Device Detection vs. Responsive Web Design


We hear so much about responsive web design these days that it seems many of us have entirely forgotten that there are actually other options available to us—primarily what is known as device detection.

In a nutshell, device detection is when the web server hosting a site executes code to determine what type of device is hitting the website it hosts. Based on this, the site serves up files specific to that device. It might redirect the user to a mobile version, or it might simply serve up slightly different files.

The point is that the changes are happening on the server, and this reduces the burden on the user’s device. In theory, this makes the website much faster.


The biggest “gotcha” to this is the actual detection part. Fortunately, there are a number of specialized services (for example) that do nothing but just that. These utilities can be bolted onto your site and used to sort out what device and screen size the user is coming from.

In this recent article by Bruce Lawson, he resurrects the debate between these two approaches and provides some fantastic reading material. If you’re not aware of the options to RWD, I highly recommend you check out this collection of material.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

With all the cool kids getting into RWD these days, it’s time to have a look at the Device Detection companies again. Device Detection is the practice of matching a device’s UA string against a table of such strings and looking up certain characteristics of that device and then serving different websites accordingly.

Of course, the utility of such services is dependant on the quality of the look-up table: how many devices does it know about (all the ones in the world, ever?), how frequently it’s updated (have they added the Umbongo J2O TrouserPhone S+ that was released on Tuesday, yet?) and how accurate is that data (does the TrouserPhone S+ really have 178680979 X 7 pixel smellovision display?).They are, however, an order of magnitude more reliable than terrible CMS plugins or JavaScripts that were written years ago and which register IE11 as IE1, or don’t know Chrome exists. UA strings are comically unreliable, being the frontline in an unceasing battle between browser-sniffers who want to deny entry to certain browsers, and browser vendors who want their users to get a first-class experience.


HOW Design University offers several courses on Responsive Web Design. If you’re looking to advance your responsive skills, check out the courses currently available. The below course description is for one of the popular responsive design courses.

Online Course: Creating a Responsive HTML Email

Designing HTML email can be quite challenging, considering the limited capabilities of many email readers. In contrast, most new email readers support many of the latest trends in web design. So what’s a designer to do? Enter Responsive HTML Email.

This online course will show you how to design and construct an HTML email design that will render properly (and adapt to varying screen sizes) in 30+ different mail clients, including: Outlook, Gmail, Android, iOS, and Windows phones. We’ll also explore online tools and services that will help you test your campaigns. Discover what’s possible with HTML email – in a variety of formats & devices and register today!

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