|The Great Fixed
Vs Relative Table Width Debate
By Christopher S L Heng
|Visit any web design
newsgroups or many of the web authoring guides on the web and
you will probably encounter a large number of people proclaiming
the evils of having a fixed table width and recommending that
you use relative table widths for your tables. On the other
hand, if you view the source HTML for the websites you visit,
you will find that a large number of them use fixed table widths.
Which should you use? As we will find out in this article, the
issue is not as straightforward as the proponents of relative
table widths make out.
For the uninitiated, a fixed table width is one where the width
of the table is specified in pixels. For example, the following
HTML snippet will most likely produce a table that is 597 pixels
I say most likely because other factors may cause the browser
to display the table at a different width, such as if you were
to put an image in the table that is wider what you specify
A relative table width is specified as a percentage of the width
of the visitor's viewing window. Hence the following snippet
will most likely produce a table that occupies 80 percent of
1. The Case For Relative Table Widths
The arguments raised in favour of making your tables take a
relative width usually revolve around the fact that such table
widths will yield pages that work regardless of the visitor's
For example, a table width of "100%" will always span the entire
width of the browser window whether the visitor has a 640x468
display or a 1024x768 display (etc). Your visitor never needs
to scroll horizontally to read your page, something that is
regarded by most people as being very annoying.
With relative table widths, you need not worry whether to code
for a restrictive 640x468 display, often regarded as the lowest
common denominator (although it is not), or for the more reasonable
2. The Case For Fixed Table Widths
At the time of this writing, the pages on thesitewizard.com
were constructed with relative table widths. They probably look
fine if you were using a 640x468 or 800x600 display. If however,
you have a wider display, try viewing it with your browser window
expanded to its maximum width (ie, "maximize" it, in Windows
Did you notice that a number of the paragraphs that used to
occupy a decent few lines are now displayed as single lines?
The article now looks like an elementary school essay - with
single lined paragraphs and lots of space in between.
Essentially, when you use relative table widths, you have less
control over the appearance of your page. It will appear as
wide or as narrow as your visitor's browser. As a result, when
the browser window gets too wide, everything will appear stretched
out. When the browser window gets too narrow, your text and
graphics in the various columns will suddenly be misaligned.
If you were to create a fixed width table, that table will retain
its proportion regardless of the visitor's screen resolution.
Of course if the resolution drops below the fixed width you
assigned, the visitor would have to scroll horizontally. But
at least your page still appears as you planned.
3. The Rock and The Hard Place
With all the foregoing, which should you use? As long as screen
resolutions continue to be as varied as it is now, and as long
as the HTML standards do not allow web authors to specify things
like "if resolution falls below 640 pixels, use a fixed width
of 640, else use a relative width of 80% (etc)", no single solution
is going to satisfy everyone.
Generally speaking, if you want tighter control over the appearance
of your pages, fixed table widths might be the route you have
to take, although of course it may cause grief for people with
lower resolutions than what you designed for. You should probably
test your page under a 640x480 resolution to check if the problems
visitors have with that screen resolution are tolerable.
If you do not need such a tight control, you might prefer to
go with the advice of the majority of web design guides and
use relative table widths for your site. You still need to test
your page under a 640x480 resolution to see if your layout and
alignment goes haywire under a lower resolution.
Incidentally, using a fixed table width does not mean your page
will look fine under higher resolutions. If your table has a
fixed width of say 600 pixels, and a visitor using a 1024x768
resolution system views that page, he'll see an undistorted
copy of your table in a sea of white space.
Designing for different resolutions can sometimes seem like
you are standing between a rock and a hard place. Don't believe
the people who say that the use of one method over the other
will solve all your problems. You still have to test your pages
under a reasonably high resolution and a low resolution to see
how it appears. In most cases, you will have to live with some
imperfections when your site is viewed under extreme settings.
And of course when they invent the 2000x1000 displays...
Copyright by Christopher S L Heng. All rights reserved.
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