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Years ago, it was always strongly recommended that web designers should only use web-safe colors.

Have studies been done to see if this is still the case? If so, what's the answer?

Does anyone know of or have a reference to a study or report that covers this?

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I'm not sure there were ever really web-safe colours (a set of colours which would always render without dithering on any 256 colour platform). At least not the classic 216. –  e100 Jan 5 '11 at 15:36
Edit: here's an article written in 2000 or so which points out that there were significant issues with the classic 216-colour palette, especially on 16-bit systems: physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/color/websafecolors.html –  e100 Jan 5 '11 at 17:49
Relevant: stackoverflow.com/q/1041113/2890522 –  Hugo Rocha May 8 '14 at 12:54

5 Answers 5

up vote 39 down vote accepted

Mostly you have nothing to worry about. An extraordinary majority of visitors to a site will be able to support more than 256 colors these days.

If for some reason your userbase is likely to have a higher than normal proportion of members using systems from the early 90s, then you might want to consider it.. but in any typical scenario it's no longer an issue.

The w3schools browser display statistics shows that in january of 2010 0% of internet users were still at 256 colours

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What's this talk about colors? I still use monochrome! –  Sicarius Noctis Jan 5 '11 at 1:17
"In my day we had to put white-out on the screen!" –  Kaji Jan 5 '11 at 5:04
And any user who is still using a 256-colour display will likely (a) be very used to poor colour reproduction across the board; or perhaps (b) have worked around it, for example by forcing sites to display in black text on a white background. –  e100 Jan 5 '11 at 12:39
@Kaji No, see, that was just you. –  Sylverdrag Jan 15 '12 at 12:37
W3schools.com is not a representative site for browser statistics: it's aimed at web developers and attracts a lot of developers, which are more likely to have a higher resolution screen with more colours than other users (except graphic designers, of course). That said, it's safe to assume that ordinary users nowadays use graphics cards that are able to produce a lot of colours in a high resolution. –  Marcel Korpel Dec 21 '14 at 18:57

Short answer:


Long answer:

The average user has a nice enough graphics card/monitor that "web-safe" is no longer an issue.

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Back when the internet (and computers) was new, screens didn't have the color support they currently have, we've got 24 or 32-bit colors now, where we used to have only 8-bit color.

Because some computers couldn't display certain colors (only 256 (2^8)), if a color that wasn't one of those web-safe ones was used, the computer would attempt to display the closest color to it (sometimes it was really off).

Now we don't have to worry, we've got screens that can display thousands or millions of colors, so the web-safe pallet is a bit outdated (fifteen years or so).

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16 bit colour is 2^16 = 65536 colours. It's not 16x16. What you probably mean is 8 bit colour. That is 2^8= 256. –  Vaibhav Garg Sep 12 '14 at 4:06

Way back in the early nineties most graphics cards (including those on £20K SGI Indy 'graphics workstations') did not have enough memory to render hi-res, true-color images. The work around was to use 256 colours that worked with a look up table and dithering algorithms.

The 256 colours of the 'look up table' could be any of the 2^24 colours you get with a modern PC, however, some of these were reserved for the operating system to use. Typically 32-40 colours were used for window borders, menu text and other screen decoration leaving 216 colours for the application.

With PC applications on an 8 bit display each window/application could have its own color set, particularly with Unix workstations. This could lead to flashing of colours when going from one window to the next - the selected window would look good but the background windows could be a bit weird.

When the web came along with the Mosaic browser (and later Netscape) the browser had to work with the other applications, showing however many images the web designer included on the page. These could be automatically dithered down to the 216 (6 x 6 x 6) 'web safe' colours. Naturally the other page elements (e.g. 'H1 - H6') could also be dithered down to the 216 colours that the palette had available.

If one did not stick to the 216 'web safe colours' (that any browser could render) then the results were unpredictable, a subtle red might get rendered as an unsubtle red etc. As others in this thread have mentioned, 16 bit and true-colour came along for most PCs in the mid-nineties, making 'web safe' less of a problem. However, 16 bit screens used less bits for each colour rather than a look up table, as was the way with 8 bit colour. 5 bits for each of the red, green and blue components gave an approximation of true-colour, but was not really. A given RGB value, e.g. #ABCDEF would not be rendered exactly as #ABCDEF so 'web safe' still had some relevancy if you wanted colours to be the same from PC to PC.

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One time web safe colours still apply is when using GIF images as they are limited to 256 colours. Of course those colours can be almost any set of colours you want, but there can only be 256 in 1 image.

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But those 256 colors in the GIF palette does not need to contain the 216 web-safe colors. –  jensgram Jan 5 '11 at 7:28
The point is more that if you want use a GIF (because of size possibly) for a portion of a design (like a logo) it'd be better to keep the number of colours down. –  Darryl Hein Jan 5 '11 at 7:53
-1: this isn't relevant. –  e100 May 9 '11 at 17:05

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