December 5, 2007

Fontmatrix: Font management for the desktop finally arrives

Author: Bruce Byfield

The GNU/Linux desktop lacks a font manager for design work. Ideally, such a font manager should support currently used font formats, including TrueType, Type1, and OpenType, and allow sets of fonts to be activated on the fly, so that system memory is not choked with rarely used fonts. Until now, the closest to this ideal has been Fonty Python, but, when last seen, it fell short because of it supported only TrueType fonts and had a needlessly complicated interface. Now, however, newcomer Fontmatrix has proved itself a contender for the role. In fact, despite some weaknesses in its features, its basic functionality is already dependable.

Fontmatrix is a font manager for individual user accounts, unlike the one in the KDE Control Center, which can be used for either the system or an individual account. According to Pierre Marchand, Fontmatrix's creator, this decision is deliberate. "System-wide fonts," he says, "are intended to fulfill application needs and must keep in a very stable and predictable state." Design professionals, he says, "need to activate fonts on a per-project basis, without a thought about what the other users of the same system need at the same time."

Fontmatrix is available as a compressed tar file from the project archives, although on the project home page Marchand promises that packages will be available shortly. Although the latest version is .1, with .2 being under heavy development, these numbers are conservative -- despite some rough spots, Fontmatrix is already serviceable.

To install Fontmatrix, you need to install the FreeType and Qt 4.3 development packages for your system. Once you have installed the appropriate packages -- which may take some searching to find the exact names -- run the command qmake -o Makefile, followed by make in the directory to which you unarchived the file. The result is a fontmatrix binary in a newly created ./bin directory.

Before running the program, you should rename the .fonts folder in your home directory to avoid any confusion with the folders that Fontmatrix creates when it runs. Should you decide to uninstall Fontmatrix, you can then easily restore the original folder name.

After Fontmatrix starts, you should import some fonts into it by selecting File -> Import and choosing a directory that contains fonts. The dialog asks you for an initial tag -- most likely, the name of the typeface -- which will display in the left pane of the Fontmatrix window.

The left pane lists fonts by the initial tag in a tree directory arranged by alphabetical order, with a listing of the number of fonts in each tag and a preview of individual fonts on the right. You can activate or deactivate an initial tag, expand a tag's tree to activate individual fonts in the tag, or use the Activate all or Deactivate all buttons at the bottom of the display. No matter which way you activate fonts, select File -> Save, and they are available for immediate use in other programs, without requiring you to restart your desktop environment.

For ease of use with multiple fonts, you can do a general search of fonts entered into Fontmatrix, or add additional tags or sets of tags, then choose which ones to display from drop-down menus. The distinction between tags and sets of tags seems slight, and, to add to the confusion, you create tags in the right-hand pane, but sets by selecting Edit -> Tag Sets. According to Marchand, at least one early user of Fontmatrix says that sets help you unclutter the tree view. You can ignore this confusion by moving all the fonts for a project into a single directory and importing the directory into Fontmatrix.

Besides the tags assigned to the selected font, the right pane has tabs for viewing information about the font, displaying sample text, and showing the glyphs available in the fonts. These last two tabs are probably the weakest part of the current version of Fontmatrix, with the sample text being only the upper and lower case alphabet and the basic numbers, rather than a paragraph of text, and the glyphs display fonts somewhat darker than they appear in other programs. However, both are adequate -- they're just not quite as useful as they might be.

The same is true of the font book you can create from the File menu. In this feature, you can create a file of font samples each using the time-honored Lorum ipsum dolor text. You can then print the font book to file or paper. Unfortunately, in my tests, Fontmatrix printed a black rectangle in place of the font name, rendering the Font book less useful than it should be.

These problems with tags and sets, sample text and glyph tags, and font books all lessen the effectiveness of Fontmatrix. I can see, too, where the inability to delete fonts from the interface could become a problem over time; currently, you have to remove them manually from the .fonts-reserved folder that FontMatrix adds to your home directory.

However, the basic functionality of Fontmatrix is dependable. I have already used it professionally, and its basic convenience is unmistakable. Give Fontmatrix the chance to mature, and it has a chance of becoming a standard part of the tool kit for anyone who uses the GIMP, Inkscape,, or Scribus.

Finally, the long wait for a GNU/Linux font manager is ending.


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