Keep Your Characters Straight With 3 Free Tools

Symbol CaddyTwenty-six letters aren’t enough for many of the projects I work on. I need accented letters, symbols and all the characters that make up a full character set. I also need a way to easily use those characters that don’t appear on my keyboard. Not all software apps come with built-in glyph tools and, if you routinely switch back and forth between different programs, a built-in tool may not be enough. Whether you’re typing up a technical document or laying out an ad, having a character selection tool that beats the standard Character Map can help you get the right glyph every time.

Character Tools on Mac

There are a surprising number of character management widgets for Macs. Personally, I use Symbol Caddy — it’s a Dashboard widget that allows you to copy symbols from the widget into whatever app you’re using. It also offers an HTML mode, which provides you the HTML entity code for the character. It’s particularly easy to use, with characters organized into specific groups.

The fact that Symbol Caddy is located on the Dashboard makes it easy to quickly access and then switch back to the program I’m working in. It significantly speeds up my work because I don’t have to launch a separate program or hunt around for where Character Map might have hid a particular symbol.

An alternative that also operates through the Dashboard is CharacterPal, which provides shortcuts for individual characters as you mouse over them. CharacterPal offers a few more tools than Symbol Caddy, including the ability to view special characters in different fonts before copying them as well as the ability to choose between a variety of different keyboard layouts. There are also other character management tools available for Macs, including both stand-alone applications and other Dashboard options.

Character Tools on Windows

While the various versions of Windows come with Character Map, there have been some efforts to improve on that particular tool. GlyphThis is one alternative, offering features like the ability to change grid dimensions as well as improved capabilities for including symbols and characters from Wingdings and other glyph fonts without having to constantly switch back and forth between fonts. GlyphThis is the work of one person, Matthew Fowler, but he’s been very good about updating the program as needed.

The alternatives beyond GlyphThis for PCs are relatively limited. The updates made to Character Map in recent versions of Windows does make it a more useful tool than previous versions. Depending on how heavily you use special characters — and how willing you are to memorize a long list of keyboard shortcuts — you can make Character Map work for you if need be. Additionally, many font management applications can provide you with a way to look through individual characters. A few options include Suitcase and MasterJuggler; prices can vary significantly.

What tools do you use for accessing special characters?

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