Windows Font Management has sucked

I recently moved to a new laptop, which reminded me of a painful issue as I migrated my data and fonts and reinstalled my applications. Historically, Windows font management has well, sucked. How, why, and can it be improved? Recent developments offer some hope for the future. Here’s a brief rant on what font management is, how it has fallen down on Windows, some speculation on why, comments on recent improvements, and a batch of specific feature requests.

First, what is font management? A font management application allows you to preview fonts without having them active on your system, create groups of fonts, search your fonts by various criteria, and activate/deactivate individual fonts, families or user-defined groups on the fly. If you have thousands of fonts it’s pretty much essential, in my opinion. (OS X even has a lightweight font management capability with a built-in utility called Font Book – which is nice for average to middleweight users, but most publishing professionals still need something more heavy-duty.)

How has Windows font management sucked? Well, the number one issue has been that for whatever reasons, Windows font management applications have not had feature parity with their Mac brethren. Ever. Even when it’s supposedly the “same” application on both platforms. This held true even for Adobe’s own ATM Deluxe, and for major applications such as Suitcase and Font Reserve. We’d all release Windows versions of our applications with the same name, but not the same feature set, and usually a much much worse user interface. So user interface (and usability) and features have lagged far behind the same applications’ Mac counterparts.

Why is that? Don’t expect some Mac-superiority argument here (and in contrast to my usual policy of accepting almost all comments, flames on this topic or anything that looks likely to ignite a platform war will not be posted).

But it is true that the DTP revolution started on the Mac OS, and that even today the majority of the high end of the publishing market is Mac based – which is interesting considering that Adobe sells more units of software on Windows, and has for a while. But it is a minority of all users who have thousands of fonts, making them really need font management, and more of those particular users are on the Mac. Back in the mid 90s, perhaps 80% of the market for font management was on Mac OS. Based on trends in font sales and other data, I suspect that number has slid to something a lot closer to 65%. In other words, if you’re playing in the Mac font management market, there’s probably a viable Windows market as well, even if it’s not quite as big. Plus, having a viable Windows product will influence those Mac purchasers who want to be able to run the “same” thing on both platforms.

Now, for all my historical unhappiness on Windows font management, there have been some recent improvements:

1) Extensis recently released a much-updated version of Suitcase for Windows (11), which offers several cool new features, even if it does lag way behind its Mac sibling. Auto-activation, Font Sense (their tech for resolving font version issues), and a passable UI are all there, as well as the FontDoctor repair/diagnostic tool.

2) Linotype recently had a Windows “public beta” of their free font manager FontExplorer X. The first beta had enough issues that it definitely wasn’t practical for a work environment, but they’ve completed the public beta period, and I look forward to “the real thing” arriving Real Soon Now.

3) [Added in edit 10/7/2007] Font Agent Pro from Insider Software recently came out in its first-ever Windows version, which I am eager to take a look at.

(There are also a host of other font management applications on Windows, which I’ll list at the end.)

If/when Extensis and Linotype follow up on these with further offerings, I could be much happier about the state of Windows font management. Yet I still went ahead and installed ATM Deluxe on my new laptop (which is running XP – ATM Deluxe is not compatible with Vista). Why didn’t I move to something that has a future?

1) Well, the number one reason is that I have extensive sets defined in ATM Deluxe, and it seems that none of these other applications can import ATM font sets (as best as I can tell – I have not personally tried every application). considering that ATM Deluxe can export its font sets definitions to a plain text file with a completely obvious format, this seems like an oversight. After all, probably the majority of the entire installed base of Windows font management users are on ATM Deluxe. It doesn’t work on Vista, and hasn’t had a major new release in ten years. Isn’t this an opportunity? If you’re a font management vendor who doesn’t have a copy of ATM Deluxe handy, just drop me a line and I’ll happily send you a font sets file for reference.

There are a couple of other key features that would really encourage me to move to a new font management app.

2) Offer higher-order grouping of families, with more than four members in a family. Ideally, the names shown would be exactly the same as in my favorite Adobe applications, but I’d settle for something even vaguely similar – at least it’s easy to get something like the right kind of family grouping. (As best as I can tell, FontExplorer X seems to have this, but not in the main font browsing pane.)

For the geeks among you or people who are actually programming these applications, here are some gory details of how Adobe apps handle the font family and style names:

– for OpenType fonts, there are specific IDs in the name table to use (Windows Name IDs 16 and 17). Foe each of those one falls back to an old-fashioned TrueType name ID (1 and 2 respectively) if the newer ones aren’t present.

– Type 1 fonts from Adobe are all listed in a static text-file database, which I expect a third party could parse if they wanted to. It’s called fntnames.db and is in the Program FilesCommon FilesAdobe folder.

– Third party Type 1 fonts are subject to some exhaustive algorithms to try to get long, friendly, typographic names that we can use consistently across platforms. I might be able to share this information (TBD).

3) Features to deal intelligently with really large numbers of fonts. Oh, for Diamondsoft’s Font Reserve for Mac OS! This was one thing they totally excelled at. Live filtering of fonts based on a range of criteria. Tabs with letters of the alphabet so you can simply see all your fonts that start with “M” without having to create a set to do it. A basic font classification system that tried to automatically classify all your fonts, and let you do the rest or even re-classify the ones it got wrong. Plus user-defined tags and the like. Ah…. (Fair disclosure: I was so taken with seeing a pre-release demo of Font Reserve 1.0 that I signed up to help them with their font classification system and database, back around the spring of 1996 I think it was. Of course, Also, their wonderful UI was coupled to less than stellar stability in some versions.) FontExplorer X and Suitcase come closest on these features, but both still have quite a way to go.

4) I also have a general bias on font management: reasonably or not, I think I should be able to install a new font management tool and figure out most of the basic functionality without reading a manual. I should be able to use drag and drop to tell it about new fonts. I have an expectation of simplicity and ease of learning that I am mostly disappointed on, though it seems that on Windows, again Suitcase and FontExplorer X come closest.

5) In terms of font information you can display and sort by, it ought to include font embedding info (embedding bits, a.k.a. fsType setting).

6) I should be able to organize sets in the font manager independently of the physical arrangements of fonts on my hard disk. I should be able to nest sets within sets as well.

So, if you’re a font management developer out there, I hope you take those few suggestions to heart.

There are a surprisingly large number of Windows font management apps out there. Here are the ones I know of with some links and comments. The last time I looked at this a couple of years ago, most of the low-end and shareware options didn’t support OpenType CFF fonts, but that has changed since then, so there are plenty of seemingly viable options.

FontExplorer X public beta 1 ( by Linotype. Stability/functionality are not ready for prime time in this public beta 1 version – I encountered several major bugs during installation alone. But the much-lauded iTunes-like User interface really does work pretty well, and the quantity/quality of information shown by each font is great, and the preview options are good. So this is one to watch… whenever it’s really released.

Suitcase 11 by Extensis. Glad to see a new version, but I really want to see something comparable to the current Suitcase Fusion from the Mac side of the house.

FontAgent Pro 3 by Insider Software. I have yet to look at this one.

MainType 2.1.1 by High-Logic. $49. Can download and install for a free trial period. I found the interface a bit cluttered and not entirely intuitive to me, but the feature list is impressive and the price is good. The customizable main UI so you can emphasize what you want and ignore what you don’t care about is very cool. Can display a remarkably wide range of information about any given font, but that doesn’t include the font’s embedding setting.

Font Navigator by Bitstream, bundled with Corel Graphics Suite and not available separately. Really first-rate and intuitive user interface, but it’s a pretty old product so it doesn’t give you the same level of information about each font that most of the newer products offer.

Typograf 4.8f by Neuber Software, $35 shareware, can download and try out for free. Tiny 1 MB download, pretty good set of features for previewing and showing info about each font, very clean install/uninstall process. Clunky UI has a sort of Windows 3.1 look and feel, though.

OT1 Font Manager 2.5.2, by J M Berthier. $39.99, limited demo version available.

FontExpert 2007 v9 by Proxima Software. $59, free 30-day trial version available. Very multi-paned UI and tons of buttons seems a bit overwhelming at first, but it does have a lot of functions.

AMP Font Viewer 3.8 by AMPsoft. Although they do call it a font manager, I found the “categories” (sets) functionality so clunky as to be pretty much unusable, in line with a generally primitive UI. It is available at no charge for personal non-profit use, however.

Printer’s Apprentice from Lose Your Mind Software

Font Fitting Room from ApoliSoft. 30-day free trial, $29.95 for Standard version or $49.95 for the Deluxe version. The Deluxe one adds sets and the like.

X-Fonter 6.3 from Black Sun Software. $35 shareware.

(Let me know if I’ve missed something and I’ll add it. This post has been edited repeatedly to add more font managers – there are an endless stream, it seems!)

28 Responses

  1. On my Mac, I use FontAgent pro since many years… You have a Windows version here…[Thanks, I have added it to my list and discussion. FAP is one of the top three Mac font management apps, so it will be interesting to see their Windows version. – T]

  2. Nick Marques says:

    I just FontExpert 2007. It’s a great program so far, and relatively cheap.[I’ve actually trialed this one as well, don’t know how I forgot about it. Added to the listing. Thanks! – T]

  3. Rene says:

    Thanks for the post. Makes me feel a little less crazy hearing it from an expert.In all my painful experimentation with Windows Font Management, I also found FontExpert to be, by far, the best out there. Although it has some quirky behavior that were annoying (which I can’t recall since I’m on a Mac now). I do remember it being slow at times, especially if you wanted to resort your list, for example.I would like to point out that I have had serious problems with Font Navigator screwing my fonts on several systems. It seemed to turn fonts on and off on a whim. So I don’t think it even deserves a mention on your list.[I’m listing all the Windows font management programs out there, regardless of their quality. But not too many folks are using Font Navigator these days, anyway. – T]

  4. luchyx says:

    I recommend this SWEET, FAST, FREE, Easy to use Font Manager for Windows PC. Fast.!Cheers[Great, added it to the list. – T]

  5. Millard Schumaker says:

    I use Font Fitting Room Deluxe ( I like it, and it accommodates lots and lots of fonts. The price is right and the author is very gracious. I would be interested in hearing a review by an expert such as you.MKS

  6. Printologist says:

    “Font” is another four-letter word that starts with ‘f’!I think the best font management software *should* be the OS. In other words, separate font management software is only needed when the OS does a bad job. Really, fonts should not be as hard as they have become. Adding font management software is a practice that has made the problem worse not better.To fix this either the OS needs to improve or the applications need to handle fonts more explicitly internally. Problem is universal MAC and PC!Adding all the web-enabled Web 2.0 applications and the font situations (or lack of font support problem) is only reminding us of the problem with fonts.I do not know about the rest of the world, but I for one am getting sick of the lack of fontchoices available in the web world. Although, I am even more sickened by the technology world’s stumbling over itself trying to manage fonts with font management software off the web.Maybe if the OS vendors say, all fonts need to be a Unicode Open-Type, this would make life better. Regardless, I would never feel cool with the idea I need to pay money to help me do something that should be done by the OS or by the Application.Sincerely yours,Printologist[Hmmm. I think Apple’s FontBook is fine, and meets the needs of most Mac users, but doesn’t substitute well for a serious pro-level font management application. Are you saying that the OS should supply font management that is more at the level of the top retail tools? – T]

  7. Printologist says:

    Yes, the OS should have one (and preferable only one obvious) way to manage fonts. It should not be painful, confusion, error prone, or tedious.OR, font management should be localized to a particular application. So, the fonts are available in the realm of a particular document. Obfuscation of the font so it remains available only to that document is fine.Printologist

  8. Michael Rowley says:

    I don’t think you mentioned one problem in Windows (up to XP at least): WindowsFonts is apt to claw back fonts that have been deliberately kept out of it. I’m not just talking about MS fonts that cannot be moved from WindowsFonts: I get some very surprising fonts there. Like you, I still use ATM Deluxe, and for the same reason: life’s too short to rebuild my sets.

  9. Adam Kertesz says:

    It seems you never met Printer’s Apprentice at a peek.Enjoyed your thoughts.Adam

  10. Hi Thomas,I found this one recently:www.veenix.comNice features!Regards,Henrique Nardi[This looks to be a Mac-only application, and my post was specifically about Windows apps. But I was still interested to discover a Mac font management app I’d never heard of! – T]

  11. Markus Janhunen says:

    Working with Vista, a font manager is really essential, since – believe it or not! – you need to have manager´s rights to install or uninstall fonts. Imagine an office with a doxen or two of designers, calling out for IT manager each time they need to have another font on or off… :-)[I believe that’s an issue with XP as well. But on XP I think you also need administrator rights to run font management apps properly, no? – T]I just got CS3 installed. Please, will you bring custom install back? Now I have all the CS3 fonts installed again as system fonts, and I need to get a manager to remove them.[You can still uninstall them manually, as well. – T]I ended up with Suitcase for Windows. It works well for me, auto-activation of fonts for InDesign is a good feature. After I´ll get the system fonts cleaned again, I´m just so pleased to be able to turn a font on and off!

  12. My font manager on Windows is X-Fonter from Blacksun Software

  13. Sean C says:

    Like you, I’m still using ATM Deluxe for font-set creation, activation and de-activation. Even though it provides very limited font analysis, management, reporting and troubleshooting functionality, it is exceptionally fast and very stable (it launches near instantaneously on my machine).I’m currently using MainType as an adjunct to handle some of the actual management tasks (I also find it’s a helpful tool in the development process), but it is far too slow when accessing even moderately small directories of fonts (almost as if they cache no font information whatsoever).Re: auto-activation, this is a feature I’ve always held in suspicion and have never actually relied on. I can see where it would be useful in a production environment, but from a designer’s perspective, I guess I don’t quite get it. Besides, I’d prefer not to have yet another process running all the time waiting to hunt down and activate fonts for me when I’d rather do it myself.What I’d really like to see is a product that looks and feels like the Mac version of ATM Deluxe developed for Windows (and heck, OS X for that matter!), but with some glyph/codepage viewing, access to font info and printing features similar to MainType. Make auto-activation an independent module that can be installed separately for those who need it.Re printing, I’d really like a product with a decent set of templates that can also be edited and created by the user. Perhaps based on XML or even some sort of visual form editor that lets you change more than just headers and footers, but key layout properties as well (right down to the glyph level). I’ve yet to see a font management app that provided specimens and samples I was satisfied with or didn’t want to change.

  14. VSB says:

    It was sickening to find there were no improvements in Vista. Font sets with activation and deactivation (and per-user rather than global) should be seen as a basic requirement.I have to ask the obvious question: why don’t Adobe develop another font manager? The rendering functions of ATM would no longer be required and if necessary it could always be connected with the Adobe font store (à la FontExplorer X and Linotype).

  15. Sean C says:

    Speaking of font stores, wouldn’t it be interesting to develop an open source font manager with a plug-in interface and user-selectable search/browse engines for various font vendors?I can think of no better company to lead the development of such a product than Adobe.

  16. Carol Sibley says:

    Is anyone using FontAgent Pro for Windows XP? If so, how is it going?

  17. Karin L says:

    Just had a computer set up for a new employee. Adobe Type Manager was our software of choice for font managment. Upon attempting to purchase, found out no longer available. IT folks purchased ATM Light which apparently doesn’t support True Type Fonts. Now applications are reverting existing docs with TTF with Postscript. Right now, I’m contemplating installing everything locally but what a mess! Any suggestions?[ATM Light isn’t a font manager, but a tool for making multiple master fonts work on Windows, and for enabling Type 1 fonts on old versions of Windows without native support for them. If it were me, I’d be looking at Suitcase and FontAgent Pro (and FontExplorer whenever it finally ships). – T]

  18. Max Low says:

    I tried Printers Apprentice on Vista Ultimate… would not run… had programming errors.

  19. Peter O. says:

    I recommend two font managers for Windows, since i was quite disappointed in Extensis Suitcase for Windows.The first one is MainType. It does have font embedding information (you just need to activate this column).What i do like about it:- the customizable interface- the font preview in folder view/group view- font renaming functionsBut there is another great and fast font manager: OT1 Font Manager from France. Tried it, it has nice group management and fast font preview.[Sorry, this comment got held up after Thomas left. Ironically (or not), Thomas is now working for Extensis. With some luck, you may see improvements in their products as a result. -David L]

  20. Max says:

    Is there any manager that has a column to show when a font has been imported into the Fonts folder?
    FontExpert 2009 has a Modified Date column and AFAI can tell FontAgent Pro 4.0.0 doesn’t show any dates.

  21. “Is there any manager that has a column to show when a font has been imported into the Fonts folder?”

    Suitcase Fusion has that data and the option to show it in a column. Well, more accurately it shows the date the font was brought into Suitcase Fusion.

    With Suitcase Fusion 3 (a 2010 release), which I was product manager for, Extensis brought the Windows version of Suitcase into reasonable feature parity with the Mac version. The current PM for Suitcase is the former tech support manager, so I think you will find that Suitcase continues to be very focused on meeting user needs.

  22. Max says:

    Hm. I’ll give it a shot Thomas.
    FontAgent Pro 4.0.0 seems to be a little bit buggy. Although FA Pro 4.2 seems to be the latest version. $100 though.
    Anyway, thanks for getting back to me.
    I found a different way. I copied the Fonts folder and then sorted it with explorer to later overwrite the original Fonts folder with the trimmed FontsBak. Or the fonts therein more precisely.

  23. Max says:

    Sorry. FontAgent Pro 4.1 for Windows. 4.2 for Mac.

  24. Baci says:

    I can not believe that in 2012 there is no easy to use yet powerful Font manager in Windows 7.

    Current Font Viewer is NOT!!! font manager, it is very far from that. It does not allow an easy way to manage and organize fonts.

    Microsoft, give us a font manager where user can control which fonts are active at a time and integrate THAT into the Win 7 / 8.

    Look at OS X – built in font manager works like a charm.. as that is a font MANAGER! Or the Corel Fontnavigator that comes with Corel Suite -> These are Font managers!!!!

    What features requested?

    – Create unlimited number of font sets (e.g for project 1, project 2, etc.)
    – Add fonts to sets
    – Remove fonts from sets
    – Sort fonts by format (TT, Postscript, Opentype)
    – Sort fonts by style (Monotype, SansSerif, Serif, Script, etc.)
    – customizable sample text with customizable size!
    – Activate / deactivate fonts sets with a single click

  25. James says:

    I have been looking for years. Today I came across this article and saw that it was written in 2007. Nothing has changed since then. I cannot believe it. And you are so right, and I am left still looking. maybe MS should at least include a light weight application in WIn8.

  26. Ayanna says:

    I haven’t tried these others, I first found this post in April last year. In the meantime I’ve been using Nexus Font while waiting to see if something better can come along that’s convincing. I’m a novice but need to manage over 2000 typefaces. Nexus Font has some real limitations, but it’s free & I don’t want to waste time building tags & sets over again until I know it’s worth keeping for the long haul.
    The lack of support info, pretty useless menu, & other caveats are still not enough to dissuade me from using it. The sets, tags, customizable sample text + size, & other features make it useful enough that I can tweak it to do what I need to. It only falls short in ways mentioned above like automatically sort by style etc. so I create tags to classify them. It’s too much work so I just use it for the most important ones, adding as I go.
    I think the prospect of loading & unloading to be cumbersome when in the end, I may end up switching from one project to another wanting to see or work with various simultaneously. So Nexus is lightweight in loading (just a tad slow with <3000 fonts, on my machine I think) so I don't have to install them. It works well in each user profile, small enough to install to each. Not working to deploy across profiles.
    It did not work to run it off USB as described in previous release, though I may not have set it up correctly.
    Loading the fonts from USB has been easy.
    It might be useful for some & certainly has features lacking in others as commented. It's free! And no warnings of virus if direct from their website
    Any other recommendations would be helpful. I'm outgrowing this program…

  27. v3000 says:

    Odd thing I discovered when I tried installing ATM 4.1 Deluxe on Windows 7 32-bit: it actually WORKED, just like back it was still functional within XP!

    If I remember correctly, you should right-click on the ATM installer and then Run as Administrator. From there, I hope this would really make your work much easier.

  28. David Lemon says:

    Yes, Microsoft worked hard to avoid breaking legacy app’s, although it’s not surprising that it doesn’t work in the 64-bit environment. Since Adobe discontinued ATM Deluxe years ago, most users are likely to need one of the other app’s Thomas mentioned above. But it’s nice that people who licensed a copy back when it was still available can actually still use it if they wish.

Comments are closed.

Thomas Phinney

Adobe type alumnus (1997–2008), now VP at FontLab, also helped create WebINK at Extensis. Lives in Portland (OR), enjoys board games, movies, and loves spicy food.

Old Optima and ITC Eras in Type 1

Thomas Phinney · July 17, 2007 · Making Type

Microsoft Text/Font Program Manager

Thomas Phinney · October 26, 2007 · Making Type