Reftests are one of the primary tools for testing things relating to rendering; they are made up of the test and one or more other pages (“references”) with assertions as to whether they render identically or not.

How to Run Reftests

Reftests can be run manually simply by opening the test and the reference file in multiple windows or tabs and flipping between the two. In automation the comparison is done in an automated fashion, which can lead to differences hard for the human eye to notice to cause the test to fail.

Components of a Reftest

In the simplest case, a reftest consists of a pair of files called the test and the reference.

The test file is the one that makes use of the technology being tested. It also contains a link element with rel="match" or rel="mismatch" and href attribute pointing to the reference file, e.g. <link rel=match href=references/green-box-ref.html>. A match test only passes if the two files render pixel-for-pixel identically within a 600x600 window including scroll-bars if present; a mismatch test only passes if they don’t render identically.

The reference file is typically written to be as simple as possible, and does not use the technology under test. It is desirable that the reference be rendered correctly even in UAs with relatively poor support for CSS and no support for the technology under test.

Writing a Good Reftest

In general the files used in a reftest should follow the general guidelines and the rendering test guidelines. They should also be self-describing, to allow a human to determine whether the the rendering is as expected.

References can be shared between tests; this is strongly encouraged as it makes it easier to tell at a glance whether a test passes (through familiarity) and enables some optimizations in automated test runners. Shared references are typically placed in references directories, either alongside the tests they are expected to be useful for or at the top level if expected to be generally applicable (e.g., many layout tests can be written such that the correct rendering is a 100x100 green square!). For references that are applicable only to a single test, it is recommended to use the test name with a suffix of -ref as their filename; e.g., test.html would have test-ref.html as a reference.

Complex Pass Conditions

Sometimes it is desirable for a file to match multiple references or, in rare cases, to allow it to match more than one possible reference.

References can have links to other references (through the same link element relation), and in this case for the test to pass the test must render identically (assuming a match relation) to the reference, and the reference must render identically to its reference (again, assuming a match relation). Note that this can continue indefinitely to require tests to match an arbitrary number of references; also that match is used here purely for explanatory reasons: both match and mismatch can be used (and mixed on one sequence of references). This can be thought of as an AND operator!

Similarly, multiple references can be linked from a single file to implement alternates and allow multiple renderings. In this case, the file passes if it matches one of the references provided (and that reference likewise matches any references, etc.). This can be thought of as an OR operator!

These two techniques can be combined to build up arbitrarily complex pass conditions with boolean logic. For example, consider when:

  • a.html has <link rel=match href=b.html> and <link rel=match href=c.html>,
  • b.html has <link rel=match href=b1.html>, and
  • c.html has <link rel=mismatch href=c1.html>.

Or, graphically:

diagram of the above reftest graph as a directed graph

In this case, to pass we must either have a.html, b.html and b1.html all rendering identically, or a.html and c.html rendering identically with c1.html rendering differently. (These are, in terms of the graph, all the paths from the source nodes to leaf nodes.)

Controlling When Comparison Occurs

By default reftest screenshots are taken after the load event has fired, and web fonts (if any) are loaded. In some cases it is necessary to delay the screenshot later than this, for example because some DOM manipulation is required to set up the desired test conditions. To enable this, the test may have a class="reftest-wait" attribute specified on the root element. This will cause the screenshot to be delayed until the load event has fired and the reftest-wait class has been removed from the root element. Note that in neither case is exact timing of the screenshot guaranteed: it is only guaranteed to be after those events.

Fuzzy Matching

In some situations a test may have subtle differences in rendering compared to the reference due to, e.g., anti-aliasing. This may cause the test to pass on some platforms but fail on others. In this case some affordance for subtle discrepancies is desirable. However no mechanism to allow this has yet been standardized.


In some cases, a test cannot be a reftest. For example, there is no way to create a reference for underlining, since the position and thickness of the underline depends on the UA, the font, and/or the platform. However, once it’s established that underlining an inline element works, it’s possible to construct a reftest for underlining a block element, by constructing a reference using underlines on a <span> that wraps all the content inside the block.

Example Reftests

This example follows the recommended approach in being a self-describing test as it has a simple statement on the page describing how it should render to pass the tests.

Test File

This test verifies that a right-to-left rendering of SAW within a <bdo> element displays as WAS.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<meta charset="utf-8">
<title>BDO element dir=rtl</title>
<link rel="help" href="">
<meta name="assert" content="BDO element's DIR content attribute renders corrently given value of 'rtl'.">
<link rel="match" href="test-bdo-001.html">
<p>Pass if you see WAS displayed below.</p>
<bdo dir="rtl">SAW</bdo>

Reference File

The reference file must look exactly like the test file, except that the code behind it is different.

  • All metadata is removed.
  • The title need not match.
  • The markup that created the actual test data is different: here, the same effect is created with very mundane, dependable technology.
<!DOCTYPE html>
<meta charset="utf-8">
<title>HTML Reference File</title>
<p>Pass if you see WAS displayed below.</p>