In a recent issue of TidBITS, I reported that Font Reserve, the font management utility I’d been using for years, had made the transition to Mac OS X with somewhat limited success. Consequently, I had a look at the competition. I’ve been using Extensis’s Suitcase 10 for a couple of weeks now, and so far it has barely missed a beat; it does just about everything I want a font management utility to do, and it does it simply and reliably.
Keep in mind that my font needs are fairly simple. I have a lot of fonts, of many kinds, but in general I use relatively few of them at a time. I have no co-workers with whom I must share fonts, though occasionally my work requires a particular set of fonts. I want to know what fonts I have, what they look like, and where they are, and to be able to activate and deactivate them conveniently, at will, and without accidentally creating any font conflicts, so as to keep the number of open files small and my Font menus short.
My first experience with Suitcase goes back over ten years, to the days of System 6, when it was a utility by Steve Brecher, published initially by Fifth Generation Systems and later by Symantec. In those days, Suitcase was nothing short of revolutionary, since it freed users from problems and limitations built into the system’s rather lame handling of fonts. All of that, however, is mere nostalgia, since Suitcase 10 likely has nothing in common with the old Suitcase but the name; even what it does has changed, since in those days a suitcase meant more than fonts (remember sound suitcases, FKEYs, and desk accessories?), and font formats and font management have undergone considerable evolution.
One Window to See Them All — On Mac OS X, Suitcase is a single ordinary application with a single window. You can show or hide this window, but the application itself must be running for Suitcase to do its job; thus you’ll probably make Suitcase a Login item, so that it starts up when you restart or log into the computer. Fonts activated by Suitcase can be temporary or permanent; the latter are automatically remembered whenever Suitcase shuts down and reactivated the next time it starts up. Typically, you’ll access Suitcase from the Dock, which opens its window.
Suitcase’s window can display all the fonts in the five places where active fonts can live on Mac OS X – the System folder, the Library folder, the Network folder, your user Library folder, and the Classic System Folder. It won’t manage fonts in any of these locations, of course, but the mere display of them is helpful, saving you from having to look in all five places to learn what’s where. The window also displays – and can manage – any fonts you’ve brought to its attention by dragging them into the window; such fonts can include .dfonts, Windows .ttfs, TrueType, and PostScript fonts. Fonts inside Suitcase are aliases – unlike Font Reserve, there is no option for making a vault of actual fonts – so it remains up to you to keep track of where your fonts really are. Thus, my first move was to remove all active fonts from everywhere except the System folder (leaving in place also a few fonts that the Classic system seems to need), place them in a central location, and hand them over to Suitcase to manage.
You can view fonts by suitcase or by name, and in useful subsets, such as all active fonts or all non-system fonts. You can also create font sets; you use these to activate and deactivate groups of fonts together, and you can do so through Suitcase’s Dock menu, a useful shortcut.
Over on the Classic side of things, Suitcase is represented by several extensions and a shared library; the most important of these is the Suitcase Bridge, which causes fonts activated by Suitcase under Mac OS X to be available in Classic (if they are of a type that Classic handles, of course). If you reboot under the Mac OS 9 system that serves as Mac OS X’s Classic, you find that Suitcase works there too; in an elegant reduction of clutter, an alias in the Apple Menu Items folder points to a Mac OS 9 version of the Suitcase application hidden inside the very same Suitcase package you installed on Mac OS X.
Other Features — Automatic activation of fonts referred to by a particular document does not work for Mac OS X-native applications. On the other hand, automatic activation of fonts in response to your starting up a particular application does work: you make a special kind of font set called an "application set," and include in it the fonts you typically need for that application. Such fonts remain active even after you quit the application that activated them – or until you restart the computer, which on Mac OS X might be never – so if your goal is to keep your Font menus short you must deactivate application sets manually from time to time.
Suitcase reports font conflicts as they arise upon activation of a font, and lets you decide how to proceed. Having this choice is valuable; for example, sometimes you absolutely must activate a font even though there’s a conflict. Still, Suitcase’s explanation of the problem can be less than helpful. When I tried to activate one font, Suitcase balked, claiming there was a font conflict with a system font but without telling me what system font it conflicted with, where it was, or how it conflicted, and it gave me no means to discover this for myself. I could activate the font anyway, because Suitcase lets you override even system fonts when there’s a conflict; but I would have preferred to be told just what the trouble was.
A nice feature is that you can import fonts into Suitcase temporarily. When you restart Suitcase or choose Remove Temporary Fonts, the listings for those fonts vanish from Suitcase’s window. That’s great for when you need some fonts just for a single job. In the same vein, you can select font listings and choose Collect Fonts For Output to have the fonts copied into a single folder for convenient transmission to another user.
When you click a font listing in Suitcase’s window, you can see some samples of that font. For more extensive scrutiny of the font, you use an enclosed application, FontBook, originally by Matthias Kahlert and now maintained by Lemke Software, the folks who bring you GraphicConverter. This is a worthwhile utility, showing a font in various layouts and using various keyboards; but unlike Suitcase itself, it can’t display fonts you haven’t yet activated. And it hasn’t been updated to show the non-ASCII characters in Mac OS X’s many Unicode fonts; for that, you’ll need Font Checker. (See "Two Bytes of the Cherry: Unicode and Mac OS X" in TidBITS-624 and TidBITS-625 for more on Unicode support.) Another problem with this strategy is that Extensis must synchronize with another developer’s product; for example, a recent download of Suitcase 10.1.2 included an outdated version of FontBook, and if you bypass Extensis and download FontBook directly from Lemke Software, your copy is unregistered.
The manual is a decently written but poorly designed PDF. (Whoever creates a two-column layout for viewing on a computer screen, may his hard disk forever emit an annoying hum.) It contains quite a few errors, such as claiming Suitcase is scriptable when, as far as I can tell, it isn’t.
Final Words — Some users have reported problems with Suitcase crashing, but I can’t comment since I haven’t experienced this myself. The Suitcase shortcoming most evident to me is that, unlike Font Reserve, its window doesn’t work like a database; you cannot, for example, assign extra attributes to a font, such as class and owner, and then sort or filter or search on these. The result is that a font list of even moderate size becomes difficult to manage, and a font that you remember by nature but not by name (for example, it’s a sans-serif font) becomes all but impossible to find.
Apart from this, I find in using Suitcase that there isn’t much that I miss from Font Reserve, and there are some things that I like better. There are a few things one must read the manual to learn: for example, the only way to switch between permanently and temporarily activating a font is to Option-click its listing; there’s no button or menu item to help, so you just have to know, and that’s poor design. Otherwise, Suitcase’s interface is straightforward and simple, a single readily understandable window; its handling of font families and suitcases is clean and seamless; it deals helpfully with font conflicts, despite the exception mentioned earlier; and it works with every type of font I have.
Suitcase 10 costs $100; the upgrade from Suitcase 3 is $50. It requires Mac OS X 10.1.1 or higher. A 30-day demo is available as a 15 MB download.