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The text-rendering property in CSS allows you to choose quality of text over speed (or vice versa) allowing you to fine tune optimization by suggesting to the browser as to how it should render text on the screen. Said another way in MDN:

The text-rendering CSS property provides information to the rendering engine about what to optimize for when rendering text. The browser makes trade-offs among speed, legibility, and geometric precision.

Sometimes the result is just straight up better kerning:better-kern

The text-rendering property is not defined in any CSS standard. It’s actually an SVG property. However, Gecko/WebKit/Blink browsers let you apply this property to HTML elements.

Be aware that Windows, Linux and OS X each (may) have different text-rendering engines. Not to mention that different browsers each have their own text rendering defaults, so there is no guarantee that your font treatments will be displayed as intended on the user’s system. You can learn more about type rendering systems and operating systems on the Typekit blog.

There are four possible values:

  • auto (default) – The browser makes educated guesses about when to optimize for speed, legibility, and geometric precision while drawing text. Be aware that different browsers interpret this value differently.
  • optimizeSpeed – The browser emphasizes rendering speed over legibility and geometric precision when drawing text. It disables kerning and ligatures.
  • optimizeLegibility – The browser emphasizes legibility over rendering speed and geometric precision. This enables the use of special kerning and optional ligature information that may be contained in the font file for certain fonts.
  • geometricPrecision – The browser emphasizes geometric precision over rendering speed and legibility. Certain aspects of fonts—such as kerning—don’t scale linearly, sogeometricPrecision can make text using those fonts look good. When SVG font is scaled, the browser calculates pixel size, then rounds to the nearest integer. The geometricPrecisionproperty allows for more fluid scaling. Note: Only WebKit browsers apply this fluid value, Gecko treats the value just like optimizeLegibility.

< 20px enables ligatures

The optimizeLegibility keyword enables ligatures in text smaller than 20px for some fonts. (like Calibri or DéjàVu) This 20px threshold value can be changed in Gecko via thebrowser.display.auto_quality_min_font_size user preference.

Ligatures are combinations of letters that tend to look better and are more readable as a combined glyph. An example of this is the letters ‘f’ and ‘i’. They can form the ligature ‘fi’ as in the word ‘find’.

lig

Some font files contain additional information about how the font should be rendered.optimizeLegibility makes use of this information, and optimizeSpeed does not.

Example

p.legibility {
  text-rendering: optimizeLegibility;
}
p.speed {
  text-rendering: optimizeSpeed;
}

Performance

When it is said that there is a tradeoff between speed and precision, they aren’t kidding. There can be significant performance issues to consider. That article is worth quoting entirely:

There are actually significant, effectively fatal performance problems (such as 30-second loading delays, or longer) on mobile devices when using optimizeLegibility for long pages. Apply it only if you know what the maximum text length will be. (Also, avoid using it for Android clients, at least on the older versions that everyone still uses: its font renderer often has very strange bugs when this mode is enabled.)

I did some testing with Instapaper to determine approximate optimizeLegibility performance limits. A 5,000-word article in Instapaper for iOS, for instance, will only use optimizeLegibility on devices with an A5-class or greater CPU. To avoid problems on older iOS devices, I wouldn’t recommend using optimizeLegibility blindly and unconditionally on any pages longer than about 1,000 words. And I wouldn’t recommend enabling it on Android at all.

It’s tempting to do:

/* Probably not advisable */
body {
  text-rendering: optimizeLegibility;
}

But be darn careful about that, seems dangerous especially when applied to an arbitrary page.

Browser Support

Chrome Safari Firefox Opera IE Android iOS
4+ 5+ 3+ Maybe post-Blink? Nope 2.3+? 3+?

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