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Wide-Gamut Monitors, Color Management, and Browsers

Updated August 2019

Some Technical Background

My choice of Web browser is dictated by my “wide-gamut” monitor.

What does that mean? First, gamut is the range of colors a monitor or printer can display. It’s also the range of colors contained in a color space. A color space is a mathematical scheme for representing colors as numbers, typically triads of eight- or sixteen-bit red, green, and blue values for each of the thousands or millions of pixels in an image.

Most monitors have a fairly narrow gamut, approximating a color space called sRGB. Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft developed sRGB in 1996 as a “lowest common denominator” standard for images on the nascent World Wide Web, based on the color rendition of the CRT (picture tube) monitors available at the time. sRGB is certainly adequate for many kinds of pictures. That’s why it remains the standard for nearly all images on the Web, as well as the default color space— often the only available one— for digital cameras.

But sRGB’s narrow gamut lacks many “saturated” (pure and vivid) colors found in nature and in color photographs, which means monitors can’t display them. The closest it gets to a vivid green is distinctly yellowish. Deep blue sky can turn purple or gunmetal gray. And if your love is like a red, red rose, it might turn into a featureless red blob. The details of the petals are differentiated in colors well outside the sRGB gamut.

A wide-gamut LCD monitor can display many of the saturated colors that are outside the gamut of sRGB. But it can only do that with images that contain those colors, in a color space with a larger gamut than sRGB, such as Adobe RGB or ProPhoto. It also needs color managed software, such as Photoshop, that can recognize the larger color space and translate it properly into colors on the monitor. And the monitor needs to be calibrated and profiled, to tell the color management system how to do that translation correctly. (I discuss calibration and profiling, along with more details about color management, in my review of the huey and hueyPro, two now-discontinued hardware devices for calibrating and profiling monitors.) This complexity is the reason most users of digital cameras stick with sRGB.

When all those conditions are in place, a wide-gamut monitor can accurately display many more colors than a regular monitor, including saturated colors outside the sRGB gamut that some printers can put on paper. That means the petals of that red rose and individual blades of bright green grass are all visible, and the sky is the correct cobalt blue. Such a monitor lets a photographer use a larger color space than sRGB, to take better advantage of what a digital camera sensor or color film can record. (But those images need to be converted to sRGB for the Web. They’ll look dull and washed-out if they’re left in a larger color space.)

The disadvantage of a wide-gamut monitor (besides the higher cost) becomes immediately visible whenever you’re not working in Photoshop. Without color management— which, again, requires software that uses it— images take on comic-book or even psychedelic hues. Blue sky turns aquamarine, and flesh tones turn orange. Web surfing becomes something like watching an old color TV with the “tint” slightly off and the “color” knob turned up too high (if you live in North America or Japan and are old enough to remember that). Some wide-gamut monitors address this problem with a button or menu setting that restricts the gamut to sRGB. But that can cause problems with monitor calibration, especially if you forget to restore the wide gamut before a Photoshop session.

Browser Color Management

A better solution is a color-managed Web browser that can display images correctly. Fortunately, the current versions of all the major browsers support some kind of color management. Unfortunately, only two Windows browsers offer a dependable, complete implementation of color management that’s actually usable for wide-gamut monitors.

A fully color-managed browser needs to do two things. First, it needs to recognize images “tagged” with a profile that specifies the color space, and use that profile in conjunction with the monitor’s profile to display the colors correctly. The second thing is much more important, since very few of the billions of images on the Web include profiles. The browser needs to assume that any image without a profile is sRGB, and then use the monitor’s profile to display the sRGB colors correctly. This is almost always the correct assumption, since nearly all images on the Web are sRGB.

The Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox, along with Vivaldi, are currently the only Windows browsers that do both those things correctly and reliably. (But since the “Quantum” relaunch of Firefox in 2017, a manual configuration setting is necessary to handle untagged images correctly.) Google’s Chrome, Microsoft Edge and versions 9, 10, and 11 of Windows Internet Explorer, Opera version 12.10 and later, and Firefox with default settings correctly display “tagged” images with profiles. But images without profiles— that is, nearly every image on the Web— display without any color management correction.

The Chromium engine, on which Chrome, the current version of Opera, and various “minor” browsers are based, includes complete color management. But for reasons known only to Google, Chrome inconsistently breaks that capability. Some versions correctly display images with profiles, but not those without. Those versions may or may not correctly display images without profiles if you include a special, poorly-documented command line option in the icon from which you start it. If that works, there’s no way of knowing whether it will still work with the next update Google surreptitiously pushes to your computer.

Of course, none of that really matters if you’ve got a normal monitor with a standard sRGB gamut. But if you’ve got a wide-gamut monitor and you’re surfing the Web with a browser that lacks color management, you might find yourself wondering whether someone spiked your coffee with LSD.

It’s worth mentioning that Apple’s iPhone has used the DCI-P3 color space for its photos since the iPhone 7 came out. With a wider gamut than sRGB, DCI-P3 is the standard color space for the digital projectors that have supplanted film in cinemas. The newest iPhones have wide-gamut LCD screens that can display DCI-P3, and the JPEG photo files they produce include a profile. Those photos will display correctly in color-managed software like Photoshop or a color-managed browser, but will have dull washed-out color on devices or software that aren’t color managed. Given the popularity of iPhones, their use of a wider-gamut color space alongside the sRGB used by every other device will surely make color management in browsers and operating systems more important in the future.

Some Desktop Browsers

Google’s Chrome is currently the most widely-used desktop browser by a large margin. According to NetMarketShare, a Web site that tracks browser usage, it accounted for 66.8% of browser usage in July 2019. (That share was 60.61% in November 2017, when I previously updated this page.) Chrome is distinguished by a user interface about as lean and uncluttered as it’s possible to get. Google claims that Chrome is the fastest browser; but I don’t notice much speed difference between any of the browsers on my computer. I honestly can’t see what’s so great about Chrome; but its dominance suggests that Google must be doing something right.

Recent versions of Chrome seem to consistently display images with profiles correctly. But images without profiles are hit-or-miss. If they don’t display correctly on a wide-gamut monitor, adding the “--enable-monitor-profile” option may fix the problem, but there’s no guarantee it will work. And if it works, there’s no guarantee it will work with the next update Google pushes to your computer. And Google has made it clear that color management is not a priority for their developers.

The easiest way to start Chrome with this option in Windows is to first right-click on the Chrome icon, to bring up the Properties box. Select the “Shortcut” tab, click on the “Target” field, press the “End” key, add the option to the end of this line (with two hyphens at the beginning of the string, but no quotes), and click “OK.” Unfortunately, if Chrome is your default browser, there is no straightforward way to start it with that option from another application, such as an e-mail client, that starts the browser directly rather than through the icon.

Some people are suspicious of Chrome, believing that it surreptitiously tracks browsing and sends the information to Google so they can sell it to advertisers. But what it actually does send to Google is the same as any other browser that offers search “completion” or “suggestion” when typing into a search toolbar.

I have long been one of the many users who assiduously avoid Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, now the third most-used desktop browser with a August 2019 NetMarketShare rating of 8.6%. (Its November 2017 share was 12.04%.) My avoidance wasn’t merely to protest the arrogance of a company that effectively monopolized the browser market for years by integrating their browser into their monopoly operating system. That near-monopoly created the computer equivalent of an agricultural monoculture, susceptible to every virus, worm, or exploit (until Microsoft got around to patching it). Using something else provided a useful measure of protection from those hazards.

Internet Explorer also has long had rendering quirks and proprietary extensions that violated standards promulgated by the World Wide Web Consortium, as well as outright bugs (such as lack of support for PNG graphics). Microsoft ignored the complaints, insisting that their market dominance entitled them to dictate the Web’s standards. It was thus incumbent on designers to build their sites around Microsoft’s browser, preferably to the exclusion of everyone else. And many developers did exactly that, because it was easier than supporting multiple browsers.

Competition from the upstart Mozilla Firefox, and later Google’s Chrome, forced Microsoft to finally update their long-stagnant Explorer. But even then, Microsoft spent quite some time playing catch-up. As a small example, the navigation buttons at the bottom of pages containing pictures on this Web site will have rounded corners if you’re using a version of Firefox, Chrome, or Opera released since early in 2010. That’s because those browsers have supported a new Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) option to round the corners for at least that long. But Internet Explorer didn’t support that option until March 2011, with version 9.

(That rounded corner is but a tiny example of the headaches Internet Explorer continually gives Web developers. Although version 9 finally included essential modern features long available in other browsers, many visitors to Web sites still use older versions. Developers of sophisticated interactive sites— Facebook and GMail, for example— have to develop and test two or more different versions of their sites. One is for modern browsers, including Internet Explorer since version 9; the other works around the absent, non-standard, or buggy implementation of necessary browser features in Internet Explorer 8 and earlier.)

The current (and final) version 11 of what Microsoft has quietly renamed Windows Internet Explorer is an entirely adequate browser, although it still lacks features like a complete tool for viewing and deleting cookies that Firefox and Opera include. But there’s no real reason to prefer it over its competitors, except perhaps to access corporate Web sites that stubbornly refuse to allow anything other than a Microsoft browser. There’s nothing they do that other browsers don’t do better.

With the arrival of Windows 10, Microsoft replaced the somewhat tarnished Internet Explorer brand with a new browser called Edge. Like its predecessor, it’s a decent modern browser that has the “advantage” of deep integration into the Windows operating system (to the point where Windows often insists on using it even if you’ve installed and selected a different default browser). But its August 2019 NetMarketShare rating is only 4.8% (up slightly from its November 2017 share of 4.21%). And only 11.9% of Windows 10 users browse with Edge. Perhaps in response to its lack of acceptance— but most likely to reduce development costs— Microsoft announced that future versions of Edge will use Chromium rather than Microsoft’s own rendering engine. (It sounds like the former Microsoft browser monoculture will be replaced with one from Google. But at least Google frequently updates Chromium.)

If you’re still using Windows XP, you’re stuck with Internet Explorer 8. And if you have a Macintosh or a Linux box you can’t use Internet Explorer at all. (That’s apparently no great handicap.)

The Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox was my regular browser from 2007 through 2017, because of its complete color management. It has all the other features we’ve come to expect from a modern browser, and it works with just about every Web site out there.

Another reason for preferring Firefox was the availability of a third-party extension that deleted all cookies after leaving any site that wasn’t explicitly “whitelisted.” That prevented advertisers (and particularly Google) from tracking Web usage, ostensibly to send “targeted” ads based on browsing history. I don’t like the idea of anyone snooping on my Web usage. The extension deleted an amazing number and variety of cookies, and was only available for Firefox.

Firefox is the number 2 browser in August 2019, with a NetMarketShare rating of 9.4%. (That’s down from 11.42% in November 2017, and reflects years of continuous decline. It was 14.88% in November 2016, and 20.87% in March 2013.) As the lost users switched to Chrome, Mozilla apparently decided the only hope of keeping Firefox relevant was to make it more like Chrome. They gave it a new sleek minimalist user interface, and also adopted Google’s schedule of frequent updates. But a third-party extension could restore the older user interface.

In November 2017, Mozilla rolled out “Quantum.” The new version overhauled the rendering engine for a claimed significant speed improvement, and introduced a new “modern” (i.e., Chrome-like) user interface. It also broke numerous third-party extensions, including the ones I relied on to delete cookies and maintain the familiar “legacy” user interface. Many users were unhappy about the changes, but Mozilla had been warning users and developers of extensions for some time that upcoming changes to the browser’s internal architecture would be incompatible with many popular extensions.

Another change that came with “Quantum” was the default of enabling color management only for images explicitly tagged with a color profile. That made it more like its competition, but not in a good way. But it’s possible to restore color management for all images (tagged and un-tagged) with a hidden configuration option. Type about:config in the address bar. Then search for gfx.color_management.mode. Its default value is 2, which enables color management only for tagged files. Double-click on that preference name and enter 1 in the dialog box. That will enable color management for all images. While you’re at it, double-click the preference name gfx.color_management.enablev4 to enable ICC Version 4 profiles (and also version 2).

Mozilla apparently assumed that promoting Firefox as a faster, sleeker, and fresher Chrome would entice enough Chrome users to more than offset the loss of any unhappy Firefox users. The lack of improvement in its NetMarketShare rating suggests that assumption was wrong. For me it was a matter of “if I have to get used to a new browser, that new browser doesn’t necessarily have to be Firefox.” When I investigated possible replacements for the cookie deletion extension, I found one called Cookie AutoDelete that was not only compatible with the new Firefox, but also with Chrome. The last straw was when I discovered that the New York Times Web site did not display properly. I suspect the problem was related to a non-standard default font size setting, but I was not interested in the (unnecessary) effort of tracking down and fixing the problem. It was time to consider other browsers.

About a year before Mozilla pushed out “Quantum,” I had tried a new browser called Vivaldi. Its developer was a startup founded by Jon von Tetzchner, who had developed the Opera browser I had used for many years before switching to Firefox. It was then pre-release software that really wasn’t ready for prime time. But by the time “Quantum” came out, it was a “stable” product. I decided to try Vivaldi again. I was pleasantly surprised to find it had complete color management. Since it’s built on the Chromium engine that Chrome uses, it’s also compatible with many third-party extensions for Chrome, including “Cookie AutoDelete.” Vivaldi is now my regular browser.

Vivaldi is intended for “power users.” It’s optimized to manage a large number of open tabs, and has extensive customization options available in a “Settings” panel. But it’s a very nice browser straight out of the box. It includes a number of clever user interface features inherited from Opera, including mouse gestures for navigation and the ability to zoom (increase or decrease the size of text and images) individual pages using the mouse or keyboard.

Vivaldi is definitely a niche product unlikely to challenge Chrome’s dominance. It barely registers on NetMarketShare, with 0.11% in July 2019 (it was 0.06% in November 2017.) Most Web sites see Vivaldi as Chrome, an intentional design decision that, along with Chromium internals, effectively guarantees seamless compatibility with nearly all Web sites. (There’s nothing we can do about the few corporate and government sites that allow access only to the Microsoft browsers their IT departments still foist on their employees.) But it also means companies like NetMarketShare are probably undercounting Vivaldi users.

You might think of Vivaldi as Chrome with a very different user interface for a different sort of user. That’s perhaps an accurate description of Vivaldi: Its user interface is built with standard Web technology (CSS and JavaScript) that runs within Chromium. Besides making it easier for Vivaldi’s developers to support Windows, Macintosh, and Linux versions, users with knowledge of Web development technology can customize Vivaldi beyond the options in the “Settings” panel. But even if you’re not a “power user” or a Web developer, Vivaldi is a fine alternative to Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft that’s certainly worth a look!

I first started using Opera in 1997, running under OS/2’s Windows emulation. I found that the lean and clever Opera 2.12, though rather primitive by today’s standards, was much better than IBM’s native OS/2 version of Netscape. The installation file for Opera 2.12 fit on a 3.5-inch floppy disk. I switched to Firefox as my regular browser in 2007, when I got a wide-gamut monitor.

Jon von Tetzchner developed Opera for the Norwegian telephone company before he founded Opera Software. Under his leadership, Opera emphasized usability and flexibility. The underlying philosophy was that software should fit the user rather than forcing users to accept what corporations dictate. Opera pioneered many browser features that are now ubiquitous, including multiple tabs, recall of recently closed tabs or windows, cookie management, pop-up suppression, ad blocking, password manager, toolbar customization, search engine bar, speed dial page, and page zooming. Some features were unique to Opera, notably “mouse gestures” for page navigation that are much more useful in practice than they sound.

In 2013, after von Tetzchner had left Opera Software, the company’s management effectively abandoned the Opera browser. They replaced it with a completely new one based on “WebKit,” the predecessor of Chromium. There were several valid reasons for this change, particularly the compatibility issues that had long inconvenienced users of the original Opera. But the new browser eliminated nearly all the features that made Opera unique. Vivaldi was von Tetzchner’s response to that change, as he saw the need for a browser that would carry on the philosophy of the original Opera.

Since then, Opera has gradually added features, including a built-in proxy for “private” browsing. But because Opera Software sold its browser business to a Chinese venture capital partnership in 2016, the proxy host is in China. Some users may find that disconcerting. Throughout its history, Opera has never been able to garner even 2% of the browser market. Its NetMarketShare rating for August 2019 is 1.58%, about the same as the 1.51% it had in November 2017. That’s insignificantly better than the 1.17% it had in March 2013, but worse than the 1.78% it had in March 2012 and the 1.97% it had in 2011. Unfortunately, the current incarnation of Opera doesn’t seem to offer any compelling reason to prefer it over the “major” browsers.

Apple used to offer a version of Safari for Windows, but it’s now exclusively a Macintosh browser. Its NetMarketShare for March 2019 is 3.6%, slightly less than the 3.85% it had in November 2017. In common with Microsoft’s Edge, Safari is deeply embedded in Mac OS. Also in common with Edge, the majority of Macintosh users (62.8%) prefer other browsers.

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