The subpixel-AA debacle and font rendering

mathcolo

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Sep 14, 2008
860
16
Boston
Since the disablement of subpixel anti-aliasing by default in Mojave, many folks (including myself) have noticed that some applications render fonts strangely on non-Retina displays. I notice this especially in Marzipan apps like News and Stocks.

Are things better in Catalina? What's the state of the world with this? Haven't heard it come up in the news recently.
 

Saad-M

macrumors newbie
Sep 2, 2010
16
5
My question exactly; and further, even after running this, do News and Stocks look better?
I am interested in this question as well. With Mojave you avoid running the Marzipan based apps. But I suspect with that may no longer be case anyone in Catalina.
 

EightyTwenty

macrumors 6502a
Mar 11, 2015
809
1,661
Hmmm... no answers to this one? It’s a pretty big deal as Apple still sells non-retina iMac and MacBook Air, plus many users who have the 2018 Mini are likely on sub-4K monitors.
 
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Populus

macrumors 65816
Aug 24, 2012
1,221
1,081
Valencia, Spain.
Hey, those running Catalina on 1080p screens, please, is this issue solved? Is it still crappy like on Mojave?
I executed the command, and somehow it is bearable, but I expected a fix on next macOS version, honestly.

As the user above points, there's still a lot of people who use HD screens, non retina displays.

The commands I used were these:

Code:
defaults write -g CGFontRenderingFontSmoothingDisabled -bool NO
And, before and afterwards, this one:

Code:
defaults -currentHost write -globalDomain AppleFontSmoothing -int 3
Hope that will help others.
 

NastyNatex

macrumors member
Sep 24, 2018
40
42
Hey, those running Catalina on 1080p screens, please, is this issue solved? Is it still crappy like on Mojave?
I executed the command, and somehow it is bearable, but I expected a fix on next macOS version, honestly.

As the user above points, there's still a lot of people who use HD screens, non retina displays.

The commands I used were these:

Code:
defaults write -g CGFontRenderingFontSmoothingDisabled -bool NO
And, before and afterwards, this one:

Code:
defaults -currentHost write -globalDomain AppleFontSmoothing -int 3
Hope that will help others.
Tried both Mojave and Catalina and the font issue I just couldn't take it anymore, So I downgraded back to High Sierra. The commands help but it just wasn't enough.
 

Populus

macrumors 65816
Aug 24, 2012
1,221
1,081
Valencia, Spain.
Aww... I'm afraid that means Catalina remains the same.
Well, actually I can't complain about how looks now Mojave with the commands, not ideal but not terrible either.
 
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PurrBall

macrumors 65816
Oct 25, 2007
1,015
54
Indianapolis
I am interested in this question as well. With Mojave you avoid running the Marzipan based apps. But I suspect with that may no longer be case anyone in Catalina.
These apps are still rendered at a 77% scale, so text is not great on non-retina displays. However, the new Podcasts app is also a Catalyst app and it does not have this issue--indicating something may be coming down the line later allowing other Catalyst apps to not use scaling on Macs.
 

mathcolo

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Sep 14, 2008
860
16
Boston
These apps are still rendered at a 77% scale, so text is not great on non-retina displays. However, the new Podcasts app is also a Catalyst app and it does not have this issue--indicating something may be coming down the line later allowing other Catalyst apps to not use scaling on Macs.
This is good to hear. I'm not on the Catalina public betas, but keep us posted if you find anything more! :)
 

dolphin842

macrumors 65816
Jul 14, 2004
1,168
28
Looking for some clarity (no pun intended) on this as well... I've been using Windows 10 for the past month and after running the ClearType Text Tuner, it's amazing how crisp the text is compared to the default on Mojave. That said, Win10's support for multiple monitors remains cumbersome (it often moves windows around when waking from sleep)... that and a handful of other frictions make it so I don't really feel at home on Windows.

I may just do a test install of the Catalina public beta to see what it looks like.
 
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fungivorous

macrumors newbie
Aug 16, 2019
5
1
FWIW, in Mojave, if you re-enable subpixel anti-aliasing via the CGFontRenderingFontSmoothingDisabled command-line workaround (or via TinkerTool, which does the same thing behind the scenes) and reboot, you can then get Marzipan apps like News to render their fonts properly on non-Retina displays by going into "System Preferences" > "Accessibility" > "Display" and selecting "Reduce transparency".

This accessibility based workaround won't be everyone's cup of tea, since it makes the OS a whole lot greyer throughout (read: macOS arguably gets a little more uglified), but at least it does universally fix Mojave's font smoothing issues when used in conjunction with turning off CGFontRenderingFontSmoothingDisabled. This assumes you're still using the traditional Light Mode; I don't think there are really any good workarounds for getting everything to show up well in Dark Mode on non-Retina displays.

Interestingly, the accessibility option to reduce transparency also fixes the jagged corners around the password text box when the screensaver comes on (for those of us die-hards who still use screensavers).

Unfortunately, there is a catch: the option to reduce transparency washes out the panel rendering on notification banners/alerts (which pop up at the top-right of the screen) because the panel separator lines on those notification windows are drawn with almost the same shade of grey as the panel itself is when there's no transparency.

Here's hoping that Catalina addresses all of these Mojave nuances.
 

dolphin842

macrumors 65816
Jul 14, 2004
1,168
28
Ok, so on Mojave I ran the terminal commands to re-enabled subpixel antialiasing, then enrolled in the beta program and installed the latest Catalina public beta. Only the Menu Bar menus and Terminal text retain full subpixel antialiasing.

Title Bars, some standard text inputs, as well as the clock and everything on the right side of the Menu Bar, have switched to a different 'thinner' kind of subpixel antialiasing that doesn't look as good. I had to zoom in really far to even tell that some subpixels were still there. I tried font smoothing settings 2 and 3, but didn't appear to change this thinner kind of subpixel antialiasing.

Everything else — including standard Cocoa UI labels/buttons and iWork text input — has gotten rid of subpixel completely. (Edit: Seems like these UI elements already don't have subpixel as of 10.14.6... so the main difference with Catalina is losing some of the currently subpixel-rendered elements to this newer/thinner subpixel style).

Not really sure what to make of it all, but my guess is that this new thin subpixel style is just an artifact of their attempts to remove subpixel altogether. Even if they're not completely finished yet, at this point, looks like their intention is clear that subpixel antialiasing is not going to be supported anymore.
 
Last edited:
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theorist9

macrumors 6502
May 28, 2015
308
153
Folks have been reporting this as an issue with HD (1080P) monitors, and thinking that having a, say, a 4K external monitor would resolve it. That's not been my experience. I've found you need a full-retina (~220 ppi) monitor for Mojave to look good. Text on my 27" 4K external monitor (163 ppi) is noticeably less crisp on Mojave than High Sierra. Thus to use Mojave (or Catalina) comfortably I'd need to upgrade to a 5K 27" screen (218 ppi), but My 2014 MBP can't drive that, so I'd need a new computer as well. A 24" 4K external monitor (184 ppi) would be better, but might still not be good enough.
- - Post merged: - -
 

fungivorous

macrumors newbie
Aug 16, 2019
5
1
@theorist9, a 24" 4K external monitor should do the trick. Indeed, that size seems to be what Apple intends for you to use for a 4K external monitor nowadays, given that they sell the LG UltraFine 4K Display in their store. (It replaces the previous-generation 21.5" UltraFine 4K monitor, which had matched the size and resolution of the Retina iMac.)
 

Heat_Fan89

macrumors 6502a
Feb 23, 2016
612
505
I tried this command: defaults write -g CGFontRenderingFontSmoothingDisabled -bool false

Reboot

Followed by this command: defaults -currentHost write -globalDomain AppleFontSmoothing -int 3

Reboot

Looks fantastic on a 5:4 display and I can tell the difference when turning on Dark Mode ! :cool:
 

Ritsuka

macrumors 65816
Sep 3, 2006
1,082
553
Did you check if sub pixel antialiasing actually work or if it just changed the weight of the normal antialiasing?
 

Heat_Fan89

macrumors 6502a
Feb 23, 2016
612
505
Did you check if sub pixel antialiasing actually work or if it just changed the weight of the normal antialiasing?
I don't know if you're asking me? All I can say is that the fonts in the menus look more clearer now, less distortion especially in dark mode. Without dark mode the fonts look really clear and smooth. Still prior to Mojave Apple's fonts IMO were not as good as Microsoft's UI and display fonts. I don't know what MS is doing but their fonts even on low end displays look great.
 
Last edited:

Ritsuka

macrumors 65816
Sep 3, 2006
1,082
553
Microsoft optimised its font renderer for legibility, but to get the best legibility they distort the fonts a lot at smaller sizes. Apple tries to preserve the fonts.
 

Heat_Fan89

macrumors 6502a
Feb 23, 2016
612
505
Microsoft optimised its font renderer for legibility, but to get the best legibility they distort the fonts a lot at smaller sizes. Apple tries to preserve the fonts.
Ok thanks for the info, I wasn't aware of that but in Apple's case it's then a matter of good intention with poor results. Thankfully there are some workaround to get the fonts to look better but I still prefer Microsoft's fonts and Linux also has really nice fonts that have good display characteristics on low end displays.

You should have seen what Mojave in Dark Mode looks like on a Dell Business Monitor 19" 1280x1024 prior to the suggested tweaks. Not a pretty sight. At least now it looks much, much better.
 
Last edited:

assoc

macrumors member
Jul 14, 2013
51
5
Does turning font smoothing off on High Sierra replicate the issue? Because I can’t see a difference between on and off on my 4K 27”.
 

StellarVixen

macrumors 68020
Mar 1, 2018
2,237
3,683
Earth
Ok, so on Mojave I ran the terminal commands to re-enabled subpixel antialiasing, then enrolled in the beta program and installed the latest Catalina public beta. Only the Menu Bar menus and Terminal text retain full subpixel antialiasing.

Title Bars, some standard text inputs, as well as the clock and everything on the right side of the Menu Bar, have switched to a different 'thinner' kind of subpixel antialiasing that doesn't look as good. I had to zoom in really far to even tell that some subpixels were still there. I tried font smoothing settings 2 and 3, but didn't appear to change this thinner kind of subpixel antialiasing.

Everything else — including standard Cocoa UI labels/buttons and iWork text input — has gotten rid of subpixel completely. (Edit: Seems like these UI elements already don't have subpixel as of 10.14.6... so the main difference with Catalina is losing some of the currently subpixel-rendered elements to this newer/thinner subpixel style).

Not really sure what to make of it all, but my guess is that this new thin subpixel style is just an artifact of their attempts to remove subpixel altogether. Even if they're not completely finished yet, at this point, looks like their intention is clear that subpixel antialiasing is not going to be supported anymore.
That is simply not true. I am on 10.14.6 and menu bar clock retains full sub pixel antialiasing with
Code:
defaults write -g CGFontRenderingFontSmoothingDisabled -bool NO
this command.
 

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theorist9

macrumors 6502
May 28, 2015
308
153
@theorist9, a 24" 4K external monitor should do the trick. Indeed, that size seems to be what Apple intends for you to use for a 4K external monitor nowadays, given that they sell the LG UltraFine 4K Display in their store. (It replaces the previous-generation 21.5" UltraFine 4K monitor, which had matched the size and resolution of the Retina iMac.)
Following your suggestion, I recently did a direct comparison between the 4K LG UltraFine and the 27" iMac at a local Apple store. At least for me, it wasn't even close—with Mojave, only the iMac was able to display text in a sufficiently sharp manner. I'll grant that calibrating the LG might improve things (my Dell looked significantly better after I calibrated it using my i1Display Pro calibration spectrophotometer). But I suspect I still wouldn't find it good enough to comfortably read text in Mojave (and later OS's).
 
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