A few days ago, I would have said that e-ink provides the best ereading experience. E-ink’s ability to render text at near-print level clarity made it the best choice for extending reading sessions. Backlit screens on smartphones, tablets, and computers have, to this point, been unable to offer anything close–to read on an iPad or Kindle Fire or Nook Color was to sacrifice readability of text for expanded feature sets. For serious readers, this was a hard compromise to make.
But that’s not true anymore. I’ll talk about the specifics in a minute, but it’s worth emphasizing in plain speech: the new iPad, released on Friday, has the best screen you’ve ever seen. Unless you are reading this on a new iPad, your screen is terrible compared to it, to the point that it is difficult to show with screenshots or video [some more expert than I have devised some visual comparisons. They are indicative, but can’t capture the difference].
Before I got an iPhone 4, I did all of my ebook reading on a second generation Kindle. For reading novels, it was tough to beat: it is lightweight, renders text quickly and clearly, has integrated, free wireless connectivity, and is inexpensive.
Reading ebooks was possible on my original iPhone and it shared many of the Kindle’s qualities, but the relatively fuzzy text made reading for long stretches uncomfortable: fine for email and Twitter, bad for Infinite Jest. That changed with the iPhone 4’s dramatically increased resolution. Apple called it a Retina Display: a display with so many pixels (the little dots on your screen that together make up the image, or think George Seurat times a million) that your eye can’t tell that it isn’t seeing a continuous image.
This is when I ditched my Kindle. I could now read on a smaller device that I carried with me at all times, at a resolution that was easy on my eyes–and that didn’t lock me into Amazon’s ecosystem.
The new iPad now has a similar screen, but a surface area almost nine times as large. While this might seem like only an arithmetic difference, the actual difference is exponential; the experience is something like holding glowing paper. The iPad was already the most flexible ereading device, with a range of applications that allowed buying from multiple sources, collecting and storing online content for later consumption, and a unparalleled mobile web browsing experience.
The iPad may still not be the best ebook reader available, but the latest model is now the best all-around ereader. And it is the future.
An ebook reader only need do three things well: render straight text, provide content, and come in a comfortable physical design. For these things a basic Kindle or Nook are splendid choices. But just as ebook readers have mastered delivery of digital versions of books, the variety of ways we read has exploded.
The publishing industry is dealing with the changes that the internet and digital technologies have brought to books, but the more transformative change is what has happened to reading itself. Ebook readers brought the book into the digital age, saving it, perhaps temporarily, from obsolescence.
The new iPad, and the host of subsequent devices it will influence, represents how we read now. We read texts and Twitter and email and blogs and The New York Times and Longform.org and Wikipedia and BoingBoing. All of this is absolutely terrible, when even possible, on e-ink devices. It’s not even terribly pleasant on a computer. On the first and second generation iPad, it is much more comfortable. And on the latest iPad, it is a real joy.
I’m not sure if the screen was the crucial element or only the last piece that completes the puzzle, but it is clear to me now that this iPad is the best way to experience the varieties of modern reading.
Just as clear text is a necessary feature of an ereader, it is not sufficient to guarantee a good one. The other crucial element is delivery, which encompasses both user interface design and content acquisition. One difference in the business models of Amazon and Apple is that Apple just wants you to buy hardware; where you get the content is of secondary concern. Indeed, the now dominant iTunes music store was initially just a way to make sure there was enough stuff to fill your iPod. The App Store and iBooks do the same thing for reading on the iPad, but with wide-ranging implications. It is in Apple’s best interest for readers to get whatever they want from wherever they want onto their iPad. It is in Amazon’s, Barnes and Noble’s, and Kobo’s interest for you to get what they have onto your device.
This is but one manifestation of the larger story of the internet age—the transference over control of content to readers. Diverse content access and frictionless experience is at the heart of what the iPad does best. The combination of apps as modular portals for content discovery and acquisition and Apple’s intuitive, consistent user interface strikes just the right balance of flexibility and predictability. I know that I can find a whole range of things to read, while also being assured that my experience of reading it will be reliably good. The pieces all work, and they all work together, so I spend less time figuring out and more time reading.
The result is an array of reading applications that deliver, reshape, and retransmit text to a specific user’s specifications. Flipboard, Reeder, Instapaper, and others each deserve their own reviews, but they are tools for readers to customize their reading experiences. Ereading, on the iPad, means reading exactly what you want, exactly how you want to. This change overshadows any particular feature of the iPad and someday will overshadow the iPad itself.
Sitting on a table powered-off, the new iPad is indistinguishable from the previous version. That changes, though, once you turn it on.
To service its spectacular display, Apple had to make some uncharacteristic decisions. Most Apple products get thinner, lighter, and more efficient over time. The new iPad is heaver, thicker, and uses more power than its predecessor. And even though the weight and thickness increases are minor, that they increase at all to make the screen possible reveals just how important Apple thinks the screen is.
In daily use, it feels largely the same as the iPad 2. If I didn’t know that it was a little heavier and a little thicker, I might not have noticed, but I do and I did. That said, I will gladly take a marginally heavier and thicker device for unchanged battery life; the new screen and integrated LTE wireless broadband (more on this in a second) make this new iPad extremely power-hungry. The battery has 70% more capacity than the previous one, but battery life remains unchanged.
In effect, Apple decided the screen and unchanged battery life are more important than a smaller or unchanged device profile. And I think for most users, this is the right decision. A perfect ereader would weigh less I think, to the point where holding it one-handed for an extended period of time would be possible. For now, the iPad, like a hardback book, is primarily a lap device.
It would also need to be charged less frequently; this new iPad gets about 10 hours of battery life on a full charge and a full charge requires nearly a full night. That big battery takes a long time to fill. So, daily use will require daily charging. In time, battery technology will improve as will the power requirements, but for now weight and battery life are the iPad’s two main flaws.
THE READING EXPERIENCE
Among serious readers, there has been some discussion about eyestrain and backlit devices. Until now, it was hard to know, since all backlit ereaders also had lower resolution text. I now suspect that the complaints about backlighting are really misplaced complaints about lower-resolution text. Reading for an extended period on the iPad 2 would sometimes tire my eyes more than reading print, but this is significantly improved, and for me gone altogether, with the new model.
Available backlighting technology tends not to perform well in direct light, and the iPad is no different. Reading outside is less than ideal in cloudy weather and nearly impossible in direct sun. This is the next engineering problem to solve. For some, backlighting also presents a problem for night-reading, but I think the available brightness controls and “night-reading” themes (light text on a dark background) in many reading applications make this largely a non-issue.
The higher resolution means that smaller text is readable; in the iBooks application, the smallest available font was easily readable. In ebook applications, this means you don’t have to turn the page as often (fast readers know how annoying less dense text can be as it means frequent page turning). For web reading, it means less pinching, scrolling, and zooming. Like more readable text, smaller useable text means fewer micro-adjustments in a given reading environment, which contributes to an overall feeling that the iPad is less in the way of our reading.
THE READING ENVIRONMENT
Ereading on a full-featured tablet computer is about more than presenting lines of text; it is about an integrated experience. The ability to tap on a word and see its definition instantly is really pretty amazing. Selecting a chunk of text and copying it into an email to send to someone who would appreciate it is pretty amazing. Finding out about a new book and having a full digital copy within a couple of minutes is pretty amazing. But these are pretty amazing things that the iPad has done from the start.
A reading accessory here addresses one of ereading’s lingering problems: annotation and marginalia. The iPad now has a dictation function that makes this considerably easier. For any text field, you now have the option of dictation. Weirdly good, surprisingly fast dictation. So, in most ereading applications, all you need to do is tap a word or select a passage of text, hit the microphone on the on-screen keyboard, speak, and you’re done. This is a less glamorous feature than the new screen, but for readers for whom in-line note-taking is important, it is a significant one.
The new screen and dictation feature are the major additions to the iPad as an ereader. There is also a dramatically improved camera on the back that can take HD video, which seems to be on par with my iPhone 4’s camera. A good upgrade, but familiar.
The startling discovery for me was what LTE (long-term evolution) wireless broadband is capable of. Basically, LTE is the next generation of data service for mobile devices. And I am shocked how fast it is. In my testing this weekend, it is reliably three times faster than my home wireless network. The Verizon model of the new iPad also allows you to use the device as a wireless network itself, so you can have up to five devices share the iPad’s LTE connection.
For someone like me who likes to work and write in a variety of locations, this is truly liberating. No more fighting for a table at Starbucks or struggling to find someplace on the road. I just connect my laptop to the iPad’s network and I am good to go. (Hint: Five Guys offers unlimited refills of fountain drinks.)
It is so good and so reliable that I am considering getting rid of my home internet service and using LTE exclusively. I need to see if the available data plans are enough to cover what I do, but even I don’t do this now, this change is coming.
The thing to know now is that the new iPad is the best ereader you can buy. It’s not cheap and it’s not perfect, but it is a major technological accomplishment and a fantastic device to use. It is also the fullest realization of how today’s technology is changing what it means to read. For some this is regrettable and for some it is exciting. However you feel, though, this is where we are going.
If you’d like to know anything else, let me know in the comments and I’ll take a shot at answering.
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