Do you spend hours reading computer displays each day? Does this tire your eyes? Me too. So I’m on a mission to find a device on which I can read anything. Ideally, it should be:
- as easy on my eyes as a paperback book
- as portable and convenient as a paperback book
- simple to read for any kind of format
- simple and free to get reading material onto the device
I tried reading anything on a second generation Kindle. The e-ink screen is easy on my eyes and Kindles are great for reading novels. But the software has many shortcomings for reading other material such as PDFs or long articles on the web. I devoted considerable effort to making my Kindle overcome these shortcomings, but in the end decided to try a more flexible device lacking an E-ink display.
Enter the iPod touch, 4th generation (or iPhone 4), with double the screen resolution of prior models. Reading with the “Retina Display” is easy on my eyes and the software makes reading a breeze for a surprisingly wide range of reading material.
The iPod touch 4G works well for reading. It works so well for me that I stopped using my Kindle and sold it. Read on for details, including many tips along the way for using an iPod for reading.
Contents of this Post
For both the iPod touch 4G and the Kindle, I describe below various aspects of the hardware. I also describe the experience of reading a variety of different materials, including novels, collections of short stories, mixed text/graphics, PDFs, web content, and Google Reader.
As with my Kindle-only post, this is part evaluation and part reference guide, organized by sections so that you can read what is relevant for your and skip the rest. Part of why this post is so long is because the iPod has so much software available for it—but that is a large part of what makes the iPod touch 4G so great for reading.
iPod touch 4G and Kindle Displays
A big advantage of the iPod touch 4G over prior models and competing devices is its 3.5 inch Retina Display, which is 640 x 960 pixels, or 326 pixels per inch (PPI).
The 6″ Kindle display area has 600 x 800 pixels, or 167 PPI.
Why does this matter so much? It has been observed that the unaided human eye can generally not differentiate detail beyond 300 PPI (see here). So all else being equal (including the distance from your eyes), higher PPI will be easier on your eyes, until you pass around 300 PPI.
My eyes are more sensitive than average to fatigue from computer displays, so subtle differences between display types have a big impact. The CRT displays in the 1990s were so tiring that I had to print out anything more than a couple pages long to avoid bleary eyes and headaches. LCD displays are better, but typical 80-140 PPI LCD displays cause eye fatigue if I’m reading text for hours, and mild headaches if I spend more than 10 hours on a given day. Older generations of the iPod touch (163 PPI) are a little better, likely due to the higher pixel density. But none of these have been as easy on my eyes as the paperback novel.
The first truly easy-on-the-eyes display I’ve used is the 167 PPI E-ink Kindle display, when used in well lit areas. Though less than 300 PPI, it seems to be similar in quality to reading a newspaper (see here for microscopic comparisons). Fingerprints and smudges are not noticeable.
I’ve found that the 326 PPI display of the iPod touch 4G is usually just as easy on my eyes. In brightly lit or sunny areas the iPod backlit screen is harder to read, and sometimes the collection of fingerprints and smudges gets distracting enough that I need to stop and wipe. But in most other situations it’s been as easy on my eyes as reading a paperback novel.
Many E-ink proponents believe that the human eye is designed to read reflected light, and that E-ink technology holds the promise of causing less eye fatigue. With current display technologies, this is hotly debated (i.e. see LCD vs. e-ink: The eye strain debate, including comments). Subjectively, some people prefer e-ink, others high quality LCD screens, and for others it depends on lighting conditions.
I’m in this last category, preferring e-ink in well lit areas, and the back-lit iPod in dim areas. Since I mostly read in dim areas, the iPod touch works best for me. My wife far prefers real books and E-ink over back-lit screens, though she does prefer the higher resolution Retina Display to older, lower resolution displays.
The display of the iPhone 4 is even better than that of the new iPod touch. Both have 326 PPI, but the iPhone 4 uses IPS technology which allows for much wider viewing angles. I have not yet tested an iPhone 4 so I really don’t know if the IPS screen makes much of a difference for a single person reading text straight-on. All I can report is that I can read for hours at a time with the iPod touch 4G without experiencing eye fatigue.
If you have an iPhone then you don’t need an iPod touch. However, given that you’ll also leave the phone radio and 3G data on to use it as a phone and pocket computer, the battery may not last as long as an iPod touch that is used primarily for reading.
What about the iPad? It has IPS but a much lower 132 PPI resolution. Now that I’ve experienced how much easier it is on my eyes to read with E-ink or a 326 PPI LCD display, I don’t see why I’d want to use a 132 PPI LCD display for extended reading.
The iPod is FAST
With a Kindle, many things are slow. Page turns are noticeable (especially on older models), and doing anything other than reading a novel can be slow. The browser is especially slow.
The iPod touch is very fast. Whether it’s flipping a page, downloading a book, reading a long article on the web, or opening a PDF—everything happens as fast as you can touch the screen. This is one of the key factors that makes an iPod touch easier to use than Kindles for reading anything but novels.
The thing about reading is you just pick up a piece of paper or book and start reading. If something delays you, you won’t do it as much. With the Kindle, you will experience delays when reading anything except a novel. With an iPod touch, there are no delays.
iPod touch and Kindle Form Factors
The iPod touch is a thin, hand held device, similar in size to a large phone. It can therefore be carried everywhere in a large pocket, purse or backpack. Carrying a small device like this everywhere opens up possibilities for reading in a much wider variety of settings—waiting in line, half-watching kids playing together, showing someone a Wikipedia excerpt, etc.
A subtle but important advantage of using a device this size or smaller is that the small screen forces developers to devote most or all of the screen to the task at hand. This results in a distraction-free reading experience. Sometimes text is sandwiched between strips on the top and bottom devoted to status and/or controls, which is pretty good. But it’s often better: a “full-screen mode” that displays nothing but text.
This is a big deal for me, as FilterJoe’s main focus is on techniques for working without distraction. Here’s a list of the 4 apps I use on the iPod most frequently for distraction-free reading:
- Stanza – eBook reader with full screen mode
- GoodReader – PDF reader with reflow and full screen mode
- MobileRSS – Google Reader RSS client, full screen mode
- Instapaper – Extract long articles from anywhere with a single click for later, paginated reading on your iPod or Kindle
Being a larger device, the Kindle will not fit into a pocket but can fit into a large purse or backpack. With this larger size it is possible to see more text at a time on the screen, hold the device with either one or two hands, and comfortably read on a chair.
The small form factor of the iPod touch can be a detriment when reading in a chair (you don’t want to hold it in the air, but it can slide off your leg). But it is easier to use while standing or lying down given how light it is.
A significant drawback to the size and shape of the iPod touch is that clutching it for hours tires out my hand, a problem I never had with a Kindle. I’ve learned to prop up the iPod by leaning it on nearby objects or by using a specially made stand that came with my protective skin.
Lighting and Battery
Like many people, I do a lot of reading in bed. A Kindle requires external light in the form of a lamp or clip-on light. An iPod is back-lit so no external light source is needed, but many people feel that reading on back-lit screens is unnatural and will make it hard to fall asleep. The backlight can be dimmed however, and those who prefer light text on dark background can select night mode.
E-ink only uses electricity when pages are flipped, so when a Kindle’s connectivity is turned off, the battery can last for tens of hours of reading, and for weeks if the unit is used occasionally.
The battery life for an iPod will vary depending on how it is used but it can easily last over 10 hours if used for nothing but reading. To get the battery to last that long, simply put it into airplane mode and keep the screen as dim as is comfortable for you. Also make sure you have iOS 4.2.1 or later installed as prior versions had issues that shortened battery life.
An iPhone has a larger battery and requires less back lighting to be readable so should last longer than an iPod touch when in airplane mode and used for reading only. However, most people with an iPhone keep cellular connections and 3G data turned on, and this may cause the battery to run out faster than an iPod touch in airplane mode.
Batteries charge from zero to full in less than 3 hours for both the Kindle and the iPod.
Both devices have a USB capability for connecting to computers, but most people find using wireless connections more convenient.
The iPod touch has a WiFi connection only, so for downloading, WiFi must be accessible. An iPod will be much less convenient to use if you don’t have a WiFi router set up at home.
Kindles through the 2nd generation had 3G cellular connections which was a mixed blessing. On the bight side, you could use these Kindles anywhere a 3G connection is available, which was the U.S. for some versions, and most of the world for other versions. But to keep customers from running up 3G costs too high, Amazon charged a small fee for getting some kinds of data onto the device such as PDF conversions or emailed text. This made the Kindle impractically expensive for reading some forms of everyday reading material. While there are many schemes for trying to get data onto Kindles without cost, many of them required multiple steps or complex setup.
The 3rd generation Kindle now has WiFi connectivity. There is both a WiFi only model for $139 and a model with both WiFi and 3G connectivity for $189. With the new Kindle, it is possible to use the WiFi connection to get data into the device simply and for free, which makes the Kindle much more practical as a device for reading anything.
For comparison, the least expensive iPod touch typically costs about $210 in early 2011. If you travel a lot and primarily read novels, the $189 Kindle is likely to be the more practical device for you.
I’ve read a few novels on the iPod touch and it works surprisingly well. The font size I choose gets me around 30-40 characters per line. This is fewer than a paperback but the human eye is good at reading vertically. Though initially skeptical about reading novels with so little text per page, it took me just a couple hours to get used to the smaller number of words per page.
Pages are turned by tapping the right side of the screen or swiping, which is easy to get used to. Accessing the controls varies by app but is usually a tap in the center of the screen or a tap on a settings symbol near the top or bottom of the screen.
What the iPod lacks in screen size it makes up for with great apps, many choices, and fast speeds. If I accidentally turn a page, I can get back to the prior screen very quickly. If I don’t like the line spacing, fonts, or brightness settings, most e-reader apps will let me change that to something I like better.
There are many e-book reader apps for the iPod touch and here are some that I’ve checked out, in order of preference:
- Stanza is my favorite for a number of reasons: typography, brightness controls, full screen mode, speed, ease of downloading/caching content, and a good table of contents system. The greater flexibility of Stanza makes it more complicated to use, so those who want dead simple may not like it.
- The Kindle App also has nice typography but is less flexible. When you buy books through the Kindle store, they’re available and synced to all devices; you can be reading a book on a Kindle and then continue reading right where you left off on your iPod. Books that would benefit from a table of contents often don’t have it.
- Google Books is not in a class with Stanza or the Kindle App in terms of capabilities, but it works okay. And it is impressive that you have access to millions of books.
- The iBooks App made by Apple has a number of shortcomings and very little flexibility to correct them, so I never use it.
Impressive as the iPod touch is for reading novels, novels is probably the one type of reading material that works better on a Kindle. Simply put, the Kindle hardware and software was designed from the ground up to be good at reading novels, and it shows.
A strong case can be made that for reading novels, the user experience on a Kindle is better than an iPod touch. It’s simple to get started reading, purchasing books is easy, and there is no need to download reading software or mess with a syncing service like iTunes. Just wake up the Kindle and start reading.
I won’t repeat all my detailed observations about reading on the Kindle. But I will point out that I turn pages accidentally on both Kindles and iPod touches. An accident is more costly on the slower Kindle. Apart from this one annoyance, reading novels on a Kindle is a joy.
Reading Chapter Books or Short Story Collections
In my Kindle article I already discussed the shortcomings of the Kindle in this area. The actual stories are easy enough to read but navigation is clumsy for the majority of books (both free and paid) for which authors did not take full advantage of the Kindle’s system for setting up a table of contents and way points. If you want to skip between stories, it is usually far harder to do than with a paper-based collection of short stories.
It is harder to characterize the iPod touch because it will depend on which e-book reader app you use. However, I did notice that most of the apps I use seem to have a table of contents for each book for which that is appropriate. And it was very simple to bring up the table of contents and then jump to a story or chapter.
The only iPod touch e-book reader app that seemed to be missing table of contents for most stories was the Kindle App. It is surprising to me that the general purpose iPod touch does a better job than book specialist Kindle when it comes to table of contents that are present and easy to navigate. But that is currently the case.
Mixed Text and Graphics
As I noted in the Kindle post, my experience with Kindle Store’s mixed text/graphics content was so poor that I eventually gave up trying to find a single good sample.
The iPod touch is not consistently good at books with mixed text and graphics either. However, some do work well. Download “Winnie the Pooh” using Apple’s iBooks app store to see a very fine example.
Most other samples I downloaded for the iPod touch seemed like they were not designed to fit such a small screen, but would probably work fine on an iPad.
Using an iPod or Kindle for Reading a PDF
I really wanted the Kindle to work for native PDFs. No matter how much I tried, it didn’t. The problem is that PDFs are designed to fit onto an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and neither size of Kindle was big enough. A Kindle DX rotated sideways was almost workable, especially if the font size was fairly large, but it was far inferior to simply reading a piece of paper.
Using PDFs on an iPod touch is far better despite the smaller screen size. All PDF apps make use of built-in zooming that makes intuitive use of pinching. But even better is to buy the GoodReader app for $0.99, and use it in conjunction with Dropbox.
Dropbox is a file syncing service that causes all of your files stored in the “dropbox” folder to appear on the devices you choose. I set up dropbox so that all of my PDF files are accessible from all of my computers as well as my iPod touch and Blackberry.
The GoodReader app has the ability to reflow PDFs. For text-heavy documents, it works terrifically.
So how does it work? Just click on the file in Dropbox and open it with GoodReader. Click on the “reflow text” icon and the text reflows to fit the screen.
No matter how much I fiddled with it, I was not able to comfortably read my home inspection report on a Kindle. Kindle’s primitive PDF software is not yet cable of dealing with PDFs that have tiny fonts, like this one.
With GoodReader, I touched the “reflow text” symbol and it instantly stripped out the pictures and reflowed the text to an appropriate size for the screen. I could then read the inspection report like an e-book. I could also flip back and forth between PDF view and reflow view as needed.
To be fair, there are methods for converting PDFs into properly formatted Kindle documents. Many of the methods involve multiple steps and complication (i.e. Calibre) but the simplest is to use the Kindle PDF conversion service. This involves a charge for each converted PDF document unless you are using a 3rd generation Kindle (or later) in WiFi-only mode. I have not owned a Kindle 3 so feel free to leave comments about the quality of your PDF conversion experience on the Kindle.
No matter how much Amazon improves its PDF capabilities, it is hard to imagine them catching up to devices based on Apple’s iOS platform such as the iPod touch. Software such as Dropbox and GoodReader combined with pinch zooming makes it pretty easy to access and read PDFs without complication.
Web clipping and using RSS with Google Reader
In the Kindle post, I wrote extensively about how people not only use Google Reader to read blogs and other feeds, but also anything clipped from the web. I’ll summarize all those details by saying that among many complicated ways of getting arbitrary reading material onto a Kindle, using Google Reader and a “Note to Reader” bookmarklet was simplest for me. If you want to know more about what RSS is and why it can make it easier to read things from the web, read the extensive section on it in the Kindle post, here.
But even though it was simpler than other methods, it was still very slow and cumbersome to use the Kindle’s sluggish browser to actually read things in Google Reader. It was so much overhead, that I only did it for really long articles.
I’m sure it’s better now with the Kindle 3. It has a faster browser. Alternatively, you can send documents to a Kindle 3 for free when in WiFi-only mode. And that enables you to use something like Instapaper as an alternative and simpler way of getting anything onto a Kindle – without having to pay for each sending.
But all this pales in comparison to using iOS device like the iPod touch. For one thing, the iPod’s Safari browser is far faster and better. You can just use it to read an original article if you like. You can also use the Google Reader Web App that Google so kindly optimized for the mobile Safari browser.
But it gets even better. There are so many options available that it would be a pointless exercise to list them all. I’ll just list two:
You can get a dedicated RSS reader app that syncs with Google Reader. Several of the better ones include Reeder, Byline, MobileRSS, as summarized here. Why use these instead of the Google Reader App on Safari? Mainly, it will allow you to cache articles automatically for later reading. It may also give you features you like—in my case the feature I most care about is reading in full screen mode, which I do with MobileRSS. I do so much reading and bookmarking for later reading using Google Reader that having these few extra features is very helpful—but if you only use Google Reader a little then the web app may be plenty.
You can also get Instapaper, either a free version limited to 10 articles or the $4.99 version that includes pagination. I don’t care about pagination when I’m reading a few hundred words but when reading something long, I use Instapaper to clip it and read later on my iPod touch with pagination.
Instapaper can be used on the Kindle as well but I haven’t tested it so I’ll leave to readers to comment below as to how easy it is to use on the Kindle. I want to reiterate that using Instapaper in conjunction with the Kindle is free and relatively simple on a Kindle 3, but more complicated and costly on older models.
Multi Purpose vs. Single Purpose Devices
The Kindle is a device that facilitates one activity really well: reading novels. Some people think this dooms the device to be eventually replaced by multi-purpose tablets once prices become comparable. Others think that multi-purpose devices have too many distractions to be used for reading. I think it remains to be seen which model becomes more widely adopted.
With regard to general purpose devices, my take on iPhone versus iPod touch versus Kindle is as follows:
Smartphones in general including the iPhone are interrupt driven communication devices. In other words, if a call comes in you want to know immediately and some people feel that way about texts or e-mails as well. If you’re trying to read on such a device, you may get interrupted by calls or various notifications. You can go into airplane mode but for many people that would defeat the purpose of having an interrupt driven personal communication device.
With a Kindle, Nook or other e-book reader you read. It is possible to do other things besides reading but not easy. So it is nearly as easy to stay as focused on reading as with a book.
The iPod touch is in between. I don’t know what most people do, but I use my smartphone for interrupt driven communication, while I use my iPod mostly for reading. There’s no phone, there’s no 3G connectivity, and I don’t really need to do communication with the iPod because I do that with my phone. So 90% of the time I use it for reading, and I often just leave it in airplane mode to further reduce distraction and save battery life.
I don’t have an opinion as to which of the above scenarios is best for the most people. But I’ve become used to the idea of my smartphone as an interruption device. So for me, a smartphone is not a good device for reading without distraction.
If all you want is an inexpensive device to use primarily for reading novels, then the obvious choice is:
But if you want the flexibility to read anything, you’ll likely be happier with an iPod touch 4G. The least expensive 8GB model has more than enough memory to store thousands of books and and the 5-10 reading-related apps you may want to install:
If you use your iPod touch 4G to store large amounts of music or video, then you’ll need one of these larger models:
If you buy a used iPod touch, you want to be certain it is the 4th generation as the 4G display is much better for reading than older models.
Conclusion: Which is best for reading, the iPod touch 4G or the Kindle?
For me, the iPod touch 4G is better for reading, according to the four criteria listed at the beginning of this article. Why? It’s faster, more portable, and more flexible. It’s simple to read most formats and it’s usually easy and free to import reading material. The high resolution screen is as easy on my eyes as a Kindle and is much easier to read in dim light.
But the iPod touch won’t be best for everyone. If you’ll be doing most of your reading in bright light, on arm chairs, while travelling, and/or away from electrical outlets for days at a time, the Kindle will be more appropriate. If you want a device to read novels and nothing else, the Kindle is slightly better than the iPod touch for that specific function. It’s also less expensive.
But if you want the most flexible device, you want the iPod touch. It doesn’t work perfectly for all reading material, but it works far better than a Kindle for chapter books, mixed text and graphics, PDFs, web browsing, RSS, and arbitrary clippings from the web.
I spend many hours per day reading things from a variety of sources. I find myself shifting ever more of this reading onto the iPod touch. I tried to do that with a Kindle but too much effort was required.
Of course, some avid readers own both Kindles and an iOS device. I will as well as when Kindles drop further in price. I would use it for rare occasions when I want to read in a chair or in bright light.
What about tablets? That is the subject of the next post: Is now a good time to buy a tablet for distraction-free reading?.