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Target your CSS fonts on different platforms

Continuing on my journey to find the proper set of fonts for my website, I was a little surprised to see the way the different vendors handle native fonts in CSS. In this realm, there are three players that handle both the OS and the browser: Apple (Safari on Mac OS and iOS), Microsoft (IE on Windows) and Google (Chrome and their default browser on Android). Their handling of the native fonts is — of course — different. Let's see the different approaches.


Let's start out with the simplest one: Android. There is one font, Roboto. You can target it with the following values: sans-serif, sans-serif-light and sans-serif-condensed for the different variants. There are a few aliases such as Arial (alias to sans-serif) or Georgia (alias to serif) but if you want to target Android you should add the serif-liked syntax for better support. Then you can use font-weight and font-style to target different weight and the italic version. However, you cannot target the sans-serif-light or sans-serif-condensed with CSS attributes. You have to select them with the font-family selector.

So, to target a narrow font, you have to use sans-serif-condensed you cannot use the font-stretch:condensed property. Less options is not good. One font is not good. This is not very rich.


  • This holds true for both Chrome and the abomination installed by default on Android.
  • I haven't tested anything on Chrome OS. Common sense from a vendor perspective would say that it should be similar to Android. Common sense from a product placement perspective dictates that I find it doubtful that a desktop OS would ship with so little fonts installed. All bets are open.


IE allows also the font-stretch to be used, along with the name of the font — if at all available, which is rare. For example, you can target font-stretch:condensed;font-family:Arial or directly font-family:"Arial Narrow", both work. Unfortunately:
  • there are not even a handful of fonts with condensed versions
  • none are installed by default, they're installed with MS Office
  • no other variation than condensed can be targeted (save the Arial Black oddity which quite doesn't work as expected — see below)
  • most fonts are crap anyways

font-weight and font-style work as expected but for the fact that all fonts have only two weight available. Again, Arial Black is the exception, giving one more weight to the Arial family. But if you target it with font-weight:100 (trying to get a thinner version) well, you still end up with Arial Black.

So despite its interesting support for different types of font targeting, IE falls short because of the lack of unity and the lack of nice fonts. While testing, be also aware that not all windows users have MS Office installed, so if you do try to find a machine that doesn't to test your fonts on. MS Office comes along with a bunch of fonts and not everyone has them. This is unfortunate because those are nice fonts...


Safari doesn't support the font-stretch CSS property so far. To target a narrow/condensed font, you have to target it with its family name. The surprise on both iOS and MacOS is that you can target all variations of most fonts by their family name. Italic, light, black, bold, condensed, every variation has a family name you can target right in the font-family CSS attribute. Now, apart from the stretch, you can also target those with font-weight and font-style. For example, if you specify font-weight:600;font-family:Helvetica-Light, you'll get the regular Helvetica (the bold version of the thin font). With font-weight:700 you'll get the bold version. This is the best of both world, really. Whenever Apple starts supporting font-stretch, Safari will be the sweet spot for font selection. But as it is, it's already the best.

Moreover, Apple's (modern) fonts are declined in a variety of styles (like 5 different thickness; light, thin, regular, medium and bold) allowing better control, and they are pretty nice. So — somewhat unsurprisingly — most sites having paid attention to their fonts and relying on native font stacks will be rendered best on Apple devices.

Mixed platforms

For Firefox, well, things look very much like Chrome. It also depends on the OS. For example, trying to target Arial Narrow on Windows has to be done with font-stretch:condensed;font-family:Arial, but on Linux for example, you have to use font-family:"Arial Narrow". font-stretch:condensed; doesn't do anything on Linux.

How to test?

Testing, as always, is the right thing to do. I've set up a small page that list the fonts available on your browser. You can access this page from an iOS, Android, MacOS and Windows machine to see the fonts available. Then you can build your font-family stack with reasonable confidence. If you don't have all of those machines available, hop on to saucelabs.com to access some of those machines for free. Test the fonts on your browser

All in all, I have found that the worst platform to find fonts for is Windows. But in every case, I've found fonts that I liked for every system without much work. @font-face is not yet something I will consider for any of my websites.

Avatar: Michael Bluejay

Re: Target your CSS fonts on different platforms

{font-family:sans-serif-condensed} does not work for me on Mac or iOS (the only devices I have. When specifying that, the browser can't locate the font, so it displays the SERIF default, which I think is Times.