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Browser Performance Problem with CSS “print” Media Type

 Billy Hoffman on December 7, 2009. Category: Optimization

I ran across an article today that shocked me. Geert De Deckere wrote how you can save an HTTP request by combining the CSS files for the print and screen media types.

Wait, I thought. What? Why do I need to do this? What behavior is this correcting? I was very confused. Maybe you are too.

image of CSS code in an editor

CSS allows you to define styling information for different media types. CSS could tell a browser that is rendering to a TV screen to style the same content differently from a browser rendering on a mobile phone. The HTML content is all the same. Media types simply define which style rules apply for which devices. CSS also defines a print media type which is the style to use when styling a page that is being printed. Browsers should be smart about only downloading the style sheet with the media type for the device they are rendering. Firefox on my laptop is should not fetch the mobile.css style sheet whose media type is handheld. And luckily browsers are smart and don’t download CSS files for media types that they don’t support.

Except for the CSS media type print.

Geert’s article and advice were predicated on the claim that web browsers will download external style sheets with the print media type even if you don’t print the page. Is this true? To find out I built a quick test page:

<html> <head> <title>CSS Media Tests</title> <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="screen.css" media="screen" /> <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="print.css" media="print" /> </head> <p> Hello! <img src="new-logo.png"> </p> </html>

Wow! Geert’s claim was true! All major desktop browsers that I tested (Firefox 3.5, IE 7, Chrome 3.0 and Safari 4.0) will download external style sheets whose media type is print even if you don’t print the page! This is hurts performance for no good reason. Currently your browser must make one HTTP request and download screen.css. But then your browser has to make an additional HTTP request to download a file full of content that it does not need. Worst of all, the browser will not start rendering the page until it has grabbed the completely unused print.css file!

This is very silly behavior. Especially given that virtually none of your website visitors are going to print any of your web pages, unless you are a website like Google Maps. Try and remember: “when was the last time your printed a web page?” Unfortunately all 4 browser I tested all downloaded print.css even though I never printed the page. Firefox, IE, and Chrome all downloaded print.css in order as if it was a external CSS file whose media type was screen. Looking through a proxy the request order was:

  1. css-media-test.html
  2. screen.css
  3. print.css
  4. new-logo.png

Safari 4.0 however, downloaded the content in this order:

  1. css-media-test.html
  2. screen.css
  3. new-logo.png
  4. print.css

Safari was smart enough to defer downloading but did still downloaded it. I do not know if Safari delayed firing the window.onload event until after print.css downloaded or not. WebPageTest confirms that IE does not start rendering the page until print.css is downloaded. The fact that Firefox and Chrome both requested content in the same order as IE leads me to think they also delay rendering.

Possible Solution?

Geert proposed a solution to this problem. He recommends combining the two external CSS files into a single CSS file and use @media directives inside the CSS file to separate the style info for screen from the style info for print. You end up with a single CSS file that looks like this

@media screen { /* contents of screen.css here */ } @media print { /* contents of print.css here */ }

This solution does not sit well with me. Yes, by combining the two CSS files and using @media directives you can remove an HTTP request. You now only have to download a single CSS file whose size will be smaller than the sum of the two original file sizes because a single large file will compress better. However your visitors still have to download a large amount of CSS content. 30-40% of that content is printer-centric style information which no one will ever actually use anyway, and the browser will not start to render the page until all this useless data has been downloaded. (Interestingly enough Zoompf free Web Performance Scan checks style blocks and CSS files for @media directives and recommends you break them into separate style sheets to prevent unnecessary rules from being downloaded. I had to modify the check to allow @media print directives when I found this solution.)

A Different Solution

I believe there is a different and perhaps better solution. You can defer downloading print.css by using JavaScript to dynamically add a <LINK> tag pointing to the external CSS file with the print media type after the page has loaded! This solution means the browser only needs to make 1 HTTP request and less CSS content needs to be downloaded to start drawing the page. This will have a faster “Time to Render” than a single CSS file as less data is downloaded. The extremely small number of people who do print your web page will still get the style sheet necessary for them to print. You can also use a <NOSCRIPT> tag in the <HEAD> to link to print.css. This means anyone who has JavaScript turned off will the performance hit all of your visitors are currently taking and request both external style sheets. The deferring print.css solution looks like this:

<html> <head> <title>CSS Media Tests</title> <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="screen.css" media="screen" /> <noscript> <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="print.css" media="print" /> </noscript> </head> <p> Hello! <img src="new-logo.png"> </p> <script> window.onload = function() { var cssNode = document.createElement('link'); cssNode.type = 'text/css'; cssNode.rel = 'stylesheet'; cssNode.href = 'print.css'; cssNode.media = 'print'; document.getElementsByTagName("head")[0].appendChild(cssNode); } </script> </html>

You reduce initial request count and download size at the cost of greater complexity and more markup. This code could be improved. A more scalable solution would be for the JavaScript code to look in the <HEAD> and parse any <LINK> tags inside of a <NOSCRIPT> with a print media type and create new LINK elements dynamically.

Solving the problem

A summary of the problems and the two solutions appears below. This table assumes two CSS files (screen.css and print.css) each 30 kilobytes and size and a combined CSS file (all.css) whose size is 55 kilobytes.

MethodHTTP Requests before “Start Render”CSS Downloaded before “Start Rendering”# HTTP Requests after “Onload”Content Download after “Onload”
No Optimization260 Kb00 Kb
Single CSS file all.css155 Kb00 Kb
Deferring print.css130 Kb130 Kb

Which solution works best will vary with your situtation. The status quo is 2 HTTP requests to deliver 60 Kb of content before the browser can start rendering. A single CSS file reduces that to 1 HTTP requests and 55 Kb of content before the browser can start rendering. Deffering print.css also only requires 1 HTTP request before pageload but only sends 30 Kb before the browser can start rendering. If you have a small print.css file it might be better to use a single CSS file with @media directives. The overhead of serving a single larger CSS file containing unused style dat aand the delay that adds until the browser can start rendering might be so small it does not matter. However if you have a larger print.css file deferring the print.css download until after page load would provide a great performance benefit.

The moral of the story here is that the browser creators need to remove this performance defect from their code. Ideally the print CSS media type data should not be downloaded until the print dialog box appears, either from user action or using window.print() in JavaScript. Next best solution would be for the browser to automatically defer the downloading of “print” CSS media type data until after the page has downloaded. In the mean time, you can use either the single CSS file solution or the deferring print.css solution to make your web pages load faster!

Want to see what performance problems you have? An appropriately placed <LINK> tag and proper use of CSS @media directives are just two of the 200+ performance issues Zoompf detects while assessing your web applications for performance. You can sign up for a free mini web performance assessment at Zoompf.com today!


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