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Tools: Reliability of “web–safe” fonts

The following tables (updated: 22 October, 2008) summarise cross-platform reliability for fonts that are commonly held to be safe for use in web-design. The percentage figures originate from the Codestyle font surveys for Windows, Mac and unix/linux and, in brackets, from the visibone font survey. Sample sizes are presented in column headings for each platform as for [Codestyle (Visibone)] surveys.

Both surveys have problems, discussed in codestyle font survey questions for some of its common issues. Weaknesses aside, these surveys represent the best currently available information on the subject of how available fonts are across platforms.

The standard list of “Web-safe” fonts, with the exception of symbol and dingbats fonts) is limited to the nine listed in the first table.

Table 1: Reliability of Web-safe fonts across operating systems
Font Windows
[2776 (614)]
Mac
[669 (164)]
Linux
[360 (22)]
Arial 96.97% (100%) 96.41% (99%) 62.78% (82%)
Arial Black 97.73% (100%) 95.67% (97%) 54.44% (45%)
Comic Sans MS 96.72% (99%) 91.63% (96%) 51.94% (45%)
Courier New 96.79% (99%) 92.08% (96%) 61.94% (83%)
Georgia 92.62% (96%) 93.57% (96%) 53.33% (45%)
Impact 96.33% (99%) 88.04% (84%) 53.89% (45%)
Times New Roman 87.32% (100%) 90.28% (98%) 56.67% (82%)
Trebuchet MS 95.79% (98%) 92.38% (96%) 51.39% (45%)
Verdana 97.41% (100%) 94.02% (99%) 55.00% (45%)

While support is good across Windows and Mac platforms, the notion of these being “Web-safe” begins to look a little shaky from the perspective of linux/unix.

Previously some more traditional print fonts could also be relied upon and this remains particularly true for unix/linux platforms where the microsoft web fonts can’t necessarily be relied upon to the same extent as on the other two operating systems.

Table 2 extends the set of “Web-safe” fonts to include these three fonts (Courier, Helvetica & Times).

Andale Mono is included here because it is mentioned on at least one list of “Web-safe” fonts encountered in researching this, though the reported figures certainly beg the question “Why?”.

The Bitstream Vera triplet (Sans, Sans Mono & Serif) of fonts are also included as they are now installed with many current linux and unix distributions, however they are clearly not to be relied upon for either of the other two platforms.

[October, 2008]: More linux fonts added for reference purposes.

Table 2: Additional Web-safe fonts across operating systems
Font Windows
[2776 (614)]
Mac
[669 (164)]
Linux
[360 (22)]
Courier (94%) 96.26% (99%) 74.17% (100%)
Helvetica 7.47% (82%) 96.26% (99%) 57.50% (91%)
Times 4.44% (82%) 87.89% (99%) 48.33% (91%)
Andale Mono 3.29% (11%) 85.35% (74%) 50.28% (41%)
Bitstream Vera Sans 26.13% (12%) 20.83% (9%) 78.77% (18%)
Bitstream Vera Sans Mono 29.87% (12%) 22.50% (8%) 81.01% (18%)
Bitstream Vera Serif 25.96% (12%) 20.83% (9%) 68.99% (18%)
Bitstream Charter (—) (—) 90.00% (—)
DejaVu Sans Condensed (—) (—) 82.50% (—)
DejaVu Sans Mono (—) (—) 90.00% (—)
Nimbus Mono L (—) (—) 89.17% (—)
URW Bookman L (—) (—) 83.61% (—)
URW Chancery L (—) (—) 89.17% (—)
URW Gothic L (—) (—) 86.94% (—)
Century Schoolbook L (—) (—) 88.61% (—)

So what?!

This is intended as no more than a rough guide to regarding supposedly safe fonts for website design, presenting a summary of available information drawn from existing internet font surveys. These surveys are not really open to direct comparison, and each one has its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.

The numbers are anyway interesting, and the poor support for unix among the “standard” fonts is cause for a little more care when constructing font-families that degrade safely across plarforms.

Updates

22 October, 2008: For unix/linux some traditionally reliable fonts (Times, Helvetica) are showing some significant declines in availability from previous levels, while new typefaces are emerging. DejaVu, URW and other fonts are taking over from Bitstream Vera in many linux distributions and are in general now more widely available, although largely unheard of on either Windows or Mac operating systems. The liberation fonts that are provided with some linux distributions have yet to make significant inroads even on linux/unix in terms of widespread availability. The much talked about Vista fonts have still not reached reliable penetration levels, remaining down at around 42% on the Codestyle Windows Font Survey Results.

11 February, 2007: The Codestyle survey remains actively available online and the tables above have been updated to reflect its current status. As previously, changes are for the most part small, except with regard to the linux platform where Bitsream fonts continue to show a rise of a few percentage points. Other changes, not yet apparent here, are on Windows as the new fonts for Vista begin to make a showing, currently running at about 20% on the Codestyle Windows Font Survey Results

15 April, 2006: Changes since the original launch of this page are generally small to insignificant, except with regard to the Bitsream fonts under Linux, which show a rise of between 3–4 percentage points in the 5 months since this was originally posted.

The article “Fonts for web design: further comparison of cross-platform dependability” further develops this theme, but extends the examination to 31 of the most common fonts (not just the web-safe ones) from all platforms.

Copyright on information presented here in summarised form remains with the respective originators, as credited above.


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