comparison

Times New Roman / Times
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Georgia
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Palatino Linotype / Palatino
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Bitstream Vera Serif
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Bitstream Vera Sans
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Verdana
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Trebuchet MS
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Lucida Grande / Lucida Sans
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Lucida Sans Unicode
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Arial
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Helvetica
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

However, since the results weren’t anything like I’d expected, I made some screen captures for Firefox on Macintosh and Windows, Internet Explorer 6 on Windows, and Safari on the Macintosh.

Here’s the executive summary:

  • Safari on the Macintosh does the best job of rendering the o-with-macron and u-with-macron characters (though they look ugly in Georgia in Safari too).
  • Firefox for Windows does a much better job than Firefox for the Macintosh (on the Macintosh the o-with-macron and u-with-macron characters frequently look as though they come from a totally different font).
  • Bitstream Vera Serif produces ugly macron characters in all four browsers.
  • Internet Explorer 6 for Windows does not display the o-with-macron and u-with-macron characters at all when the font is either Bitstream Vera Serif, Bitstream Vera Sans, or Lucida Sans (although the macron characters appear properly in Lucida Sans Unicode).

So—despite Aristotle’s enthusiasm and my own desire to do something for the Linux crowd—poor (or non-existent) macron character rendering makes it unlikely that I’ll be adding any of the Bitstream Vera faces to my font-family declarations. Unless someone can point out a flaw in my test methodology, or suggest a reason for Firefox’s lousy performance and IE’s refusal to display the characters at all.

Macron comparison in Macintosh Safari

Macron comparison in Macintosh Firefox

Macron comparison in Windows Firefox

Macron comparison in Windows Internet Explorer 6

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Comments

Hi
Thought you might find interesting re your comment: (on the Macintosh the o-with-macron and u-with-macron characters frequently look as though they come from a totally different font)

Well it does come from a different fount try cutting and pasting your example from safari into textedit bring up the font panel and then move through the words you will see that often the ō and ū have been substituted from Hirangino Kaku Gothic Pro. The founts that contain the character are: Lucida Grande, Helvetica and Palatino. It may be different on you system.

Marc

Posted by Marc Pacheco on 4 April 2005 (Comment Permalink)

It doesn't look like any of the Bitstream Vera fonts _have_ a u-macron or o-macron character, or any of the rest of Latin Extended-A. What you see in Firefox and Safari is the result of font substitution. (I'm using Konqueror, which doesn't seem to be able to do substitution on a per-character basis, so I get boxes as you do in IE).

This being the case, they're clearly unsuitable for a site that needs to use macrons a lot.

I'm surprised no-one's extended them, if they're free-as-in-speech. I mean, adding macrons to existing glyphs isn't the most challenging bit of typography.

Posted by Tim May on 4 April 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Marc and Tim, thank you! (One good thing about living in Australia is being able to pose a problem before I go to sleep and then to wake up the following morning to find that someone has provided the solution.)

It hadn't occurred to me that, for fonts without the Latin Extended-A characters, the browser would source those characters from a font that has them, but that's exactly what's happening. And the boxes appear when a browser is incapable of doing that substitution. Now I realize I must only specify fonts in my CSS that contain the Latin Extended-A characters (until IE and Konqueror catch up).

Posted by Jonathon on 4 April 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Firefox on OS X has serious problems with the rendering of 'special' characters, particularly when dfonts are used. It is very painfull to see for Japanese characters when the Hiragino font-family is used. See Bugzilla bug #240841 for an example. And yes, you should use only true Unicode fonts, such as Lucida Grande (Mac), Lucida Sans Unicode (win). I thought Bitstream Vera did contain the full range of characters, but apparently not.

Posted by Philippe on 4 April 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Turns out people _have_ extended the Bitstream Vera fonts, but the licence says you have to change the name of derivative works. The DejaVu fonts seem to be the best such. Don't know how many people actually have these installed, but you might like to try them out.

http://dejavu.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

Looks like they're planning to release the next version in a few days.

Posted by Tim May on 10 April 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Tim, thanks for this. I was going to hold off until the next release (1.9, on 17 April), but I couldn't resist downloading and installing the DejaVu fonts.

I'm glad I did -- I find I prefer the Sans, Sans Mono, and Serif faces to Lucida Grande, Monaco Regular, and Georgia respectively (the macrons are more cleanly separated from the letters in both the Sans Mono and Serif faces).

From the list of the other Bitstream Vera derivatives (http://dejavu.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Bitstream_Vera_derivatives), it appears that DejaVu has taken the lead (a couple of other derivatives have been merged into DejaVu).

I'm currently redesigning my site and I'll set DejaVu as the first member of each of the font families I specify. Apart from writing another post about this, I'm wondering what else could be done to encourage more people to download and install DejaVu?

Posted by Jonathon on 10 April 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour