The Real Cost of Retina

When the new iPad went on sale earlier this year the interest in high-resolution website design skyrocketed. We saw an influx of half-baked “Retina” solutions.

Alongside this the bigger picture — so to speak — of responsive images produced lengthy debate. We’re starting to see the fruits of that labour with a new picture element proposal. This is a good thing but it’s not perfect.

To accurately serve the best image we need to know:

  • Screen resolution *
  • Screen pixel density
  • Connection bandwidth

The first two can be achieved today with CSS3 media queries. Understanding connection bandwidth is still a long way away (see The Network Information API and HTTP Client Hints). I’ve seen responsive image implementations that claim to estimate this — they’re not good enough. And even if we achieve this trifecta we’re forgetting a forth point:

  • Device bandwidth cap

Mobile contracts have extortionate data costs (at least in the UK). It’s not getting any better. With EE’s LTE pricing plan you can pay £36/month for a whopping 500mb. As many have widely mocked today: at full throttle — averaging 15mbps — that allowance is going to last you a staggering five minutes or so. Just splendid.

We may think that serving high-res images on a website is going to drastically enhance the experience, but are we considering the real cost? I’ll tell you one thing:

Please spare me your high-res “Retina-ready” images!

I can’t afford it. At least for the foreseeable future.

Seek resolution independence by employing a design style more suited to the medium. More visuals through CSS and SVG; less bitmap data.

*** Update:** this should actually say the size of an image’s containing element, thanks Paul!

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