Reading Devices – A Personal Note

A couple of months ago I traded in my old first generation Samsung Galaxy–it had been the fanciest smartphone around for a few weeks in the fall of 2010. I went big: my new phone is a Galaxy Note II, which is close to twice the size of my old phone. Funny to even think of it as a phone; I almost never talk on the phone. Rather, it’s a handheld Internet device. I won’t go into the neologisms, but really, it’s a small tablet–a much better size to carry and hold (and look at) than my first-generation iPad, for instance.

When I got the Note II, Rogers had a promotion on where they’d throw in a Kindle Paperwhite with a new signup. I qualified, so I now have a Kindle as well, which is nice because the last e-ink reading device I had was a first-generation Kobo that was completely useless. So, having spent a little bit of time with these two new toys, I can make some comments.

First off, the Note II is excellent. I really like it. Android 4.1 is a vast improvement on the v2.3 that my old phone ran; the interconnections between apps seem really natural; it looks and feels lovely and fast, and it’s truly effortless to use. The Note II’s large (720×1280 pixels) screen looks gorgeous, and has made me want to take photos again. As a reading device it is nearly flawless: small enough to carry everywhere, light enough to hold for hours, and the screen quality is well, unsurpassed. I’ve read a couple of books on it already, and it’s easily the best reading experience I’ve had yet—on ebook apps certainly, but also lots via Flipboard and InstaFetch (the Android Instapaper app).

The Kindle Paperwhite, too, is excellent—better than I expected, actually. It’s bigger again than the Note II, and part of that is more non-screen surface that makes the thing easier to hold (as in, without your thumb being in the way of the text). The Paperwhite has a backlight feature that makes the display closer to black on white than the dull grey tone of most e-ink—plus it makes a perfect reading light at night. Unfortunately, the light runs the battery down quite a bit quicker, destroying some of the advantage of a dedicated e-ink reader. Using the Kindle is pretty seamless. It feels like a slightly stuttery (because of e-ink’s slow responsiveness) android phone (which is pretty much what it is underneath); Amazon’s UX people have done a very good job of making it easy to get around.


Kindle Paperwhite & Samsung Note II
Kindle Paperwhite & Samsung Note II

The Kindle’s display has roughly the same number of pixels as the Note II, but spread across a larger area (221ppi compared my phone’s 267). Interestingly, the typography looks better on the Kindle (compared with the Kindle app for Android). The difference is largely available fonts. I very much like Palatino as a screen font (I have since the early 90s). Where Amazon has licensed Palatino on the Kindle itself (plus some other nice typefaces, including Baskerville, although I think its fine serifs fall apart a bit at smaller sizes), the Kindle app on Android limits you to Georgia or Helvetica. That makes an initial aesthetic difference; the Kindle looks more like a real book at first glance. I’m not sure it makes that much difference after you lose yourself in the text. It may, however, make the Kindle more enticing as a reading device.

But here’s where things get complicated. A few years back, I went to my first optometrist appointment since passing 40. I got my prescription updated, had new lenses made, and tried them out. Lo and behold I found that my eyes got tired after a day in front of my laptop. I told my eye doctor, and smiling, she informed me that this was to be expected past 40, and that my next step would be to look into “progressives.”

Well I held off until last week, but I am now sporting a pair of “multifocal lenses.” Let’s be serious: when I was a kid they called these things “bifocals;” the only difference today is there isn’t an obvious line running through the middle of them. Whatever you want to call them, they work. My close up vision is definitely clearer—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it’s easier, not as much work to focus on what I’m reading.

Especially in low light. The frustration that eventually drove me back to the optometrist was not being able to see small print in dim light. With enough sunshine I can see most things at any distance, but in the dim light (reading a book in bed at night, for instance), I would have trouble. With my eyesight, I’ve actually found the Note II to provide a superior reading experience, and I think the reason is that there’s no such thing as low light with an AMOLED display. The Kindle, on the other hand, is a reflective-light display, even with its backlight turned on. There’s just no contest when it comes to clarity and contrast; the active screen on the phone is way better. I can read much smaller type comfortably on my phone than I can on the Kindle.

But now that I have new lenses that correct for my short-distance shortcomings, I think it evens the score. Looking at the Kindle now, I like it better than I did; I can reduce the type size and achieve a better looking setting; it seems more comfortable, too.

This experience is the opposite of what I’ve been told over the years; the popular story is that the dedicated e-ink readers are more successful with older readers because of the reflective-light display and the ability to size up the font, and that the smaller screens on phones are a non-starter. My experience tells me that a high-quality screen on a phone gives me more control over the readability of the type than the e-ink device, and that clarity and contrast matter much more than size.

Interestingly, if the readability factors start to balance out now that I have my “multifocal” lenses, then the edge goes to the Kindle because it gives me a place to put my thumb.