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Hi: Could someone please explain what has changed in Windows 7 (Pro 64-bit)?

Details: Previously I had Windows XP and had some translations files (UTF-8 encoded) in CSV format. I was able to view the fonts in both Notepad and also in Excel. After upgrading to Windows 7, when open these files -- All I see is square boxes (Just you know, if I open them in browser -- I was able to see all the translation). Wondering what was going on and finally I save those files in Unicode, everything seems to be fine.

So, what exactly going on? Why Windows 7 works with Unicode and not with UTF-8??

Thanks in advance.

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2 Answers

Why Windows 7 works with Unicode and not with UTF-8?

Terminology

Unicode and UTF-8 are not the same kind of thing: Unicode is a character-set which defines a set of characters (a repertoire) and assigns numbers (code points) to each of those characters. UTF-8 is one of several encodings that can be used to represent a stream of Unicode characters on disk or in transmission. The same stream of Unicode characters could also be encoded as UTF-16, UTF-32 or UTF-7 for example.

However, Notepad offers you "encoding" options including ANSI,Unicode, Unicode big-endian and UTF-8. The Microsoft developers who wrote this have used the wrong terms. When they say "Unicode" they most likely mean "UTF-16 little endian". When they say "ANSI" they mean Code-Page 1252 (CP1252)

Microsoft Notepad

I believe Microsoft's Notepad writes UTF-16 with a byte order mark (BOM) and that Notepad looks for the BOM when reading a text file. The BOM tells the app the file is UTF-16 and indicates whether it is big-endian or little-endian.

[Edited] If Notepad doesn't find the BOM, it calls a library function isTextUnicode which looks at the data and attempts to guess what encoding was used. Sometimes it inevitably guesses incorrectly. Sometimes it guesses that an "ANSI" file is "Unicode". Trying to interpret a UTF-16 or UTF-8 file as Code Page 1252 would cause it to display the wrong glyphs and be unable to find glyphs to render some 8-bit values - these would then be shown as squares.

As harrymc says, in his answer below, there are better alternatives to Notepad. But Notepad lets you explicitly choose the encoding when opening a file (rather than leaving Notepad to try to guess).

Byte Order Marks

According to the Unicode consortium, Byte Order Marks (BOMs) are optional. However Windows relies on BOMs to distinguish between some encodings.

So in short, maybe your files lacked a BOM for some reason? Maybe the BOM was lost sometime during the upgrade process?

If you still have the original files that show as squares, you could make a hex dump of them to see if they contain a BOM.


[Edit]

Plain text file standards

The problem is that there are effectively none. No universal standards for plain text files. Instead we have a number of incompatibilites and unknowns.

  • How have line-endings been marked? Some platforms use the control-characters Carriage Return (CR) followed by Line Feed (LF), some use CR alone and some use LF alone.

  • Are the above terminators or separators? This has an effect at the end of a file and has been known to cause problems.

  • Treatment of tabs and other control characters. We might assume that a tab is used to align to a multiple of 8 standard character widths from the start of the line but really there is no certainty to this. Many programs allow tab positions to be altered.

  • Character set & Encoding? There is no universal standard for indicating which of these have been used for the text in the file. The nearest we have is to look for the presence of a BOM which indicates the encoding is one of those used for Unicode. From the BOM value the program reading the file can distinguish between UTF-8 and UTF-16 etc and between Little Endian and Big-Endian variants of UTF-16 etc. There is no universal standard for indicating that a file is encoded in any other popular encoding such as CP-1252 or KOI-8.

And so on. None of the above metadata is written into the text file - so the end-user must inform the program when reading the file. The end-user has to know the metadata values for any specific file or run the risk that their program will use the wrong metadata values.

Bush hid the facts

Try this on Windows XP.

  • Open Notepad
  • Set the font to Arial Unicode MS
  • Enter the text "Bush hid the facts"
  • Choose Save As and select Encoding ANSI
  • Close Notepad
  • Reopen the document (e.g. using Start, My Recent Documents)
  • You will see 畂桳栠摩琠敨映捡獴 instead of "Bush hid the facts"

This illustrates that the isTextUnicode function used by Notepad incorrectly guesses that the ANSI (Really CodePage 1252) text is Unicode UTF-16LE without a BOM. There is no BOM in a file saved as ANSI.

Windows 7

With Windows 7, Microsoft adjusted isTextUnicode so that the above does not happen. In the absense of a BOM, it is now more likely to guess ANSI (CP 1252) than Unicode (UTF-16LE). With Windows-7 I expect you are therefore more likely to have the reverse problem: A file containing Unicode characters with code points greater than 255, but with no BOM, is now more likely to be guessed as being ANSI - and therefore displayed incorrectly.

Preventing encoding problems

Currently, the best approach seems to be to use UTF-8 everywhere. Ideally you would re-encode all old text files into UTF-8 and only ever save text files as UTF-8. There are tools such as recode and iconv that can help with this.

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According to Wikipedia: in Windows Vista and Windows 7 [..] IsTextUnicode has been altered to make it much more likely to guess a byte-based encoding rather than UTF-16LE. –  Arjan Dec 13 '10 at 22:47
    
Yes, for sure we those files have BOM since we generate those file with BOM. It is interesting that Windows 7 does not read BOM created by the older OS. –  Sha Le Dec 14 '10 at 4:10
    
BOM hasn't changed. It might be that your files are missing the BOM, but that previously the default format was some Unicode variant, where it is now ASCII. See my answer. –  harrymc Dec 14 '10 at 9:33
    
@Sha Le: If the file has a BOM, Windows 7 Notepad should open it correctly, so the problem you describe doesn't fit the known issues with isTextUnicode. Can you create a small sample file that illustrates the problem you have with a file that includes a BOM? –  RedGrittyBrick Dec 14 '10 at 9:33
    
There is also this app can break for the same effect as Bush hid the facts –  Regent Apr 12 '11 at 10:29
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A remark: You can use Notepad++ to view theses files, using the Encoding menu.

Once the files are displayed correctly, saving them will add the correct BOM.

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I know this post is a bit old, but i currently have issue with win 7 and notepad++ not displaying UTF 8 without BOM when the files were initially created using notepad++ v5.9.6.2 itself. –  Jake Nov 27 '11 at 12:48
    
@Jake: Ensure that the Encoding menu shows "Encode in UTF8", rather than "Encode in UTF8 without BOM". –  harrymc Nov 27 '11 at 13:06
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