Tidbits: TrueType on vintage hardware?

After several failed attempts, I finally found a way to get modern TrueType fonts to work on my trusty 1991 Macintosh Classic.

Being someone who has worked in the graphic and web design fields, I’ve always loved typography and having lots of fonts to pick from. In today’s world, installing fonts or using custom fonts on the web has become much easier, with hundreds of thousands of different fonts to pick from available on the web and various foundries.

However, back in the heyday of desktop publishing, font options — much like with typewriters — were much more limited and designed differently.

The earliest fonts used by graphical user interface (GUI) operating systems were bitmap fonts. The bitmap fonts consisted of raster images of each character. These fonts weren’t scalable, so larger type (or any size not included in the rendered set) would get distorted or appear pixelated/aliased. They also consumed more room on your computer’s hard drive by requiring a copy of the font’s characters for various sizes. (For instance, Helvetica might include character banks for 10, 12, 14, 18, and 24 points, but the font family would consist of four sets of banks for regular, regular italicized, bold, bold italicized. Thus, there would be 20 character banks installed on your computer.)

The original Macintosh operating system featured three basic bitmap fonts in minimum installations, but offered many more bitmap fonts in standard installations between System 1 and System 6. Some of these fonts included: Chicago*, Courier, Geneva*, Helvetica, Monaco*, New York, Palatino, Times and San Francisco. (Fonts labeled with asterisks [*] were included in minimum installations.)

Chicago, one of the fonts used in the Macintosh graphical user interface, was one of the original bitmap fonts included by the Macintosh System Software. Chicago was converted to a new format as part of project “Royal,” which would result in TrueType — a format released in 1991.

Over the years, there would be several attempts to replace bitmap fonts with higher-quality, scalable vector versions.

The first major such attempt was Adobe’s PostScript. As big of a role the Macintosh computer, Apple LaserWriter printer, and Aldus PageMaker all played in the genesis of desktop publishing, PostScript was another crucial piece of the puzzle. Adobe introduced PostScript fonts in 1984, and Apple used the fonts in the LaserWriter for producing high-quality typography when printing documents.

Apple’s LaserWriter printer (successor, LaserWriter II, seen here) was an early use of PostScript fonts, allowing for publication-quality printing.

The second attempt is the subject of this post: TrueType. Apple developed TrueType themselves, starting with a project initially known as “Bass” and later receiving the codename “Royal.” Royal would be among a slew of new features to be released in System 7, where it would receive its final name of TrueType. TrueType was an outline font, where scalable vector versions of the fonts are stored by the computer instead of bitmap raster versions. This, just like with PostScript fonts in the LaserWriter and other laser printers, meant type could be made as large or as small as needed without distortion.

TrueType allows for greater control over typography and can consume less hard disk space. Still, for a reason I’ve experienced myself (and therefore will discuss later), most people kept a mix of TrueType and bitmap versions of many fonts. Software, such as Adobe Type Manager, can convert TrueType fonts to bitmap versions. These bitmap fonts not only perform better, but they can also be used with older versions of Macintosh system software, such as System 6.

After the introduction of TrueType, Microsoft soon followed suit with their own outline font standard: OpenType. Apple allowed Microsoft to add TrueType to Windows 3.1 and created “compatible” fonts for Windows. These compatible fonts were suitable replacements — similar in appearance and character width — to some of their more traditional relatives found on Macs at the time. Arial closely followed cues from Helvetica, Times New Roman is almost discernible from Times (Roman) by most, and Courier New matched Courier.

Microsoft would use those compatible fonts to launch their own standard, OpenType. OpenType’s history started when Microsoft unsuccessfully tried to license TrueType GX, a technology which allows for fancier fonts. Microsoft released TrueType Open, which would be renamed OpenType after Adobe joined Microsoft’s efforts in 1996 and the standard gained support for the older PostScript fonts.

Today, TrueType and OpenType fonts are still widespread use. TrueType seems to be the most common for formats you can download from the internet, such as Google Fonts. Most of the fonts in my “personal collection” are TrueType.

TTConverter: Converting modern fonts for use in System 7

Unfortunately, modern TrueType fonts are not 100% drag-and-drop compatible with classic Macintosh operating systems, such as System 7. A special application, TTConverter, is used to convert the modern font to a format System 7 can read.

Once TTConverter is installed and operational on your classic Mac (or Mini vMac, which is slightly quicker), the conversion process is fairly straight forward. After loading your font in TTConverter, you can view additional information (in the “Customize FOND…” menu, where you can designate a font as being a bold or italic version, if needed) before finally converting it.

The “Customize FOND…” menu in TTConverter

After converting the font in TTConverter, simply drop the converted font suitcase into the Fonts folder in the System folder. The font will be installed and ready for use by applications. (If an application is open while installing the font, the application will need to be restarted to use the new font.)

Personally, I loaded the “standard” fonts on the HD20 virtual disc containing my System 7 installation for the Classic using Mini vMac, but let the Classic do all the “hard” work. The Classic converted all 32 fonts I moved over. The process took slightly longer than it would have with Mini vMac, but the result is the same.

TrueType: Performance on older systems

How well TrueType fonts perform depends on the complexity of the font and the hardware you’re using.

I used my 1991 Macintosh Classic — with 4 MB of RAM and a standard Motorola 68000 clocked at 8 MHz — for testing the fonts and writing this article (using two of the TrueType fonts I installed.) The performance was… not great.

This story was drafted using modern TrueType fonts (Tiffany, for headlines, and Souvenir, for body copy) in Microsoft Word 4.0 on a 1991 Macintosh Classic running System 7.1.

TrueType fonts slow the system waaaayyyyyy down in some instances. Several of the fonts caused the machine to choke and struggle to redraw the text. Two script fonts took a couple seconds just to draw in the basic font preview window.

Unsurprisingly, some applications won’t even let you use the TrueType fonts… or at least not most of the custom ones I installed. FreeHand complains there’s “not enough memory” to use the custom TrueType fonts. PageMaker 4.0, on the other hand, has no problem — although it takes forever to redraw the page every time you move around.

To improve performance, one workaround is to use the aforementioned Adobe Type Manager to convert the TrueType fonts into bitmap fonts, which will render much quicker on slower hardware.

Macintosh System 7’s font preview window, showing 9-, 12- and 18-point versions of Kaufmann BT Regular.

Back in the day, most graphic designers would’ve been using newer or upgraded Macintosh hardware — typically with at least a Motorola 68020 or ‘030 — where the performance losses caused by TrueType fonts weren’t as noticeable. (One of my eventual goals is to get these fonts moved over to the PowerBook 165, my only machine with a [stock] 68030 that will run System 7, for additional testing. However, that will have to wait due to limited disk space and other issues with that machine, which I hope to outline in a post in the near future.)

TrueType offers many advantages over older bitmap fonts. In modern times, there are countless TrueType fonts (both paid versions from professional foundries and designers, and free versions from websites such as Google Fonts) to choose from for use on modern and vintage systems.

In addition to the greater selection of fonts, TrueType offers enhanced control over typography settings and offers higher-quality text, especially in larger sizes.

However, on the oldest Macintosh hardware — anything running a Motorola 68000, such as this Classic — TrueType can really slow things to a crawl. There are workarounds, such as using Adobe Type Manager to convert TrueType fonts into bitmap sets, that can allow you to continue using custom TrueType fonts on older hardware without sacrificing performance.

Following its introduction with System 7 in 1991, TrueType has joined Adobe’s PostScript and Microsoft’s OpenType standards as one of the three standard typography formats. Thanks to backwards compatibility, even the newest TrueType fonts can run on 30+-year-old hardware with just a simple conversion.

This post written on a 1991 Macintosh Classic running System 7.1 using Microsoft Word 4.0.

Edited 5/28/2022 to fix a grammatical error.