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The Absurdity of GNOME Font Sizes February 3, 2007

Posted by Carthik in looks and feel, ubuntu.

The Fonts used and the way they are displayed on the screen play a vital role in how we users interact with, and how much we love the operating system.

Federico has a very intelligent critique of the Gnome Font (size) Management.

What is “Terminal font”? Is that the font they use on your tombstone when you die?

Jokes aside, the article throws some light on a long-standing question I have had:

What does the “Size” referred to in the GNOME Font Management menu actually refer to? What are the units used? (They are not pixels, and they are not points, or mms). He says the “Size” field virtually means nothing. It is not meaningful.

For long, one the first things I do after installing Ubuntu is to tweak the “DPI” setting to something lower than the default 96. There is no other way to have a shorter (thinner) GNOME taskbar on my desktop. I have to reduce the DPI to have sane font sizes everywhere. I guess I could have changed the font sizes, but reducing the DPI reduced all the font size in one fell swoop. I recall thinking that it was really weird I could change the DPI setting. A usability-oriented, user-friendly GUI such as GNOME, which prides itself on being more easily understood, and having less (confusing) options certainly could do without the “DPI” setting.

This also brings to mind what a friend said when he logged into a GNOME session for the first time after Ubuntu had been installed. He said, “There is something wrong – everything is so big,” and then he proceeded to check if the resolution was right – it was. I then had to help him tweak the DPI setting and the font size settings, and he kept asking me, “So why does the taskbar on the top and the bottom have to be so fat?.” Exactly what I thought when I first saw a GNOME desktop.

Usability considerations are not to be taken lightly – user interfaces must serve the largest-possible cross section of people. But for ordinary normal folks, used to the teeny-tiny, but well-rendered fonts in Windows or OSX, maybe we need to have an easy way to make the fonts and text appear reasonably sized.


1. Dan - February 3, 2007

Well put, I’m in the same boat. I’d like small font for the taskbar and window chrome, but want large font for content readability (my hdtv is my display).

I didn’t know about DPI but I might avoid it as I’ve got enough gui issues I don’t need to introduce new ones.

2. Mike - February 3, 2007

I spent about an hour last night on my Ubuntu partition only to give up and return to Windows for the simple reason the fonts redered horribly and despite my reasonable understanding of Linux I couldn’t fix it.

Does anyone know of some good how to’s for this matter?

3. cam - February 3, 2007

teeny tiny fonts are difficult to read. the default gnome fonts are great

4. Adriano - February 3, 2007

How old are your friends? And what eyesight level do they have? I’m just 27, and I just had to increase the font size across my desktop and browser because it was getting hard to read.

That said, I don’t find the default size (at 1280×1024 res, maybe a notch above normal 1024×768) too big. The panels look fine to me.

5. ubuntonista - February 3, 2007

Teeny Tiny is bad. Big is bad too. Smallest readable is best.
Of course, this is from my perspective.

Maybe I should post before and after pics from an Ubuntu Install on my laptop, but that would mean re-installing Ubuntu, or finding out what the defaults are.

Craige - February 8, 2011

You could simply grab some screen shots from a boot of the Live CD, compared to your current setup

6. Olivia - February 3, 2007

I kinda find the fonts too small ;) had to use a smaller resolution haha. :D

7. mofobofo - February 3, 2007

Yeah the fonts are way too big by default. When I first used Gnome I thought it looked really rubbish, checked the resolution and then decided to ditch it for KDE, because if they couldn’t bother to use a proper sized font what else couldn’t they have bothered with.

After a year I gave it another shot and with some tweaking it is actually usable now. If KDE4 sorts out the general stability and it’s biggest problem – usable ‘I just wanna get stuff done’ default interfaces/settings then I’ll definitely switch back. Gnome/Ubuntu needs to sort this out.

8. Stevko - February 3, 2007

I do not see any problems with fonts in Gnome. When I tried to switch to something else (I think it was Fluxbox) the fonts were too small for me to read. When I run xterm or xmms the fonts there are also quite small. Maybe it is because I have 1600×1200 or maybe I have problems with my eyes – whatever.
The reason I am writing here: What exactly is DPI (dots per inch, but what it means on screen) and how to change the settings for it (basically I want bigger fonts in other environments and in xterm and xmms and if I understand correctly, this could help)

9. mathew - February 3, 2007

Wow. I had no idea that Gnome was rendering all my fonts at the wrong size.

My X server is set up with the correct DPI, but Gnome is rendering at 96dpi. My fonts are set to 10 MGU (Meaningless Gnome Units). It just so happens that the result looks pretty good, so I never delved any deeper.

I’m not going to mess with it now, as I expect to switch to Kubuntu with the next Ubuntu release, because ubuntu-desktop now requires Mono. (It’s a trap!)

10. LT - February 3, 2007

On higher resolutions it’s just fine by default, I guess 1280×1024 doesn’t suffer from this. It’s all relative to the screen resolution I think. Granted DPI is a bit of a weird measurement.

11. MC-RPG - February 3, 2007

Men, the default gnome fonts are just fine. Your point is a small detail that only a few users note (not to say *invent*), the crowd out there don’t see this.

12. Mihael Robost - February 4, 2007

I absolutely agree with that. Gnome needs far more better fonts and better resolution dependent font handling.
And yes, maybe “the crowd out there don’t see this” but they can feel it.

13. Hugo - February 4, 2007

How about someone point out where one adjusts the DPI? (I’m curious, but not enough to continue searching for it. I’m sure other people also want to know, e.g. Stevko)

14. Abbas Khan - February 4, 2007

Add me to the list of people that agree, GNOME panels are too fat. I noticed this when i first started using gnome and have been wondering why. I also mess with the DPI to get a nicer looking desktop.

15. oomu - February 4, 2007

I can’t read for a long time (more than a few minutes) little fonts.

I know you think you have bionic eyes (or cybernetic ?) but no no no, you have to be careful.

and please, do not listen to only “technical’ users or readers of “blogs”. they are not the majority of people
I am NOT the typical user either.

you have to get some informations from Redhat, Novell and IBM. and if possible to get information of people in microsoft and apple to have an idea of what it’s useful to people.

the problem is not size (it’s fine), it’s the quailty and the ease to change them.

you have to improve the font capplets , to remove the whole dpi fuss (96 ? 72 ? what?? hal and x11 have to resolve that)

16. Tom - February 4, 2007

You guys have to understand that it all depends on the ratio of screen-size to the resolution !

The problem is that Gnome is not Vector based !!!
So I hope Gnome will in a not too far future be converted to a VECTOR based GUI !!!

This is needed, because today there are all kinds of screen-sizes with all kind of resolutions !!

Gnome only knows your resolution, NOT your screen size !!!
So a if a font is well fitting for User1 with a resolution of 1280×768 on a 12 Inch Screen, it won’t be for User2 with the same resolution on a 15 Inch screen !!

Everything needs to be vector for this to work flawlessly !

For until it gets Vector based… Carthik Sharma you are right, a better font-managment would be good.

17. textshell - February 4, 2007

These comments just say one thing very clearly. Different users need different font sizes.
I think one thing great about that dpi setting is, that there is one central place to adjust all font sizes. That’s a very good thing.
But i like Federico’s idea very much too. I think the right way to go is to have a global font size adjust factor and a way to set individual fontsizes in special cases.
I think this can be done with a nice GUI that doesn’t expose much complexity (say a global size chooser, and an UI for the special cases just looks like the global one but does *store* the size relative to the global factor)
But please put the numbers in meaning less numbers back there, they a great “save” some setting to paper and restore it.

18. PDNR - February 5, 2007

I like Gnome’s fonts. And I don’t think they are big. Even more, I have changed the default font to DejaVu 11 (bigger than defalt) to make it look more comfortable for me.

19. anonymouse - February 6, 2007

GNOME could easily use DPI value X Window calculated by detecting the monitor one uses. The fact that KDE does this for ages already while GNOME still uses fixed default DPI values leaves me scratching my head.

20. Russ - February 11, 2007

I don’t understand. I’ve heard this gripe over and over before, but I have honestly never seen an Ubuntu installation where I thought anything looked too big. I have it installed on two computers, and use it on numerous other computers in a lab, and I don’t understand the complaint. Maybe I’m not using a resolution/screen size that would make whatever problem everyone is talking about obvious? Could someone perhaps post a screen shot of a desktop wherein they feel the fonts are too big so I can see what the problem is?

21. jon - February 12, 2007

I believe the issue really comes into play for those of use who use a laptop. There are several people that I work with who have started using Ubuntu, and we all have the same complaint – fonts! It doesn’t matter if you change the font, font size, dpi, resolution. The max resolution on our laptop screen is 1024×780. It all looks pretty crappy. I have to look at a laptop screen for most of my day and this is the one thing holding me back from switching. If I could find a Linux distro that was easy to install and had workable fonts for a laptop I’d be all over it.

22. Russ - February 13, 2007


I’m reading your comment and typing a reply on a 15.4 inch laptop with resolution 1280×800. Changing the resolution to 1024×768 makes it look crappy of course, because it’s not native nor the proper dimensions, but I still can’t figure out what the problem is.

23. David Coldrick - February 13, 2007

Tom has it right: it depends on the ratio of screen-size to the resolution. For example, on my 17″ display, with native res 1920×1200, if I *increase* the DPI to 132, then set all the default font sizes to 8, I’m a happy chappie.

24. Connelly Barnes - February 17, 2007

To change the DPI, go to System -> Preferences -> Font -> Details, and then change the value in the textbox. I suppose the Ubuntu help should be changed to specifically include the text “DPI” so that people looking for this option can find it by searching help.

25. STop - February 26, 2007

>> the Ubuntu help should be changed to specifically
>> include the text “DPI”

Well, it says “dots per inch”, which is rather close :-)

“Home is where .xsession-errors is”

26. Endolith - March 9, 2007

Although my actual LCD is 1680×1050 130ish DPI, Gnome itself looks best at the default of 96 DPI with all the fonts at their defaults of “12”. However, Firefox fonts are way too small. If I try to set a minimum font size in Firefox, it screws up other parts of the layout. I wish there were a way to do this correctly.

27. Javier F. - April 13, 2007

Well, in my case, this DPI setting is what makes me love Gnome (Ubuntu) so much. I have a Dell Inspiron 700m and with it’s 12in widescreen at 1280×800, everything is very little. XP font is not easily customizable, certain parts such as buttons and other font sizes don’t change too much easily. With gnome I can change the font size to all the elements and I just love that!!!. At first, I increased it to like 106dpi, then I found I can leave it at 96dpi and even lower settings. I guess it also has to do with the font family or so.

28. Whitey Ford - April 14, 2007

If anyone wants to change their DPI settings, type this into your terminal;


and then navigate down the tree from Desktop>Gnome>font_rendering

Then you can double click the value for DPI and set it manually.. I personally have it set to 82

29. AlienBenefactor - April 15, 2007

The point is why the heck doesn’t this get fixed? You should be able to choose your font sizes easily, as in OS X, not spent hours fruitlessly tinkering with a broken UI.

30. zdavatz - May 3, 2007

Yes, this does not work properly on Gentoo as well! Grrrr!

31. Matthew - July 1, 2007

The fonts in GNOME, at least per my experience with Ubuntu, just seem too blurry. I am back to using XP, which has sharp fonts. If you take a screenshot and zoom in, you’ll see Windows draws fonts without anti-aliasing, but I don’t know how to fix that in GNOME/Ubuntu and make it look as good.

32. Rinzwind - July 2, 2007

Ubuntu (or Linux desktop distribution in general) really have to come up with decent font settings (type and configuration) at default. Windows XP is much easier to the eye then a default Ubuntu (I’m using a Compaq nc6320 (1400×1050).

I know there are patent issues, but please… Go put some money into decent default system OpenType fonts and make a deal with Apple or something (they use BSD as base of their OS, so they should give something in return…)

33. HARNO - December 24, 2007

What we need, is a way to render fonts the same on all platforms, running exactly the same DPI settings with Ubuntu, as in windows. Still gives the wrong font sizes!

This is a very serious issue, because many websites are rendered wrong from this. If users want bigger font sizes, they should change the font size normally.

Even when installing the Windows default, fonts are still to big. And webpages still rendering wrong, only lowering the DPI solve this. However that is cursing other problems to arise.

Why in living hell are Ubuntu using non-standard mesurement units????

34. bt - January 4, 2008

I must be completely missing the point here… Are some of you just confusing the fact that you don’t know how to configure the proper resolution? Gnome, as several people above have already indicated, has several ways to adjust font sizes. The first is to globally set the font dpi, the next is to edit the font sizes in system/preferences and the final way is to target certain components via your theme’s .gtkrc file.

The reality is that linux has by far the most font configuration options. I have xml font configurations that basically set all fonts below a certain size to be rendered as aliased while all fonts above are anti-aliased. Additionally, certain fonts are target to always remain aliased. This level of control simply isn’t possible in Windows or OSX. My font setup in Ubuntu is perfectly how I want it, and I’m extremely picky.

Few things I do have an issue with… The default antialiasing algorithm in ubuntu sucks on most flat panels. You need to tweak it to support the MS patented algorithm that’s documented in ubuntuforums. On a mac, Bytecode looks terrible on anything other than a 1920×1200 screen, imo. Bytecode can be enabled in linux as well.

Another issue I have is that if you disable antialiasing from the gnome settings the fonts are extremely distorted and simply look terrible… they look nothing like the winxp default font behavior. You have to override this behavior, unfortunately.

My biggest gripe with gnome is that there are only 5 font settings you can manipulate in the gui. The application font being the worst offender. If I want to make my gnome panel bold then it will make nautilus and many other applications inherit that bold style change. You have to actually edit your gtkrc file to target the panel, unfortunately.

So to conclude this rant, you can do just about anything you want with fonts in gnome, but it takes more than 5 seconds of effort. I agree that configuring fonts is not very fun, but don’t act like it’s not possible. Once you know what to do it’s actually quite easy.

Be mad at gnome developers for focusing on integrating mono apps (completely asinine) instead of building more robust config utilities.

35. sayeo87 - June 12, 2008

Yes I don’t believe the people behind gnome are oblivious to this. I hope they do something about it soon.

36. Juan - June 16, 2008

my font size is to big i cant install any thing because the windows are to big and i cant make them smaller i tried everything.

37. chesss - November 23, 2008

ok THIS ISN”T a font or a dpi issue..
This problem appears when you have a 17″ monitor with a ‘native resolution’ of 1024×800. GNOME ,KDE and linux in general doesn’t expect a 17″ monitor to have anything less than 1289×1024

the root of problem is that linux developers are mostly in richer countries, where you get the best stuff, so 17″ monitors in rich countries have 1280×1024 as the normal res , which the devs expet to be universally true…

I think Tom is right abt that vector thing

38. hackel - December 21, 2008

The physical size of the letters on your screen should not change regardless of what resolution you are running. That is the whole point of specifying the DPI. So having a higher resolution screen simply means fonts look *sharper*, NOT smaller. This is a major flaw in every operating system I’ve ever used. Too many idiot developers specifying dimensions in pixels, using bitmaps instead of vector graphics, etc. etc. I sure hope this whole mess gets fixed soon…

39. Better small fonts in Ubuntu 8.10 (intrepid) « FeradZ Blog - January 4, 2009

[...] very elegant and thankfully I also don’t have vision problems with my eyes. The article "The Absurdity of GNOME Font Sizes" discusses about the big fonts in ubuntu but does not tell much how to make our fonts smaller. [...]

40. Making gnome-terminal look more like xterm | SoCal System Administration - May 5, 2009

[...] in my Fedora 10 install and was presented with the default ghastly terminal.  Luckily, I’m not alone in my hate of Gnome fonts, and this particular problem has been [...]

41. rage-quiting-your-blog - June 10, 2009

Are you REALLY suggesting to remove the DPI setting?! That’s absurd!

Being able to set the DPI without ruining the look of my GUI apps is one of the reasons I like linux that much. When you set the DPI in Windows (where it has only 2 possible values) many applications break.

Also, the DPI setting should actually match the real screen DPI. This is vital for correct font rendering but especially for graphic applications like GIMP or Inkscape, where you want exact size matching (when turning off “dot-for-dot”).

Setting the DPI automatically using the graphics drivers/Xserver may not be reliable. And there are use cases where one would to use a “wrong” DPI setting on purpose. So removing the ability to set it manually would be ridiculous.

Please don’t limit the user. There is no need to remove existing (and useful) functionality. Gnome is simple enough.

42. S.Bala Murugan - June 27, 2009

Im new to Ubuntu and Linux, Can any one help me to reduce the DPI in ubuntu…? Thanks in advance… :-)

43. Bradley - November 3, 2009

Not only are the fonts too large by default, but the font itself is hideous. Take a look at this screenshot of Empathy, for example, and try to tell me that it’s not terrible:


This wasted space and oversized look gives an extremely unprofessional impression.

44. tom - December 17, 2009

yes, I like GNOME on high-res screens like 1920×1080 / 15″ , but it looks sooo ugly on 1024×768 / 15″ – don’t they see this???

45. sean - January 18, 2010

So i never read all the comments but I can say that a default font size on a 3600 (maybe 3800 too small to see/new install/too lazy to look) by 1090 (maybe 1060 or 1080) is impossible to view!!!

Back to finding that DPI setting and blast the yum update the blew away my MBR and full partition table!!!

46. sean - January 18, 2010

it was at a default of 51DPi — 91 looks just fine now :)

47. John Ward - March 1, 2010

I agree wholeheartedly with this article. My first thoughts too were, Jesus, it’s fat – everything, the firefox taskbars, the top and bottom panels, titlebars. And eventually I returned to XP, explorer is quicker, window drawing is better, slimmer, in some ways more satisfactory and only for reasons of principal would I have stuck with Ubuntu and Gnome – I needed a machine that worked well at the time. It just seems cheap, thrown together in some way, a mish mash of many different components and one bad idea that everything should open it’s belt and let it’s belly out. It’s like it’s primarily designed for people with really bad sight and the other 90% can just tweak.

48. John Ward - March 1, 2010

Also, I would dump Sans as default desktop font, it’s horrible. It’s fat and wide and not suited to a desktop UI at all, maybe to your thesis or next written article but not a desktop enviroment. I hate to see I love calibri or whatever is in use in Vista and 7 instead. Even the default XP font is better, and the winner is Apple, by a mile.

49. Sivabalan - September 26, 2010

I have Windows 7 and Ubuntu Lucid on the same laptop (Acer Aspire 5740) (widescreen). While the resolution is the same in both(1366×768), I feel Windows 7’s desktop seems to have a lot of space for content while the font and icon sizes in Gnome are just disproportionate making me feel I am working with a 800×600 resolution. While this is the case with the widescreen display, my office Thinkpad laptop with Lucid is perfectly fine with correct sized fonts with a 1024×768 resolution. Is there any way to make things any better with my home Ubuntu’s resolution? I love working in Linux but this issue is a sore to my eyes.

50. sikiş izle - September 26, 2010

Wow. I had no idea that Gnome was rendering all my fonts at the wrong size.

51. antalya ilaçlama - September 27, 2010

teeny tiny fonts are difficult to read. the default gnome fonts are great

52. porno sikiş - September 27, 2010

I agree wholeheartedly with this article. My first thoughts too were, Jesus, it’s fat – everything, the firefox taskbars, the top and bottom panels, titlebars. And eventually I returned to XP, explorer is quicker,

53. sex sikiş - September 28, 2010

I’m reading your comment and typing a reply on a 15.4 inch laptop with resolution 1280×800. Changing the resolution to 1024×768 makes it look crappy of course, because it’s not native nor the proper dimensions, but I still can’t figure out what the problem is.

54. izmir escort - December 28, 2010

I’m reading your comment and typing a reply on a 15.4 inch laptop with resolution 1280×800. Changing the resolution to 1024×768 makes it look crappy of course, because it’s not native nor the proper dimensions, but I still can’t figure out what the problem is.

55. Brian - July 5, 2011

Thought you should know that I managed to find this entry (4 years after you first posted it) when I finally rid my primary workstation of Windows. Finally. The Google search that led me here was (tongue in cheek) “Ubuntu everything is so big”. :: chuckle ::

56. Cecil - September 27, 2011

Im sorry, this is one of the things about *nix in general that gets my goat. It’s all about choice, and customization, unless they say otherwise. I want my res at 1024×768, nope, X thinks I need 19xx x 9xx. I am forced to use the native res, even if me and my eyes don’t like it. That’s choice! I want the font and icons on the launcher a bit larger than the dolphin menu font. No way man! A bunch of geeks I’ve never met insist that a launcher with items of a height of 60% of my mouse cursor, already time on the DE is what I get!
Seriously, has anyone working on this stuff ever read a page about the human eye, the wrist.
Smaller is NOT always better. Maybe another decade from now I might get to actually choose how large I want individual GUI elements? Maybe, just maybe, I can choose my own res and refresh, even if I own an LCD mon?
This is linux.

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