The PNG Guide is an eBook based on Greg Roelofs' book, originally published by O'Reilly.

Interlacing and Progressive Display

By now, just about everyone has seen interlaced GIFs in action; they first show up with a very stretched, blocky appearance and gradually get filled in until the full-resolution image is displayed. Their big advantage is that an overall impression of the image is visible after only one-eighth of the image data has been transferred; gross features such as embedded buttons or large text are often recognizable (and clickable) even at this stage.

But as useful as GIF's interlacing is, it has one big disadvantage: it is not symmetric. In other words, while GIF's first pass consists of one-eighth of the image data, that factor of eight comes entirely at the expense of vertical resolution. Horizontally, every line is at full resolution as soon as it is displayed, which means that each pixel in the first pass is stretched by a factor of eight. Needless to say, this does make text and other features much harder to recognize than they really need to be.

PNG's approach to interlacing is two-dimensional and involves no stretching at all on more than half of its passes. Even-numbered passes are stretched, but only by a factor of two--similar to the effect after GIF's third pass. Some applications display only the odd-numbered PNG passes, so their pixels always appear square. In addition, PNG's interlacing consists of seven passes, as opposed to GIF's four. This means that the user will see an overall impression of the image after only one- sixty-fourth of the data has arrived, eight times faster than GIF.[4] In the time it takes GIF to display its first pass, PNG displays four passes--and keep in mind that PNG's fourth pass is only one-quarter as stretched as GIF's first pass, with ``pixels'' that are basically 2 × 4 blocks instead of 1 × 8. As a general rule, text embedded in an interlaced PNG image becomes readable roughly twice as fast as in the identical interlaced GIF, as shown in Figure 1-4. The rows show the respective appearance after one-sixty-fourth, one-thirty-second, one-sixteenth, one-eighth, one-fourth, half, and all of the data has arrived. The first column shows GIF interlacing; the others show PNG interlacing, rendered in various styles: standard blocky rendering, interpolated rendering, and sparse rendering, respectively. Note that the word Interlacing has roughly the same readability in the fifth GIF row, the fourth blocky PNG row, and the third interpolated PNG row. In other words, the GIF text takes two to four times as long to become readable.

[4] I am implicitly assuming that one-sixty-fourth of the compressed data (the stuff that can be said to ``arrive'') corresponds to one-sixty-fourth of the uncompressed image data (what the user actually sees). This is not quite true for either PNG or GIF, though the difference is likely to be small in most cases--and other factors, such as network buffering, will tend to wash out any differences that do exist. See Chapter 9, "Compression and Filtering" for more details.

Figure 1-4

Figure 1-4: Comparison of GIF interlacing (far left), normal PNG interlacing (second from left), PNG with interpolation (second from right), and PNG with sparse display (far right). (Click on image for full-scale version.)

JPEG doesn't support interlacing, per se, but it does support a method of progressive display that has been implemented in most browsers since late 1996. In fact, progressive JPEG is a two-dimensional scheme that is not only visually similar to interlaced PNG but also somewhat superior. Loosely speaking, progressive JPEG uses the ``average'' color for any given block of pixels, whereas PNG uses the color of a single pixel in the corner of the block. Early JPEG passes also tend to be somewhat softer (smoother) than early PNG passes; some users find that effect more pleasing.

Finally, I should at least mention TIFF's potential for interlacing. Although no major browser supports TIFF as a native image format, it does offer a very general, random-access approach to image layout. Based either on groups of rows (``strips'') or on rectangular blocks of pixels (``tiles''), a properly constructed TIFF could be used for some form of progressive display. But aside from complete lack of browser support (and very little interest from users), TIFF's compression works only within individual strips or tiles, not across them. So either the interlacing effect would be horrible or the compression would be (or quite possibly both), which is probably why no one seems to have tried it.

Last Update: 2010-Nov-26