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Posted at 2015-08-14 14:11 | RSS feed (Full text feed) | Blog Index
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Friday Q&A 2015-08-14: An Xcode Plugin for Unsmoothed Text
by Mike Ash  

Getting Xcode to display unsmoothed text in its editor has been an ongoing battle which finally required me to write an Xcode plugin to impose my will. Several readers asked me to discuss how it works, which is what I'm going to do today.

I worship at the church of Monaco 9. It is, in my opinion, the One True Font for all monospaced tasks. This is especially true on old-fashioned non-retina screens, where its carefully designed pixels provide maximum readability in minimal space.

Those carefully designed pixels make it critically important that the text not be antialiased. Font smoothing defeats the entire purpose of Monaco 9.

It was a bit distressing when, a couple of OS versions ago, Xcode started to insist on smoothing Monaco 9 despite my best efforts, because of changes made for retina support. This was annoying when not using a retina display. Fortunately, it was possible to disable font smoothing with a defaults command.

Major trouble started when I got a retina display for my Mac Pro. I use it side by side with a normal non-retina display. Stuff that benefits from font smoothing, like web pages, e-mail, documentation, and cat pictures go on the retina display. Code goes on the regular display. However, the mere presence of the retina display made Xcode insist on font smoothing all over again, and the usual remedies were powerless.

I decided I'd have to get some code into Xcode and hack it from within. I thought about code injection using something like mach_inject or simply abusing lldb, but it turns out that Xcode has a built-in plugin mechanism that works well for this. It's undocumented and not officially supported, but it's not too hard to use.

Getting Started
If you want to make your own Xcode plugin, create a new "Bundle" project in Xcode. This sets up a project that builds a loadable bundle, which is what plugins usually are. Tell it to use .xcplugin as the bundle's extension, and you're on your way to creating something Xcode can load.

Of course, it's not quite so simple. Xcode is very particular about which plugins it will load, and requires some Info.plist keys.

The XC4Compatible key must be set to YES, otherwise Xcode will assume your plugin is utterly ancient and will refuse to load it.

The XCPluginHasUI key should be set to NO for our purposes. This causes Xcode to load the plugin's code immediately, allowing us to start causing trouble. If set to YES, there's presumably some sort of UI that allows it to be engaged manually, but I didn't explore this side of things since it wasn't necessary for my purposes.

The final and most annoying required key is DVTPlugInCompatibilityUUIDs. This is set to an array of strings. Each string is the UUID of an Xcode version that the plugin is compatible with. Each Xcode version has its own compatibilty UUID. If your plugin doesn't have the right UUID in its list, Xcode will refuse to load it.

Every single new version of Xcode gets a new UUID. These UUIDs can't be predicted in advance, so there's no way to preload the list in the plugin. This means that every new Xcode release breaks all plugins, and you have to manually go in and put the new UUID into the array. How annoying! If you're lucky, Xcode will dump an error to the Console stating the UUID it expects. Otherwise, you can extract the UUID from Xcode's own Info.plist.

Once you've made those changes, your project will build a plugin that Xcode actually wants to load. You still need to put the plugin in the right place for Xcode to actually find it, of course. That right place is ~/Library/Application Support/Developer/Shared/Xcode/Plug-ins. You could copy it manually every time you build, but that would be extremely annoying. It's much nicer to set up a Copy Files build phase to copy the plugin every time you build.

One more thing is needed for build nirvana, and that's to have your project actually start Xcode when you tell it to run. By default, plugin projects can't run, they can only build, because plugins are inert on their own. If you edit the scheme (option-click the run button in the toolbar) you can set a custom executable. Set this to Xcode, and Xcode will run Xcode when you tell Xcode to run your project. (Are you confused yet?)

For reasons completely unknown to me, Xcode will crash on launch with the default scheme settings. To fix this, make sure to go into Options, go to the very bottom, and disable "View Debugging ☑️ Enable user interface debugging." I do not know why this fix works.

To make sure everything is working, add a class to the plugin and implement +load to log some sort of "Hello, world" output. When you run the project, Xcode will launch and display your log output. You have full debugging available, with one copy of Xcode pointing at another. Try not to get confused about which is which.

Looking at the view hierarchy in the debugger, it's apparent that Xcode's code view is a custom subclass of NSTextView. This is great, because NSTextView is a public, documented class with lots of knobs to turn, and surely one of those knobs would solve the problem. (Not to be confused with the knobs who created the problem in the first place.)

How do we get ahold of the code view instances, though? We're just hanging out in +load with no pointers to anything. We could try to start from NSApp and work our way down, but that's pretty painful. Fortunately this code doesn't need to be production-worthy and we can use big hammers. Instead of trying to find individual instances, why not just modify the NSTextView class itself to do our bidding?

How to modify the class? I could override init, but that might be too early. I could try to make modifications in viewDidMoveToWindow, but even that might be too early. Without knowing exactly which knobs to turn yet, I want to make sure I can experiment without worrying about whether my experiments are being overridden later. I finally decided to use another big hammer and override drawRect:. This means my code will run every time the view is drawn. This is probably way more often than necessary for this tweak. But as long as the tweak can run many times without hurting anything, why not? It'll be a tiny slowdown, and that's it.

How do we override drawRect: for the entire NSTextView class? Import objc/runtime.h and get cracking.

First, we want a convenient reference to the class and selector we're working with:

    Class nstv = [NSTextView class];
    SEL drawRect = @selector(drawRect:);

Then we can get a reference to the method in question:

    Method m = class_getInstanceMethod(nstv, drawRect);

We're going to provide a new implementation for the method. That implementation will call through to the original implementation, the moral equivalent of a call to super, so that the text still gets drawn. To make this happen, we need to save the pointer to the original implementation in a variable:

    IMP oldImplementation = method_getImplementation(m);

For convenience, I'll use the nifty imp_implementationWithBlock API to create the new implementation using a block. This call takes a block whose first argument is self and whose subsequent arguments are the method arguments, and turns it into an IMP which can be used as a method implementation. The runtime takes care of translating between the IMP function pointer and the block:

    IMP newImplementation = imp_implementationWithBlock(^(NSTextView *self, NSRect rect) {

Some sort of magic code is going to go it here to make everything better and destroy font smoothing for eternity, or at least until the next Xcode update:

        // MAGIC GOES HERE

After doing whatever magic, we want to call the original implementation. We do this by casting oldImplementation to a function pointer of the correct type, and then calling it:

        ((void (*)(id, SEL, NSRect))oldImplementation)(self, drawRect, rect);

Now we have an IMP for the new implementation, and we can set it on the method:

    method_setImplementation(m, newImplementation);

That's it! Put this code in +load and our override now runs every time an NSTextView is drawn in Xcode.

What magic code goes in the override, though? With the surrounding code in place, it provides an excellent environment for experimentation. I tried CoreGraphics calls to disable font smoothing, I messed about with fonts, and various other things. I finally discovered that the magic incantation was to enable the use of screen fonts:

        [[self layoutManager] setUsesScreenFonts: YES];

I don't understand why, but apparently Xcode disables this. Re-enabling it in drawRect: fixes the problem. My perfectly pixelated Monaco 9 characters are back!

Building an Xcode plugin is easier than it looked at first glance, and provides a good way to get code into Xcode to fix problems that just can't be fixed in any other way. If you'd like to see the complete project I made with the above code, you can get it on GitHub here:


That's it for today. Use this knowledge wisely and go in peace, or war, or whatever it is that you do. Come back next time for more entertainment and occasional knowledge. Friday Q&A is driven by reader suggestions, so as always, if you have an idea you'd like to see covered next time or some other time, please send it in!

Did you enjoy this article? I'm selling whole books full of them! Volumes II and III are now out! They're available as ePub, PDF, print, and on iBooks and Kindle. Click here for more information.


JetBrains IDEs (PyCharm, et al) inability to render non-anti-aliased Monaco 9 (they screw up the tracking somehow) has been a source of great consternation for me in my new life as a (primarily) Python developer -- I feel your pain. I'm also still looking for an ideal code font for my retina display, but it's tough because I switch back and forth from retina to non-retina multiple times daily.

Also what "Retina" display are you using with your Mac Pro and what shenanigans did you have to perpetrate to get it to work? (I assume two DP connections?)
You have full debugging available, with one copy of Xcode pointing at another. Try not to get confused about which is which.

I often use something like the following for identifying non-release versions, which might help in this case as well:

[[NSApp dockTile] setBadgeLabel:@"debug"];
Ian: I got a Samsung U28D590. It's a 4k display that the Mac recognizes as retina and hooks up without much effort. Connecting it just required a Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort adapter. I'm not sure if it was a good idea just yet. It certainly looks nice for non-code text, but it also makes a lot of graphical stuff a lot slower. I'm hopeful that 10.11 will improve that, as some people have reported it behaves a lot better.

Jan: Nice trick. I didn't really have much trouble telling them apart, since the new one is the icon on the right side, but I could certainly see that being helpful. It's been a long time since I looked at Dock shenanigans and I didn't realize that NSDockTile could do so many nice things. I will have to keep that in mind!
That's why I keep using Textmate for its support of disabling anti-aliasing, screenshot: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/12193826/how-to-adjust-line-spacing-in-textmate-2
Regarding identifying which version of Xcode is being debugged, there's a plugin by Orta turning the debugged Xcode icon red.


(Available on Alcatraz)
Looks like setUsesScreenFonts: is deprecated in OS X 10.11
Nice work mate!
Thanks for the wonderful post. DVTPlugInCompatibilityUUIDs is a pain. I had a similar plugin https://github.com/MaheshRS/symbolication-plugin for symbolicating crashes, and was running very well in Xcode 6.4 but in Xcode 7 Beta and Xcode 7 GM it broke and took me a while to figure out why this was the case and DVTPlugInCompatibilityUUIDs was the culprit.
Wow. This is amazing.

On the topic of disabling things in Xcode, what I'd LOVE LOVE LOVE ( and pay money for) is a way to disable all the insipid animations that I have to wait for in Xcode.

Things like:
- turning of the delay while I wait for the nav or inspector panels on the left or right to slide in or out.
- turning off "roll down or roll up" of the contents in a group after I click on a disclosure triangle in the navigator pane.

Hell, I'll GLADLY throw you 100 bucks, put this up on GitHub (or not) and fully credit you if you can point the way to accomplishing this.

Ever since Lion, the Mac OS has become littered with distracting animations and honestly, I just want to turn them all off so I can simply focus on my work.


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