Is the Web Safe Palette really dead?

Early colour-capable computers were restricted in the number of colours they could use. Before colour Mac IIs came along in the mid '80s, most computers could only display 16 colours at one time. Memory chips were very expensive in those days and more colours needed more memory and faster processors to shift the extra data.

To make the most of the limited memory available, the computer makers gave us 'palettes' - sets of colours based on simple combinations of red, green and blue. By switching these three colours on and off you can additionally make, red + blue = magenta, red + green = yellow, green + blue = cyan and red + green + blue = white. When they are all off, you get black. So, you can have a palette of 8 colours by combining just the basic red, green and blue.

The next step was to add-in 50% (half brightness) of these colours so that there was dark red, dark magenta, dark blue etc, so we had a 16 colour palette. If you can remember the early versions of Windows, you will appreciate that although the screen had an impression of lots of colour, it was pretty crude by today's standards.

The colour palette of the Mac II had an amazing 256 colours. Although the default was for the brightness values to be equally spaced, this wasn't absolutely necessary. Apart from black and white, which were fixed, any of the other 254 colours could be given whatever RGB value you wished choosing from any of 256 possible brightnesses of each colour. Each 'slot' in the palette was adaptable so you could construct a palette that suited any particular requirement - a palette of blues for a seascape, a palette of reds and oranges for a sunset. Unless your image had lots of very different colours, an adaptive palette could cope. The trouble was that only one such palette could be used on the screen at any one time. If you tried to use two or more images with different adaptive palettes at once, things went haywire.
When PCs eventually caught up and offered 256 colours, Windows had to accommodate the 16-colour palette from earlier VGA systems because those colours were 'reserved' for interface elements. Actually, there were four extra colours in this reserved set - 20 in total. The Windows palette had therefore only 236 adaptive colours.

When the first Web browsers appeared in the mid-'90s, the browser manufacturers had to come up with a palette that was a happy compromise between the Windows and Mac palettes. They took all the colours that were common to both - 216 of them and the Web-safe palette was born. At first, it was a fairly loose arrangement. Netscape would use the 216 Web-safe colours but also made use of the 40 left-over colours, which would be different on the two platforms, but useful nevertheless in displaying multi-colour images. Later versions of Netscape and Explorer abandoned the use of the 'spare' colours for consistency's sake.

Red, Green and Blue can combine to give six colours plus black and white.

Using colours from the Web-safe palette meant that they displayed on all computers consistently. If you used a colour that was outside the palette, the browser would try its best to simulate the colour using a process called 'dithering' where pixels of Web-safe colours are juxtaposed to produce the impression of intermediate colours. Sometimes this works well, but often it makes the colours look grainy or speckled, the effect being especially objectionable where there are large areas of flat colour or gradients.

Today's computers have more memory, faster processors and don't suffer from the colour palette restrictions of their predecessors. The need to use the Web-safe palette for colour consistency has all but disappeared, unless you are developing Web pages specifically for that 5% that still have 8-bit monitors. Sure, there are some 'old and trusted' computers still out there somewhere, just as there are some black and white televisions and steam-driven radios, but the World moves on...
So, is it finally time to kill-off the Web-safe palette? Can it safely be banished to the fast-growing junk-pile of obsolete Web technology? Many would say 'yes', but my vote is to keep it - but for an entirely different reason.

Artist's paints were originally made from naturally occurring pigments - colours like cadmium red, cobalt blue, zinc white and burnt sienna. When you mention one of these colours by name, a painter will know exactly what colour you are referring to. Many of these natural pigments have now been replaced by cheaper synthesised equivalents, but their 'intentions' remain the same.

In my art and graphic design training and career, I have used palettes of one kind or another - designer's gouache, Magic Markers, Pantone Colours. These are all palettes, convenient sets of colours where each colour is a definite entity with a name (or PMS number).

There are many other sets of standard colours in other trades, architectural paint colours, Munsell colours for fabric dyes and pigments for colouring plastics. The fact is, that having a small set of readily identifiable colours to work with makes life a lot easier than having to cope with a virtually infinite number of colours – many of which are redundant because they are indistinguishable from their neighbours.

It is easier to juggle with fewer balls!

A palette of 216 colours is much more manageable than the 17 million or so provided by a 24-bit video card.

If you look at the 216 colours in the Web-safe palette, many of them are too similar to be useful and there are gaps where you wish there were intermediate colours. The Visibone palette makes this very obvious because it puts similar colours together. Remember, this palette is based upon 20% steps of red, green and blue, a progression arrived at by simple numeric steps rather than being determined by visual judgement. It is not ideal by any means, but you have to start somewhere.

#EC0109 doesn't quite have the ring to it that 'cadmium red' has and frankly, it is so imperceptibly different from #FF0000 that it make no difference. There will certainly be more variance between different brands of monitor and computer gamma settings than with these few percent.

So, I would say, keep the Web-safe palette as a benchmark. Choose your basic colours from there, but if you need colours that are not in that palette, don't be afraid to mix your own. If you like a colour, use it!

Extreme subtleties are a waste of time though. If 20% steps make little difference for some colours in the Web safe palette, there is little point of contemplating 5% steps.

Before you go any further, check out my monitor gamma test and see how well your monitor copes with basic colours. In general, monitors that are not accurately calibrated - the vast majority - will reproduce some, if not all colours inaccurately. The worst offenders, I find, are cheap PC laptops, which are totally incapable of any kind of subtlety at the extreme light or dark ends, and even those colours change with viewing angle. Many office PCs have no colour calibration or any facility for adjustment, in other cases, people just don't know how to, or can't be bothered to set them up correctly. But two wrongs don't make a right!

As a Web designer, it is your responsibility to make sure that the colours you use are as accurate as possible. Can you imagine what would happen if record producers didn't care about the fidelity of their sound recordings? Listeners with cheap transistor radios would hear little if any difference, but people with expensive hi-fi systems would be quite justified in complaining about sub-standard recording quality.

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