Take full advantage of the new font features in Windows 7

Greg Shultz investigates the changes and enhancements in Windows 7's font system and shows you how to take advantage of the new features.

Microsoft made some pretty dramatic improvements in Windows 7's graphics subsystem in order to improve performance for the entire spectrum of usage scenarios, from the day-to-day desktop displays to the extreme CAD and game graphics. However, what you may not know is that Microsoft has also made some pretty dramatic improvements in Windows 7's font system.

In this edition of the Windows Vista and Windows 7 Report, I'll investigate the changes and enhancements in Windows 7's font system. As I do, I'll show you how to take advantage of the new features in the Fonts folder.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a free TechRepublic download.

The importance of text

While the major concern about display performance in Windows typically revolves around graphics, the fact of the matter is that the average computer user spends more time reading or writing text on the computer screen than watching or interacting with graphics, such as movies or games. Another undisputable fact is that better-looking text is easier to read. And the easier the text is to read, the faster we can read it and thus be more productive. Since Microsoft is all about improving productivity, it makes sense that the company would want to improve the textual display in its newest operating system.

Pixels and rendering text

A pixel is the smallest addressable element on a computer screen, and as such, each character displayed in the screen is rendered by a group of pixels. Unfortunately, when it comes to displaying high-contrast graphic elements, such as text on modern LCD displays, the pixels on the screen tend to reveal jagged edges that can make the text fuzzy, which in turn makes it harder to read.

To improve clarity on LCD displays, Microsoft introduced ClearType, which uses an anti-aliasing technique at the subpixel level to reduce the visible jagged edges, making the text appear smoother and thus easier to read on the screen.

However, ClearType, which was introduced as a new feature in Windows XP, was overdue for an upgrade in order to keep up with the vast improvements made in LCD display technology since Windows XP first came on the scene.

In a Windows Engineering blog titled "Advances in Typography and Text Rendering in Windows 7," Worachai Chaoweeraprasit, a development lead on the Windows 7 Graphics feature team, describes the improvements in Windows 7's font-rendering capabilities as building on the foundation laid by ClearType.

"Fortunately, the advent of ClearType during the past decade has largely improved the clarity aspect of quality. ClearType leverages the anatomy of the LCD pixel structure and takes advantage of the human visual system to distribute the energy typically emitted to a whole display pixel, across the neighboring sub-pixels in the LCD's typical 3-color channels making up each individual pixel, to create the visual illusion of higher resolution raster quality on a lower resolution device. As the result, ClearType text looks significantly sharper than the typical text on an LCD display, mitigating a large portion of the quality problem on a display technology that would become hugely popular a few years later."

Chaoweeraprasit then goes on to explain the enhancements in Windows 7:

"One of the graphics improvements we made in Windows 7, therefore, is to move from the physical pixel model of the past, and instead creating a new design around what we call the "device independent pixel" unit (or "DIP"), a "virtual pixel" that is one-ninety-sixth an inch in floating-point data type. In this model, a glyph (or any other geometric primitive for that matter) can size to fractional pixels, and be positioned anywhere in between the two pixels. The new ClearType improvement allows sizing and placement of glyph to the screen's sub-pixel nearest to its ideal condition, creating a more natural looking word shape and making text on screen look a lot closer to print quality."

New fonts

With the new ClearType technology, the fonts in Windows 7 really are cleaner, clearer, and easier to read. To showcase the improvements, Microsoft has added more intricate fonts to Windows 7. In fact, Windows 7 ships with 235 fonts as opposed to Vista, which contains 191 fonts, or XP, which has 133 fonts. (You can learn more about the new fonts in Windows 7 at Microsoft's Fonts for Windows page.

New Font tool

In Windows 7, you'll find a new Fonts folder in the Control Panel, and it sports a host of great new features that make working with fonts much easier. Let's take a closer look.

When you access the Fonts folder, shown in Figure A, you'll immediately notice that the Fonts folder no longer contains an icon for each font variation in a set. Instead, if a font has multiple variations, you'll see a stack icon, which you can double-click to access and view all the font variations on the set.

Figure A

The new Fonts folder uses a stack icon to indicate fonts with multiple variations.
For example, the Arial font uses a stack icon that when double-clicked displays all the variations, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

When you double-click the Arial font's stack icon, you'll see all the variations in the Arial set.

You'll also notice that each font icon actually provides you with a three-letter thumbnail preview of the font. Of course, the standard font preview window is still available. If there is a single font, you can just double-click the icon to display the standard preview. If there are multiple variations of the font, you can open the stack and double-click the font icon.

On the other hand, you can also select the stack icon and select Preview on the tool bar. When you do, you'll see a standard font preview window for every font in the set, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

Selecting the Preview button for the Comic Sans font displays standard font preview windows for each font in the set.

Because there are so many fonts in Windows 7, Microsoft decided not to enable all the available fonts. If you look back at Figure A, you'll notice that the three-letter thumbnail preview of some of the fonts is grayed out. Those fonts are not enabled and so will not show up in any of your applications. By default, Windows 7 automatically hides fonts based on regional settings; however, you can manually show or hide any font.

If you select one of the grayed-out fonts, you'll see a Show command on the toolbar. If you select an enabled font, you'll see a Hide command on the toolbar, as illustrated in Figure D.

Figure D

Windows 7 allows you to manually Show or Hide fonts.
If you want to show all the available fonts, you can access the Font Settings command from the task pane and display the Font settings window, as shown in Figure E. Just clear the Hide Fonts Based on Language Settings check box. You can also enable the font shortcut feature, which allows you to install a font by creating the shortcut to the font file rather than actually installing the font.

Figure E

From the Font Settings window, you can show all installed fonts as well as enable the font shortcut installation feature.

From the task pane you can also launch the ClearType Tuner tool -- which is now part of the operating system -- rather than using either the Web-based tool or the PowerToy version, and fine-tune your ClearType display. And because of the improvements described above by Worachai Chaoweeraprasit, the Windows 7 version of the ClearType Tuner tool provides more options than previous versions.

Figure F

The ClearType Tuner tool in Windows 7 provides more options for fine-tuning your ClearType display.
The procedure for installing fonts in Windows 7 has changed too. When you download a font, just double-click its file to access the standard preview window, as shown in Figure G. When you do, you'll see an Install button at the top of the window. If you have enabled the shortcut installation feature, you'll also see the Use Shortcut check box.

Figure G

You can install fonts in Windows 7 right from the preview window.

What's your take?

Have you noticed better-looking text on you Windows 7 system? Have you investigated the new fonts and font features? What do you think? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.

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By Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.