SmoothType: Anti-aliased Type for the Classic Mac OS

Greg Landweber is far better known for Kaleidoscope than for SmoothType. I know a lot of Mac users who love to play around with their interface; I know few as interested in how good text looks on the screen. Yet I suspect cleaner type does more to improving the interface than different colors, sounds, and scroll bars.

SmoothType has the ability to anti-alias screen fonts on the fly, something the Mac OS didn’t offer until OS 8.5. It’s also something SmoothType does better than font smoothing in the Mac OS.

Way back in Mac history, all fonts were bitmaps and all the pixels in a character of type were a single color, usually black. This was fine for 10, 12, and 14 point type on the screen, but it also meant the Mac had to create intermediates sizes such as 11 point as it went along. Those intermediate font sizes often looked terrible.

These fonts also tended to print poorly on ImageWriter and StyleWriter printers. Adobe came to the rescue with ATM (Adobe Type Manager), a program that can scale PostScript fonts on the fly for both screen display and printed output. Apple later added TrueType fonts to the Mac OS, which gave system fonts the same capabilities.

However, all of these fonts were still mapped in black and white – or whatever combination of text and background color were in use. There were no intermediate shades; there was no anti-aliasing of text.

Anti-aliasing is important, especially at small type sizes. When I worked as a book designer, footnotes would often be set in 8 point type – and sometimes even smaller. They were barely legible on my screen without font smoothing, and somewhat more legible with it. The normal solution was to zoom in and make the text larger, usually viewing text at 120-125% for normal text and 150-200% when correcting footnotes.

This was the true test of font smoothing technology, since Adobe now builds it into ATM, Apple builds it into the Mac OS, and SmoothType lets you add it to almost any version of the Mac OS.

Of the three, Apple’s font smoothing (in the Appearance control panel) is the least visually appealing. The fonts may be anti-aliased, but they don’t have a smooth flow. ATM does a better job, but only for Postscript fonts.

SmoothType sample

As seen in this image, SmoothType provides the best font smoothing on the Mac, and it works with both TrueType and Postscript fonts. Characters are nicely formed and have a consistent feel at any size. After comparing it to the other font smoothing solutions (both free), I knew SmoothType was the one for me and paid the $10 shareware fee.

I don’t even remember how many years back that was. SmoothType has been available for over five years and is updated regularly. The latest version (2.2.2) even works with Classic Mode in Mac OS X, which otherwise suffers from Apple’s second-rate font smoothing.

SmoothType isn’t without some minor drawbacks. Creating anti-aliased type uses some horsepower; older Macs will feel even slower whether using Apple’s, Adobe’s, or Greg Landweber’s font smoothing software.

Although SmoothType works with the older 68020 and 68030 processors, you may find it too slow with anything less than a 68040. Even then you may find it slows screen redraws too much.

SmoothType needs at least 16 levels of gray or 256 colors to display smoothed text. While it works with type of all sizes, it really excels at making small text more legible – like those footnotes in the books I used to design.

Best of all, SmoothType is shareware, so you don’t have to invest anything but a few minutes of download time and a restart to give it a try. After you install it, turn off any font smoothing you may have (ATM or the Appearance control panel) and live with SmoothType for a few days.

I think you’ll find it worth the nominal $10 shareware fee. And if not, removing SmoothType is as easy as discarding the control panel.

  • SmoothType requires System 7 through Mac OS 9.2.2.

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