Friday, March 9, 2012

iPad vs. E-Ink Readers, Pros and Cons

I've often read the opinions of those who argue why you might prefer an e-ink reader over an iPad. I've used the first and second generation iPads heavily, and I've used but haven't owned an e-ink reader, so it's interesting to me to see the other side of the equation.

Let me start with a disclaimer -- I'm not suggesting that these reasons for preferring an e-ink reader are invalid. They may be perfectly valid for the people who are expressing them, or for you, a potential purchaser of an iPad or an e-ink reader. I'm just explaining how I feel about these reasons as someone who uses an iPad but not an e-ink reader.

The iPad is Heavier
It is, absolutely. There's no question about that. e-ink readers tend to be smaller, and are significantly lighter for the most part. You'll notice the difference if you hold both even days apart. It's obvious.

But are you often going to be holding it aloft, particularly one-handed? I don't find that to be true very often for me with the iPad. If I'm using it for any extended period of time, it's usually on a table, a desk, a bed, a couch or my lap. I do often hold it aloft for brief periods to do a small task, but I don't find it tiring for those time frames. 

If you feel like you'd be doing a lot of reading standing up, like on mass transit on your daily commute, your mileage might vary. I don't find the iPad's weight to be something I spend any time thinking about.

Easier to Read
Some people feel like e-ink is easier on the eyes than a screen. That may be true for many people. You might even be able to prove that it's objectively true of the human eye (although I haven't seen any serious studies on the subject). In my brief exposure to e-ink readers, they didn't feel like a vastly better reading experience, but I haven't done extensive comparisons.

That said, I spend a lot of time in a day looking at screens. It doesn't bother me. I don't find myself suffering from obvious eye strain. Your mileage might vary. If you spend a little time with both an iPad and an e-ink reader and feel like the latter is a lot easier on your eyes, you should probably consider getting the e-ink reader.

If I had an e-ink reader in addition to my iPad, perhaps I'd find over time that I prefer longer reading sessions on the reader over the iPad, but this isn't enough to convince me to own and carry another device.

Better in Sunlight
In bright sun, the iPad's backlight can be overpowered by direct sunlight. A normal e-ink reader isn't backlight, so it actually benefits from bright sunlight. This is definitely true. There are places where I probably wouldn't find myself using the iPad simply because it's too bright. Fortunately for me, these places are not where I typically want to use the iPad.

Normally, if I'm using the iPad, I'm in a building or a vehicle. If I'm outdoors, I'm usually either walking, or doing something physically active and I'm not looking for a chance to pull out the iPad and read. Occasionally I'll find myself on a beach or in bright light outside with the iPad nearby and wanting to read. In those instances, if I had an e-ink reader, I'd probably use that instead. Those times are infrequent and not worth optimizing for, IMO.

An e-ink reader is cheaper to acquire (which would be a big deal for someone, but not such a big deal for me) and to replace, which means that you can treat it with a little less respect. If I wanted to read on the beach, I'd be hesitant to bring the iPad even if I had a good shady area, simply because I wouldn't want to get sand in the buttons and crevices of the iPad. If I had an e-ink reader that cost me $100, I'd be less worried about keeping it in perfect shape. I don't aspire to disposable technology, but there's definitely an advantage to this.

Again, this is appealing, but still a very small part of my overall usage scenario. If I spent more time in sandy, dirty, rough-and-tumble areas but still wanted to read in those areas, I might find this persuasive.

Battery Lasts Longer
Do you have other devices that need to be charged regularly? I do. I have a routine for this, and I don't think about it much. I spend a lot of my days at a desk with power cords nearby, and my devices are often still 80% full at the end of the day.

The iPad has more than enough charge for a day, and I rarely even have to think about whether or not it's charged. So longer battery life is basically meaningless for me.

If I were the sort of person who didn't have a bunch of devices that require power, who was used to paper books and was not in the habit of regularly charging a device, this could be a deal-breaker. I'm not that sort of perosn.

Falling Asleep
Some argue that the e-ink readers don't stimulate the brain when you're trying to sleep. In practice, I don't find this to be a problem. I've fallen asleep reading the iPad almost every time I've tried to read just before going to sleep. Maybe my brain is resistant to backlight stimulation.

When I read in bed, my wife is usually sleeping, and I like not having to turn on a light -- even the iPad's emitted light is enough to bother her if she's not fully asleep.

If you find that reading the iPad at night keeps you awake, maybe you should try an e-ink reader. It doesn't seem to have that effect on me.

In Summary
Some people find that in e-ink reader is superior to an iPad in the way they use it. I'm ok with that, and I imagine that if I were to purchase one, I might find some ways in which it is superior as well. My instinct is that those ways are insufficient to warrant owning another device since it won't replace the many other things I do with my iPad instead of reading.

I've read the arguments people have made for e-ink readers, and while they're interesting, I don't find the persuasive for me and my life. They might well be more persuasive for other people with different usage scenarios. 

If you:
  • spend a lot of time reading standing up holding your book/device in one hand
  • spend a lot of time reading outside in bright sunlight or around sand/dust/dirt/sap/flying rocks/whatever
  • have trouble remembering to charge things regularly (every couple days)
  • can't stand reading on a screen
  • can't fall asleep while looking at a screen 
You might prefer an e-ink reader.

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