Thoughts on the iPad and Eyestrain

How is the iPad as an e-reading device?

The iPad certainly seems to handle some things much better than other devices (for example: PDF files, with the help of apps such as iAnnotate). And, iBooks is a pretty good reading app.

But, after some up close and personal reading time with the iPad the past week, one thing became painfully clear to me — the iPad might not be the best choice for those interested in doing large amounts (say, more than a couple of hours) of ebook reading.

When it comes to e-reading, I’m willing to admit I probably read more than the average user, so I’m reluctant to generalize about the iPad reading experience for everyone. The iPad is a good e-reading device … just not necessarily a great one. And for the vast majority of iPad users that’s fine; since it happens to be a device on which they can do lots of stuff on, one of which happens to be reading ebooks.

Speaking strictly in terms of ereading, however — I’m not that old, and my eyesight isn’t that bad … but the iPad will strain your eyes with heavy reading time. And, at 1.33 lbs, the iPad has a certain heft to it. Sure, the glass and aluminum give it an impressive and expensive feel, but I rather disagree with the official iPad rhetoric — “Technology so advanced,you’ll forget it’s even there. When you pick up iPad, it becomes an extension of you.” To the contrary, when you’re holding the iPad, it’s sort of hard not to forget you’re holding a machine. A very cool and sexy machine, but still a machine.

When it comes to ereading, the crucial question is the screen: LCD or E Ink? The Wall Street Journal (“Seeking an E-Reader That’s Easy on the Eyes”) sums things up quite well —

“The two underlying screen technologies differ markedly. Many e-readers, including the Inc. Kindle, Sony Corp.’s Reader and Barnes & Noble Inc.’s Nook, use what’s called e-paper technology created by Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corp. These screens use tiny capsules filled with charged black-and-white particles to give the appearance of ink on paper. As a result, they reflect light like ordinary paper, use no backlighting and are black and white only.

Meanwhile, the iPad uses back-lit liquid-crystal-display technology for its screen, which can light up in a dark room and is in color. Apple says the color iPad screen also uses a new display technology called “in-plane switching” to solve another common problem with LCD screens: the inability to see it from an angle. “You can hold it almost any way you want and still get a brilliant picture, with excellent color and contrast,” claims Apple’s product description.”

By the way, for those really interested in this sort of thing — here’s a cool look (OSX Daily: “iPad vs. Kindle Screen Comparisons”) at what the iPad’s LCD screen and the Kindle’s E Ink screen look like up close, when magnified 26x and 400x.

Naturally, the best way to reduce eyestrain regardless of e-reading screen, according to sound doctorly advice, is to take more breaks while reading: “Reading with both kinds of screen could cause eyestrain because it has relatively little to do with the function of the eye, he says. Eyestrain is caused by placing too much stress on the brain … The only solution for eyestrain is taking more regular breaks.”

To that end, PC World had a helpful article worth checking out: “Five Tips to Prevent iPad Eye Strain.” Two of the most useful tips worth keeping in mind:

  • “3 B’s: Blink, Breathe, and Break. When looking at a computer or handheld digital device you blink two to three times less than you normally would. This can often lead to “dry eye”. That may seem like something inconsequential, but in reality — for power digital users — can lead to permanent vision damage.
  • The 20/20/20 Rule. While working on the computer, reading your iPad, Kindle, etc., every 20 minutes look 20 feet away for 20 seconds to allow your eyes to refocus.”

But, sometimes, when you’re really absorbed in reading, taking frequent breaks makes for an unsatisfying reading experience. Therefore, choosing the most eyeball-friendly screen is your next best option to reduce eyestrain.

The definitive statement on the LCD vs. E-Ink debate might be ZDNET’s extensive breakdown: “iPad vs. Kindle: Which is the better e-Reader?” They put the iPad and the Kindle through the paces, using a number of testing conditions (indoor/outdoor; sunlight/indirect light; brightly lit rooms/dimly lit rooms) and reading app (iBooks/Kindle).

The answer, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, hinges upon what your reading habits are going to be. The short version is that e-Ink screens are by far the better choice for outdoor reading, whereas results are somewhat more mixed when it comes to indoor lighting or dimly-lit reading situations.

“The iPad appears to be adequate for light daytime indoor reading, but fails miserably as an outdoor reading device. Vizplex e-Ink readers such as the Kindle, the SONY line and the Barnes & Noble Nook still appear to be much more optimal for long duration reading indoors and outdoors during daytime hours.”

The iPad is generally fine for indoor reading. Its size and weight does somewhat dictate the posture in which you’ll find yourself reading on it.* Much more of a factor is going to be the glare you’ll somewhat constantly be trying to avoid from that super reflective LCD screen. (Check out CNET: “iPad 2 as e-reader: Glare Still an Issue” for a similar perspective). From what I’ve seen, glare seems to be one of the major complaints when people talk about eyestrain on the iPad.

Interestingly enough, the ZDNET article provides some detailed thoughts on whether black font on white background or white font on black background reduces eyestrain:

“I also felt that the iPad immediately produced too much eyestrain for use in total darkness in the standard Black on White text view no matter what brightness setting I had iBooks or the Kindle application set to, so I decided to experiment with White on Black text. This yielded some very interesting results.

I discovered that which e-Book reader application you use in total darkness seems to matter greatly, and that the Kindle application appears to be superior to iBooks for night time reading activities.

One, because White on Black text capability is integrated into the application using the Text/Font settings, and also because the Kindle application appears to make more effective use of screen estate and just plain looks better in the dark …

For my own personal use I find White on Black to be much more acceptable to me for use during the evening in dim light or dark rooms, and it also drastically reduces the amount of white light coming out of the iPad, so it is far less likely to disturb my spouse.”

For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t notice any appreciable difference when reading on the iPad between the black or white screen background. Reading in the dark generally did cause eyestrain for me. So, who knows.

On a related note, here’s the official Apple web page on Eyes and Vision. It’s about computers — not iPads — but the key take away here? Glare on screens = bad for your eyes. The Kindle (or Nook’s) E Ink screen is blissfully glare-free, which is a plus.

Conclusion: For modest amounts of reading, the iPad is fine enough. For lots of ebook reading, I’d have to recommend the Kindle (or other E Ink screen devices). And for those of us who spend enough time already looking at a backlit computer screen, there could be some slight psychological comfort — rational or irrational as it might be — in taking a break from the backlit screen in favor of the E Ink screen. Even more intriguing, perhaps is the possibility of the best of both worlds (Wired: “Apple Patent Proposes Hybrid LCD, E-ink Display”).

— — — — — — — — -

* I mean, something like this is always an option (CNET: “How to hold an iPad comfortably in one hand”), I guess. If you want to look like a nerd.


Surprise me


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

tyler shores cambridge

What I’m Reading Now:

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Related Articles

Have questions or ideas or requests for working together?

Get in touch