A very tiny, monospace, bitmap font

23 Jan 2010

Long ago, when making an SSH client for a phone, we needed the tiniest possible monospace font we could find that was still basically legible. Brian Swetland – who was also the instigator of this side project – had made a 4x6 font (3x5 usable pixels) for a Palm Pilot VT100 emulator. Here’s what it looks like, blown up four times:

original font

When I first tried it out doing things like reading email and editing code, a couple of things bugged me. The uppercase letters were great. The lowercase letters had looked fine individually, but when used in long strings together, they tended to look like a child’s writing. I eventually figured out that this was because they all had different middle heights, and modified them so that they had a fairly tall mid-height (one pixel shorter than uppercase) but were all consistent. This made some of the individual letters (like “x”) look odder, but it made them much easier to read as a whole. It also let the “a” and “g” look a lot more stylish.

The other thing that bothered me was the digits, which I think were intentionally modeled on the 7-segment LED of an alarm clock. Again, they looked fine on their own or as part of a long string of digits, but when they were in the middle of a line like “Date: 23 Jan 2010”, they stuck out a lot. I pretty much just went in with a belt sander and sanded off the corners so they would seem more rounded.

The final version, which we jokingly called “Tom Thumb”, is below:

modified font

And here’s a dumb comparison of a line of text, with the modified form on top and the original underneath:

Hello World!

Brian’s page implies that his font was licensed under the MIT license, so since I did these modifications in my free time, the same license applies here. Feel free to download the BDF file below if you would find this useful, or would like to modify it further for some other nefarious purposes. (Update from 2015: As per comments below, Brian has authorized his font to be released under the CC0 or CC-BY 3.0 license. Therefore, this font may also be used under either CC0 or CC-BY 3.0 license.)

The BDF actually includes a sprinkling of Latin-1 characters too, but the pixel limitations hit those characters a lot harder than ASCII, so… be forewarned. :)


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