The iPad screen is not your desktop screen


I was having dinner — Thai — with a close friend the other night when suddenly he asked, “Why does the iPad do color but not the Kindle?”

He’s an author. The impression was that any e-book reading device’s screen must be, like the Kindle, using eink. 1 And that Apple had a special eink that does color and is fast.

I think this is a valid misunderstanding by the average consumer. Especially by the segment of consumers who see the iPad mainly as a consumption device for text-heavy media.

When I told him the Kindle and iPad use vastly different screen technologies he was concerned. The concern is: if the iPad's screen uses the same technology as our desktop screens, how can it possibly be more comfortable for reading?

Or: aren’t backlit displays the bane of our reading experience?

The very idea of reading an entire novel on our home computers sounds painful. But why? What is the Kindle/iPhone/iPad overcoming?

I think there are five reasons why we've never enjoyed reading books on our computers:

  • The distance between reader and the text is too large
  • Vertical orientation is unnatural for book consumption
  • Using a mouse to manipulate position in a book is sterile
  • Computer screens aren’t technically optimized for text
  • Desktop OSes aren’t optimized for concentration

The fourth point becomes less relevant as screen technology advances, but the first three aren't going to change. And the last point is perhaps most insidiously disruptive to stress-free long-form reading: modern desktop OSes are optimized for multi-tasking and short bursts of concentration. Not sitting around the hearth enjoying, you know, Joyce.

I’ve now read several books 2 and dozens of long-form journalism pieces on my iPod Touch and iPhone. Anyone who has done the same knows it’s incomparable to the desktop reading experience. The screen is close to you, position is manipulated by touch, orientation is intimate and the pixel density is much higher than that of our desktop displays. These factors combine to make reading a joy — even on a backlit screen! (I actually do most of my iPhone reading with white text on a dark background.)

I find myself consuming more long-form journalism on my iPhone (thanks to smart applications like Instapaper) than ever before. In fact, long-form The Atlantic or The New Yorker articles seem to be the ideal length for the iPhone. And I suspect we’ll see a renaissance of this kind of journalism moving forward.

That the iPhone/iPad OS gets out of the way, let’s us focus on one thing at a time and doesn’t insinuate a constant need to switch contexts is just icing on an already delicious reading cake.

So while yes, the iPad screen may be of the dreaded backlit variety, it's not the same backlit experience we've all come to loath. In a week we’ll know just how the iPad stacks up. But if the iPhone is any indication — eink or not — the reading experience should be just lovely.

  1. ↩︎
  2. The Great Gatsby, Bird by Bird, On The Road, Rework, Tokyo Vice, Free ↩︎

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