Font files are used by operating systems, software, web pages, web applications, and everything else that includes any kind of text or glyphs. Font files are often preinstalled on devices or can be imported as needed.
If you have heard of OpenType fonts, PostScript fonts, TrueType fonts, or are generally wondering about what the different font files are and how they differ, then you have come to the right place.
If you work with writing styles and general design preferences, then you can benefit from understanding the different font file formats. In this post, we discuss the types of font files, where they are used, and how to understand the differences between them.
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What are font files?
Font is a visual, graphic representation of any text. For example, a single alphabet can be written in many glyphs (styles). A font file can contain one or more fonts to display alphabets, numbers, special characters, etc.
The different files inside a font file can contain different information about the same font, like its height (size), weight (bold, light), design, and glyphs.
A font file type is defined by the file extensions, for example, .otf, .ttf, etc. This file extension not only defines its type but also where it is supported, and the format of the data inside the file.
Font files are categorized into different types. The categorization is done based on whether the font is raster or vector-based.
Raster vs. vector font files
A raster font is a pixel-based graphics font, which means that many tiny dots make up the text. Raster fonts are easier for the computer to display, but they have a downside. Raster fonts are not scalable. Meaning, you cannot stretch a raster character without deteriorating its quality. This means that for each size, weight, and glyph, a raster font format would need to include a separate font.
On the other hand, a vector-based character will be written by mathematical equations, which means that it can be scaled up and down without affecting its quality. Therefore, vector-based fonts have smaller font file sizes – they include less information for individual fonts.
You can read more about the differences between raster and vector graphics in our separate linked post.
Another thing to understand about font files is the difference between typefaces and fonts.
Typeface vs. font: What’s the difference?
By definition, a typeface is defined by the design features for a particularly-styled font, whereas a font is one of the variants of a typeface.
Typefaces are also referred to as the “font family.” This is because a typeface is a set of different fonts. You may better understand this concept with the help of an example.
“Arial” is a typeface, while “Arial Bold size 20” is a font. Similarly, “Helvetica regular size 16” is another font that belongs to the Helvetica typeface.
Vis a vis, a typeface is an underlying style for a font that can exist in many different graphical descriptions.
Now that we have established the different types of fonts, let’s continue with the different types of font file formats.
All font file formats
A PostScript file contains a programming language named PostScript, created by Adobe Systems. It was originally created to convert digital documents which included both text and graphics into printable page layouts.
A PostScript file defines the page layout design which may or may not include raster and vector graphics, amongst other text inside the document.
When printing files across many operating systems and apps, the PS language is very useful for retaining the design of page layouts. Additionally, the language permits image scaling to different resolutions without compromising quality, resulting in better graphics and typography.
That said, one caveat of all PostScript fonts was that separate files were required for Windows and macOS operating systems.
Since PostScrpt was developed by Adobe, a vast variety of software support this font format, including the following:
- ACD System ACDSee Photo Studio
- Adobe Acrobat DC
- Adobe Illustrator
- Adobe Photoshop
- Apple Preview
- Canvas X
- GPL Ghostscript
TrueType Font (TTF)
The TrueType Font (.TTF) file format stores font information primarily for the macOS platform, but can also be used on the Windows operating system. It was developed by Apple but also supported by the Microsoft operating system.
Since its existence, the TTF format is one of the most popular font files, followed by the .OTF file format. A TTF file needs to be placed at “C:/Windows/Fonts” on a Windows operating system before you can install it. Whereas, on the macOS, it only needs to be installed.
The following programs can be used to open .TTF font files:
- Apple Font Book
- CorelDRAW Graphics Suite
- File Viewer Plus
- FontExplorer X Pro
- Microsoft Windows Font Viewer
OpenType Font (OTF)
A .OTF file contains font information developed primarily for the Windows operating system. It was designed by a collaboration between Microsoft and Adobe that resulted in a fully scalable font design.
An OTF font file is a vector-based font and thus contains additional information which makes the font available in different sizes without compromising on its quality.
The OTF file format combines the structures of PostScript (.PS) and TrueType (.TTF) font formats, except for the fact that the OTF file may contain more information that describes how the font may appear on the screen.
Fonts from .OTF files can be installed on other devices like macOS and Android with the help of additional software.
If you have an OTF file and want to explore it, the following programs can be used:
A .BIN file is a binary file, encoded in zeros and ones, which makes it difficult to be understood by humans. These files can be used for various purposes, such as resource libraries, firmware updates, disk images, or saved data files.
That said, not all of the data inside a BIN file need to be binary. For example, it can also contain headers and other information in plain text.
Since a .BIN file is used by many different programs and platforms, it can be used for different purposes, including fonts. On a Unix machine, a BIN file is an executable file. But regardless of what a BIN file may store, it will always contain binary-coded information.
Compact Font Format (CFF)
A .CFF file contains Compact Font Format data for a font. In essence, a CFF typeface is a PostScript Type 1 font that has undergone lossless compression using Type 2 chartstrings. These types of files are usually accessed by Computer-Aided Design (CAD) programs.
A .DFONT file stores format information for macOS X, which replaced the TrueType files on the Mac OS classic. DFONT is now the standard format used for devices with macOS X where the information is stored in the data part of the file, instead of the resource section.
System font files are stored in “Library/Fonts/” whereas the user font files are stored in “Users/~username/Library/Fonts/”.
Printer Font Binary (PFB)
A Printer Font Binary (.PFB) file stores the Type 1 font used for the Windows operating system. It stores similar information to the .PFA file format, but has been encoded in the binary format. A PFM file can only be accessed using its associated .PFM file that needs to be stored in the same directory as the .PFB file.
Spline Font Database (SFD)
An SFD file contains font information in the ASCII text format which is used by the FontForge font editing program. A single .SFD file can contain one or more fonts simultaneously. It usually also holds additional information about the font, such as the font version, weight, encoding format, etc.
Web Open Font Format (WOFF)
The WOFF file format stores fonts that support TrueType (.TTF) and OpenType (.OTF) fonts and along with font licensing information. It was created by WebFonts Working Group with the primary purpose of delivering fonts to web pages instantly.
Web designers have the option of using custom web fonts by using WOFF files. The WOFF format is supported by many browsers, however, many of them did not support the WOFF format until more recent releases.
Font files are used to install specific font styles. They can be used by operating systems, applications, programs, web pages, or any other element consisting of texts. Even this text that you are reading is a font applied to it on the screen.
There is a variety of font file formats, each with its pros and cons. While some are excellent for screen text, others are better suited for printing and scaling.