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As others have said, the lack of discussion surrounding the legibility and quality of browser font-rendering is surely related to the prevalence of Mac-usage by designers in the industry. If you had to browse the web all day using Windows with or without ClearType enabled you’d soon become profoundly aware of fonts that look good on Windows and those that do not. With this awareness comes the realization that @font-face is not as exciting as it may at first seem.
It’s not just about hinting, either. ClearType lacks Y-axis anti-aliasing, which makes some characters appear aliased, particularly at large sizes. Jon Tan noticed this and mistakenly thought it due to ClearType lacking anti-aliasing at large sizes. But it’s just anti-aliasing on the up/down axis that’s missing.
But the future isn’t as grim as it may seem right now. Microsoft have introduced DirectWrite, a new text rendering API for Windows 7 and Vista. It’s a big improvement [source] over ClearType. Mozilla are already working on incorporating it into Firefox as are Microsoft into IE9. We need designers to put pressure on the other browser makers to also incorporate DirectWrite. Maybe some of the energy wasted on the pointless ‘drop IE6’ campaigns can go into a campaign demanding DirectWrite instead?
At this stage, on Windows, titling text nearly always looks better rendered using Cufon or SIFR. Some @font-face set text does look good, if the designer has spend time in Windows, making sure it looks great. But, generally, most @font-face rendered stuff makes me cringe whenever I see it.
If you think about it, the situation we’re faced with right now is similar to when typographers had to select typefaces suitable for the paper they were to be impressed upon. If, for example, they were printing onto poor quality news-paper, they would need to choose a serif with a robust character to withstand the coarse grain of the paper and associated ink bleed. The big difference is that web designers aren’t blessed with knowing what ‘paper’ their type is to be rendered onto.
So with great font-selection power comes great font-selection responsibility. Select well for Windows. Test well for Windows. Be aware of and understand typefaces that have been crafted specially for use on-screen, and particularly for ClearType. Support foundries that make the effort to support ClearType. And demand DirectWrite. Demand it now.