Sub-Pixel Problems in CSS

Something that jumped at me, recently, was a rendering dilemma that browsers have to encounter, and gracefully handle, on a day-by-day basis with little, to no, standardization.

Take the following page for example. You have 4 floated divs, each with a width of 25%, contained within a parent div of width 50px. Here’s the question: How wide are each of the divs?

The problem lies in the fact that each div should be, approximately, 12.5px wide and since technology isn’t at a level where we can start rendering at the sub-pixel level we tend to have to round off the number. The problem then becomes: Which way do you round the number? Up, down, or a mixture of the two? I think the results will surprise you, as they did me.

Opera 9
Safari 3
IE 6
IE 7
Firefox 3
Firefox 2

We have three completely different camps here:

  • Round the numbers down – Both Opera and Safari round down the widths of all the divs to 12px. This leaves a 2px gap (note the green) to the right of all the divs. If you’ve ever wondered why your nicely-aligned navigation doesn’t fill up the full contents of a container in these browsers, now you know why. On the plus side, at least you know what the width of these containers will all be the same, no matter what.
  • Round the numbers up – Both Internet Explorer 6 and 7 round the widths of all the divs up to 13px. Doing this causes the floated divs to immediately wrap, breaking layouts. This is obviously wrong as it causes many safely-numbered layouts to break for no obvious reason.
  • Round some numbers up and some down – Both Firefox 2 and 3 mix the rounding of the div widths to 12px and 13px. The mix of rounding is done as to provide an even result at the end (making it flush with the far edge). The obvious side effect is that the divs no longer have a consistent width to them (even though an equal width was specified by the CSS). Additionally, the reported (via a JavaScript computed style call, like offsetWidth) width of the element remains at its reported 12.5px not providing the user with any indication of which way the rounding is occurring. And to add another confusing wrench in the works: The order of which divs have a width of 13px or 12px has been flip-flopped in Firefox 3. This was done to improve efficiency and speed and seemingly little, to no, effect on general web site rendering.

I was talking this over with some Mozilla developers and David Baron explained the situation quite well:

We’re trying to meet a bunch of constraints that can’t all be satisfied at the same time (the proof is left as an exercise to the reader, though I may have actually written it out once in a Bugzilla comment):

1. 4 adjacent objects of width/height 25% (for example) starting at one edge of a container should end exactly at the other edge; there should never be an extra pixel in the container and they should never be wrapped due to being a pixel to wide

2. objects that are logically adjacent should always touch visually; there should never be a pixel gap or a pixel of overlap due to rounding error

3. objects given the same width should occupy the same number of pixels

4. object boundaries should always (visually) be aliased to a specific pixel boundary in the display (they should never be blurred)

The one [Mozilla] sacrifices is typically (3), except for borders where we sacrifice (1) by rounding the widths to pixel boundaries much earlier.

The especially strange part, in all of this, is that there’s really no right, or wrong, here. How this behavior is supposed to play out by the rendering engine isn’t dictated by the CSS specification, having it be left up to the implementation to render as it sees fit. Obviously the four guidelines outlined by David, above, could serve browsers well but they are forced to sacrifice at least one of them in order to meet most of them.

The whole situation is quite fuzzy and frustrating – I’m not sure what the best action is, moving forward, but at the very least it’s in the open now where we can think about it some more.

Posted: January 22nd, 2008

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