Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Why does Firefox look so crap?

With the best will in the world, Linux has not got the best looking desktop you are ever going to see. Vista looks fantastic: the text is crisp and clear and easy on the eye. Linux is... functional. Well, perhaps I can live with that. What I find harder to put up with is browsing the Internet. Web browsing on Linux is a disgrace. If there is one application that defines someone's use of their computer today it is their web browser, so it had better be good. Web pages on Firefox look bad. Even Firefox webpages on Firefox look bad. The problem though, is a Linux problem not just a Firefox problem.

Now there are somethings that you can do to make things less bad. The key thing you can do is install some of Microsoft's fonts! Some years ago Microsoft released a set of TrueType fonts that people could download for free to make their browsing experience better. Microsoft have since removed the download from their website, but the set of fonts was picked up by the Linux community who have clung onto them ever since - presumably because they are the only decent fonts they've got.

The problem is fonts ain't free - and the idea that something someone has created through their own skill, imagination and endeavour might have a value is of course an anathema in the Linux world.

There are good instructions on installing the Microsoft fonts here. I won't repeat them, but I did need to reboot before they showed up in the list of fonts available. (See "System" menu, then "Preferences" and "Fonts".) The msttcorefonts-2.0-1.spec file that the instructions tell you to download is worth looking through if you are interested in learning about what is going on behind the scenes. The Microsoft fonts are installed in a "msttcorefonts" directory under /usr/share/fonts and the directory is added to the list of available fonts by calling /usr/sbin/chkfontpath --add %{fontdir}. The /usr/bin/fc-cache utility is then called. This showed some "invalid cache file" errors on my installation. However, the cache files in question were not to do with the Microsoft fonts. They were all *-x86 cache files. I'm running 64-bit Fedora, and I assume that may be the problem. Where they came from I don't know; perhaps they were installed by Fedora.

Once the Microsoft fonts are installed you can set about tweaking Firefox so that it looks more like Internet Explorer, i.e., less ugly. In Firefox you need to go to the "Edit" menu, and then "Preferences." You can then choose "Content" and change the fonts. I've chosen to mostly use Verdana. To be fair, the actual text on most web pages is now ok, although not on this one :-( Where things still look bad is on pages like BBC news that use a lot of bold text. The way Firefox (or Linux) renders bold text is extremely poor. As yet I haven't found a solution.

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