More text rendering updates

There is a Pango 1.44 release now. It contains all the changes I outlined recently. We also managed to sneak in a few features and fixes for longstanding bugs. That is the topic of this post.

Line breaking

One area for improvements in this release is line breaking.


We don’t have TeX-style automatic hyphenation yet (although it may happen eventually). But at least, Pango inserts hyphens now when it breaks a line in the middle of a word (for example, at a soft hyphen character).

Example with soft hyphens

This is something i have wanted to do for a very long time, so I am quite happy that switching to harfbuzz for shaping on all platforms has finally enabled us to do this without too much effort.

Better line breaks

Pango follows Unicode UAX14 and UAX29 for finding word boundaries and line break opportunities.  The algorithm described in there is language-independent, but allows for language-specific tweaks. The Unicode standard calls this tailoring.

While Pango has had implementations for both the language-independent and -dependent parts before, we didn’t have them clearly separated in the API, until now.

In 1.44, we introduce a new pango_tailor_break() function which applies language-specific tweaks to a segment of text that has a uniform language. It is meant to be called after pango_default_break().

Line break control

Since my focus was on line-breaking already, I’ve added support for a text attribute to control line breaking. You can now say:

Don't break <span allow_break="false">here!</span>

in Pango markup, and Pango will obey.

In the hyphenation example above, the words showing possible hyphenation points (like im‧peachment) are marked up in this way.


Another area with significant changes is placement, both of lines and of individual glyphs.

Line height

Up to now, Pango has been placing the lines of a paragraph directly below each other, possibly with a fixed amount of spacing between them. While this works ok most of the time, a more typographically correct way to go about this is to control the baseline-to-baseline distance between lines.

Fonts contain a recommended value for this distance, so the first step was to make this value available with a new pango_font_metrics_get_height() API.

To make use of it, we added a new parameter to PangoLayout that tells it to place lines according to baseline-to-baseline distance. Once we had this, it was very easy to turn the parameter into a floating point number and allow things like double-spaced lines, by saying

pango_layout_set_line_spacing (layout, 2.0)
Line spacing 1, 1.5, and 2

You can still use the old way of spacing if you set line-spacing to 0.

Subpixel positions

Pango no longer rounds glyph positions and font metrics to integral pixel numbers. This lets consumers of the formatted glyphs (basically, implementations of PangoRenderer) decide for themselves if they want to place glyphs at subpixel positions or pixel-aligned.

Non-integral extents

The cairo renderer in libpangocairo will do subpixel positioning, but you need cairo master for best results. GTK master will soon have the necessary changes to take advantage of it for its GL and Vulkan renderers too.

This is likely one of the more controversial changes in this release—any change to font rendering causes strong reactions. One of the reasons for doing the release now is that it gives us enough time to make sure it works ok for all users of Pango before going out in the next round of upstream and distro releases in the fall.


Finally, I spent some time implementing  some long-requested features around missing glyphs, and their rendering as hex boxes. These are also known as tofu (which is the origin of the name for the Noto fonts – ‘no tofu’).

Invisible space

Some fonts don’t have a glyph for the space character – after all, there is nothing to draw. In the past, Pango would sometimes draw a hex box in this case. This is entirely unnecessary – we can just leave a gap of the right size and pretend that nothing happened.  Pango 1.44 will do just that: no more hex boxes for space.

Visible space

On the other hand, sometimes you do want to see where spaces and other whitespace characters such as tabs, are. We’ve added an attribute that lets you request visible rendering of whitespace:

<span show="spaces">Some space here</span>
Visible space

This is implemented in the cairo backend, so you will need to use pangocairo to see it.

Special characters

In the same vein, sometimes it is helpful to see special characters such as left-to-right controls in the output.  Unicode calls these characters default-ignorable.

The show attribute also lets you make default-ignorables visible:

<span show=”ignorables”>Hidden treasures</span>

Visible default-ignorable characters

As you can see, we use nicknames for ignorables.

Font information

Pango has been shipping a simple tool called pango-list for a while. It produces a list of all the fonts Pango can find.  This can be very helpful in tracking down changes between systems that are caused by differences in the available fonts.

In 1.44, pango-list can optionally show font metrics and variation axes as well. This may be a little obsure, but it has helped me fix the CI tests for Pango.


This release contains a significant amount of change; I’ve closed a good number of ‘teenage’ bugs while working on it. Please let us know if you see problems or unexpected changes with it!

Westcoast hackfest; GTK updates

After Behdad left, Christian and I turned our attention to GtkTextView, and made some progress.


GtkTextView is a very old widget. It started out as a port of the tk text widget, and it has not seen a lot of architectural updates over the years. A few years ago, we added a pixel cache to it, to improve its scrolling, but on a high resolution display, its still a lot of pixels to shovel around.

As we’ve moved widgets to GTK4’s rendering models, everybody avoided GtkTextView, so it was using the fallback cairo rendering path, even as we ported other text rendering in GTK to a new pango renderer which produces render nodes.

Until yesterday. We decided to just have a look at how hard it would be to switch the text view over to the new pango renderer. This went much more smoothly than we expected, and the new code is in master today.

So far, this is just a straight port with no optimizations (we want to look at smarter caching of render nodes for the visible range). But it is already noticeably smoother to scroll text.

The video does not really do it justice. If you want to try for yourself, the commit is here.


After this unexpected success, we looked for another small thing we could to make text editing in GTK feel more modern: better blinking cursors.

For the last 20 years, our cursor blinking was very simple: We turn it off, and then we turn it on again. With GTK4, it is very straightforward to do a little better, and fade the cursor in and out smoothly.

A subtle change, but it improves the experience.

Pango updates

I have recently spent some time on Pango again, in preparation for the Westcoast hackfest. Behdad is here, and we’ve made great progress on the first day.

My last Pango update laid out our plans for Pango. Today I’ll summarize the major changes that will be in the next Pango release, 1.44.

Unicode APIs

I had a planned to replace PangoScript by GUnicodeScript outright, but doing so caused breakage in introspection and elsewhere. So, for now, we’ve just deprecated it and recommend that everybody should use GUnicodeScript instead. We did get a registered GType for this (and other) enumerations into GObject, so the lack of a type is no longer an obstacle.

Harfbuzz passthrough

We have added an api to get a Harfbuzz font object from a PangoFont:

hb_font_t *pango_font_get_hb_font (PangoFont *f)

This makes technologies such as OpenType features or variations available to applications without adding more Pango apis in the future.

Reduced freetype dependency

Pango uses harfbuzz for getting font and glyph metrics , glyph IDs and other kinds of font information now, so we don’t need an FT_Face anymore, and pango_fc_font_lock_face() has been deprecated.

Unified shaping

We are using harfbuzz for shaping on all platforms now.  This has allowed us to drop the remaining internal uses of shape and language engines.

Unhinted rendering

Pango no longer forces glyph positions and sizes to be on integral pixel positions. This allows renderers to place glyphs on a subpixel grid. cairo master has the necessary changes to make this work.

Settings, in a sandbox world

GNOME applications (and others) are commonly using the GSettings API for storing their application settings.

GSettings has many nice aspects:

  • flexible data types, with GVariant
  • schemas, so others can understand your settings (e.,g. dconf-editor)
  • overrides, so distros can tweak defaults they don’t like

And it has different backends, so it can be adapted to work transparently in many situations. One example for where this comes in handy is when we use a memory backend to avoid persisting any settings while running tests.

The GSettings backend that is typically used for normal operation is the DConf one.


DConf features include profiles,  a stack of databases, a facility for locking down keys so they are not writable, and a single-writer design with a central service.

The DConf design is flexible and enterprisey – we have taken advantage of this when we created fleet commander to centrally manage application and desktop settings for large deployments.

But it is not a great fit for sandboxing, where we want to isolate applications from each other and from the host system.  In DConf, all settings are stored in a single database, and apps are free to read and write any keys, not just their own – plenty of potential for mischief and accidents.

Most of the apps that are available as flatpaks today are poking a ‘DConf hole’ into their sandbox to allow the GSettings code to keep talking to the dconf daemon on the session bus, and mmap the dconf database.

Here is how the DConf hole looks in the flatpak metadata file:


[Session Bus Policy]


Ideally, we want sandboxed apps to only have access to their own settings, and maybe readonly access to a limited set of shared settings (for things like the current font, or accessibility settings). It would also be nice if uninstalling a sandboxed app did not leave traces behind, like leftover settings  in some central database.

It might be possible to retrofit some of this into DConf. But when we looked, it did not seem easy, and would require reconsidering some of the central aspects of the DConf design. Instead of going down that road, we decided to take advantage of another GSettings backend that already exists, and stores settings in a keyfile.

Unsurprisingly, it is called the keyfile backend.


The keyfile backend was originally created to facilitate the migration from GConf to GSettings, and has been a bit neglected, but we’ve given it some love and attention, and it can now function as the default GSettings backend inside sandboxes.

It provides many of the isolation aspects we want: Apps can only read and write their own settings, and the settings are in a single file, in the same place as all the application data:


One of the things we added to the keyfile backend is support for locks and overrides, so that fleet commander can keep working for apps that are in flatpaks.

For shared desktop-wide settings, there is a companion Settings portal, which provides readonly access to some global settings. It is used transparently by GTK and Qt for toolkit-level settings.

What does all this mean for flatpak apps?

If your application is not yet available as a flatpak, and you want to provide one, you don’t have to do anything in particular. Things will just work. Don’t poke a hole in your sandbox for DConf, and GSettings will use the keyfile backend without any extra work on your part.

If your flatpak is currently shipping with a DConf hole, you can keep doing that for now. When you are ready for it, you should

  • Remove the DConf hole from your flatpak metadata
  • Instruct flatpak to migrate existing DConf settings, by adding a migrate-path setting to the X-DConf section in your flatpak metadata. The value fo the migrate-path key is the DConf path prefix where your application’s settings are stored.

Note that this is a one-time migration; it will only happen if the keyfile does not exist. The existing settings will be left in the DConf database, so if you need to do the migration again for whatever reason, you can simply remove the the keyfile.

This is how the migrate-path key looks in the metadata file:


Closing the DConf hole is what makes GSettings use the keyfile backend, and the migrate-path key tells flatpak to migrate settings from DConf – you need both parts for a seamless transition.

There were some recent fixes to the keyfile backend code, so you want to make sure that the runtime has GLib 2.60.6, for best results.

Happy flatpaking!

Update: One of the most recent fixes in the keyfile backend was to correct under what circumstances GSettings will choose it as the default backend. If you have problems where the wrong backend is chosen, as a short-term workaround, you can override the choice with the GSETTINGS_BACKEND environment variable.

Update 2: To add the migrate-path setting with flatpak-builder, use the following option: