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Realistically, if you insisted on the absolute fastest loading pages, you would use no styles, no font declarations, no tables or divs; you would opt for straight html: a header, a couple of paragraphs and a link or two.
If you are looking to embellish your page with graphics, text and layout styles, then an optimized .gif or .jpg file or two for the images (be sure to include the height and width of each image) and CSS to handle the appearance of the page elements and layout.
Less can be more... make your styles count. You do not have to declare everything. Work your styles efficiently and you will have a quick loading page.
My work prefernce is XHTML & CSS, but which ever you choose, planning is key to execution. Consider all the elements needed to create a particular page and then arrange the optimally.
Ever since I first started programming applications to go fast I learned that perception is way faster than speed. If the user has something to do or watch while you are downloading or processing than they are less likely to think your computer system is slow.
So far the people that I have sent to my website over the different versions have said it is faster now. They don't realize it is only perception because they can read the text while the graphics are downloading.
Most of the world will never see our pages, not at all, and not ever, right?
So it's important to think clearly on issues such as this. The right question, IMO, is how many people WILL get to see our pages correctly.
Let's talk about an example - a site that gets 10,000 page views per day, and say that 98% of visitors see the page "perfectly" because it validates and it only uses HTML 3.2 feature set and no client side scripting at all.
98% of 10,000 = 9,800 good pv's
85% of 20,000 = 17,000 good pv's
Which do you want? In the first case, only 200 page views were defective. In the second case, 3,000 page views were bad. I'll still take the second case.
A most important point.
I LOVE to place the page's primary content in an absolutely positioned div at the very top of the HTML. It comes roaring on screen within a second or two. No matter what else is going on from that point forward, the visitor has usable content and the feeling that the site is very fast.
Depending on your market will also depend on if they really care how long it takes to download your site. When I was searching for programs to generate 3D graphics I would go to sites and get another cup of coffee while the site downloaded. I would wait because the only way to see the quality of the product was to see its abilities. If I were searching through an online auction for something to buy, 20 seconds to see each page is forever.
Above everything, if you don't know the people you will attract to your site, you don't know the most import design specification. Your customer.
By making a site more attractive and engaging while delivering quality content can result in a situation as you have described.
I know many already know my feelings regarding such issues... I know that the course I am following is resulting in a net increase of visitors... and return visitors.
Tedster... you really put it in perspective!