Mourning the Websafe Color Palette

The Websafe Color Palette (expertly rendered here) — also known as the Browsersafe Color Palette — came about when Web designers tried to figure out exactly what colors could be counted on to render properly on older computers that could only handle 256 colors (8 bit color). Because of the mathematics of computer rendering and differences between Windows and Macintosh operating systems, the number of truly “safe” colors was limited to 216 colors.

The Color Palette was a great tool, but it’s been rendered somewhat useless as computers have evolved, and more and more people’s machines were capable of supporting millions of colors.

Some sites will tell you that all modern computers are capable of rendering millions of colors, and thus, we no longer need to worry about variations in colors from one monitor to the next. Alas, this is not true — just because two computers are capable of rendering millions of colors does not mean that they will render those colors in exactly the same way. This Webmonkey article explains why. Unfortunately, even the “websafe” color palatte can no longer be counted on to render correctly on all platforms … and no new palette has risen to replace it.

So what’s a designer to do? The answer seems to use whatever colors you like, but to test, test, and then test again. There is no safe color palette that will work on every computer; your only option is to test it on as many machines as possible to ensure that the shifts are tolerable. Then test the site on a monitor using 256 colors to make sure that things don’t go totally to hell when viewed that way.

Is the Websafe Color Palette truly dead? Not quite. As web guru Lynda Weinman points out in this article explaining its history, the Websafe color palette is still useful to have around for devices that don’t support millions of colors (like some PDAs and telephones). It’s not as useful as it used to be, but it’s still handy to have around.

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