Font Smoothing in Edge

Update, June 2021: See the Microsoft Edge blog post.

Text rendering quality is an amazingly complicated topic, with hardware, settings, fonts, differing rendering engine philosophies, and user preferences all playing key roles. In some cases, however, almost everyone can agree that one rendering is superior to another. Consider, for instance, the text of this Gizmodo article as seen on one user’s computer:

You can use this fancy swipe-view widget to wipe between the renderings of the full paragraph:

Most people think the text for Edge looks awful, with unexpectedly chunky letters and irregular kerning, but the text for IE11 looks pretty good.

Investigation reveals that the problem here is that Edge and Firefox are respecting the system’s font smoothing setting, but IE11 is ignoring it.

Font Smoothing in Windows

Windows has three levels of font smoothing: Off, Basic/Standard, and ClearType. Here’s a quick chart showing the impact of each setting across three browser engines:

Notably, the IE11 rendering is pixel-for-pixel identical regardless of Windows settings– it renders with grayscale subpixel smoothing even when smoothing is off or ClearType is enabled. In contrast, if you zoom into the ClearType examples in Edge 86 and Firefox 80 you can see subpixel smoothing at work, with tiny colored fringes smoothing the edges of the characters.

Examining Smoothing Parameters

Font Smoothing is controlled by four registry values inside HKCU\Control Panel\Desktop. FontSmoothing supports two values {0=Off,2=On} and FontSmoothingType supports values {1=Basic,2=ClearType}. The FontSmoothingGamma parameter controls the darkness of the smoothing and accepts values between 1000 and 2200. You have to zoom in pretty close to see the effect:

The FontSmoothingOrientation flag controls the order of the red, blue, and green pixels in the display; it supports two values {0=BGR, 1=RGB}; ClearType needs this information to understand which subpixels to illuminate when smoothing. RGB is the most common and the default.

Applications that need this information should use the SystemParametersInfo function to retrieve these parameters.

Tuning Parameters

End-users can enable FontSmoothing in the Windows Performance Options (Win+R, then SystemPropertiesPerformance.exe):

To enable ClearType and tune its settings for your displays and settings, run the ClearType Tuner Wizard (Win+R, then CTTune.exe):

The Tuner will walk you through a series of side-by-side text renderings, asking which of them looks best, a bit like an eye doctor determining the parameters for your prescription eyeglasses.

Note: If you use a Windows PC via a remote desktop connection, ensure that the “Font Smoothing” option is checked in the connection properties:

…and that font smoothing wasn’t disabled via policy on the remote server.

Checking Edge Status

You can determine what font smoothing method is presently used in Edge by visiting the URL edge://histograms/Microsoft.Fonts.FontSmoothingMethod

The histogram will show a datapoint for the current state, where

Other Culprits?

Windows settings do not account for all cases of text rendering dissatisfaction.

In some cases, the problem is that a website has selected a font not present on the user’s PC, forcing fallback to an inferior font lacking proper hinting data for smoothing. Within Chromium itself, the browser changes the default fixed width font from Courier New to Consolas if ClearType is enabled, because the latter has better hinting information. Similarly, in Edge 85, we improved font fallback for Chinese to prefer the (ClearType-optimized) Microsoft YaHei and Microsoft JhengHei fonts over legacy fonts.

In other cases, users may simply prefer darker text than ClearType generates, perhaps using a browser extension to achieve their preferences.

In other cases, the user’s hardware might not be optimally configured for font smoothing. For instance, if you run a monitor in Portrait mode, its pixels have a different layout. A device can report its subpixel geometry using a registry key.

If you see a case of poor text rendering across browsers that you cannot explain using the information in this post, please let us know about it!

Update, June 2021: See the Microsoft Edge blog post.


Published by ericlaw

Impatient optimist. Dad. Author/speaker. Created Fiddler & SlickRun. PM @ Microsoft 2001-2012, and 2018-2022, working on Office, IE, and Edge. Now a SWE on Microsoft Defender Web Protection. My words are my own, I do not speak for any other entity.

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