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Managing Fonts with FontAgent Pro

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In past TidBITS articles, I've talked about what a problem font management on the Macintosh has always been, and what steps I've taken to alleviate it on my own machine. For many years I was strongly attached to DiamondSoft's Font Reserve, but it foundered somewhat on the breakers of Mac OS X; initially it didn't support many Mac OS X fonts, and Classic activation was never reliable. I then tried Extensis's Suitcase and stayed with it happily for a year or so, but eventually it broke against Panther, and although a revised version was issued, I found it sluggish and undependable. Also, by that time, Extensis had acquired Font Reserve, ending the healthy competition between the two, and the steam seemed to go out of the development on both products. So, since the advent of Panther, I've kept my font management minimal, using Apple's own Font Book as described in my ebook "Take Control of Customizing Panther."

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Recently, however, I've put a tentative toe back into the font management waters by taking a look at FontAgent Pro, from Insider Software. I had tried out an earlier version of this program, but shied away because I found it too intrusive: the installer demanded my password, which I found suspicious; it wanted to take control of my already installed fonts; and when it imported fonts, it reported having performed hundreds of "repairs" to them, without asking my permission and without explaining just what it had done. But the current version, FontAgent Pro 2.1, is much more user-compliant. It can manage installed fonts (except for /System/Library/Fonts, which it leaves alone), and it can install a startup item so that your chosen fonts will be activated the next time you restart, but these are preferences under your control. In general, FontAgent Pro appears simple and dependable.

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How It Looks -- When you use FontAgent Pro, fonts are activated by an invisible background application, FontAgent Activator. FontAgent Pro is thus essentially just a window for telling FontAgent Activator what to do; your fonts are still managed even if you quit FontAgent Pro. (This architecture is similar to Font Reserve, where Font Reserve itself is invisible, and the Browser is its visible face.)

FontAgent Pro thinks in terms of libraries and sets. A library is basically a physical folder on disk where FontAgent Pro has collected fonts. A set is a purely conceptual grouping, clumping together some of a library's fonts, and is basically just a way to activate or deactivate multiple fonts simultaneously. Sets can be nested, and a font can be a member of more than one set.

The FontAgent Pro window consists of three panes. The first two panes are almost identical - both can list fonts grouped by library or by set, optionally grouping fonts into families - but the first can also list all fonts alphabetically. The third pane displays font previews that you can cycle through and compare. The panes can be resized; the first and third panes can also be completely hidden.

Using the window is simple. The first two panes are outlines, where fonts may appear clumped hierarchically by font family, set, or library. Each item in the outline has two icons next to it, indicating whether it is activated and whether it is shared. (I describe font sharing later in this article.) Click an icon to toggle the state for that item (meaning that font, if the item is a font, or all subordinate fonts, if the item is a font family, set, or library); or, select an item and click a button in the window's toolbar. Sets can be created with a button on the toolbar, and fonts can be moved or copied into sets by dragging within a pane or from one pane to another, in a delightfully clean and intuitive fashion. The hierarchy's outline can also be controlled using decent keyboard navigation: you can move the selection up and down, you can open and close a "folder," and you can jump to an item by typing the start of its name.

What It Does -- As I've said in past articles, my font management needs are fairly simple. I don't use large numbers of fonts, I don't manage multiple jobs requiring specific fonts, and I'm certainly not a publishing or prepress shop. That said, let me describe my basic font needs and how FontAgent Pro meets them:

(1) I am massively confused about what fonts I have. The difficulty is greatly exacerbated by the fact that many of my fonts on Mac OS X are in suitcases, which don't behave like folders the way they did in System 7 through Mac OS 9, so I can't readily see inside them. When you hand a font over to FontAgent Pro (which you can do by dragging font files or entire folders onto its window), it is copied into the FontAgent Pro library folder. Fonts that live in suitcases (e.g., because they are bitmaps, or because they are the old style of TrueType font with bitmaps) are broken up and created anew, one font per suitcase; and fonts are arranged by families in folders named for letters of the alphabet. Also, FontAgent Pro checks to make sure that bitmaps and Postscript files form complete font families. Thus you know at a glance, in the Finder as well as in FontAgent Pro, what fonts you have.

So, for example, when I handed FontAgent Pro three Garamond bitmap suitcases and a bunch of Postscript font files, these were put in the ITC Garamond subfolder of the "G" folder, and the suitcases were reconstituted as 14 suitcases with names like Garamond Book, Garamond BookCondensed, and so forth.

(2) I like to be able to activate fonts in Classic, from within Mac OS X. The reason is that I still occasionally run a Classic-only program, such as FrameMaker, and when I do, I want to activate certain fonts. I could just install the necessary fonts in my Classic Fonts folder, thus making them available to all Classic programs; but then they would be active in Mac OS X all the time as well. (Of course, I could prevent that using Font Book; but it's confusing for me to use both Font Book and a third-party program.) FontAgent Pro has the capability to activate in Classic applications whatever Classic-compatible fonts it has activated under Mac OS X.

(3) I have more than one computer, and coordinating fonts between them is something of a nightmare. If I have a Workgroup Edition license for FontAgent Pro, I can stop worrying about this, because as long as two computers are on the same local network, they can share fonts. Let's say machine A has the fonts in question in its FontAgent Pro library. In machine A's copy of FontAgent Pro, I click the "share" icons for those fonts. In machine B's copy of FontAgent Pro, I switch to the Sharing tab of the second pane, and presto, thanks to the magic of Rendezvous, machine A is listed, as if it were a set consisting of all the shared fonts. So, still on machine B, I activate them just as if they really were on machine B, and now I can use them in all applications just like any other font. The whole process is delightfully easy, and eerily cool.

What It Needs -- Even though my font requirements are minimal, FontAgent Pro and I crossed swords in a few places. This is a list of suggestions more than of criticisms; they are places where I felt FontAgent Pro fell short or behaved oddly, or wasn't being as helpful as it might. They are not serious enough to make me not use FontAgent Pro, but they are the sort of thing that might keep me looking for other font management alternatives, and they certainly could matter to some users.

FontAgent Pro gives no information about fonts it is not managing. This means it doesn't tell you what fonts are activated through the system, and it doesn't tell you whether activating a font through FontAgent might cause some sort of conflict with a system-based font. Also, it doesn't prevent possible conflicts within itself; it lets you import two non-identical fonts with the same name and activate them, even though the system won't distinguish them. (Contrast Suitcase, which shows you all active fonts and warns of possible conflicts when you activate a font.) Although it can be set to "verify fonts," FontAgent Pro still fails to warn of a font's internal oddities; for example, I have some old TrueType fonts that used to work, but under Mac OS X they don't (in one of them, for example, typing "A" gives an "L"), and FontAgent Pro isn't getting me any closer to understanding why. Plus, I found that if I imported a suitcase containing multiple TrueType variants of a single font - such as Palatino, Palatino Bold, and Palatino Italic - FontAgent Pro failed to list the variants. (Contrast Font Book, which does list them.)

The simplicity of FontAgent Pro's interface is perhaps carried a bit too far. You can't start with a font and ask what sets it belongs to. You can search for fonts, limiting the All Fonts pane to fonts whose name contains the letters you type; but then there is no way to learn that you're seeing a filtered list, and there's no button to cancel the filtering.

There is no way to export information about sets. This means that if you have FontAgent Pro on two machines, you can't easily configure them with identical sets. (Contrast Font Reserve, which lets you export and import set configurations.) The font preview feature is not as useful as it might be, because with a Unicode font you are not shown the region of the font that's important. (Contrast Font Book, which shows a Cyrillic alphabet for a chiefly Cyrillic Unicode font and a Hebrew alphabet for a chiefly Hebrew Unicode font.)

The main FontAgent Pro window suffers from a frequent Mac OS X problem: its buttons are enabled even when the window is not frontmost. This means you can click the window in the background, intending to switch to it, and accidentally activate some button, perhaps deleting a font from a set without realizing it. I also noticed that if the Preferences window is already open but hidden behind another window, choosing the Preferences menu item does not activate it, which is mystifying because it looks as if nothing has happened.

Finally I should mention FontAgent Pro's font activation feature, which is intended to allow a document in any application to activate needed fonts as it is opened, provided those fonts are in a FontAgent Pro library. Plug-ins to enable this feature are provided for InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator and QuarkXPress; in other programs it's just supposed to work automatically. But it didn't work for me with a Microsoft Word document containing several specialized language fonts. This is not a deal breaker for me, but some users probably depend on this feature.

Conclusions -- FontAgent Pro is simple and easy to use. It activates fonts quickly and reliably and without bogging down the system. Its single window is clean and intuitive. The capability to make sets within sets is very nice, the multiple libraries feature is useful for distinguishing multiple copies of a font which would otherwise conflict (a frequent problem in publishing environments), and the Rendezvous-based font sharing is a joy. Activation of fonts in Classic programs works fine. All these features could easily justify use of FontAgent Pro. On the other hand, FontAgent Pro doesn't warn of font conflicts and internal font problems, and so I still feel that I'm groping my way ignorantly through a mysterious world of fonts, and that FontAgent Pro isn't doing as much to light my way as my imaginary ideal font management program would do.

FontAgent Pro 2.1.1 costs $90, or $140 for the Workgroup Edition. It requires Mac OS X 10.2.8, or 10.3.2 or later. A free 30-day trial version is available as a 2.8 MB download. (Mac OS 9 and Windows versions are also available.)

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