Transitioning to FontExplorer X

Close to a year ago now I made the decision to transition the 34 computer lab (all Macs) that I manage to a new font management application. We had been using Font Reserve for many years. It worked (kind of1), but was ugly and students found it hard to use. The biggest problem though was that the application hadn’t been updated in several years. In fact, the last update was a [poor] port to OS X from the OS9 version.

Last Spring we updated all of the computers to Tiger. Extensis (the manufacturer of Font Reserve) had just released Suitcase Fusion, which was to be the consolidation of Font Reserve and Suitcase. We got the memo, Font Reserve is dead. I had high hopes for Suitcase Fusion, which had gotten some good reviews, so we ordered up a copy and I settled down to testing it.

Unfortunately, I was less than impressed with Suitcase Fusion. I didn’t like the way that it looked. I found that it was really hard to actually view the fonts. This becomes a real problem when you have over 2,000 fonts. It’s an especially big problem for graphic design students who are just starting out and don’t yet know a lot about different typefaces.

The biggest problem that I had with Suitcase Fusion was it’s lack of options in regards to actually managing the fonts. All of a user’s fonts are stored in this location:

/Users/<username>/Library/Application Support/Extensis/Suitcase/Suitcase Font Database.suitcasevault

This of course is a special format that can’t be read by any other program. Notice how the vault is stored in the user’s library? Okay, now put yourself in a computer lab environment with networked home folders. The vault is stored in the user’s home folder which resides on our server. Every single user has their own vault, stored remotely. There is no option to reconfigure this. In the past with Font Reserve, we were about to create a ‘font database’ that resided on each computer in the /Users/Shared/ folder. All of the fonts were local, and every user had access to them.

So unfortunately, this lacking feature was a complete show stopper for me. To be honest though, I really wasn’t very impressed anyway. I used the program on my own computer and it only took about a week before I started seeing web pages and HTML emails covered in funny and unreadable characters. After some research it turned out that the culprit was a double activation of Helvetica. Deactivating the extra copy solved the problems. The thing was, I had been using Suitcase Fusion the whole time. One of the major reasons to use any font management software is to prevent your computer from activating duplicate fonts!

Enter FontExplorer. She rushed in to save us all from the miserable hell of the broken promises made by the font management companies. She was our knight in shining armor…Well, okay, so not exactly. There is however a lot to be excited about in FontExplorer X.

The user interface is very sleek and easy to use. It’s modeled after iTunes, so anyone who can figure that out can use FontExplorer. That’s most people I think. FontExplorer makes it really easy to view the fonts. This helps ease the problems of deciding which ones you want to use in the first place. There is also a built in search function what works really well. Considering how smoothly the program runs and how easy it is to use, I thought it was the obvious choice for our labs. Font Management is an odd concept if you don’t know much about computers and fonts, so anything that makes it easier to see and understand is huge.

Since we started using FontExplorer in the labs, there have been good and bad things. On the good side, students seem to love it. They seem to find it much more intuitive than Font Reserve ever was. They also like how easy it makes it to browse our fonts. This is important, because we have the entire Adobe Font Folio library which comes with over 2,200 typefaces.

On the bad side, I found out the hard way that you get what you pay for. First of all, FontExplorer doesn’t work with networked user accounts. At least it doesn’t right out of the box in the way one might expect it to. I devised a way to script around this, so eventually we did get it working (More on that in the future).

There are also some really bad issues between FontExplorer and Quark 6.5. I wouldn’t say that this is exactly a FontExplorer issue per say. I think that it is somewhere between Quark and FontExplorer, and probably more Quark’s fault. Either way, it’s been really difficult dealing with these problems and trying to troubleshoot them. There just isn’t currently any real solutions, beyond moving to Quark 7. That’s not an option for us right now.

So, a year later, I guess I’m still on the fence about whether or not moving to FontExplorer was the right decision. It’s a really nice program that has some amazing features. In some ways, FontExplorer is light years ahead of all of the other font management software. This isn’t a small feat, since the other applications have been around for a long time and FontExplorer is still in its infancy. There are some reliability issues to be concerned about, mostly with Quark. I really hope that Linotype continues to aggressively develop this application. If they smooth out some of the kinks, it could be one of the best font management applications on the market. As stands now, it’s a mixed bag.

  1. Actually it didn’t really work. You were supposed to be able to ‘temporarily’ activate fonts, meaning they would automatically deactivate when the user logged out. As it turned out, this feature was broken. With our huge number of fonts, and more and more being activated over time, we had all sorts of seemingly unrelated problems with the computers. For example: Microsoft Word would take several minutes to open while it scanned all of the fonts. Eventually I solved this problem by creating a really ugly hackish script that essentially replaced the entire Font Reserve font database with a default one each time a user logged out. This effectively deactivated all of the fonts. Boy was it ugly though and there were also the inexplicably long logout times…

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1. NerdStarGamer » Blog Archive » FontExplorer X and Quark 6.5

[…] my last post on FontExplorer, Transitioning to FontExplorer X, I alluded to some problems I was having with it and Quark 6.5. I’d like to expound upon that […]

2. Jim

You do realize that the reason you have a Font database for EACH user is because you’re using the “client” version of Suitcase… right? You need to get Suitcase Server (sorry, doesn’t work on Intel Macs yet) which will give you ONE single font storage area from which everyone works from. It also allows you to lock out users from adding fonts without a password. Pretty nifty – if they would only get moving on an update.

3. Alissa Miller

Good to know about the Suitcase client and server versions. In the past, we had tried to get our hands on the server version of Font Rerserve and were rejected because of bugetary restrictions. A server version of any font management software would probably be an optimal solution.

Unfortunately, the no Intel support puts us dead in the water anyway as we have both PPC and Intel Macs in the labs.