Understanding Font File Formats

Broadly speaking, fonts come in two types: bitmapped and outline (or scaleable ). These two types of fonts have very different characteristics and are best applied in different ways. Common Linux font servers support both types of font. It's important that you understand the differences between them, as well as know examples of specific font formats, so you know what their capabilities and limitations are.

Bitmapped Font Formats

Most computer font display devices, including the most common types of computer video cards and printers, break their display areas into a fine grid. Within this grid, each square (known as a pixel, a shortening of picture element ) is assigned a color. In the case of a two-color display like a monochrome laser printer, the color may be only one of two values, such as black or white. Color printers and modern monitors support multiple colors, but standard X font-handling only supports two colors. (You can set what those colors are, such as black and white or red and yellow, but there may be only two of them for any given letter.) Thus, each pixel of a font can be represented by a single bit. The point of all this is that computers must shoehorn fonts into a computer display, which can be considered a map of bits, or a bitmap. One obvious way to do this is to represent the fonts directly in this form. This is the bitmapped font approach.

As an example, consider Figure 15.1, which shows the representation for a single letter in a bitmapped font. This representation has many important characteristics, even aside from the details of which pixels are black and which are white. For instance, the grid used to represent the letter is of a fixed size . In a proportionally- spaced font, like the one used for most text in this book, some letters are wider than others. Thus, bitmapped font formats usually permit variable grid widths in a single font. The height is usually fixed, though. ( Letters with descenders, which are elements that extend below the bottoms of most letters, like portions of the letters g, j, p, q, and y, simply use parts of the grid that are lower than those used by most other letters. Note that in Figure 15.1, the letter is positioned high within its grid, to permit descenders for those characters that need them.) Because the grid is fixed in size, the font appears at a fixed size on any given device, but if the resolution of the display changes, the font size will change. To support a single font on many devices, or to support variants of a font at different sizes on a single device, many different font bitmaps are required.

Figure 15.1. A bitmapped font precisely defines which pixels are black and which are white.


A display's resolution is usually measured in units called dots per inch (dpi), which is the number of pixels that can be arrayed end-to-end in a single inch. Most devices have approximately the same horizontal and vertical resolutions , but sometimes these differ . Monitors usually have resolutions of between 72 and 120 dpi, while printers usually support resolutions of 144 to 1200 dpi (the lowest of these printer resolutions are used for fast or low-quality print modes, or on very old dot-matrix printers; even very old laser printers supported 300 dpi printouts). Very high-end printers and typesetting equipment support still higher resolutions. The wide variety of resolutions available, in conjunction with the need to create a new font file for every resolution and size, leads to one of the problems of bitmapped fonts: The number of font files required to support even a modest collection of font display devices is huge.



Many printers include their own fonts, some of which may be bitmapped fonts. In the 1980s, these were commonly used instead of fonts stored on the computer. Today, some programs may use a printer's fonts, but others rely on fonts stored on the computer.

Font sizes are measured in points, which is a term from the printing trade. Typical sizes for body text are roughly 9 “14 points, depending upon the font and the purpose of the text. Larger point sizes correspond to larger characters on the screen or page. A bitmapped font is designed to create a specific point size at a specific resolution ”for instance, 12 points at 144 dpi. The same font file may be used to create a different point size at a different resolution, such as 24 points at 72 dpi, but a font designed from scratch for this new resolution might differ in subtle ways. It's possible to adjust a bitmapped font's size (for instance, displaying this 12 point, 144 dpi font at 10 points in 144 dpi), but the result is usually aesthetically unappealing, because pixels will have to be added or deleted by an artistically challenged computer program.

The principal advantage of bitmapped formats is that they're simple. This simplicity translates into quick display of the fonts; the computer can move a few bits from a font it's stored in memory to the video display or printer output buffer to display text in the font. This factor was important in the 1980s and to a lesser extent in the early 1990s, when bitmap font formats resulted in noticeably snappier displays than did competing font formats. Today, CPUs are fast enough that this factor is less important.

Many different bitmap font formats exist. X supports several formats. Early versions of X used a format called Server Normal Format (SNF), but SNF fonts are rare today. Most X bitmap fonts today are in the Portable Compiled Font (PCF) format. The Bitmap Distribution Format (BDF) is another common bitmap font format for X, but it's usually not used directly by the server. Instead, you pass a BDF font through a converter program, called bdftopcf , to create a PCF file that X uses. Other OSs frequently use other font formats, and there are converters available for some of these, if you want to use a foreign bitmapped font in Linux.



XFree86 can use PCF fonts that have been compressed with gzip . Most distributions take advantage of this fact to distribute fonts in a format that consumes less disk space, so PCF font filenames typically end in .pcf.gz . You don't need to uncompress these files to make them available to X.

In addition to X, some other programs use their own bitmapped font formats. The most notable of these is the TeX layout system, which uses the Packed Font format (these fonts use the .pk filename extension). Because TeX was designed with printing in mind, not display of fonts on the screen, TeX Packed Fonts are typically created at much larger sizes, in terms of width and height in pixels, than are most other bitmap font formats.

Outline Font Formats

One of the major problems with bitmap font formats is that they don't scale well. If you want to support a font at different sizes on the same display device, or at the same size on a variety of devices, you need several files. Given the plethora of display devices today, and the demand of users to be able to scale their fonts in word processors and the like, this need for multiple files to create a good display is extremely unappealing. The solution is to use an outline (aka scaleable) font format. These don't describe the fonts in terms of a bitmap; instead, they use a mathematical description of a font's curves and lines. For instance, consider Figure 15.1 again. If the 8x8 grid is replaced by one of much higher resolution (say, 80,000x80,000), the H described in that grid can be described in outline as a series of lines and intersections, as shown in Table 15.1.

Table 15.1. Partial Outline Description of Letter H from Figure 15.1
Operation X Coordinate Y Coordinate
Start 10,000 10,000
Line to 10,000 60,000
Line to 20,000 60,000
Line to 20,000 40,000

Once the outline is complete, it's filled in with a solid color. This description offers the advantage that it can be easily scaled to just about any resolution that's desired; all that's needed is remapping the underlying coordinate grid to the actual coordinate grid. The underlying grid is of such high resolution that errors in the placement of control points are trivial. Of course, most fonts require more than simple line descriptions, as in the preceding example. Outline font formats use mathematical forms to represent various types of curves, in addition to straight lines. Many of these formats also include the capacity for hints, which are overrides a human designer can build into the font to improve the font's appearance at low resolutions. Without hints, outline fonts have a tendency to become illegible when displayed at small sizes on low-resolution devices like computer monitors.



Technically, a font is a representation at a single size, and a typeface is a family of fonts at a variety of sizes. Thus, bitmap fonts are truly fonts, but outline fonts are more properly called typefaces . The computer industry has largely ignored this distinction, however, effectively redefining the word font, albeit subtly. I follow the use of the term in the computer industry in this chapter.

Because the computer has to use the outline description of a font to determine precisely which pixels will be dark and which will be light, displaying text in an outline font takes more time than does displaying the same text in a similar bitmapped font. There are various ways to minimize this problem, such as prerendering the font at a particular size and using this prerendered version. In some sense, this is part of what a font server does, because the font server, when it serves an outline font, renders it and delivers a bitmap to the client. The client doesn't know whether it's working from an outline font or a bitmap font.

Just as there are many bitmap font formats, there are many outline font formats. These include Bitstream's Speedo, Adobe's Type 1, Type 3, Type 5, and Type 42, and Apple's TrueType. (Type 42 fonts are really just TrueType fonts encoded for use on PostScript printers.) These formats differ in more fundamental ways than do bitmapped font formats, because the outline font formats can use fundamentally different types of mathematical descriptions of lines and curves. It's often possible to convert from one format to another, but such conversions frequently alter the font in subtle ways, or cause hinting information to be lost, thus degrading the font's appearance at low resolution. Whenever possible, it's best to use the font in its original format, or obtain an alternate format from the font's publisher.

Linux systems (or, more precisely, XFree86) have long supported the Speedo and Adobe Type 1 (aka Adobe Type Manager, or ATM ) outline font formats. Speedo has been a fairly minor player in the font marketplace and in Linux, but Type 1 fonts are readily available on commercial font CD-ROMs and the Internet, and Linux ships with several Type 1 fonts. In the Windows and MacOS worlds , though, TrueType has outstripped Type 1's popularity, in large part because it's the standard outline font format in Windows. TrueType fonts are therefore even more available than are Type 1 fonts. TrueType fonts have a reputation for looking better at low resolutions than do Type 1 fonts, but this reputation is based largely on a handful of very well-hinted fonts. Low-cost TrueType fonts that contain little in the way of hinting often look no better on the screen than do their Type 1 counterparts.



Microsoft has made some very well-hinted TrueType fonts, intended for use with Web browsers, available from its Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/typography/fontpack/. The easiest way to use these in Linux is to download the files intended for Windows 3.1. These are self-extracting (in Windows) zip file archives; in Linux, you can extract their contents using the unzip command. You can then install the fonts as described in the upcoming section, "Common Default Font Server Configurations." Many Web sites assume that these fonts are installed, so doing so can help your users see Web pages as they were intended to be seen.

Until version 4.0, XFree86 didn't support TrueType fonts, so the only way to use them in Linux was through a font server. Today, you can install TrueType fonts directly in X, but many distributions began using local font servers to provide support for TrueType fonts prior to the release of XFree86 4.0, and continue to use these configurations.

Just as X isn't the only tool that uses bitmapped fonts, X isn't the only user of outline fonts. There are various tools available that allow TeX to use outline fonts, for instance. Of more significance to many users, the Ghostscript program that functions as a PostScript interpreter for non-PostScript printers can use outline fonts ”primarily Type 1 fonts, but also other formats, including TrueType. Some word processors require that you install fonts in them as well as in X. Most of these programs don't use font servers, although some word processors are an exception, as described in "Running an Expanded Font Server."

Advanced Linux Networking
Advanced Linux Networking
ISBN: 0201774232
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 203

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