Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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Antialiased Text Is Not All That

By Ben Nadel on

One of the things I don't like about the Mac is that it defaults to making all of its text antialiased. In fact, I am not even sure if you can turn that feature off. I don't understand people's obsession with antialiased text. I like it on large titles and things that are not primarily for reading, but I would never put it on "content" text. I think it looks fuzzy and makes text less readable. I'm still on IE6 here, but apparently, when you install IE7, it includes an antialiased text default.

What is going on? Why is antialiased text taking over? I can't imagine that it's easier to read otherwise books would be printed in the same way, right? But, when's the last time you read a book that had antialiased text? I know that I certainly never have.

So what gives? What is it about antialiasing text that people find so inviting?

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Reader Comments

Microsoft's cleartype is actual proven to be better on the eyes, less strain for the eyes, especially when used on an LCD screen.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ClearType

If you work with it for a few days, you'll never want to go back. But Mac only has one setting, which makes it harder to use.

Microsoft has the ClearType tuning wizard which makes tweaking it for maximum readability a breeze. I never want to live without ClearType anymore.

http://www.microsoft.com/typography/cleartype/tuner/Step1.aspx

The reason books aren't anti-aliased is that they don't contain pixels, but are crystal-clear sharp (or should be), but a screen has to compensate for not being 300 dots per inch.

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I've become a big Mac guy, but I have to admit an emphatic preference for MS's clear type. Like you, I find the Mac anti-aliasing too fuzzy-looking more often than I'd like. I understand their reasoning (the article by Joel is a good read), but don't happen to agree with it.

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The absolute first thing I do when I install XP on a new computer is download the ClearType PowerToy, enable it, and configure the contrast. I haven't used a CRT monitor in years, and using an LCD without CT at this point is just ... painful.

I agree, though, I can't get used to OS X's version of AA. It's way too fuzzy for my tastes. However, knowing what I now know about the difference between it and CT, I can see how graphic designers would prefer it over CT. (Long story short, CT is the Abu Ghraib of AA.)

And yeah, books use AA. But they're at such high resolution that you can't tell. And really, that's precisely the point.

Tell you what. Print out this page. Then take a screenshot of this page with CT turned off, leave it at 72/96dpi, print it out, and compare the two. It's a world of difference.

Jeff Atwood has some relevant recent blog posts:

What's Wrong With Apple's Font Rendering? -- http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000884.html

Font Rendering: Respecting The Pixel Grid -- http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000885.html

Where Are The High Resolution Displays? -- http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000886.html

-R

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Books aren't anti-aliased because printed type isn't pixelated to begin with. Anti-aliasing is an attempt to make pixels look like smooth lines, but it's an illusion. Book print is actually smooth lines, so there's no need.

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You can disable AA for text smaller than a specific size on Mac OS X. It's a system-wide setting somewhere in System Preferences. Makes reading PDFs, websites, etc a bit easier on the eyes.

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Ok, so maybe what I am reacting to is that I don't like reading antialiased text when I can SEE that it is antialiased. If you say books are are antialiased, but they don't look like it to me, then that is a good thing - antialiasing done well. But, on things like the Mac, IE7, and possibly Safari on any operating system (or so I am told)? It is just out of control.

It's like green screen in a movie. Its awesome if I can't tell that is being used. If I can tell, then it just looks like a crappy effect :)

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@BEN: If you're not using a mac, and it's still out of control, then you should you use the cleartype tuner.
I have it on permanently and I don't notice it, until I turn it off (which is terrible).

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Perfectly AA books might have been a reality in Gutenberg's time when wooden blocks were being used, but not these days. Even laser printers rasterize the image before printing, no matter how wonderfully vector-based the image may have started.

Human visual acuity at 12in is just under 300dpi. No human is going to be able to tell the difference between two prints at different resolutions above 600dpi or so. (Some magazines are printed below 300dpi, and they drive me crazy.)

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So I guess it's just a balancing act. Some antialiasing makes text more readable... to a point, and then it just gets too fuzzy.

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You're totally right. Antialiased text is completely annoying because it creates for less consistant viewing from platform to platform or browser to browser. Sometimes lines of text take up too much space or can even be pushed down another line which makes for controling the user's viewing experience even more difficult.

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