Media Queries 101

Media Queries Demystified: CSS Min-Width and Max-Width

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Media queries can be used to target certain resolutions or even specific email clients and can replace or work alongside fluid hybrid design.

With the latest update to Outlook.com, all modern webmail clients now support media queries (with some caveats). We have seen a resurgence in queries and interest in how to use them, which we’ll cover here.

What are Media Queries?

A media query consists of an optional media type (all, handheld, print, TV and so on) and any number of optional expressions that limit when the query will trigger, such as width, pixel-density or orientation. Media queries are part of CSS3 and enable developers to customize their content for different presentation mediums.

At the basic level, media queries enable an email developer to create a responsive email by detecting the width of the display. For this purpose, the most commonly used query is max-width. Any width that is less than the max-width specified, all of the CSS within the query will take effect.

How Min- and Max-Width Queries Work

How media queries function can be a bit confusing. Let’s take a look at the queries which are commonly used in email.

Max-width

Here is an example of a max-width query.

@media only screen and (max-width: 600px)  {...}

What this query really means, is “If [device width] is less than or equal to 600px, then do {…}”

So if the email is opened on an iPhone 5S with a screen width of 320px, the media query will trigger and all of the styles contained in { … } will take effect.

Min-width

Here is an example of a min-width query.

@media only screen and (min-width: 600px)  {...}

What this query really means, is “If [device width] is greater than or equal to 600px, then do {…}”

So if the email is opened on an iPhone 5S with a screen width of 320px, the media query will not trigger and the styles contained in { … } will not take effect.

Combining media query expressions

Max-width and min-width can be used together to target a specific range of screen sizes.

@media only screen and (max-width: 600px) and (min-width: 400px)  {...}

The query above will trigger only for screens that are 600-400px wide. This can be used to target specific devices with known widths.

Breakpoints

Most media queries are set to trigger at certain screen widths or breakpoints. Exactly what these should be set to is a matter of some debate amongst email developers.

iPhones and iPads provide us with a few easy breakpoints to start from. Coding styles for these specific clients will ensure emails look great on these screens.

Androids, on the other hand, vary widely in screen size because there are so many different manufacturers and devices. I recommend creating two to four breakpoints, based on popular Apple devices, which will cover most devices:

  • iPhone 5S is an example of a Breakpoint 1 with 320px
  • iPhone 6+ is an example of a Breakpoint 2 with 414px
  • iPad Mini is an example of a Breakpoint 3 with 703px
  • iPad Air is an example of a Breakpoint 4 with 768px

Breakpoints 3 and 4 are optional, as most emails will look fine showing the desktop version on an iPad or large tablet. You could even get away with using just breakpoint 2, if you code your container tables to expand to 100% width (and not a set width, which may or may not match the device well).

Taking advantage of precedence

Remember, CSS rules that appear later in the embedded styles override earlier rules if both have the same specificity. This means that you can set rules for tablets by putting the Breakpoint 4 media query first, then set styles for mobile devices with a Breakpoint 2 media query.

Because the Breakpoint 2 styles come after Breakpoint 4, your mobile styles will override your tablet styles when the Breakpoint 2 query is triggered. This means that you don’t have to set min-width for any of your media queries, as long as they are arranged in the correct order.

Here is an example order:

  • Desktop styles (not in a media query)
  • Tablet styles (max-width: 768px)
  • Mobile styles (max-width: 414px)

It is common to produce an email with just the one media query and breakpoint, choosing a breakpoint that suits your content, such as an email with two columns side by side with a width of 300 pixels.

The breakpoint would be 600 pixels—the lowest width before the content in the columns would start to get squashed. At 600 pixels the columns could stack on top of one another and expand to the device width.

Coding with Media Queries

Using media queries in your emails can really help with targeting and making your emails responsive. However you normally add your CSS styles, you can insert your media queries. In the example below, with embedded CSS in the <head> of the html, you can include the media query between <style></style> tags.

STEP 1

Add a class and the CSS you would like between style tags. In this case, the class is .100pc, which is similar to those widely used on mobile to make tables and elements stretch to the full width of the device or containing table.

<style>
.100pc {
Width: 100%;
}
</style>

STEP 2

We now add the media query around the class. In this case, for devices with a max screen size of 640px.

<style>
@media screen and (max-device-width:640px), screen and (max-width:640px) {
.100pc {
Width: 100%;
}
}
</style>

STEP 3

Now we add !important (an email developer’s magic bullet). With some email clients needing inline styles, you will have to add !important after the style to ensure it over writes the inline style.

<style>
@media screen and (max-device-width:640px), screen and (max-width:640px) {
.100pc {
Width: 100%!important;
}
}
</style>

STEP 4

Add the class to the HTML element:

<table width=“640” style=“width: 640px;” role="presentation" border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" class="100pc”>

Coding for Two Columns with Media Queries

When coding an email to be responsive using media queries, a common technique is to create tables with align = "left" and a special class to target inside the media queries. For example, a two-column section might look like this:

<table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" align="center" class="deviceWidth">
	<tr>
		<td style="padding:10px 0">
            <table align="left" width="49%" border="0" class="deviceWidth">
                <tr>
                    <td>
						
                    </td>
                </tr>
            </table>
            <table align="left" width="49%" border="0" class="deviceWidth">
                <tr>
                    <td>

                    </td>
                </tr>
            </table>
        </td>
    </tr>
</table>

Each of the tables with 49% width can fit side by side when on desktop view. 49% is used instead of 50% because Outlook can be very picky about what fits side-by-side and what doesn’t.

You can make 50% width fit if you set all of your styles just right (no border, padding, etc.). You can make a three-column section using similar code, but use three tables set to 32% width instead.

When the responsive code kicks in, we’ll want to make these content blocks 100% width for phones so that they fill the whole screen. This can be accomplished for most phones with a single media query:

@media only screen and (max-width: 414px) {
  .deviceWidth {width:280px!important; padding:0;}	
  .center {text-align: center!important;}	 
    }

You can continue to add media queries with special styles to cover as many different screen sizes as you’d like. You should also add code to your media queries to optimize font-size and line-height for each screen size, improving readability for your subscribers.

If you’d like to start working with a template like this, grab our “Emailology” template from our Resources section, where you get free access to all of our resources (like templates, white papers, webinars and client tips & tricks).

Other Media Queries

You can do a few other interesting things with media queries. The below uses are most relevant to email, but check out MDN for even more media query techniques.

Orientation

You can use the following media query to target device orientation. Unfortunately, this query doesn’t work well in iOS Mail.

In most versions, the landscape media query will always trigger regardless of orientation:

@media screen and (orientation: landscape) { ...  }

Targeting Yahoo! Mail

You can use this simple query to write styles that will trigger only in Yahoo! Mail. This can be used to address layout or rendering issues that you see only in that email client, or to include messages intended only for Yahoo! users.

@media (yahoo) { ...  }

Pixel-density

This media query can be used to target only devices that have a certain pixel density. Combined with WebKit, this can effectively let the email developer target only iOS devices. This can be useful when adding interactive code that is known only to work in iOS Mail:

@media screen and (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio: 2) { ...  }

Print

By setting specific styles for print, you can ensure your email will be easy to print as a hard copy and look great. This is especially important for coupons or tickets. You can hide useless elements, like links and buttons, and display only the part of the email that is important to print.

@media print { ...  }

Tracking pixel

Something else that could be useful here is adding a tracking pixel as a CSS background image. This will only load when the media query is used, so that way, if you have a printable coupon in your email, you can track the number of times it was printed:

@media print {
background-image: url(https://emailtracking.com/pixel.gif);
width: 1px!important;
height: 1px!important;
}

Using Media Queries to Target Email Clients

We can also target specific devices using media queries, and with updates, developer discoveries and documentation, more are being discovered constantly. Check out howtotarget.email for a searchable list of ways to target different devices.

Gmail on Mobile (webmail and app)

@media screen and (max-width: 480px) {
u + .body .foo {…}
}

Outlook on Android

@media (min-resolution: 1dpi) {
body[data-outlook-cycle] .foo {…}
}

Yahoo! Mail

@media screen yahoo{ … }

WebKit email clients with pixel-density

This media query can be used to target only devices that have a certain pixel density. Combined with WebKit, this can effectively let the email developer target any WebKit devices. This can be useful when adding interactive code that is known only to work in certain clients:

@media screen and (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio: 0) { … }

Email Client Media Query Quirks

Windows phones 7.5 and higher

Yes, Windows announced that there will be no new Windows phones developed and support will be ending soon. However, if you have users opening emails on Windows phones, you need to include the below meta tag in the <head> of your email within mso conditional statements to get any CSS3 and media queries to work.

<!--[if !mso]><!-- -->
<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=edge" />
<!--<![endif]-->

Outlook.com

As highlighted by Remi Parmentier, with the new updates to Outlook.com and the Outlook apps that are following suit, it seems there is now support for one media query.

Using the above example, setting one breakpoint with a media query to distinguish between larger (desktop) screens and mobile sizes would bring responsive email support to Outlook.

Gmail

Gmail supports media queries, but is especially strict with CSS and one misplaced curly bracket can render the whole lot being ignored. Using a CSS validator such as the official w3.org validator will pick up on any obvious mistakes.

Outlook Desktop

Outlook on desktop doesn’t support media queries, but we can use this to our advantage. By wrapping any @font-face for linking web fonts in a media query, they will be ignored and stop Outlook rendering fonts as Times New Roman:

@media {@font-face…}

Media Query Support Chart

Media queries have fairly wide support now that Gmail has enabled classes, IDs and embedded styles. Check out the support chart below:

EnvironmentEmail ClientSupport
WebmailAOL
WebmailGmail
WebmailGoogle Apps
WebmailYahoo! Mail
WebmailOutlook.com
WebmailOffice 365
DesktopApple Mail
DesktopLotus Notes
DesktopOutlook 2000-2016
DesktopOutlook 2011 (Mac)
DesktopThunderbird
MobileiOS Mail
MobileGmail App (Android)
MobileGmail App (iOS)
Webmail (Regional)BOL
Webmail (Regional)Comcast
Webmail (Regional)Free.fr
Webmail (Regional)Freenet.de
Webmail (Regional)GMX
Webmail (Regional)La Poste
Webmail (Regional)Libero
Webmail (Regional)Mail.ru
Webmail (Regional)Nate
Webmail (Regional)Naver
Webmail (Regional)Orange.fr
Webmail (Regional)QQ
Webmail (Regional)SFR.fr
Webmail (Regional)T-Online.de
Webmail (Regional)Telstra
Webmail (Regional)Terra
Webmail (Regional)Web.de
Webmail (Regional)Yandex.ru

 

Media queries can be confusing and take trial and error to perfect. That’s why we offer you seven days free with Email on Acid, so you can ensure your media queries, and your emails, are perfect before you hit send.

What do you do with media queries?

Let us know your favorite uses for media queries in the comments and hit us up on Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t guess, test

Email clients are constantly changing, which is why it’s important to test your email every time; what worked yesterday might not work today. Email on Acid offers unlimited email testing on more than 70 clients and devices, so you can make sure your email looks good before it hits the inbox. Want to see for yourself? Take advantage of our free, seven-day trial.

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Author: Jay Oram

Jay Oram is part of the design and code solutions team at the email specialist agency, ActionRocket. In his role at ActionRocket, Jay is usually experimenting with new code for emails or finding that elusive rendering fix. See more articles from Jay at emaildesignreview.com or find him on Twitter at @emailjay_.

31 thoughts on “Media Queries Demystified: CSS Min-Width and Max-Width”

  1. I think the last line of your min-width example should say this:

    “It becomes true if you pass any value equal to or greater than 330 as shown below:”

  2. Brad,
    That line is actually correct. The numbers 320, 310 and 300 are larger and in red because they triggered the media query. The media query triggers based on screen width, which is 320.

  3. I think what makes this so confusing is that there are always 2 numbers in the condition: The returned device width and the min/max value you are passing. So you always have to step back and ask, what is the actual device width that is being returned?

  4. I guess it’s just slightly confusing since we’re not privy to what styles are actually being applied in the examples. But given the media query in the min-width example, a screen width of 320 will mean any styles in there will be ignored. So, it won’t be true.

    What am I missing here?

  5. Brad,

    We have just updated this article to include the following explanation for our test samples: The red text is returning ‘true’, the black text is returning ‘false’.

    When I first looked at those results, I was dumbfounded because it actually works opposite of what you’d expect, hence the reason for this article.

    Please read again and let us know if we can provide any further clarification. To our knowledge, the facts stated in this post are accurate.

  6. Hi Michelle & Geoff,
    I thought there was a typo in the first example too (as did Brad)…thus confirming your point that this is a confusing topic.

    After reading this article a couple times…and thinking I finally get it…I think the confusion is the use of the word “pass” vs. “specified”. Perhaps revising the example explanation by adding color:

    It would become true if you specify/pass a value equal to or less than 320 as shown below:

    …or something similar.
    Thanks for the great articles!

  7. Hold up, I’m STILL confused about the examples.

    First, you say:

    “@media only screen and (min-width: 330px) {…}
    Here’s what that actually means:
    If [device width] is greater than or equal to [specified #], then do {…}”

    So if the actual “device width” is 320px this condition will return false.”

    Then you go on to say the opposite:

    “It would become true if you pass any value equal to or less than 320 as shown below:
    =<300
    =<310
    =<320 all equal true
    =<330
    =<340
    =<350 all equal false"

    Even though the minimum width to create the "true" state is 330px. Therefore, how can anything less than 330px trigger true? The example should say the opposite: =<330, =<340, =<350 are all true, and the previous ones are actually false.

    No?

  8. ProducerTina, Yeah it’s so confusing, I totally agree. I would not believe this if I didn’t see it either.

    The first part of the equation is the width that is being returned from the device, the second is your min-width value.

    To use your sample above, let’s fill in the variables:

    If [device width] is greater than or equal to [330px]

    is the same as:

    If 320 >= 330

    What I should do is change this:

    “It would become true if you pass any value equal to or less than 320 as shown below:”

    to this:

    “It would become true if you use a min-width value equal to or less than 320 as shown below:”

  9. Here is what we passed during our min-width testing:

    @media screen and (min-width: 300px) {
    #sizeA { Color: Red; Font-Size: 200%; }
    }
    @media screen and (min-width: 310px) {
    #sizeB { Color: Red; Font-Size: 200%; }
    }
    @media screen and (min-width: 320px) {
    #sizeC { Color: Red; Font-Size: 200%; }
    }
    @media screen and (min-width: 330px) {
    #sizeD { Color: Red; Font-Size: 200%; }
    }
    @media screen and (min-width: 340px) {
    #sizeE { Color: Red; Font-Size: 200%; }
    }

    The iPhone returns a width of 320.

    300, 310, 320 all return true on the iPhone
    330, 340 return false.

  10. What you guys are saying is true, but got the wording to confusing. The specified # is being compare with the device width as the reference. Therefore we are comparing the specified # in the media query against the actual device width.

    @media screen and (min-width: 300px) {
    #sizeA { Color: Red; Font-Size: 200%; }}

    means “Is the [specified # –> 300] less the [device width–>320]. Notice how I switch specified # and device width. In your example you’re comparing the device width to the media query and that causes the confusion. You should change it to

    “If [specified #] is less than [device width], then do {…}”.

    This make things more clear because if you think in terms of a number line where 0 is the center and how big or small a number is determine how far it is from 0, then make the device width our 0.

    REMEMBER IT NOT HOW BIG THE DEVICE WIDTH IS COMPARE TO THE NUMBER THAT WE SPECIFIED, IT IS HOW BIG THE NUMBER THAT WE SPECIFIED IS COMPARE TO THE DEVICE WIDTH.

    I hope this make things more clear.

  11. “@media only screen and (min-width: 330px) {…}
    Here’s what that actually means:
    If [device width] is greater than or equal to [specified #], then do {…}”

    So if the actual “device width” is 320px this condition will return false.”

    Then you go on to say the opposite:

    “It would become true if you pass any value equal to or less than 320 as shown below:
    =<300
    =<310
    =<320 all equal true
    =<330
    =<340
    =<350 all equal false"

    Even though the minimum width to create the "true" state is 330px. Therefore, how can anything less than 330px trigger true? The example should say the opposite: =<330, =<340, =<350 are all true, and the previous ones are actually false.

    No?

  12. Vikram,
    In the example image, each of those numbers, like “(=<330)" and so on, is tied to a different media query. As you can see, (=<330) is black, and therefore did not register as "true." This is because 320 (device width) is not equal to or greater than 330 (set number). If you look at (=<320), you'll see that it is true. This is because 320 (device width) is equal to than 320 (set number).

    The examples were generated on actual devices using those media queries. We are just doing our best to explain how it works 😉

  13. I used
    @media (min-width: #) { code }

    @media (max-width:#) { code }

    where the # for max is 1 less than the number for min, and then I used another 2 queries right after the first two where again the number for max is 1 less than the number for min.. Also my queries are ordered so that the small #’s are near the head of the css document and the larger #’s are near the foot of it… and this is working great for me… now if I can get my custom javascript drop-down menu to function in my cms I’d be really happy

  14. Hi Everybody
    i am new in responsive web, Self learning to see tutorials and download demo and doing practice. i need some help to understand the css media query . i am confuse after read this article. Nobody doing my help in my country. it a request if you Guys please help me to understand the logic of media query using min and max width pleaseee

  15. Thank you for your article.

    I am struggling through changing my website to be more responsive and it helped me figure out media queries better.

  16. When I use the following:
    @media screen and (min-width: 577px;) and (max-width:980px) {
    input#intextbox { width: 50%; }
    }
    it’s not working. Seems I only get a response if I use one or the other.

  17. Hi, We have an old email newslettter template which has class=”mobile” and class=”desktop” for content to show hide accordingly. On yahoo mail (web) it showed both desktop and mobile sections, so i added media width 1200 and block/none accordingly and had to put this all the way near </body> tag. if its in the head then Gmail app on phones showed the desktop layout. But still yahoo email app is showing desktop layout and not the mobile layout. The class=”mobile” and class=”desktop” is assigned to the

    inside the table.
  18. Nicely explained John!

    I’ve struggled a little with media queries since they first arrived on the scene, and most authors with explanations I’ve come across seem to believe that by providing lots of extra in-depth technical information it’ll be helpful – that’s usually not the case – it usually adds to the confusion.

    Your article however gave me exactly what I need for my current project – clear, concise and without all the usual overly-technical fluff – perfect!

    Thank you!
    Michael 🙂

  19. There is some debate about this already in the discussion above, but the bottom line is that this comment is just wrong:

    “””
    @media only screen and (max-width: 600px) {…}
    What this query really means, is “If [device width] is less than or equal to 600px, then do {…}”
    “””

    max-width refers to the viewport width, not to the device width. See these pages for more details:
    https://www.sitepoint.com/media-queries-width-vs-device-width/
    https://stackoverflow.com/questions/18500836/should-i-use-max-device-width-or-max-width

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