Many 8-bit computers had video systems that provided tiles, and when these were available, they were the obvious ways to display text.

However, some 8-bit computers such as the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC, only had bitmap displays. If you are using a bitmap anyway, the possibility arises of using a proportional font. Sure, it would be a bit slower to render text, but for many purposes, surely worth it. Yet all the 8-bit programs I can find, still used a fixed width font.

Were there any 8-bit programs (other than font demos) that used a proportional font?

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    There were programs for the Apple II (using hires aka bitmap, not "tiles" aka text-mode chars) which used proportional fonts (and also non-standard characters, e.g. Hiragana/Katakana). Not sure if that matches your criteria, though I'd count the Apple II as "8-bit computer" – dirkt Sep 14 at 10:49
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    @JeremyP It doesn't realy matter, as long as it's about text having the same colour over more than a single letter ... like a line or such :)) – Raffzahn Sep 14 at 12:09
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    I don't think this is quite what you are looking for (because your main text refers to displays, though the actual question does not), but I am 99% certain that some versions of WordStar - including I am pretty sure the 8-bit versions - used proportional fonts when printing on certain printers. – manassehkatz Sep 14 at 15:40
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    @manassehkatz - that's an interesting point. There was a selectable proportional printing mode in Epson-compatible printers, and any software that had an appropriate font metric table would be able to make use of that to produce proportional printed output. – Jules Sep 15 at 17:09
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    The games Room Ten (Pete Cooke/CRL) and Dark Star (Simon Brattel/Design Design) had particularly nice proportional fonts – scruss Sep 16 at 1:19
up vote 17 down vote accepted

Digital Research produced as one of their early attempts into graphical desktops (on their way to GEM) a basic portable graphics library - GSX. GSX did actually support proportional fonts, both in print and on-screen, and was included with the CP/M support in Amstrad machines running CP/M Plus. GSX was supported by two of DR's own applications, DR Draw and DR Graph that were available for the range of enhanced Amstrad machines (CPC6128, PCW), although at a pretty high price.

GSX later evolved into GEM, DR's MS Windows counterpart on CP/M 86 and Atari STs enter image description here

So, this is definitively "out-of-the-box" support for proportional fonts, both in applications and a system-wide extension.

Technically, GSX is an RSX (Resident System eXtension, the DRI, not the Amstrad Basic term) and will thus only work on CP/M 3.0

  • Oh, right, totally forgot about that. – Raffzahn Sep 14 at 12:35
  • Now, while it may be considered as out-of-the-box for software, it's still a third party development and add on to existing machines - like the CPC series, which may have been the most widespread users of GSX. – Raffzahn Sep 14 at 13:51
  • @Raffzahn GSX was shipped with the Amstrad machines - just like CP/M. The ROMs in the Amstrads, nearly everything Amstrad made in terms of computers, was third party development - So what? I'm afraid I miss a point in your comment. – tofro Sep 14 at 13:56
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    I used one for maybe all of ten minutes, as a child back in the '80s so excuse my ignorance: per Wikipedia, LocoScript — the bundled PCW word processor — also appears to support proportional fonts? And that's really the piece of software that entire machine is designed for. (EDIT: re "out of the box" and assuming it's in reference to Raffzahn's answer, the PCW being from 1985 might exclude it from the "(back then)" clause, being eight years after the Apple II; I have no strong opinion) – Tommy Sep 14 at 15:13
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    @Tommy LocoScript did "support" proportional fonts - But not on the screen, only on the printer. The screen displayed proportional fonts just like fixed-size fonts and you could only see the final print result - when printing. Even if the original question doesn't explicitly mention screen display rather than print, I'd guess that would not answer the question. – tofro Sep 14 at 15:17

Just the first (of many) example of using proportional fonts on Commodore64: https://youtu.be/k2NRlsopoOU?t=441

You couldn't really use a proportional font on the Spectrum because the colour attributes were one background and one foreground for each 8x8 square. That meant that, practically speaking, each letter had to be by itself in an 8x8 cell.

With the reasonable limit of every word of its own color, it is quite possible though. Just have the space between words wide enough to absorb attributes boundary or place color change in those spaces that do absorb the boundary. The previous example also shows that.

Note: Commodore 64 also has the bitmap mode very close to the one ZX Spectrum has. It is exactly that mode shown in the link above.

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    This answers the question, which sought any example, so I don't fancy writing my own answer. But here's a ZX Spectrum example (from about 3:28): youtube.com/watch?v=wFo-KRnMtFw&feature=share ; in general every significant 8-bit computer got some attempt at DTP software, and that almost invariably has a go at proportional fonts. I'll bet GEOS and GSX even have the feature built in. – Tommy Sep 14 at 11:55
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    @StephenKitt Before GEOS on the C64 theree where Multiscribe and Mousedesk on the Apple II. – Raffzahn Sep 14 at 12:10
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    @Raffzahn indeed, GEOS came to mind because it was rather well-known back then (at least in my circles — I only encountered Apple IIs in the late 80s), not because it was the first. – Stephen Kitt Sep 14 at 12:14
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    I'm confused why color imposes any requirement. In most situations where text is used, there is no need for color to vary by character or even by word. Surely it matters if you want to do that, but it's a specialty use, not an assumed requirement. – R.. Sep 14 at 16:43
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    @StephenKitt Yes, It was. I tried it on the Apple II, and it was quite interesting - except, at that time I had already an Atari ST with GEM (plus a PC to compile stuff I sold to PC users with way to much available money :)) – Raffzahn Sep 14 at 21:47

No 8-bit computer (back then) did support proportional fonts out of the box, but there where some programs on next every bitmap capable 8 bit computer, I this might as well include the Spectrum.

For the Apple II support was added by Apple rather early. Already the Apple DOS Toolkit included a utility called HRCG or High Resolution Character Generator, which moved character drawing onto highres bitmap and into software (*1). While, AFAIR, it originally only supported fixed spacing fonts, soon other programs used this to display at least part of their output in proportional.

When the Apple II Mouse was introduced, first for the IIc and later the basic II, it came with MousePaint, a MacPint clone for the Apple II using proportional text on screen and in menus (*2). The availability of a mouse also triggered a lot of other programs trying to do what the Mac showed on an Apple II. Most notably maybe MultiScribe for the II (*3) and MouseDesk.

Anotehr example for add on software enabeling proportional fonts would be DR's GSX, the grapic extension (*4) for CP/M and and adapted to several Z80 machines like Amstrads CPC or Commodores 128. It was as well the core component for GEM on the Atari ST and PC.

And then there was GEOS. It enabled C64 programs to use proportional text and exchangeable fonts. Soon also ported to the Apple II.

So, bottom line: No, it hasn't been used out of the box, but later tools added this capability to 8-bit computers.


*1 – It was slow (compared to textmode) it ate up memory, but it was also AWESOME.

*2 – Not to be confused with MouseText, a character set change for the Apple IIc and Enhanced IIe introducing some graphic elements into the character set, allowing character based software displaying a simplified GUI. Funny part here, soon programms used HRCG with Mousetext to draw the same elements using the graphics characters, but also add other graphic elements.

*3 – Which got a second life as BeagleWrite after their company was bought by Apple and integrated into Claris.

*4 - It was way more than just an average graphics library. Beside being made to the GKS standard, it also includes features for multiprogramming and windowing.

  • It’d be helpful to edit for accuracy now that another user has posted a counterexample. – Davislor Sep 14 at 17:47
  • @Davislor mind to pont out what "ounterexample"? – Raffzahn Sep 14 at 19:21
  • The accepted answer, about the Amstrad. – Davislor Sep 14 at 21:05
  • @Davislor And that counters what? It would be helpful if you could explain what you're talkign about, as I fail to see what your point is. – Raffzahn Sep 14 at 21:10
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    The Amstrad had “out-of-the-box” support for proportional fonts in its OS. You even left a comment saying it had slipped your mind. So I was wondering if you were planning to edit your earlier answer, which still says that no 8-bit computer supported proportional fonts out of the box. – Davislor Sep 14 at 21:14

The games Skool Daze and Back To Skool used proportional fonts for text on the ZX Spectrum.

Skool Daze screenshot http://www.worldofspectrum.org/pub/sinclair/screens/in-game/s/SkoolDaze.gif

Back in 1986, a company called Berkeley Softworks released a GUI desktop environment called GEOS for the Commodore 64. It was later ported to the Commodore 128, the Commodore Plus/4, and Apple II.

GEOS retail box

GEOS desktop v2.0 running on the Commodore 64

GEOS was obviously inspired by the classic Mac OS desktop. It implements all the basic elements one would expect from such environment, such as a pointer-driven UI with icons, windows, pull-down menus, a shared clipboard, and – yes – proportional fonts of many sizes, families and styles.

It even had things like system-wide printer drivers, support for memory expansion cartridges, and input drivers for mice. (Mice were not common peripherals for the 8-bit home computers, but they were available, and if you purchased one, you could use the system pretty much just like a Mac or an Amiga. The hardware was, of course, more limited, but the basic feel to the desktop/GUI user experience was similar.)

A sample of proportional fonts as rendered by a GEOS application

The font engine in GEOS is bitmap-based. Fonts come in many sizes but all sizes are pre-drawn/rendered bitmaps. Font editors and additional font packs were also available. More about the technical details here:

https://www.lyonlabs.org/commodore/onrequest/geos/geos-fonts.html

GEOS came bundled with geoWrite (a word processing application) and geoPaint (a paint program), and a number of utility programs, all of which used the font engine provided by the OS.

Several additional applications were available as separate purchases, such as geoCalc (a spreadsheet application), or geoPublish (a desktop publishing application, i.e. a full-fledged page layout application for print design!)

You can find a lot more information about GEOS on these sites:

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