[whatwg] Fwd: img srcset / css image-set issues

John Mellor johnme at chromium.org
Tue Aug 21 12:59:09 PDT 2012

CSS image-set and HTML img srcset are getting their first implementations
but both APIs have serious shortcomings. We should fix them before it's too

1. Neither is of any use for flexibly-sized images.
2. srcset isn't as smart/intuitive as image-set.
3. image-set is less flexible than srcset.

I'll go through these in turn, in decreasing order of importance (sorry
about the length, but this is a complex topic and I've tried to avoid

(This email is cross-posted to whatwg and www-style, since this is of equal
relevance to HTML and CSS).

1. Neither is of any use for flexibly-sized images.

These APIs have been designed with fixed-size images in mind, and they work
well for that use case. For example if you have a width:320px image, and
you need to decide whether to load the 2x "retina" file or the standard

However they stop working when the width (or even just min/max-width) is
flexible, for example width:100%, which makes them almost useless for
responsive web design, and not great even for basic tasks like adapting to
different size mobile devices. I'll explain why:

If you have the same image saved in a variety of scales on the server (e.g.
320.jpg, 640.jpg, 1280.jpg, and 2560.jpg, named after their widths), then
you want the browser to load the one which has the same number of pixels of
image data as the number of device pixels that the image is taking up on
the display (assuming for now that bandwidth isn't a concern, and that you
don't have to worry about the page being displayed at multiple zoom levels
due to pinch zoom). For example if your width:100% image is currently
stretched to 1280 CSS px, then you want to load 1280.jpg on 1x low DPI
devices and 2560.jpg on 2x high DPI devices. But if it has shrunk to 320
CSS px, then you want to load 320.jpg on 1x low DPI devices and 640.jpg on
2x high DPI devices.

Neither image-set nor srcset can cope with this simple fundamental task!
Nor can they, as currently specified: while the browser knows (or can
estimate, if layout hasn't yet happened) the number of device pixels the
image is taking up, it doesn't know how many pixels of image data the
srcset/image-set entries contain until it downloads them, since it knows
their dppx but not their size.

To put it another way, since the browser doesn't know the intrinsic size of
the image until it downloads one of the files (and divides the image data
size by its dppx value), they simply cannot know how much a flexibly-sized
image is being stretched by, and so they can't use that information as
input when deciding which image to download.

[With srcset, it is possible to hack together a srcset definition that will
load approximately the right image file by combining dppx and viewport
width restrictions -- see sample
code<http://jsbin.com/aganaz/8/edit?javascript,live> --
but this is excessively cumbersome for practical use.]

A simple solution to this problem, would be to provide a way for authors to
tell the browser in advance what the intrinsic size of a flexibly-sized
image is, such that the browser can calculate how many pixels of image data
each option contains, and hence which would be most appropriate. For
example, one could add an initial term to the srcset/image-set, providing
the intrinsic size of the image:

<img srcset="320x120, 320.jpg 1x, 640.jpg 2x, 1280.jpg 4x, 2560.jpg 8x">
selector { background: image-set(320x120, "320.jpg" 1x, "640.jpg" 2x,
"1280.jpg" 4x, "2560.jpg" 8x); }

This would be equivalent to:

<img srcset="2560x960, 320.jpg 0.125x, 640.jpg 0.25x, 1280.jpg 0.5x,
2560.jpg 1x">
selector { background: image-set(2560x960, "320.jpg" 0.125x, "640.jpg"
0.25x, "1280.jpg" 0.5x, "2560.jpg" 1x); }

For each image, after discarding images that don't satisfy the viewport
width/height criteria in the usual manner if it's a srcset, the browser
would multiply the provided intrinsic size by the image's "x" value to
calculate the number of pixels of image data available in each dimension,
then it would pick the one that most appropriately matches the number of
device pixels the image is actually taking up in each dimension (see 2.
below for why I recommend "most appropriate" instead of "strictly pick the
smallest image whose image width >= device pixel width").

This initial intrinsic width term would be optional, as it is unnecessary
for fixed-size images, but would be strongly recommended for flexible-size
images as without it the "x" values would select purely on dppx grounds,
which as explained above isn't useful.

In the occasional event that different images have different intrinsic
sizes it would be possible to specify several intrinsic sizes, each of
which would apply to the subsequent images (until the next intrinsic size).
For example:

<img id="logo" style="width:100%" srcset="
    320x320, square.jpg 1x 400w, square-hd.jpg 2x 400w,
    320x50, flat-s.jpg 1x, flat-m.jpg 2x, flat-l.jpg 4x, flat-xl.jpg 8x

would show a square logo on portrait phones, but a more discreet flat logo
on wider devices (in both cases using the file of appropriate dpi taking
into account the width at which it is displayed).

Remember that specifying the intrinsic size would only be needed for
flexible-size images (including fixed-size images with flexible
min/max-width/height), and that multiple sizes would only be necessary when
using images of different intrinsic sizes (i.e. different aspect ratios
and/or different intrinsic scale).

An alternative notation might be to just directly specify the image data
dimensions of each image, but that seems slightly more cumbersome:

<img srcset="320.jpg 320x120, 640.jpg 640x240, 1280.jpg 1280x480, 2560.jpg

The redundancy could be reduced by providing only widths, or only heights,
though it might get confusing to have a bunch of raw widths or heights
mixed in with viewport w/h restrictions, so I think the syntax suggested
earlier is preferable.

2. srcset not as smart/intuitive as image-set.

The syntax for HTML img srcset and CSS image-set is very similar, thus
developers will assume they behave the same. This would be great, except
that they actually behave rather differently. For example, compare:

<img srcset="low.jpg 1x, high.jpg 2x">
selector { background: image-set("low.jpg" 1x, "high.jpg" 2x); }

Surely such a simple case must behave the same? But actually, if you view
this on a device whose dppx is 1.1, the image-set will most likely load
low.jpg, as it is the closest match for the display, while the srcset will
load high.jpg, because the specified
the dppx values as strict maximums.

The ideal solution to this is to relax the specified algorithm for srcset
to just say that the UA will pick the most appropriate image based on their
declared characteristics, as specified for
For example 2x would just mean that the image has a dppx of 2, and hence is
probably a good match for devices whose dppx is close to 2.

For consistency one might be tempted to make a similar adjustment for the
w/h viewport size constraints (i.e. they would declare the intended
viewport size rather than the maximum viewport size), however that seems
less useful, since there are good reasons why an author might want to
precisely define the viewport size cut-off at which the switchover occurs
(unlike dppx, where the browser usually knows better, since it has insight
into bandwidth, latency, financial cost per byte, etc).

3. image-set is less flexible than srcset.

As mentioned above, since srcset and image-set have such similar syntax and
semantics, it's important for them to behave as similarly as possible to
avoid confusion.

If it's felt useful for srcset to have maximum viewport dimensions (w/h) --
and they do seem reasonably useful -- then these should be added to
image-set as well; otherwise they should be removed from srcset.

Summary of recommendations.

1. srcset and image-set need a mechanism for dealing with flexibly-sized
images, preferably by specifying the intrinsic sizes of the available

2. srcset's dppx restrictions should copy image-set's smart and intuitive
behavior, rather than prescribing a less useful algorithm.

3. image-set should accept equivalent syntax to srcset (i.e. support
viewport w/h restrictions, unless they get dropped from srcset).

Of these 1 is the most important for these APIs to be a complete solution
for responsive images, but 2 is also important as it makes using the APIs
together significantly less confusing.

Thanks for reading this far, and sorry I didn't get a chance to provide
this feedback earlier,

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