Whether you're a touch-typist or a hunt-and-pecker, you simply can't access the full power of your fonts with just your keyboard. Even the first Macintosh was designed to encourage font finesse, and today's Macs go even further by providing deep access to the thousands of characters and advanced features in modern fonts--if you know where to look.

Thankfully, you don't need an expensive design application from Adobe or Quark to find and use this font magic. Apple's apps, like TextEdit, Pages, and Keynote, include a floating Fonts window that's packed with features we'll explore here. But if you find yourself using these features often, then a third-party utility such as PopChar 7 (which is celebrating its 25th anniversary!) will make your character-finding tasks even easier and a lot more entertaining.

Apple's Fonts window

When using TextEdit, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, or any other Apple application that has a Format menu, you can open a supremely powerful Fonts window by choosing Format > Font > Show Fonts (or Command-T).

At first glance, the Fonts window seems to only show a list of fonts, styles and sizes. But lurking under the Action pop-up menu (it looks like a gear sprocket) are several doorways into font fabulosity. For example, the Fonts window doesn't normally show a preview of a selected font--for that, choose Show Preview (shown here as Hide Preview because the Preview is already showing).

When you need to find a character (or glyph, as it's known in the world of typography), just choose Characters from that same Action menu.

Conveniently, the characters are displayed in the font that's currently active in your document--in other words, the font that would be used if you just continued typing. But even more conveniently, the Font Variation area in the lower-right part of the window also shows that same character in your other active fonts. When you find what you need, a simple double-click pops that character into your document. If you find yourself using a specific character often, add it to your Favorites by clicking the Add to Favorites button beneath it.

If the Characters window is a bit too large for your taste, you can minimize it by clicking the icon at the upper-right.

Font technology has evolved over the years, and the current OpenType "Pro" fonts have a phenomenal amount of intelligence built into them. If you have one of these fonts, you can access its features by choosing Typography from the Action pop-up menu. The resulting Typography window shows which (if any) advanced OpenType features are available in the currently selected font.

PopChar X 7 to the rescue

Apple has done an amazing job of providing access to intricate font features. So amazing, in fact, that you may find your appetite whetted for even further exploration into your font families. Or, perhaps your character-choosing needs are so great that you find Apple's solutions too simple or too clunky. (Multilingual publishers often find themselves in this situation.)

The absolute leader in the field of character-choosing utilities (which admittedly isn't very large) is Ergonis' PopChar. This utility for both Mac OS and Windows has an enormous set of features for a price of just 29 euros. (The name is a short for "Pop Character," because it pops your chosen character into your document.) You can read my 5-mice Macworld review of a previous version here.

PopChar X is now at version 7, with a number of useful new features. Because it's available system-wide, in any application, you access it from an icon in your Mac's menu bar. Previously, you could park its trademark P icon at either the right or left end of the menu bar, and set it to always show or only show when you mouse over that area. Now, it can appear as a standard menu bar item, like so:

Most of the new features in version 7 involve finding a character without knowing its name, finding a character across multiple fonts, and displaying or printing font samples. For example, if you don't know the name of a character, you can simply draw it in the new Shape Finder window.

Once you've found a character, you can find other characters that are similar to it with the new Find Similar Shape context command.

If you Control-click or right-click a character, a context menu lets you copy it to the clipboard in various formats.

Not all characters are included in every font, and discovering which fonts contain a particular character is made possible by PopChar's "reverse search" feature. This places a mark next to all the fonts that contain a selected character and then takes you to that character when you click that mark. (PopChar's font list is now permanently visible, making this feature possible.)

The new Font Preview feature displays all the characters in a font, in multiple sizes. You can even print or save it as a PDF.

To see or print a selection of text in a specific font, choose Sample Text instead, and then either type in the text you want to see, or choose from standard sample text--in fake Latin, or garbled English, French, or German:

PopChar's Font Info window shows all the information embedded in a font, including the designer (to discover other fonts that may harmonize with it), or even the story behind the font's design:

Buying advice

Anyone who works with foreign languages, scientific symbols, or frequently uses picture fonts will find PopChar quickly pays for itself. Graphic designers and publishers will appreciate its ability to display the same character across multiple fonts, and anyone with an interest in the depth of their font collections may lose an evening or two exploring their font treasures.