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Fontographer 5 Review: PAGE October 2010

The following text is a translation of the German review that appeared in PAGE magazine, issue 10.10, October 2010. Used with permission.

The believed-to-be-lost lover ? Fontographer is back!

It?s still there: the famous slurping sound that has brought an unexpected acoustic interlude to the everyday bleakness of so many type designers. After some initial amusement, they soon were looking inside of the program folder for a way to stop the nerve-killing sounds. In the new version 5, the sounds can be easily enabled and disabled in the program?s preferences. This is probably one of the leas important new features ? but a tremendous relief for the ears.

The acclaimed font editor had to go through a long history of unexpected turns until it reached the current version 5. When Altsys brought the application to the computer screens in 1985 ? two years before Illustrator! ? nobody had anticipated its later success. But because of its simple yet highly effective interface Fontographer soon became a favorite among graphic and type designers. In 1996, six years after the merger with Macromedia, version 4.1.4 was released ? one that was to become the last and final for many years. Further development was put on hold. In 2005, Fontlab Ltd. woke the Sleeping Beauty up and just in the same year released version 4.7. At the very least, ?FOG? was finally OS X-compatible, even though the functionality remained identical with the previous release. The new, thoroughly revised version 5 finally reflects the current state of the art.

Some improvements in the rendering are new. Paths and shapes are anti-aliased, and 1600% zoom allows more precision while working. Unfortunately, the developers did not implement the brilliant quick preview from FontLab Studio, which fills the outline and hides all distracting background shapes and guidelines when the user presses and holds the ?

Most of the application?s menu structure has been retained. The developers made changes mostly in those parts of the program where technical advancements came into play. For example, the Font Info dialog has been completely revised and now offers the choice between Easy and Advanced mode. The latter allows access to the most important settings in the font header, such as Names, Dimensions, Encoding, Credits and Licensing. Overall, the numerous text fields, popups and checkboxes present themselves in a pretty clear structure. Particularly the Naming part is organized in way that is easy to understand. In a few places, the captions are a bit cryptic, though. One option for Dimensions that controls the font?s linespacing ? intelligent as it is ? surprisingly found its way into the Preferences dialog. Fortunately, the less-experienced users will find that the program offers to fill out most of this data automatically, so they can safely ignore bits that they do not understand.

But Fontographer?s real innovations are below the surface. In addition to some other font formats, FOG finally opens and generates OpenType fonts (.otf and .ttf) with more than 20.000 glyphs and full support of the Unicode 5.2 standard. The users can select from a variety of encodings, and they can freely add and rename glyphs. Unfortunately, an old problem still exists: when opening a Mac Type 1 printer or outline font (?LWFN?), FOG does not automatically import kerning. It is a bit surprising, given that the vendor speaks about ?cutting-edge FontLab technology?.

In addition, the users can open and export FontLab .vfb files. The reviewer would like to emphasize the wish for a future version of FontLab Studio to also open and export Fontographer .fog files.

Should the user want to develop OpenType fonts with typographic layout features, it is only possible through an external text file (.fea), which the user can create with a text editor and include in the font on export. This means that it is only possible to test the functionality of the features with a generated font ? there is no ?preview?. It is rather unlikely that someone would write the feature definitions ?blindly?, and would still use Fontographer (rather than FontLab Studio). But at least there is a possibility to do that. One advantage over FontLab Studio is that Fontographer defines OpenType Layout features using the newer version (2.5) of the Adobe FDK syntax.

As far as hinting is concerned, not much new has happened at first glance. However, a look under the hood reveals that the integrated autohinters from Adobe (for PostScript outlines) and FontLab (for TrueType outlines) contribute to improved screen appearance. As in earlier FOG versions, manual hinting is only possible for PostScript outlines, while existing TrueType hinting unfortunately gets lost when the font is opened.

Whenever bitmaps are created, the integrated Adobe Type 1 and Microsoft TrueType rasterizers take care of a more faithful representation of the outlines. However, those rasterizers are only used when fonts are generated. When bitmaps are created using Element / Bitmap Info, the old Fontographer rasterizer is used. In any case, the generated bitmaps can be exported in .bdf format ? an ability that is still lacking in FontLab Studio.

So far so good. Generally speaking, the Fontographer crew has delivered a solid upgrade ? with some room for future improvements. When looking at the product palette of Fontlab Ltd., the immediate question to ask would be: what exactly is the difference between their different font editors? At the first glance, it is particularly TypeTool, as a ?light? version of FontLab Studio, that seems to aim in a similar direction as Fontographer. Doesn?t the company invest an unnecessary amount of resources in developing two tools that will eventually merge into one?

Ted Harrison, president of FontLab Ltd., answers this with a resolute ?no?: ?Our three font editors are aimed at three different groups of users. TypeTool is intended for customers who first look at the low prince, and to whom money is more important than time ? for example for students, beginners or hobby font creators. TypeTool is a good choice if you want to learn the basics of type design, or if you work with font editors only occasionally. Fontographer is aimed at the graphic design and DTP market. Many of those users have ?grown up? using FOG and are used to its interface. When redesigning FOG, we have paid special attention to its easy integration into the publishing workflow. We have automated may steps so that the designer can spend as little time as possible looking at complicated details or searching for errors. FontLab Studio has been designed with the professional type designer in mind. It has all the bells and whistles that are necessary to produce stable, mature commercial-quality fonts that work on all operating systems.?

I, for my part, see this question somewhat more skeptically. FontLab Studio has indeed established itself as the ?pro font editor? ? but for beginners, the choice between FOG and TypeTool is difficult. From their perspective, the difference in functionality and features between those two products should seem marginal. An argument for TypeTool is certainly the price ($99 vs. $399 for Fontographer and $649 for FontLab Studio). TypeTool also allows for an easier migration to FontLab Studio, because of the shared user interface. But that very user interface ? at times cryptic ? poses a hurdle for the beginner. On the other hand, Fontographer?s interface is much more intuitive, understandable, and therefore more easily accessible; a clear advantage for the rookie.

Despite my skepticism, I hope that Harrison has identified the different groups of users correctly, and all three editors will find their reception. The sales figures will have the last word.

Oliver Linke
(translated from German by Adam Twardoch)