iPad and Reading Experience: A Guide for Readers

We looked at the iPad with a particular focus in mind (see also: Thoughts on the iPad and Eyestrain), but how about a more general look at the iPad as an e-reading device.

First things first. Says Apple:

“It’s a really great read.
Reading on iPad is just like reading a book. You hold iPad like a book and flip the pages like a book. And you do it all with your hands — just like a book. But once you tap open the first page, you’ll see it’s nothing like a book. Read one page at a time in portrait. Or turn iPad on its side and view two pages at once. Either way you look at it, the bright LED-backlit display brings crisp and colorful detail to every page, without using illumination. So illustrations and images — and brilliant writing — appear just as the author intended.”

It’s just like a book. But it’s nothing like a book. Strangely, that as good a description as I can think of.

How comfortable is the overall reading experience? For relatively short amounts of reading time, the iPad is probably more than fine. As PC Mag (“Reading Books on the iPad: iBooks Versus Kindle”) shares:

“The biggest question I had about reading books on the iPad was whether it would be comfortable to read on the iPad’s screen, which, like virtually all notebook computers, is based on a TFT liquid crystal display. The Kindle and other e-readers, including the Sony Reader series and the Nook, use E Ink displays that are “bi-stable.” This means that the screen doesn’t need to be refreshed and uses reflected light from the environment, instead of being lighted from the display itself. Some people think that such screens are less tiring on the eyes, although I haven’t seen any definitive studies on this (and I’ve looked). Now, most of my reading has been confined to one hour or so. Things might be different if I was reading the screen for multiple hours at a stretch. Reading any screen for a long time does cause eye strain, so you should take the occasional break, make sure room lighting is appropriate if possible, and so on.”

Like Apple says, you can hold the iPad in your hands just like a book. Just keep in mind, at around 1.5 pounds, it’s not a light book. Reading posture certainly has something to do withe overall comfort of the reading experience. Mac World (“The iPad as e-reader”) —

“I can hold the iPad with one hand — usually with my thumb on the lower side edge, and my pinky on the bottom, with the middle three fingers providing its back support — but my hands definitely start to “feel it” much more than they do with the Kindle. Generally, for extended reading time, I’ll prop the iPad up somehow — whether on my folded-over leg, a tabletop, or the side of my pillow.

There are also some of the little things to thing about. Little, fingerprint-sized things:

“One weakness that’s not initially apparent is the iPad’s infamous proclivity for attracting fingerprints. Those smudges, which I normally don’t even notice unless the iPad is asleep, become more apparent (and annoying) when they consistently overlap the lines of text you’re reading in a digital book. Luckily, a quick wipe with any nearby fabric resolves that issue pretty quickly.”

The super-bright bright and sharp iPad screen makes for a generally pleasant reading experience. It’s safe to assume that most people (PC World: “iPad as E-Reader: Glaring Problems, Promising Apps”) are going to be willing to take the good with the bad —

“Oww, My Eyes! Since picking up my Amazon Kindle a couple of years ago, I’ve longed for a color e-reader that could do justice to photos, charts, and illustrations. And as expected, the iPad’s 9.7-inch IPS LED display doesn’t disappoint on that front. Color imagery looks beautiful on the page. Unfortunately, the touch screen is so highly reflective that it kicks up a vicious glare in a well-lit room, and practically doubles as a mirror in full sunlight. As much as I love gazing at my own handsome mug, I’m quite sure I didn’t need to spend $499 for the privilege.Ultimately, if you’re looking for a device primarily to read e-books on, the iPad is likely a bad move. It’s more expensive than most other e-readers, and it’s less usable in a broad range of lighting conditions. But if you’re a light reader who doesn’t mind a little extra weight in your hands, and you want something that does way more than download and display text, the iPad is a remarkable option.”

Ars Technica — as part of its massively thorough review of the iPad — makes a comparison between the experience of readin gon E Ink screens and the iPad. E Ink has a slow screen refresh rate, so the single page is the main unit of reading. Navigation is slow to poor, depending on your uses. On the iPad, however, navigation and jumping to and from different parts of a book are much, much better. I also tend to prefer the Kindle for fiction reading, because more often than not, you’re reading a book straight through, instead of other forms of nonfiction, in which there might be much more jumping to and from places (re-reading, referring to endnotes, indexes, etc.)

Ars Technica’s view on the iPad reading experience, “Reading on the iPad” —

“For the Kindle, the slow refresh rate placed an emphasis on consuming single pages of content at a time, and made going through a document in a linear manner the most effective way of reading. This model makes the Kindle extremely well suited to most book reading, reasonably effective with periodicals, and seriously awkward for just about anything else.

… The elimination of the slow screen refresh of the Kindle also changes the reading model in significant ways. The Kindle’s slow refresh makes almost everything about navigating within a work an involved process — skipping to a specific chapter, searching for text in the work, or even just peeking ahead — all of it is slow, especially if it involves the keyboard. The end result is that tackling a book from front-to-back is far and away the most convenient approach to reading.With a fast refresh, pretty much none of that applies to the iPad. It’s easy to jump around a work — about as easy as a physical book, and with better search capabilities — or to switch between different features of the book reader, or even jump to other apps entirely. If you’re just reading fiction, this probably isn’t a big deal, but for reference works or textbooks, it’s a substantially different experience.”

What does it all mean? As an e-reading device, the iPad is fairly ok. But, the importnat distinction is that iPad isn’t just an e-reading device. It’d be tough for heavy ebook readers to use the iPad as the primary reading device. But, for most people that’s ok. The iPad is a tablet computer, that happens to do many things, among which ereading might be one of them —

“The iPad is many different things to many different people, and writing a conclusion that sums it up for everyone is impossible … it’s important to note that most of us think that the software makes the iPad. … Truthfully, this device is one that can only really be understood by playing with it firsthand (we know, it took us more than 18,000 words to tell you that). No matter how many words get spilled on the iPad, there’s still no simple way to describe how it feels and how it’s different from a typical computing or smartphone experience.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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