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I'm using (Windows) TrueType fonts on my Ubuntu workstation (details), and am mostly happy with how fonts look, both in desktop apps and on the web (using Firefox).

However, on some web pages, like this one, fonts completely suck:


I found the reason to be Helvetica in the CSS for that site:

font-family: Helvetica,Arial,Tahoma,sans-serif;

When, using Firebug, I remove Helvetica from that list, it uses Arial and looks all spiffy again:

alt text

My question is, how to make web pages that use Helvetica (or Times, or other such fonts) look nice automatically? In other words, how to map Times and Helvetica font families to the serif and sans-serif defaults (which in my case would be Times New Roman and Arial, respectively)?

I'm interested in any solution that makes Firefox use the MS TrueType fonts in this scenario, no matter if it's based on tweaking Ubuntu font configs or custom CSS rules in Firefox (or something else that I currently have no clue about).

Update: I've now got the problem fully solved - this answer describes what I needed to do.

share|improve this question
Wait, there's an improvement? –  David Pearce Oct 12 '09 at 12:51
Yes, definitely. But I guess what kind of fonts people prefer varies from one person to another. Compare e.g. the two screenshots in superuser.com/questions/19824/better-ubuntu-fonts –  Jonik Oct 12 '09 at 14:14
Sorry, I was just being a smug mac user, yet again. imgur.com/dYFBQ.png –  David Pearce Oct 14 '09 at 11:58
Wow, with both screen captures I couldn't tell for sure if it actually is Helvetica or Arial, though the lower-case A seems to confirm it... I read in the referenced details that you don't like antialiasing for small font sizes, so I won't get started. ;-) –  Arjan Oct 16 '09 at 9:26
Just so you know, that's the postscript font "Nimbus Sans L" being poorly rasterized there. –  sgm Feb 11 '10 at 16:23

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Edit: I completely updated this answer after getting some breakthrough advice from a colleague.

Here's what I inserted in /etc/fonts/local.conf (inside the <fontconfig> element):

<!-- Replace Helvetica with Arial -->
<match target="pattern">
    <test qual="any" name="family">
    <edit name="family" mode="assign" binding="strong">

Similarly for Times -> Times New Roman. (See my full local.conf here.) The key was to use binding="strong" for the <edit> element. (Also, using "assign_replace" mode instead of "assign" causes something similar, except that then it's too aggressive: also Verdana gets replaced with Arial).

Changes in font configurations are effective immediately. Besides testing in Firefox, you can check that it works like this:

$ fc-match helvetica
Arial.ttf: "Arial" "Normal"

If you run into problems, the best help is near: man fonts-conf. (Although even with the documentation, the workings of the font system seemed somewhat complicated or unwieldy to me.) You can also try to "debug" what's really going on using a command like:

FC_DEBUG=4 fc-match helvetica

In addition, FC_DEBUG=1024 fc-match helvetica shows the list of config files that affect the font matching.

share|improve this answer

I had a similar problem in Opera, the solution to which was to disable "Core X Fonts" in the config. I'd suggest seeing if there is a similar option in Firefox.

Other options:

  • Check that you definitely don't have a font called "Helvetica" installed, similar things happened to me a few times. IIRC the problem fonts were in folders called 100dpi and 75dpi in the system font folder (/usr/local/share/fonts I think). I just moved those folders out of there entirely.
  • Check the defaults under System > Preferences > Appearance > Fonts.
  • Check Firefox's defaults under Preferences > Content.

If you make changes to the core folders you will need to rebuild the font cache with:

sudo fc-cache -f -v
share|improve this answer
Ah, I didn't notice this before. What do you mean by disabling Core X fonts in the config - where exactly? Also, what's System > Preferences > Font? The Gnome font config tool? I'm using KDE on my Ubuntu but have Gnome stuff installed too. If you could give the command names for launching these that would be the most useful. –  Jonik Oct 16 '09 at 9:03
In Opera it is opera:config but in Firefox it is about:config. Type that into the address bar, you may get a warning about dragons ;D but continue. There is a filter box - I suggest searching for "font" and seeing what options you get. –  DisgruntledGoat Oct 20 '09 at 19:05
Corrected my answer, it is System > Preferences > Appearance > Fonts on Ubuntu. Make sure each of the fonts listed (Application/Document/etc) is appropriate. I'd also recommend choosing "Subpixel smoothing" for the best look. –  DisgruntledGoat Oct 20 '09 at 19:08
+1 for the font cache rebuild and the subpixel smoothing. –  Swoogan Apr 9 '11 at 17:31

Greasemonkey will be one of solution for your question. Install this addon and you can customize the web pages and change the fonts.

and one example script which changes the font to Helvita

// ==UserScript==
// @name           Google Reader Font in Helvetica and enlarged
// @version        1.0
// @creator        Joe
// @description    Changes the font family and size from Google Reader page
// @namespace      userscripts.org
// @include        https://www.google.com/reader/*
// @include        http://www.google.com/reader/*

// ==/UserScript==

function addGlobalStyle(css) {
    var head, style;
    head = document.getElementsByTagName('head')[0];
    if (!head) { return; }
    style = document.createElement('style');
    style.type = 'text/css';
    style.innerHTML = css;

addGlobalStyle('A.entry-title-link {font-family:Helvetica;font-size: 20px;}');
share|improve this answer
Hmm, I think you got it the wrong way: I want to strip away any Helvetica or Times definitions (or replace them with sans-serif and serif) –  Jonik Oct 12 '09 at 9:48
That is an example he is showing you how to change the font so you just need to change the script to match your needs –  admintech Oct 12 '09 at 9:57
Right... well, luckily I found a simpler way - no CSS hackery needed: superuser.com/questions/54216/… –  Jonik Oct 12 '09 at 10:01

Just wondering, could you use local fonts and @font face css?

share|improve this answer
Hmm, not sure what exactly you mean, but I already found what I needed: superuser.com/questions/54216/… That's a very simple, system-wide solution. –  Jonik Feb 12 '10 at 7:54
@font face CSS. It was just an idea that popped into my head, i might toy around with it. you can use @font-face to have FF use fonts from your own website, and maybe even local by modifing the standard FF css (google @font-face to learn more) –  alpha1 Feb 14 '10 at 3:49

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