Font Wars: PostScript vs. TrueType vs. OpenType

Ding. Everyone take a corner.  Helvetica.  Arial.  Times Roman.  Garamond.  All of these are commonly used fonts.  Each has a unique look, setting one apart from the next.  Who is the winner?  All four.  The real match is brewing under the hood so to speak, with which type of font is best.

As mentioned above, each font has a unique look which equates to shape.  These letter shapes are called glyphs, which are made up of a series of defining points.  These points create outlines, which are scalable. When a font is processed to an output device, such as a monitor or printer, the glyphs are rasterized (bitmap) into a grid pattern of dots.   It is the method of how the font is processed from outline to output which determines the type of font — PostScript, TrueType or OpenType.

PostScript is the grand-daddy of fonts, developed in 1984, predating TrueType by 5-6 years.  Open Type is the baby born in the mid-1990s – diving into the font mix much later. Today, all three types of fonts are considered standards in the industry, and in the case of TrueType and OpenType, are considered multi-platform, as they can be used on Macs and PCs.

Let’s take a look at the three:

PostScript: Developed in 1984, PostScript fonts are based on the Adobe PostScript language. A high-quality digital format, they are widely used in the professional typesetting and desktop publishing genres. There are different levels of PostScript fonts, which have evolved over time. (ie: Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, etc.), with Type 1 being the most common. PostScript font files consist of two files — a screen font with bitmap information for display purposes on monitors, and a file with outline information for printing the font. Built into the fonts were “hints” to help improve rendering on low-resolution devices.  For commercial printing, both font files must be included with the application file. Due to differences in how the font is built, Mac and Windows PostScript fonts are generally not cross-platform compatible.

TrueType: The TrueType technology was originally developed by Apple in the late 1980s, but was adapted by Microsoft and has become the standard for Windows platforms.  With TrueType fonts, the single font file contains both the screen and outline information, making them easily portable, using the rasterization process built into each operating system.  There are slight differences for the Mac and PC platforms in how they rasterize the TrueType font and in how they read the “hinting” – but overall, the fonts are relatively cross-compatible. The downside of the TrueType font format is that it is limited in its scalability, and will often display differently on different systems.

Open Type: The OpenType digital font format was developed jointly by Apple and Microsoft to put an end to the PostScript/TrueType war.  Like TrueType, a single file contains all the outline and bitmap data for an OpenType font, but it also contains either PostScript data or additional TrueType data within the font, which in the PostScript case, makes the font truly scalable and exacting.  OpenType fonts are cross-platform compatible – rendering the same on either a Mac or PC.  One of the benefits of OpenType is that it offers extended character sets and more advanced typographic controls.

So which is better?

Well… that depends.  In a professional graphic environment, PostScript and OpenType are King and Queen.  PostScript fonts give you consistent control over text and layouts every time. What you see as the layout on your screen will be the same no matter the output device.  OpenType, depending on the flavor, can also give the user a high level of control. Font makers like Adobe, Linotype and ITC are now pushing the OpenType (PS flavor) format, so it is likely that true PostScript Type 1 fonts will become a rare commodity.

For the average user who doesn’t need an exacting end product, TrueType will satisfy all their needs.

But if I had to choose, I would call OpenType the victor in this match.

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8 Comments

Filed under Design

8 responses to “Font Wars: PostScript vs. TrueType vs. OpenType

  1. Tracy

    Very informative-I was unaware of the types of fonts and this explains why some of these terms are in printer profiles. Thank you.

  2. Who would have thought just adding a font could be so confusing! I can see why Google fonts were such a breakthrough!

  3. cyp

    I really appreciate your candor. Great article! Now, what about Google fonts?

  4. I almost never drop responses, but i did a few searching
    and wound up here Font Wars: PostScript vs. TrueType vs.

    OpenType | Purple Fusion Graphics. And I do have 2 questions
    for you if you tend not to mind. Is it simply me or does it look like
    a few of these responses look like they are left by brain dead
    people? :-P And, if you are posting at additional online social sites,
    I’d like to follow anything fresh you have to post. Would you make a list of all of your public sites like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

  5. Aren’t google fonts just for the Web? This article is about fonts for printed materials, not for the Web, correct?

  6. Thanks for the responses. This post was written nearly 3 years ago – and since that time fonts have continued to evolve. I am working on an updated post about fonts – which I will have in the near future.

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