PART 10: Secrets of NeoDesk 4 - by Al Fasoldt
Font of Plenty
17 July, 2019 by
PART 10: Secrets of NeoDesk 4 - by Al Fasoldt
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                                                          PART 10: FONT OF PLENTY

                                                          Using GDOS bitmapped and Speedo scalable fonts in windows 

                                                          NeoDesk 4 offers many ways to dress up your desktop, but the one that can add a finishing touch is its employment of as many as four separate fonts for the displays within windows, in window information bars and on the desktop itself. You do not have to choose these fonts, of course; NeoDesk will use its defaults ordinarily, but you can achieve some stunning effects if you play around with GDOS bitmapped or Speedo scalable fonts for any or all of the four selections.

                                                          What GDOS is and why it's not built into the computer 

                                                          Users who are new to GDOS fonts may need a brief explanation of what's needed to get them to work. (If you're an old hand at this, just skip to the next section.) GDOS (the Graphics Device Operating System) is a much-maligned add-on part of the Atari operating system that, in fact, is an amazingly powerful feature in all Ataris. Atari had planned to incorporate GDOS into the ROMs of all STs (hard-coded into the computer's operating system, in other words), but left GDOS out at what was practically the last minute. In place of a ROM-based GDOS, Atari supplied a GDOS program on disk. The first version slowed down the operation of the ST horribly, but an improved GDOS was quickly issued by Atari and by others. (AMCGDOS is one of the most popular improved GDOS programs and is free, but there are others that are better, as we'll see in a moment.)

                                                          GDOS is something like a translator for devices attached to the computer -- printers, the display screen, plotters, that sort of thing. It handles most of the work involved in getting, for example, characters of various sizes and types on the screen and on the printed page. (GDOS is MUCH more complicated than this, but I'm trying to keep things simple so we can concentrate on fonts.) Regular GDOS supports fonts that are stored as graphical dot-by-dot images. These generally come in in two basic versions, one for screen characters and one for printed characters, and they are not resizeable. (They actually can be made twice as big, to give an example of apparent resizing, but they are not resizeable in any manner that retains their appearance.) These dot-by-dot-image fonts are called bitmapped fonts because each part of every character is mapped to a grid of dots on the screen or on the page. Bitmapped fonts work very well but have a single, very significant drawback: Since each character is stored as a collection of dots for a single size on the screen or on paper, the only way to get characters of differing sizes is to store separate versions of each character for every size you may want to use. In other words, you'd need a separate font file for 12-point type, 14-point type, 18-point type, and so on. If you really want to have a lot of choices in font sizes, you'll need to store a lot of fonts.

                                                          Font technology improves year by year. The most dramatic improvement for all computer systems is the development of scalable fonts, which are stored not as dot-by-dot graphics but as mathematical codes. These codes can be very complicated, but that sort of thing is relatively easy for a computer to deal with.

                                                          The good part of scalable-font technology is that characters that are stored as expressions of curves and straight lines can be made any size without changing their basic appearance. (This is technically oversimplified, because the best scalable-font systems actually DO change the way characters are drawn at small sizes to keep them readable, in a process called "hinting." Speedo GDOS and the TrueType system both use hinting.) Because only the mathematical codes are stored and not the bitmaps themselves, a single scalable font file can replace the dozen or more bitmapped font files that would have been needed to make sure all typical sizes are available in that font. And, of greater importance to a desktop publisher, that single scalable font file can be used to make ANY size characters, whereas a bitmapped font file is limited to one size only, preventing the user from altering documents for a more pleasing fit and appearance if the ideal font size is not available.

                                                          The bad part of scalable-font technology is that scaling characters on the fly takes time. A 16MHz ST or Falcon and a 32MHz TT will generally work fast enough with scalable fonts, but 8MHz STs may bog down quite a bit. That does not mean scalable fonts can't be used with 8MHz STs; instead, it means users with slower STs should do everything possible to speed things up -- by eliminating desk accessories that are taking up processing time, for example, or by using the fastest available font-scaling systems. NVDI 3 is generally considered one of the most flexible GDOS systems, and is highly recommended, especially since it handles both Speedo and TrueType fonts.

                                                          Fonts of both types are drawn under the control of GDOS. In the past, most applications that took advantage of GDOS were word processors and desktop-publishing applications, but this has changed with continual improvements in both GDOS and font technology. Today it's not uncommon to find applications of nearly all kinds supporting a range of fonts. The popular LHarc-Shell is one example of a relatively simple application that allows full control, through GDOS, of the fonts used in its file-display lists.

                                                          NeoDesk 4 uses GDOS to provide a choice of fonts and font sizes for these distinct display areas:

                                                          • Captions (descriptions) under the desktop icons.

                                                          • Small-text listings in desktop file-and-folder windows.

                                                          • Large-text listings in desktop file-and-folder windows.

                                                          • Information lines near the top and at the bottom of desktop windows.

                                                          You should note that even without GDOS, NeoDesk 4 lets you change the size of the font used for any of these displays. The font will always be one the system fonts. (In some resolutions, you will not have all of the system fonts available.) But with GDOS, you can change both the appearance and the size of the fonts. 

                                                          It's all a matter of proportions 

                                                          The standard fonts built into all Atari computers have evenly spaced characters, each the same width and the same distance apart, within a single font. This is how a typewriter's font looks, but it is not the way most published documents in books, newspapers and magazines look. They use fonts that have variable-width characters, with the "m," for example, taking up a lot more space than the "i" and "t" characters. These proportional fonts add a finished, professional look to the screen display, and can be used in two of the display areas in NeoDesk 4 -- the caption line under desktop icons and the information line above and below desktop windows. These do not have to be Bitstream Speedo fonts; they can be proportional bitmapped GDOS fonts. You may have to experiment quite a bit to find a proportional font that looks good and is readable as the icon caption font, but you shouldn't have any difficulty assigning a proportional font in the range of 9 to 12 points for the information line.

                                                          Proportional fonts cannot be used for the small- and large-text listings in desktop windows. If you select non-system fonts for these displays, try to use fonts that have thick letterings to enhance readability. 

                                                          GUI or not, sometimes text is a better choice after all

                                                          NeoDesk 4 normally displays files and folders as icons within each desktop window. This is often the most informative type of display because icons can be uniquely shaped and colored for each item they represent. (After all, this is part of what a graphical user interface is all about -- graphics!) But there are times when an icon-based display is not the best method. A text display can show many more items, of course, but the main point is that in a window in which all items are of the same kind of file (a group of GIF pictures, for example), an iconic display will have no graphical advantage, since the icons will all look alike. In that kind of situation, a text display makes more sense.

                                                          NeoDesk 4 allows mix-and-match selection of icon and text displays within desktop windows. This can be especially handy for ST Medium Resolution screens, where icon displays take up a lot of room, and can be useful in ST High Resolution mode, too, when many windows are open. NeoDesk 4's Group windows take up only a small amount of space in text mode, permitting a desktop with dozens of applications and other items to be listed in group windows even in ST Medium Resolution. 

                                                          Note this, please

                                                          NeoDesk 4 also uses modern font technology to good effect in its Desktop Notes, a feature that has long been one of the trademarks of NeoDesk. (This is literally true; "Desktop Notes" is copyrighted by Gribnif.) Whereas previous versions of NeoDesk limited Desktop Notes to a few brief messages in a plain Atari system font, NeoDesk 4 allows lengthy notes in any Bitstream Speedo font, large or small, in addition to any of the system fonts. In order to use Speedo fonts with NeoDesk 4, you'll need Speedo GDOS or NVDI version 3 or newer. (Although the latest versions of Speedo GDOS and NVDI also support other scalable fonts, NeoDesk 4 cannot display Desktop Notes in TrueType or PostScript formats.)

                                                          Proportional Speedo fonts look especially good in Desktop Notes. Most Speedo fonts are proportional, so, if you already have a set of Speedo fonts, you no doubt have proportional ones. (Regrettably, the non-proportional font originally distributed with Speedo GDOS, Monospaced 821, is one of the worst examples of monospaced fonts I have ever seen. Bitstream's Courier is much better.)

                                                          When you choose a Speedo font for Desktop Notes, you may find that a sans-serif font looks better than a serif font. Serifs are tiny strokes that generally make each letter look more interesting, and usually make the text more readable. But if you use serif fonts at smaller sizes on a typical Atari display, the serifs are too small to be accurately rendered. On the other hand, a serif font such as Bitstream's Charter or Windsor can be very attractive on the screen at larger sizes.

                                                          Keep in mind that NeoDesk 4 places its Desktop Notes on an unseen grid based on the height of the font, so if you put a Desktop Note in small type on the bottom of the screen and then use the Desktop Notes dialog to make the type larger, NeoDesk may place it off the bottom of the display. If this happens, set the size back to what it was and erase the note, then change the size and write it where you want it to appear. (If you don't do it this way, you'll never be able to get at the Desktop Notes because they'll stay hidden off-screen!)

                                                          If you use Speedo GDOS, which generally takes up considerable memory, you may not want to have a Speedo-font Desktop Note displayed all the time. If your Desktop Notes are used more for display than for quick note-writing -- if, for example, you create Desktop Notes that show a permanent message -- you can use Imagecopy or any other good snapshot utility to create an image of the part of your screen containing the Desktop Notes; this can then be used as a desktop background when your computer is not running Speedo GDOS. 

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