Tired of your eyes being tired? Read on for Jeff Carlson’s overview of screen typography – why it works, why it doesn’t, and what you can do about it. Fabrizio Oddone weighs in with a solution to the problem of Internet mirror sites, and Geoff Duncan discusses IDE hard disk problems impacting a range Performas and Power Macs. We also pass on announcements of StuffIt Deluxe 4.5, Riven (the sequel to Myst), and GraphicConverter 3.0.1.
Aladdin Stuffs In More Features — Aladdin has begun shipping StuffIt Deluxe 4.5, the more-powerful, commercial version of Aladdin’s suite of non-commercial compression software that offers extensive file compression and encoding features. Improvements include: speedier operations, Mac OS 8 compatibility (especially for StuffIt’s True Finder Integration technology), contextual menu support, and expansion of encrypted Zip files. To run the software, you need a Macintosh with 4 MB RAM running System 7.1.1 or newer. StuffIt Deluxe has a suggested retail price of $129; those who purchased version 4.0 after 26-Jul-97 can upgrade for a $9.95 shipping fee, and anyone who owns a previous version can upgrade for $29.95 plus tax and shipping. For international customers, the shipping cost increases to $19.95. Discounted upgrades are available only through 31-Dec-97. [TJE]
Riven Arrival — Myst, a CD-ROM-based adventure game created by Cyan, is known for its fantastical images and immersive play. In 1993, Myst took the computer world by storm and continues to enjoy a record-breaking run on PC Data’s top ten best-seller list for software games, with more than 3.5 million copies sold. Now, with the release of Myst’s sequel, Riven, we’ll find out if lightning can strike twice. Last week, amidst a good amount of mainstream media coverage, the Red Orb Entertainment Division of Broderbund Software released Riven, the Sequel to Myst, as a five-CD set. Riven includes 4,000 images, three hours of animation, plus two hours’ worth of sound. To experience Riven, you’ll need at least a 90 MHz PowerPC-based machine, 9 MB free RAM, 65 MB hard disk space, System 7.5, color monitor, and a quad-speed CD-ROM drive.
If you plan to be an early adopter of Riven, note that there’s already an update available. Riven Updater 1.01, a 732K download, clears up problems with rotating domes and turning on the light near the water at the end of a tunnel. It also clears up problems where movies play in the wrong location. [TJE]
GraphicConverter Turns 3.0 — Lemke Software has released GraphicConverter 3.0. GraphicConverter has long been a shareware favorite for manipulating graphics, thanks to its extensive feature set and affordable price (U.S. $35 or $30 depending on where you live; pricing also available in German marks). GraphicConverter 3.0 offers numerous new conversion options (for a total of 98 file types that can be imported and 38 that can be exported), squashes many bugs, and adds a browser that both displays thumbnails of images stored in a particular folder and streamlines working with those images. The new version is available as a 1.6 MB download from the Lemke Software Web site; here in Seattle, today, we had a faster download time and found links to a 3.0.1 update using one of the GraphicConverter mirrors. [TJE]
During the last few weeks Apple has released two significant updates for Macs with ATA (IDE) hard disk drives. You may need one (or both) of these updates to correct problems that can lead to data loss or cause your Mac to fail to recognize its hard drive, resulting in the dreaded "flashing question mark" when you start your machine. Although these problems aren’t common, it’s better to avoid trouble now than to be forced to deal with it later. To use either of these updates, you’ll need Disk Copy 6.1 or better (or Aladdin’s ShrinkWrap 3.0) to use Apple’s disk images.
Drive Setup 1.3.1 — The release affecting the largest number of people is Drive Setup 1.3.1, which updates the ATA (IDE) hard disk driver. (A driver is software your computer uses to communicate with your hard disk.) You need Drive Setup 1.3.1 if you have a Performa or Power Macintosh in the 5400, 5500, 6400, or 6500 series, a Performa 6360, or a Twentieth Anniversary Mac.
Drive Setup 1.3.1 updates your ATA (IDE) driver to version 3.07. If you have one of the machines listed above and aren’t sure what version of the driver you’re using, select your hard disk in the Finder, then choose Get Info from the File menu. The version of the ATA (IDE) driver will appear in the "Where" line in the Get Info window; if the version is less than 3.07, you need Drive Setup 1.3.1.
Updating your disk driver is fairly simple, and complete instructions are in the Drive Setup 1.3.1 ReadMe. As always, you should back up your hard disk before updating your driver or system software. Once you’ve updated, be sure to delete any older versions of Drive Setup on your computer, replacing them with Drive Setup 1.3.1.
You can use Drive Setup 1.3.1 on any Apple hard disk in a PowerPC or 68040-based Macintosh, although you shouldn’t use it on a PowerBook 150 or on some machines with a Macintosh Processor Upgrade Card. See the Drive Setup ReadMe (above) for complete details.
1.2 GB Firmware Utility 1.1 — Of more narrow scope is the 1.2 GB Firmware Utility 1.1. This update corrects a problem in the firmware of a limited number of 1.2 GB ATA (IDE) hard disks. If you have a drive of a smaller or larger capacity, don’t worry about this update.
This problem only affects 1.2 GB ATA (IDE) drives with a firmware version of 1.37 or below. If you have a 1.2 GB ATA (IDE) drive, you can use the Device Information section of Apple System Profiler (which is available from Apple, and ships with recent versions of the Mac OS) to see what firmware version it uses.
The 1.2 GB Firmware Utility 1.1 comes as a bootable floppy disk image, so you must make a physical floppy disk from the firmware utility disk image. Once you’ve made the floppy disk, you must turn off your Macintosh and disconnect any external SCSI devices, then restart from the (unlocked) firmware floppy disk. The floppy disk has a small application ("ATA_Serial_Num") which you can run to see if your hard disk firmware needs to be updated. If so, the program automatically updates your firmware; otherwise, it tells you your drive doesn’t need to be updated. Full details are available in the ReadMe file, and (as always!) back up your drive before updating.
Have you ever encountered an URL like this before?
Probably not. It’s a new Uniform Resource Locator (URL) scheme that’s designed to improve access to information that’s replicated on multiple Internet servers. Using fab URLs, you can gain access to a number of identical servers without tracking down their individual URLs. Although the first implementation is available only for the Macintosh, the scheme itself is not tied to a specific platform.
Purpose — Have you ever tried to download a program from a popular Internet site, only to lose the connection partway through or have the transfer speed drop to unacceptable levels? Probably, and especially so if you live in a country where Internet access isn’t ubiquitous or reliable. In many cases when you’ve been frustrated by failed download attempts, there may have been other responsive sites that contain exactly the same files. In Internet jargon, these sites are called mirror sites.
If you are a Macintosh user, you’ve probably tried to download a program from the Info-Mac archives, grab software written by Peter N Lewis, or get the latest incarnation of Netscape Navigator. In each of these cases, the files you want are available on numerous mirror sites.
But what good does having mirror sites do if you don’t know which one to pick? The primary concern is network performance, so most people usually recommend that you "choose the mirror nearest to you;" however, empirical evidence and scientific inquiry show clearly this advice isn’t sound. It turns out that geographic proximity is not a valid indicator of network efficiency. This and other important results are found in a most interesting paper by Mark E. Crovella and Robert L. Carter, which I found almost by chance with AltaVista. More about this paper later.
How Does the Fab Scheme Work? The fab scheme maps an individual fab URL to a list of URLs. A simple URL of the fab variety looks like this:
For the time being, Internet applications like Web browsers and email programs won’t have the foggiest idea what a fab URL is, so they’ll launch a helper application (as defined in Internet Config) that can deal with the unknown URL type. That helper application is called QuickestMirror, a small application that contains a list of URLs for each fab URL.
Most Internet applications support Internet Config, although the degree of support varies widely. For instance, Netscape Navigator requires an AppleScript kludge like this to let QuickestMirror handle fab URLs.
tell application "Netscape Navigator"
register protocol "QMir" for protocol "fab"
(In theory you can copy this script into Apple’s Script Editor and run it only once, but in some cases Navigator does not remember what protocols have been registered; if that happens to you, check out Stefan Anthony’s Netscape Preferences Fix.)
When you click a fab URL, the Internet application passes the URL to QuickestMirror, which looks it up in the local URL list, constructing a list like this:
The list of URLs that QuickestMirror displays is dynamic, because its goal is to give you the best mirror site for each query. Faster or more accessible sites drift to the top as QuickestMirror adjusts itself to your network connectivity.
This is the big win of the fab URL scheme: when you click a fab URL, QuickestMirror finds the mirror site that’s responding best, creates a URL for that site, and returns that URL to your Web browser or FTP client.
Where Is the URL List Stored? In the current implementation of QuickestMirror, the URL list is stored locally, inside QuickestMirror itself. This design decision has several advantages. First, local storage doesn’t require additional software on the server side, encouraging more widespread adoption. Second, local storage avoids security problems in obtaining mirror lists via the Internet.
One could easily devise a technique for updating the local mirror lists. For instance, a special file containing the mirror list could be made accessible from the root level of the site in question. That way you can update the URL list using the fab scheme itself – that is, the special file becomes part of the mirrored resource and is replicated like any other file. Then, when you connect to a site via a fab URL, QuickestMirror could check that file to see if it had been updated, and if so, synchronize the local URL list with the remote one.
The Crovella-Carter Paper — The Crovella-Carter paper mentioned earlier requires a background in math and statistics, so I’ll summarize their findings here with a few short points.
The number of hops between two Internet hosts is not strongly correlated to round trip latency. So, an Internet server won’t necessarily be slow or unreliable just because a number of machines or routers sit between you and it.
The extra cost incurred at runtime by dynamic latency measurement, as compared to prior static knowledge of hop distances, is well-justified based on the resulting improved performance. In other words, it can really pay off to spend a little time at the beginning of a connection to figure out which mirror site is responding best.
Selection based on dynamic latency measurement is preferable to random selection. So, figuring out which particular site in a mirrors list responds best is better than just picking a mirror site at random.
Dynamic policies consistently outperform static policies; furthermore, the difference between static policies and dynamic policies increases with larger file sizes. Even random server selection is preferable to choosing any static server for documents larger than 5K. In short, selecting a mirror site dynamically based on which one responds better can be beneficial even when transferring small files, but it really shines when working with large files.
QuickestMirror uses a dynamic policy that never places an undue burden on the destination hosts.
Further Reading — For a deeper understanding, I recommend that you read RFC 1738 (Uniform Resource Locators).
Also, more information is available about QuickestMirror and the fab URL scheme.
Finally, Walter Ian Kaye pointed me to a document detailing a Virtual Server protocol that would enable a user to connect automatically to a least-loaded server among the list of mirror or alternate servers available for a particular service. Using this protocol, Internet clients would no longer need to know of the existence of mirror servers available for a particular service.
Mirroring Cracked — There’s no denying that mirroring of popular sites and Internet resources is a powerful concept. It’s worked well in the past with sites like Info-Mac, and it stands to work well in the future, especially as the Internet expands and the need for stable, centralized services grows. With that growth, however, we need tools like the fab URL scheme, QuickestMirror, and the Virtual Server protocol to help make mirror sites more accessible and easier to use.
[Fabrizio Oddone is a software developer and the author of QuickestMirror.]
Despite the many advantages of electronic publishing – it’s relatively cheap, the potential audience is vast, content delivery can happen instantaneously – I am continually surprised at how many people still print hard copies of their email and Web pages. The electronic revolution was supposed to save us from the bulk and waste of publishing onto sheets of dead, cut up trees, yet people still lug around armloads of printouts. Why? Because reading text onscreen can still be a difficult, even painful, process.
Anyone who works with large amounts of text on a computer is familiar with the bloodshot eyes and strain that come with reading from a computer monitor. It’s estimated that 10 million cases of computer-related eyestrain are seen by optometrists each year. Until recently, options for improving onscreen typography have been limited. Now that people are spending more hours reading from the Web, new approaches and technologies are emerging to tackle a problem that’s become a pain in the eyes.
No Time for Times — I’ll say it here and stick to my guns: 12-point Times is lousy for onscreen reading. Most Web browsers use 12-point Times as their default font, and although it looks great when printed, millions of people are reading themselves into fits of headaches and eyestrain because of it. To alleviate this, vendors are finally beginning to develop screen-friendly fonts designed expressly for viewing on monitors. For example, Adobe and Bitstream have just released a $50 set of Web fonts including Myriad Web, Minion Web, and Caflish Script Web; Microsoft’s Typography Web page offers free downloads of fonts such as Georgia, Verdana, and Trebuchet (which are also bundled with new versions of Windows and Internet Explorer). [I’ve become a great fan of setting my browsers’s default font to Comic Sans MS, another freebie font from Microsoft. -Tonya];
Other good alternatives are Apple’s venerable "city" fonts, such as Monaco, Chicago, New York (my favorite), Geneva, and – abandoning the city connection – Charcoal, which ships with Mac OS 8. Newer versions of Adobe Type Manager (ATM), a long-time staple for those who work with PostScript fonts regularly, offers the ability to anti-alias screen type on the fly, removing the "jagginess" of bitmap fonts (more on this later).
Types of Type — The Mac OS currently uses three basic varieties of fonts: bitmap, PostScript, and TrueType. Bitmaps are tiny images comprised of nothing more than the pixels to be displayed on screen. Although they’re the least flexible when printing, bitmaps are the best option for onscreen typography because they’re created at screen resolution (72 dots per inch) and computers can display them very quickly. Bitmap fonts usually reside in the font suitcases scattered in your System Folder’s Fonts folder. Poking around in one will reveal that bitmaps exist only for specific sizes, which is why you often find several versions of a font within a given suitcase. The Mac OS can display bitmap fonts in sizes you don’t have available, but they’ll usually be blocky since the computer is actually showing a distorted version of a smaller bitmap you do have installed.
PostScript fonts (sometimes referred to as Type 1 or Type 3 fonts) were developed by Adobe and debuted for Macintosh users when the first LaserWriters appeared. Unlike bitmap fonts, PostScript fonts are "resolution independent" because they’re made up of mathematical representations of the outline for each character in a font. When you use a PostScript font, those representations scale to whatever resolution the output device – like a laser printer, imagesetter, or monitor – can handle, either via a PostScript interpreter in your computer or printer, or (most commonly on Macs) to the screen via ATM. However, on your hard disk, PostScript fonts are typically paired with bitmap versions of the same font in common sizes because – remember – bitmap fonts are generally designed for the screen and can be displayed very quickly.
The last type of font, TrueType, is also a resolution-independent, mathematical way of representing type, and (like PostScript fonts) TrueType fonts are often paired with common sizes of bitmap fonts for fast onscreen display. Developed by Apple and Microsoft (and shipping with the Mac OS and Windows for many years), TrueType allows high-resolution output on the screen and to printers without requiring a PostScript interpreter or ATM. That’s why StyleWriters and other non-PostScript printers can create high-quality text output with TrueType fonts. Although TrueType is widely deployed on personal computers, it hasn’t been widely adopted in the publishing world, since it’s not directly supported by many high-end printers and imagesetters.
Hinting at Something Better — With all this technology at our disposal, why is reading text onscreen still such a chore? For the most part, Macintosh typography has been focused on printing; once ATM solved the problem of jaggy text onscreen, type was readable enough to work with in word processors and page-layout applications. Font foundries concentrated on creating new typefaces and styles, knowing that most reading would be done on paper. This is not to say that screen fonts were neglected – a great deal of effort goes into creating bitmaps that accurately match the weight, spacing, and character of each font. However, the impetus has most often been to provide a closer correlation between screen and paper versions, rather than to provide onscreen legibility.
To create a font specifically for onscreen viewing, typographers pay close attention things like hinting and kerning. If you compare Times to Georgia, for example, you’ll see that Georgia’s letter spacing makes it more readable. None of the characters end up smashed against each other or pulled apart disproportionately, a frequent consequence when your Mac generates bitmaps on the fly (especially when viewing nonstandard sizes such as 13 or 15 points).
Another important aspect is the clarity of a font’s x-height, or the height of lower-case letters like x, a, or e. If the pixels in the loops that close an "e" or round out an "a" crunch together, your eyes must work harder to discern words, which quickly leads to eyestrain. Words like "faeries" or "earwax" for example, can interrupt your flow of reading if the characters aren’t clearly defined.
Anti-Aliasing Brings Fuzzy Clarity — Using Web fonts is probably your best bet for readable type; however, only about a dozen typefaces are currently optimized for onscreen use. Plus, if you’re like me, you already have a ton of fonts installed and may not want (or be able to afford) new sets of typefaces.
As a solution, software developers have come up with ways to anti-alias all fonts displayed onscreen. Anti-aliasing is a method of smoothing a font’s jagged edges by slightly blending the font’s pixels into the background color behind the type. ATM 4.0 provides a Smooth Font Edges on Screen option; the shareware program SmoothType also provides this ability. The downside of this approach, however, is that text at small sizes tends to look slightly fuzzy or out of focus, which could contribute to eyestrain.
Making It Work — There are a few things you can do to set up your fonts for better online reading. If you’ve been using the Mac for a while, you may be sick to death of the various city fonts I mentioned earlier. If that’s the case, I strongly recommend you play with Charcoal or check into the font packs such as those from Microsoft and Adobe noted earlier.
If your Mac runs Mac OS 7.x, you can specify a screen-friendly font for your desktop by choosing a font in the Views control panel. If you use Mac OS 8, choose Preferences from the Finder’s Edit menu to change the font of file and folder names; choose a font in the Appearance control panel to modify the font used in menu bars and dialog boxes.
Selecting a new default font for a Web browser is a phenomenon equivalent to setting the clock on a VCR: anyone can do it, but most people tend not to bother. To break out of that stereotype, select a screen-friendly typeface in the Language/Fonts window of Internet Explorer’s Preferences dialog box, or change the font in Netscape Navigator’s General Preferences dialog box. While you’re setting preferences, you might as well change the default home page to something besides the default, such as:
Font Futures — Even if you change the default font of your browser, many Web sites today specify other fonts by using the <FONT> tag or Cascading Style Sheets, though you can also typically set preferences for whether you want your default font to override these fonts. However, it’s become an informal standard among Web designers to use only the handful of fonts that ship with both the Mac OS and Windows, which helps ensure that a desired effect (usually using a sans-serif font instead of a default serif font) will work in most browsers.
Two technologies are emerging that will enable your browser to download fonts as needed: OpenType and TrueDoc. Essentially, OpenType will be a convergence of PostScript and TrueType font technologies, although it currently only supports TrueType. The advantage for Web publishing, though, is that it allows for OpenType embedding, whereby font information is stored on a Web site and accessed by your browser just as graphics and text are downloaded and viewed. To allay the security concerns of font development companies, OpenType fonts can be protected with an "embedding bit" that can be set to No Embedding, Installable, Editable, and Print and Preview. As of this writing, however, a security flaw has been found in the Windows version of Internet Explorer 4, allowing users to grab fonts from a site to use on their computer.
Netscape’s and Bitstream’s TrueDoc technology (also known as Dynamic Fonts) takes a similar approach to embedding font information, but instead of accessing a font object at the Web site’s source, it sends a Portable Font Resource file that stores only the information needed to display the used characters in the font correctly. Using a feature called direct rendering, the text is used only in the browser’s window and not stored on a user’s hard disk.
Both approaches, in addition to providing varying levels of security to avoid font pirating, also include techniques to compress dramatically the font information and minimize the time it takes to download (Microsoft has claimed compression gains of 75 to 99 percent in some cases).
Just My Type — One of the most visible results of the Macintosh and personal computer revolutions has been the ability to use the thousands of different available typefaces in documents. Slowly, that ability is coming to the Web and a screen near you, bringing with it the realization that there are ways to display text onscreen that won’t make you see red.