Fennec – Of Screens and Orientation

Designing a portable application to run on many different mobile devices is a challenge. Screen sizes and pixel densities are different making it difficult to create the One Great Layout. In addition, mobile devices can change screen orientation, from portrait to landscape and back again.

This is one area where using a markup-based UI language like XUL, with it’s support for CSS, comes in handy. Currently, Fennec is being designed and tested to run on Nokia’s N810 & N900 devices, HTC’s Touch Pro and Samsung’s Omnia & Omnia II. Yes, Fennec can run on other Windows Mobile devices, but we don’t really test on every possible device… yet. Joel and the QA crew are working on that, but I digress.

Even with the target devices, we have several screen sizes, pixel densities and orientation requirements to support. Layout support in XUL and media query support in CSS really do the heavy lifting for us. The Fennec UI is the same on all these devices, but we have some layout constraints and CSS rules that allow us to morph the UI as the screen changes. Here are some of the ways we do it:

  • Use physical dimensions whenever possible. Padding and margins are set using millimeters, not pixels. This minimizes the need for special rules for every different screen size and pixel density. Also, the UI is designed for touch, and the current design size for a touchable UI element is ~7.5mm. Your finger doesn’t change sizes to match the screen 🙂
  • Use CSS media queries to switch between screen sizes and pixel densities. Large sized images can be used on large screens/densities, while smaller images can be used on smaller screens/densities. The result should be an image that is roughly the same physical size on either device.
  • Use CSS media queries and XUL box rules to flow the UI when the device is rotated. A toolbar that works well vertically in landscape orientation, probably needs to flow horizontally in portrait orientation. It’s all about maximizing the usable space.

Screen Size

Here is some example CSS we use for toggling between large and small screens/densities. As you can see, we use 400px as a cutoff:

/* high-res screens */
@media all and (min-device-width: 401px) {
  toolbarbutton {
    min-width: 64px !important; /* primary button size (match image pixels)*/
    min-height: 64px !important; /* primary button size (match image pixels) */

/* low-res screens */
@media all and (max-device-width: 400px) {
  toolbarbutton {
    min-width: 36px !important; /* primary button size (match image pixels) */
    min-height: 36px !important; /* primary button size (match image pixels) */


The same kind of example, but this time for changing the direction of some UI elements when rotating the screen:

@media (orientation: landscape) {
  #panel-controls {
    -moz-box-orient: vertical;
    -moz-box-ordinal-group: 1; /* move to left of screen */
    -moz-box-pack: end; /* force children to align to bottom of screen */

@media (orientation: portrait) {
  #panel-controls {
    -moz-box-orient: horizontal;
    -moz-box-ordinal-group: 1000; /* move to the bottom of the screen */
    -moz-box-pack: start; /* force children to align to left of screen */



We also use the XUL box wrapping tip, I discussed previously, to allow elements to flow into multiple rows if there is not enough space to hold them in a single row.

If you’re developing add-ons for Fennec, please keep these situations in mind. Use the Fennec code as an example of how you can create a great user experience, regardless of screen size or orientation.

3 Replies to “Fennec – Of Screens and Orientation”

  1. Is Fennec exclusively for touch-screens then? I heard there was talk of Symbian S60 FP2 support, or is this at present like Windows Mobile, or less, in status?

  2. I have tried a version between beta 2 and beta 3, on a ipaq with linux.

    Fennec is in landscape mode which is not adapted to the screen in portrait. How can I put it in portrait mode ? And how can I reduce the toolbarsize (the screen is small 320×240) ?

    I would like retrieve the screenshot above.

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