One of the first question asked in discussions of the Kindle 2 "font problem" is: "are crips fonts even possible?" People want to know whether they should keep or return their Kindles. I decided to definitively answer this question through a series of simple tests.
Since the Kindle has no way of changing the typeface, how can one test the screen?
First, one needs only look closely at various documents on the Kindle. We already determined that larger characters were displayed very clearly because they contained enough black pixels. So the contrast ratio was good enough for a high quality display.
This was encouraging. It meant that the K2 with smoothed fonts was capable of displaying text with acceptably high contrast. It was a simple test but it was definitive. Unfortunately, the Kindle did not provide any method of reading pages using bolded fonts.
In addition to looking at bolded fonts, I looked at the Helvetica font, used for menus and other text. This too looked very dark and clear, even in small sizes. Viewed under the microscope, it was obvious why - Helvetica, and other sans-serif fonts, do not have as many fine details as do the serif fonts used for normal text display. Therefore, the Kindle renders more pixels as black, which enhances the contrast of those characters.
Through these experiments, I had found several ways of making the display look exceptionally clear on the Kindle. Unfortunately, I couldn't actually try these solutions because the Kindle is a "closed" system - you only get those capabilities that were designed into the system.
On April 2nd, I read a blog posting announcing a hack that allowed people to install custom fonts on their Kindle 2. While I knew that this would void my warranty, the temptation was too great. I wanted to be able to replace the native Kindle fonts with those of my choice.
I immediately contacted Andrei to be one of the beta-testers and he provided me with a few files and basic instructions to get started. (Andrei now has a tested version of the patch here).
This was exactly the tool needed to test my theories live on my Kindle 2. I was even more motivated because people were getting quite angry on the discussion groups, starting threads like this one. I knew the Kindle was capable, and I didn't want them to give up on the K2. All through my experiments, I posted pictures and discussions of how the display could be improved, hoping that Amazon would pick up the ball and just release an update that allowed users to select font options.
Among the first tests involved replacing the default fonts with a sans-serif font. I looked through the library of fonts on my machine and found some that looked nice but still required modification to get the effect I wanted.
Using a font editor called FontCreator, I spent a few days "tweaking" fonts - actually slightly moving around points in the font definitions so that they would render clean and black. Eventually, I came up with a font that allowed extremely clear displays of small text. In fact, the text was even smaller than the smallest native font yet clearer than mid-sized fonts. It was an unqualified success!
Even displayed this size, you can almost make out the text. It is sharp and high contrast - readable in even a dimly lit room. Click on the image to see it essentially life-sized. Note that it has lost some quality in saving.
While these tests were promising, I felt that they were of little value if only I could use them. After all, I was looking for a generally useful solution for all Kindle 2 users.
On to More than Skin Deep