The GNOME font dialog, why?

Fredico M Quintero pointed out some serious flaws in GNOME’s font configuration dialog; the Novell Product Design wiki also describes some problems. In a sentence that fits in with what I believe is GNOME’s “simplicity mantra”, GNOME should just get rid of its useless, confusing fonts configuration dialog.

Why does it have a font configuration dialog anyway? Well, unfortunately, GNOME’s setting daemon completely ignores several fontconfig settings and instead uses its own settings for things like antialiasing type, whether hinting is used, DPI, etc. You need the font configuration dialog to change these settings, or you have to dig through gconf. Most of this was put in place probably to subvert a broken X setup; instead of implementing these hack-ish workarounds GNOME should instead push to fix X instead.

It’s extremely difficult to discern the difference between the different types of antialiasing. GNOME’s dialog doesn’t let you select arbitrary text, or let you render text in-place so that you can quickly compare between different antialiasing styles and subpixel orderings. These settings, along with DPI, are unlike the rest of the settings in the font configuration dialog because they don’t apply immediately. They only affect newly started applications, and the dialog does nothing to alert you of this.

Do users really need to be able to select subpixel ordering from a dialog? There are very few LCD monitors that do not use an RGB subpixel ordering. The very few people who rotate their LCD monitors into portrait mode (including me, see my past article Misery with online reading of PDFs and the need for portrait monitors) would use VRGB. Why not just set RGB subpixel ordering if the user is using an LCD? VRGB if their display is rotated? Again, these are things GNOME could discover by querying X…

Lastly, do users need to change the fonts used by their UI in the first place? The majority of Windows and MacOS X users don’t deviate from the defaults at all—why would GNOME users be given a choice through this confusing dialog? GNOME instead should use the fontconfig aliases “Sans”, “Sans Serif”, and “Monospace” rather than letting users choose fonts. A fresh GNOME setup already uses these aliases as the defaults anyway.

Of the settings in the font configuration dialog users may actually want to set, whether to use antialiasing or not is the only one that sticks out to me as needing an option. I think that the dialog could be replaced with a simple, descriptive checkbox somewhere that read “Antialias text” that would toggle all the heuristics I’ve described above.

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