Macintosh Classics: PopChar

The other day I was reading Longstanding Mac Apps by Shawn Blanc, and I remembered a great Mac utility that’s been around for a long time: PopChar.

PopChar was a very useful addition to my Macs and I used it regularly up to Mac OS 9.2.2. When running, it placed a little ‘P’ in the menubar (usually in the top left corner near the Apple logo, but you could customise the ‘hot spot’). Suppose you were writing a document and needed to insert a special character or a symbol and you didn’t remember the correct keyboard shortcut (or there wasn’t a direct keyboard shortcut to begin with). With PopChar installed, you clicked on the little ‘P’ and a pop-up character palette appeared. You could select the needed symbol and have it inserted right away. Fast, intuitive, and quickly out of the way.

PopChar UI
PopChar 2.7.1 in action

 

PopChar Control Panel
PopChar 2.7.1 Control Panel

 

I recalled I was using it under System 7 in the mid-1990s, but I didn’t know exactly when the very first version appeared. So I asked the developers over Twitter, and they replied:

The first version of PopChar was released in 1987. See http://www.ergonis.com/products/popchar/history/ … for a history of PopChar.

1987! Earlier than I remembered. This software has been around for 27 years. The PopChar History page does indeed save me a lot of work and you’ll find there all the details and screenshots illustrating how the software UI changed over the years. I’ll just quote here a few interesting bits:

  • PopChar has been running on all types of processors that have been used in Macs: starting with the first 68000 processors, up to the Motorola 68030, then various PowerPC models, and now Macs with multiple Intel processors in 64-bit technology.
  • Versions of PopChar have been running on all MacOS versions from System 4.2 to Mac OS X 10.8. [And of course 10.9 — evidently the page was last updated in 2012]
  • Four different development environments were involved: Turbo Pascal, Think Pascal, CodeWarrior and now Xcode.
  • Font technology has changed from simple bitmap fonts to TrueType and PostScript fonts and now OpenType.
  • To survive all these changes, PopChar has been redesigned and re-implemented from ground up again and again. These efforts were necessary to ensure steady evolution of PopChar and continuous support for our long-time customers.

Like many great applications, PopChar was born to address a specific need of the developer:

It all started back in 1987, when I tried to find a few special characters in the Symbol font. Apple’s Key Caps utility was not very helpful because I had to try all sorts of keyboard combinations to see which characters were available.

Being a software developer, I decided to write a simple utility that allowed me to select characters in a more convenient way. I wrote this utility in Turbo Pascal on a Mac Plus with 2.5 MB of memory.

It’s truly amazing to see how PopChar evolved over the years and how the developer adapted it so that it remained useful even when Mac OS started making similar features more accessible for the user.

In 2012, I decided to make PopChar even more versatile by adding features that allow designers to view and inspect fonts. New “Font Preview” and “Sample Text” views now show realistic text fragments formatted with a selected font. These new views give an impression of a font “in action”. Even more, these views can be printed to create beautiful font sheets.

I keep PopChar installed in all of my vintage Macs. It’s one of those little utilities you just can’t do without — especially if you’re discovering vintage Macs now. Once you install it, it feels like a part of the system. In all the years I’ve used it, I never encountered a single issue. It’s a well written piece of software. One last detail I want to share: it came with an elegant manual built in:

PopChar 271 manual
PopChar 2.7.1 inline documentation

 

If you have a modern Mac running the latest version of Mac OS X and you’re interested in this great little utility, you can read more detailed information at the PopChar X page on the developer’s site. The current version is available in English, German and French. Previous versions of PopChar X and PopChar Pro are available on the Downloads Archive page. By the way, if you’re a Windows user just passing by, know that PopChar is also available for Windows.

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