Bracing for the HD web

Joshua Johnson has an excellent new post over on Design Shack called Ready or Not, Here Comes HD Web Design, discussing adapting your web design techniques for the imminent HD revolution, being led by the new iPad.

I’ve been adapting my designs for the Retina Display on the iPhone 4/4S for a while now, but it’s easy enough to build a responsive web design that just shrinks down large desktop website images to half their size for display on a tiny iPhone screen. Making an essentially desktop-sized display support high-resolution graphics is a whole other story, and even though I knew (or presumed, along with the rest of the world) that a Retina iPad was coming, I think some small part of me was still in denial about what it would mean for web design.

Well, that future is here. Sure, most of the world is not browsing the web on a Retina Display iPad. But if you think the HD revolution ends there, think again. It’s just getting started. I’m about to enter the implementation phase on a handful of big web projects over the next month. Accommodating the new iPad’s display is going to be one of my top tasks.

I’ve been thinking for the past month or so that I was going to need to address this, and I’ve made the decision that, moving forward, on any site that has responsive web design as a component (which will probably be all sites I do), full-size “Retina Display” graphics are essential.

I posted a comment on Joshua Johnson’s post, where I noted that “Retina” (or, to avoid using Apple’s marketing term, “HD web”) graphics don’t really need to be 326 pixels per inch (ppi), the iPhone 4/4S’s resolution, or even 264 ppi, the new iPad’s resolution.

The standard practice with web images has always been to render them at 72 ppi, but the fact is, browsers don’t care what resolution an image is set to. A pixel is a pixel, and web images get displayed at the screen’s native resolution (unless, of course, you resize the image dynamically in the browser using HTML dimension attributes or CSS). The Retina Display approach Apple uses is to simply double the resolution (quadrupling the number of pixels). Web images by default get “pixel-doubled” in this scenario, displaying at the same relative size as they would if the iPad still had a low-res display, but appearing pixilated or blurry as a result.

You don’t need to render your images at 264 ppi for display on the new iPad. In fact, you can leave the resolution at 72 ppi, because the browser still doesn’t care. (Well, maybe it does; I haven’t actually had an opportunity to test it, but I strongly suspect the answer is no.) You just need to make the pixel dimensions of the image twice what they were before. In fact, even if you do change the resolution, you still need to double the dimensions. That’s the key.

After mulling all of this over for the past week, I’ve decided I’m going to have to get a new iPad (what a hardship, I know). I could technically do this work without it, but I think it’s important to be able to see what I’m producing, if for no other reason than to remind myself how important it is.

This is going to be an ongoing process, and because web design (or, more accurately, web design implementation — I usually work with designers who produce the initial UI in Illustrator or Photoshop) is only one part of my job, I can’t give it my undivided attention. But it’s something I am preparing now to immerse myself in as fully as possible. From now on, this is just how I do things. And with that in mind, there are some key points to consider:

1. Some images are more important to represent high-res than others. Logos, absolutely, 100%. Design elements that are on all pages (backgrounds, borders, navigation) come next. One-off photos are not as critical, but probably still are if they’re on the home page. But consider the next point as well.

2. Bandwidth is a concern. I’ve been somewhat dismissive of this up to now, as I’ve been focusing on high-res logos for the iPhone’s Retina Display — it can just take the regular web images and show them at half size to achieve high-res — but if you’re suddenly talking about downloading 4 or 5 high-res photos for a home page slideshow, it’s going to be a problem. Making users with standard resolution download unnecessarily large images is bad; making iPad users eat up their 4G data plan downloading your perfect-looking photos is bad too. Most of the attention paid to bandwidth in this discussion that I’ve seen so far has focused on the former, but both need to be addressed.

3. CSS and SVG. Joshua Johnson talks about this in his post. If we can render elements using CSS instead of images (things like curved corners, gradients, shadows, etc.), we should do that. More complex vector graphics can be displayed in SVG. All modern browsers now (finally) support SVG. Up to now it’s been a cool but essentially useless technology, due to lack of widespread support. But IE8 and earlier don’t support SVG, so if those browsers matter (and unfortunately they probably still do), you need a backup plan.

It is an exciting time to be working in web design and development. More and more, the challenges center around adapting your techniques to take advantage of cool new features and capabilities, not accommodating the limitations of crap browsers. But they’re still challenges, and we’re just beginning to discover their depth, along with their solutions.

Update: Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber just linked to Duncan Davidson’s post detailing an issue with WebKit (the rendering engine inside Safari) automatically scaling down images above a certain size, specifically over 2 megapixels. Looks like sending huge, high-res images to the new iPad might present even more challenges than the ones I’d been considering.

I still don’t have that new iPad, so we’ll see what happens when I get it. (Tomorrow?)

Update #2 (March 25, 2012): A few more days have passed, and more has been learned on this topic. Duncan Davidson has a follow-up post that further explores the issue and a tentative path forward.

P.S. I did get that new iPad, and Duncan’s demo of an 1800-pixel JPEG on the iPad’s Retina Display is truly impressive. But what I find really interesting about it is that the 1800-pixel version of the photo looks better than the 900-pixel version even on a regular computer display‚Ķ because, as I’ve observed, WebKit downscales images better than Photoshop does.

Scott’s All-Time Most Tremendous, Stupendous, Never-Gonna-Endous Top 11 Atari 2600 Games (Because 10 Just Wasn’t Enough)

“Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate.”
—Thomas Jones

OK, that quote really has nothing to do with any of this; I was just Googling for a quote and that came up. Although I suppose the same may be said of Atari 2600 games, at least in the hands of a restless collector. Pitfall II may come and go, but Pac-Man and E.T. accumulate.

Whatever.

This isn’t the first and it probably won’t be the last, but once again it’s time to rate the best of the best, and so without further ado (and minimal clichés), I present my top 11 classic Atari 2600 games, as determined objectively by tabulating my subjective reviews on this very website. Please bear in mind that my scoring scale is not that finely graded, so there are in fact several ties, which (thanks to the Romans and the various forebearers they ripped off) normally benefit Berzerk at the expense of Yars’ Revenge, but here I’ve leveled the field by arbitrarily imposing rankings among the tied games according to my fleeting whims.

11. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari, 1983)
By now, mocking Atari 2600 Pac-Man is about as tiresome and unsatisfying as playing it apparently was back in 1982 (although, to be honest, being a little too young for arcades at the time, I didn’t know any better and I loved it). Atari quickly (although perhaps not quickly enough) remedied the situation with this 1983 follow-up. I never actually owned it as a kid. (My parents reasoned that I already had Pac-Man so why spend another $40 on what they — oh, so sadly — perceived as the same game.) But I played it at friends’ and neighbors’ houses enough to know that it rocked. Frankly, I find the whole dot-gobbling, ghost-dodging premise a little unsatisfying these days, but the game is still an undeniable classic, and an excellent translation of the arcade game for the 2600’s already aging capabilities.
10. Space Invaders (Atari, 1980)
Let’s be honest — this is what put the 2600 on the map. (Well, this and Basic Math, of course.) It’s a classic take on a classic game concept and, at least for us non-purists, actually improves upon the arcade original with color graphics and more intense gameplay.
9. Circus Atari (Atari, 1980)
This is an odd one. I never owned it as a kid, never played it as a kid, and judging only by the “screenshots” (or artists’ renditions that used to pass for screenshots), never wanted it as a kid. But it came into my collection in the early 2000s and I was immediately hooked. This is Breakout with a (slightly sadistic) twist. It’s a lot more fun to watch the clown go splat than to watch your ball disappear into oblivion, I’ll say that much. The unique challenges posed by the addition of gravity and the ability to somehow instantaneously flip (and, for that matter, slide) your seesaw, along with the possibility of bonus lives when you clear the red balloons, adds to the excitement. Hands down the best paddle game made by Atari.
8. Berzerk (Atari, 1982)
Sure, there are no robotic voices calling you “chicken,” but this is still an awesome (in the most ’80s sense of the word) home rendition of the challenging arcade classic. The tension is palpable as you race futilely from room to room in an endless electrified maze. I think even as an 8-year-old, I somehow understood that this game was hinting at a much better future (for video games, at least… not necessarily for hapless space explorers).
7. Yars’ Revenge (Atari, 1982)
Sure, it’s a horrible version of Star Castle, but that’s why it’s not called Star Castle. This is apparently a love-it-or-hate-it kind of game, but the love-its seem to predominate. My enthusiasm for this game has always been heightened by the fact that I found it in a closeout bin at Kmart for $1.99 in 1985, the first video game I actually bought with my own money. The incessant, brain-melting drone… the relentless creep of the Qotile’s missile, and the unpredictable onslaught of the dreaded Swirl… this is definitely one of the classic “zone-out” games.
6. Asteroids (Atari, 1981)
The first Atari game to boast a staggering 8 kilobytes of program code, Asteroids brought the classic arcade action home. Sure it was a bit easier than the arcade version, and the crisp white vector graphics were replaced with flickery colored blobs, but it was still the kind of game you could keep your eyes glued to for 6 hours straight, which (along with Space Invaders) slowly drove mothers everywhere insane with its Jaws-esque minimalist soundtrack.
5. Keystone Kapers (Activision, 1983)
Often overlooked in the company of its other Activision platform game brethren, this game has always been one of my favorites. It has a great quirky theme, excellent (by contemporary standards) graphics, and solid engaging action. Unfortunately it was released on the eve of the legendary market crash of 1984, so it went underappreciated (much like another pair of outstanding Activision platform games, Pitfall II and H.E.R.O.)
4. Frogger (Parker Brothers, 1982)
And my vote for best arcade conversion on the 2600 (apparently) goes to Frogger! While it doesn’t quite look like the arcade version, it does look good (certainly as good or better than the version on the supposedly superior Intellivision), and the gameplay is outstanding. Certainly Parker Brothers had a great concept to work with in this classic Konami arcade game, and they did a great job of bringing the experience home. No Atari collection is complete without this game, and fortunately, since its as common as dirt, few collectors have to suffer that embarrassment. (Even if the label’s missing.)
3. Kaboom! (Activision, 1981)
The ultimate twitch game of all time. There has never been another game like Kaboom! and there never will be, at least until console manufacturers bring back the paddle controller. Even then it may not be possible, because for all of its limitations (and they are myriad), one thing the Atari 2600 really had going for it was its unique and somewhat peculiar (once you begin to understand why it works this way) ability to move on-screen objects incredibly quickly in response to the slightest controller movements. No system before or since has been as good for this purpose, and no game took advantage of it better than Kaboom!
2. Solaris (Atari, 1986)
In the days when a complete, commercially-released game could still be designed and developed from scratch by one person (and even start out as a hobby project), Solaris stood out for its incredible depth, complexity, and quality. I was absolutely in awe of this game when I first discovered it in the late ’80s, and I still hold it in high esteem today. It doesn’t hold up quite as well anymore just because it’s so close to an NES game that it makes me long for something on a newer and more powerful system, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is clearly in the top 5 (if not top 2) Atari 2600 games of all time.
1. H.E.R.O. (Activision, 1984)
For me, there is one perfect Atari 2600 game, and this is it. It has a great concept, decent graphics, it’s easy to learn but challenging to master, and it has a surprising amount of depth and replay value. It’s a game ahead of its time, in that it feels like the majority of the platform-type games that dominated the NES a few years later, and yet it does all of that on hardware that was originally designed 8 years earlier to play games like Pong. Amazing.

Honorable Mention

For those of you who are asking, “But what about ?!?!” The following great games just barely missed making it to the list:

Cosmic Ark, Jr. Pac-Man, Midnight Magic, Moon Patrol, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, River Raid, Stargate, Super Breakout, Warlords