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E Ink vs. LCD: Which Screen is Best For Reading?

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There are two big choices when it comes to reading eBooks. You can go with either a dedicated eReader, like a Kindle Paperwhite, or a tablet with an LCD screen, like an iPad — but which is best?

The big difference between the two classes of device — eReader and tablet — is the type of screen they have. eReaders have E Ink screens, while tablets have LCD screens. This makes all the difference.

E Ink vs. LCD Screen Technology

E Ink screens are ideal for displaying black and white text. They can’t display colors (there are color E Ink screens, but they’re rare) and have a slow refresh rate. The big benefit to an E Ink screen, then, is the way text appears on it. E Ink screens are advertised as “electronic paper” — they look more similar to paper than typical LCD screens do.

LCD screen technology is the same type of screen your computer screen, smartphone, and probably even television use. It can display a wider range of colors and has a fast refresh rate, so you can have smooth animations, slick interfaces, and even play games and watch videos. LCD screens are backlit, which means there’s a light behind the display.

These are extremely different screen technologies optimized for different use cases, but you’ll still have to choose between them if you start shopping for some sort of eReader.

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Here’s how the screens actually differ in real-world use:

  • Reading in the Sun: Do you want to read books outside or in direct sunlight? You’ll want a device with an E Ink screen. There’s no glare with an E Ink screen, so the screen will appear as clear as if you were staring at a printed page when you read outside. If you took a tablet with an LCD screen out into the sun, there would be an extreme amount of glare on the screen and you might not be able to read it at all.
  • Reading at Night or in the Dark: LCD screens once had the edge when it came to reading in the dark, but modern E Ink readers like the Kindle Paperwhite also have an integrated light. The light actually isn’t a backlight — it’s a small light shone onto the front of the screen, which hits the screen and bounces back at you. This means you can use a Kindle Paperwhite to read in a dark room or in bed. The screen also won’t be as bright — an LCD screen can be so bright that it can wake up someone sleeping next to you.
  • Power Consumption: E Ink screens draw much less power than LCD screens do. You’ll have to plug in a tablet every few days to recharge it, while an E Ink reader can go for weeks or even months on end without a recharge. Amazon advertises the Kindle Paperwhite as having “up to 8-week battery life,” while Apple advertises the iPad mini with Retina display as having “up to 10 hours of battery life.” You won’t have to worry about recharging an E Ink device as much, and it’s also easier to take along if you’re going camping out in the wilderness where you don’t have a power outlet available.
  • Price: E Ink devices are significantly cheaper — $119 for a Kindle Paperwhite versus $400 for an iPad Mini with Retina Display or $229 for a Nexus 7. Tablets with LCD screens need to have higher-powered hardware inside them so they can play demanding mobile games and do other advanced things, while e-readers just have to turn pages at an acceptable speed.

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The Eyestrain Debate

Many people claim that E Ink screens help reduce eye strain. They say that staring at an E Ink screen for long periods of time is easier than staring at an LCD screen. Other people disagree, saying that they stare at an LCD screen all day while using their computers and have no problem reading on a tablet with an LCD screen; they don’t notice any eye strain.

A 2012 study named “Reading on LCD vs e-Ink displays: effects on fatigue and visual strain” looked at this exact issue. The researchers concluded that there was no difference between reading an an E Ink versus and LCD screen in terms of fatigue and visual strain. The key here is that the LCD screen has to be a high resolution, which modern tablet LCD screens are. Even if you experience eye strain when reading text on an old, low-resolution LCD computer monitor, you shouldn’t experience it when reading on a modern, high-resolution LCD screen.

Bear in mind that this doesn’t account for glare — if they replicated this test with participants trying to read in direct sunlight, there would be much more eye strain required for the LCD screens.

Some people do tend to prefer one screen type for aesthetic reasons, so you should try to see both in person to get a better idea which works for you.

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What Type of Reading Do You Actually Want to Do?

It seems that E Ink readers absolutely smash the competition! Why would anyone get a tablet with an LCD screen when E Ink devices are cheaper and seem like much better devices for sitting down and reading books? Well, it’s probably because many people want to do more than read books.

Devices with LCD screens — even ones ostensibly marketed as eReaders, like the Kindle Fire and Nook HD — are effectively just tablets. They’re not just for books. You also have access to a web browser, email app, social media services, movies, music, games, and a whole app store full of other things you can install on your device. You can do your email, post on Facebook, or play Angry Birds on a tablet, but not on an eReader — well, you actually can use a web browser on an E Ink Kindle, but it’s so slow that you won’t bother.

Which device you should get all depends on what you’re looking for. Do you want a device that you can use to read books anywhere, in the sun or at night? Get an E Ink screen — it’s ideal for reading books and you’ll also have fewer distractions, as you won’t be tempted to leave the eBook app and check your email.

Do you want a device that lets you read books sometimes, but also lets you browse websites, play games, and do all of the other things you can do on a tablet? Then maybe you really want a tablet with an LCD screen. Bear in mind that you’ll be tempted to use the tablet for things besides reading books, so reading will take more self control.

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Ultimately, it’s all about what you want to use your device for. If you really just want to use it for reading, an eReader is definitely the best option — you can read outside, you have longer battery life, and you won’t be distracted. But, if you want a device to use for other things too, a tablet with an LCD screen might be a better option.

Image Credit: John Blyberg on Flickr, Edvvc on Flickr, Yuya Tamai on Flickr, Zhao ! on Flickr, Courtney Boyd Myers on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 02/3/14

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