Fonts 201: Font Management Apps for the Mac


If you are a designer, then you know the joy of having thousands and thousands of fonts available to use in your projects. You probably are also familiar with the despair of waiting for apps to launch, font menus to draw, and the horror of kernel panics when you get Font ID conflicts, the stray corrupt font, or your careful layout explodes when your app makes the wrong font substitution.

Font management has always been one of those dirty little secrets that no one really wants to deal with, but if you are serious about fonts, you need to enlist some tools to help you manage those fonts and fix common problems.

Continuing our Font School series, here’s the rundown on what font management apps are available for your Mac.

Font Book

Font Book has been included with OS X since Panther (10.3). The latest release in Leopard includes the ability to print out a book of fonts (so you have a ready reference for what the typefaces look like), validate fonts (to check for corruption), and the new ability to automatically activate fonts as they are needed (so that your documents display correctly even if the required font had been deactivated on your system).


Font Book manages your system and user fonts and helps provide easy activation and deactivation of individual fonts or collections (user-defined groups of fonts). Leopard also has a new feature to protect system fonts and replace required fonts if they have been removed by the user — something to be aware of when making changes with any of the following tools.

Linotype FontExplorer X

The only free option, besides Font Book, is the excellent Linotype FontExplorer X, which has just recently seen its last release. FontExplorer X improves on Font Book with better tools for managing fonts, auto-activation plug-ins for Adobe CS1-CS3 and QuarkXpress 6.5 and 7.x, and utilities to fix common font problems. You can buy fonts from the Linotype online store directly within the application.


I recommend Linotype FontExplorer X for anyone that needs font management and can live with the plug-in support (that is, you don’t need CS4 or QuarkXpress 8). Besides being free (a key factor in my recommendation), Linotype FontExplorer X is easy to use, gives you feedback when it is making changes (integrated with Growl, if you like), lets you clear font cache problems and quickly identify conflicts. I like how the application allows you to copy your fonts into the library and manage them in sets that can be automatically activated as needed for certain applications. The interface borrows heavily from iTunes, but this makes it easy to use.

FontExplorer X Pro

FontExplorer X Pro adds the fancy new suffix to its name in the latest 2.0 release along with a switch to a paid model. For $79 you get plug-in support for Photoshop CS3, the CS4 Suite and QuarkXpress 8. FontExplorer X Pro also works with the new FontExplorer X Server for central font management. Other improvements over the free version include a configurable toolbar and a new Quick Install feature that lets you automate the installation options to duplicate your settings on other machines in your shop. WYSIWYG view is relatively fast thanks to pre-rendered font previews.


If you have been using FontExplorer X, then upgrading to Pro makes sense if you need plug-in support for the latest Adobe and Quark apps. The server features could be nice in a shop that requires centralized control or licensing management. Otherwise, consider using the free version until you need the features in the paid version.

FontAgent Pro

FontAgent Pro 4 by Inside Software is another choice for full-featured font management, available for $99. This application has a very similar feature set to FontExplorer X Pro, including plug-ins for the current versions of Adobe Creative Suite and QuarkXpress for automatic activation of font sets. FontAgent Pro does a nice job of automatically categorizing your fonts as it imports them and giving you options for organizing them.


The WYSIWYG view is reasonably fast thanks to background processing of font profiles and previews. The search feature lets you enter multiple conditions or use keywords to find precisely the font you need. These conditions are also used to create smart sets, or dynamic groups of fonts (think smart playlists in iTunes). You can buy fonts directly inside the application from FontAgent Pro comes with the Smasher utility for organizing and fixing font suitcases.

Suitcase Fusion 2

Suitcase Fusion 2 by Extensis has a long history that goes back over a decade to its early days as Suitcase by Symantec. This latest version is quite good and much improved over previous incarnations. It includes many of the same features as the previous apps. You’ve got auto-activation, font classifications, smart sets, previews, printable font books, and more. Plug-ins are limited to InDesign and Illustrator CS3 & CS4, and QuarkXpress 7 & 8. If you want auto-activation for Photoshop you will want to get FontExplorer or FontAgent.


There are two small details that I really like in Suitcase Fusion 2. One is the preview windows for fonts or sets can be “torn” off and hover on your display. You can mouse over these preview windows and use them to turn on (or off) font sets. This is a great addition to auto-activation and gives you another visual clue about which fonts are currently activated. Another detail I like is that the auto-activation process is managed with a new system preference item. The other apps launch a background daemon and place it in your login items without really telling you what it is doing. This invisible daemon is difficult to turn off. Suitcase requires that its daemon be running in the background to operate (as do all these programs) but I really like that I could go to the System Preferences pane and turn it off if I wanted to, say, test a bunch of font management apps that would otherwise conflict. Suitcase Fusion 2 includes the Font Doctor utility for resolving common font problems.


Fontcase is the new kid on the block, only released this past January. For a 1.0 release, Fontcase shows a lot of polish and the price is reasonable at $46. This app does not have auto-activation or plug-ins to manage Adobe or Quark application fonts, but it does an excellent job of displaying your font library and allowing you to create sets (including smart sets). The font browser is the fastest of the bunch, especially in grid view (the font card view in the screenshot below). Outline view (similar to the views in the other apps) is a tad slower, but still faster than the other apps in WYSIWYG mode.


Fontcase offers a really polished interface for managing and interacting with your fonts. If you like the iTunes metaphor in FontExplorer X Pro, you will love Fontcase. I really dig the tagging system, which is perfect for fonts and a bit more accessible than the keywords or notes features in the other apps. The printed font books are beautiful and miles better than what is available in competing apps. The downside is that you are lacking some of the really useful and practical features of the other apps like auto-activation, tools to resolve font problems, and background operations for activation/deactivation. Those features are apparently being planned, but the current lack of tools may deter professionals that are looking to take active control of thousands of fonts. Many people will be better served by the free Linoype FontExplorer X.

One feature that many people will find useful is the Bonjour font sharing technology in Fontcase. You can share your font vault over the local network and other Macs running Fontcase can download fonts into their own vault. This provides a simple way to keep workstations in the same shop in sync with fonts. Fontcase does not offer centralized license management or monitoring like the dedicated font server apps do so you’ll have to watch things yourself to make sure that you are legal with your font usage in a design shop setting. Be cautious with this feature though — sharing of fonts around the office is what usually gets people into font management trouble in the first place.

So Which is Right for Me?

First thing is to check out Linotype FontExplorer X. If you are working with Adobe CS3 (or earlier), this is a no brainer. You get excellent font management, utilities to fix problems, and auto-activation with the plug-ins for your apps. If you are using CS4 or QuarkXpress 8, then you will want to check out FontExplorer X Pro. The other pro apps (FontAgent Pro and Suitcase Fusion 2) are comparable. I would encourage you to download the free trials that are available for all of them and check them out for yourself.

If you are a home user or just want pretty font books, then by all means check out Fontcase. It allows you to manually manage your font sets fairly well and I love the UI for classifying and organizing fonts, but the auto-activation and features in the other apps are a real life-saver for a design professional that is working with a library of thousands of fonts.

Which font management application do you prefer (and why)?