All You Need to Know About Web Rendering

Ilya Pestov
Nov 18, 2015 · 4 min read

Hi there! Today I want to highlight the topic of web rendering. I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of articles about that but most of them are so different … so let’s get it all together.

This practice is rather useful during the front-end development because, as you can understand, markup, styles and scripts are very important for that so you are ought to know some lifehacks.

This article is not aimed at describing the accurate mechanics of work browsers, but rather on understanding its general principles. By the way, different browsers have different algorithms so we can’t be sure to collect all of them.

The Rendering Process

So let’s consider the sequence of browsers work step by step:

  • Building DOM (Document Object Model) from received HTML.
  • Downloading and detecting styles, which formed by CSSOM (CSS Object Model).
  • Building the render tree based on both DOM and CSSOM (Webkit names it as «renderer» or «render object», Gecko — «frame»). It doubles DOM but doesn’t show hidden elements like <head> or those who have display:none; style. Each line of text should be defined as different renderer. Each render object contains of it’s DOM object and it’s set style. So render tree describes the DOM visually.
  • For each render tree element, calculated the position on the page — building layout. Browsers use method (flow), which in most cases enough only one pass for all elements (more passes required for tables).
  • Painting all stuff in the browser.

During the interaction between user and page (by some of the scripts) this process can be done again.


If object style was changed but it’s size and position weren’t changed (for example, background-color, border-color, visibility) then browser just paints this one again (it is also called restyling).


If the structure of our document was touched then browsers do reflow (or to relayout). The main occasions of this are:

  • DOM manipulations (resizing, removing, adding something).
  • The text was changed.
  • CSS properties were changed.
  • New stylesheets were added or older are removed.
  • Class attribute manipulations.
  • Browser window changes: resizing, scrolling.
  • Pseudo-class activation (for example, :hover).

Usually, browsers try to localize repaint and reflow on the side of changed object. For example, if you change a size of absolute or fixed positioned object then it will affect only this object and it’s children, but if you edit another one with static position then the whole page would be reflowed.

One more interesting thing is that browser caches everything during the JavaScript execution and applies them after the second turn after the script ends.

Let’s discuss an example. This one will cause reflow and repaint only once and not more than it:

var $body = $('body'); 
$body.css('padding', '1px'); // reflow,
repaint $body.css('color', 'red'); // repaint
$body.css('margin', '2px'); // reflow, repaint

But, as described before, properties change will make a reflow. So we’re going to add only on call and get this:

var $body = $('body'); 
$body.css('padding', '1px');
$body.css('padding'); // forced reflow
$body.css('color', 'red');
$body.css('margin', '2px');

To sum up, we will get two reflows. So if you want to change any properties then try to collect all of them together in favour of performance (see an example

Sometimes we can’t avoid reflows. For example, we need to apply margin-left twice. The first one we’ll do without any animation (just set it to 100px) and set it’s transition to *50px on the second time. You can
see an example right now but I still going to describe it here.

Let’s create a transition class:

.has-transition { 
-webkit-transition: margin-left 1s ease-out;
-moz-transition: margin-left 1s ease-out;
-o-transition: margin-left 1s ease-out;
transition: margin-left 1s ease-out;

Then we will try to create what we need as follows:

var $targetElem = $('#targetElemId'); // our element which has a "has-transition" class // delete transition class 
// change the property thinking that transition is disabled because we have done it before
$targetElem.css('margin-left', 100);
// set transition back
// change the property
$targetElem.css('margin-left', 50);

This solution won’t work as desired because browser caches and apply any changes only at the end of the script. Here we need a reflow. After using it our code should look like this (that will work):

// delete transition class 
// change the property
$(this).css('margin-left', 100);
// we call a reflow. all changes made before were applied
$(this)[0].offsetHeight; // you can use any call here
// set transition back
// change the property
$(this).css('margin-left', 50);

Practical advice for optimization

Based on this and other articles about web-optimization we can collect the next rules for better front-end:

  • Write valid HTML and CSS with charset definition. You’d better include all the styles in <head> and all scripts at the end of the <body>.
  • Try to make css-selectors simpler (even if you use preprocessor). Less nesting is better. The effectiveness rank of selectors is as follows (the first is the fastest):
  1. Identificator: #id
  2. Class: .class
  3. Tag: div
  4. Neighbour selector: a + i
  5. Children selector: ul > li
  6. Universal selector: *
  7. Attribute selector: input[type=”text”]
  8. Pseudoelements and pseudoclasses: a:hover

Keep in mind that browsers look for selectors from right to left so you should put the most effective at the end:

div * {...} // bad 
.list li {...} // bad
.list-item {...} // good
#list .list-item {...} // good
  • Minimize any work with DOM. Cache all: properties, objects if you use them more than once. You can also use offline element (stores all the data in memory) if you work with hard operations.
  • When using jQuery for elements choosing, see their recommendations for selector creation.
  • It is better to use only a class attribute in DOM (as deep as it possible) when working with styles.
  • Don’t animate those objects which don’t have absolute or fixed position. If it’s needed then change only transition property (used repaint) instead of margin (used reflow).
  • You may disable difficult :hover during scrolling (with no-hover for example).

I suggest reading those article to learn more:

Originally published at on November 18, 2015.

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