100_4487 Which is lighter, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?

I was put in mind of that old conundrum recently when I picked up a used paper book the other day. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Partners in Necessity, an 848-page trade-paperback tree-killer comprising the first three novels in their Liaden Universe setting.

This book is 8” x 5” x 2.5”. I do not have a scale, but if I use the rule of thumb of dividing cubic inches by 39 to get pounds, the book turns out to weigh a little more than two and a half pounds. That’s over one pound more than the iPad, which contains all three of those books in electronic form (and most of the rest of the series besides).

Yet if I hold them both in my hands, it is the iPad that feels heavier, unless I support them both on the flat side with my palm so their whole weight presses down directly on my hand. Why is that?

Like in the feathers vs. lead question, the iPad is much denser. If I’m holding it upright, the weight it does have is distributed over a smaller surface area. It pulls or pushes on the skin of my hands harder, so it feels like there is more there pressing down.

As with snowshoes on booted feet, the greater surface area of the paper book means that its weight is more evenly distributed. If you were to hold a pound of feathers in one hand and a pound of lead in the other, the denser lead would definitely feel heavier, even though they weigh exactly the same.

I’ve thought about this as I occasionally see people complain that  the iPad is “too heavy” to use as an e-book reader. It’s really only about as heavy as a 1 1/4” thick average hardcover book, and people don’t complain about how heavy those are. (Except for veteran e-book readers who prefer to keep their books on a device in their pockets, that is!) It just seems heavier because it’s so much more compact.


  1. Your physics is bad and you should feel bad.

    Are you picking up the iPad with more fingers? Bigger hands? An entirely new limb system made up your psychic energy? If not, the surface area on which the weight of the iPad presses is exactly the same as holding a book in the same position — less, given have your book, as in your example.

    The reason people are complaining about the iPad being heavier than traditional books is that they don’t hold it like a traditional book. Unless it’s a small, generally lightweight paperback, people don’t hold it up with the full weight traveling down their wrists. They may hold it at a tilt, half-supported by a table or with an elbow down on the table, that hand supporting the weight of the book through the spine, but the most important part is that people do not and cannot read and iPad with the same kinesthetics. The iPad without the custom case is a complete pain in the has to prop up to read, it reads terrible lying flat in front of you, and the standard way depicted to hold it puts the whole weight of the iPad into one palm along the edge, which is just a bad idea.

    The iPad looks incredibly pretty, but the truth is that the physical interface to the device is terrible for actual usage. People may come up with ways around that or that are more comfortable for them to use, but Apple certainly hasn’t done any favors to them in seeking that out.

  2. You don’t hold an iPad and a book the same way to read. You hold a (heavy) book with your hand underneath the weight of the book, while you hold an iPad (or a Kindle) on the side. That makes a difference in the perceived heaviness. You’re using stronger muscles, probably propping your elbow on something so you have the support of your bones, with the book. With the iPad, you using smaller muscles in your hands and wrists to hold the iPad upright.

    I can hold a Kindle in my left hand for as long as I want to read without discomfort, but in just a few minutes, the iPad became too heavy. Granted, I’m just four months recovered from a badly broken wrist, but one reason I prefer the Kindle over physical books is the lightness compared to books.

  3. Partners in Necessity: ~40 oz
    Apple iPad: 24 oz
    Amazon Kindle 2: 10.2 oz
    Sony PRS-600: 10.1 oz
    Sony PRS-300: 7.7 oz
    So, average eInk reader runs less than half the weight of the iPad (and neither iPad nor eInk reader changes weight when you add a couple hundred more books to the stack). Then add in battery life:

    Partners in Necessity: unlimited
    Apple iPad: 10 hours
    eInk reader: 1 week
    The iPad is an amazing device, no doubt about that, but it falls short of what we expect from an ebook reader: lightweight, screen readable under sunlight, and long battery life.

  4. “The iPad is an amazing device, no doubt about that, but it falls short of what we expect from an ebook reader: lightweight, screen readable under sunlight, and long battery life.”

    While those might be what I expect, they aren’t what I *want* from an ebook reader. I *want* to be able to read all my ebooks (DRMed Kindle, DRMed ereader, PDF, DJVU) on a single device. I want to be able to read late at night in bed without turning on the light and bothering my spouse. I want to be able to turn pages instantaneously and cleanly. I want a screen big enough to display a whole printed page legibly (IMHO critical for DJVU and PDF). I want to be able to wirelessly download new content from websites (including my own) and retailers when I’m at my home and office (which are marginal for the Kindle network). I want to be able to view full-color comics. And while I’m at it, I want to be able to try interesting new interactive book formats.

    Different strokes for different folks 😉

  5. FWIW, I did touch on this yesterday in my comments to Chris’ video post.

    I actually stopped pursuing hard cover books a few years ago, when I realized that they were a PITA to read in bed. I tend to go for the long epics – which my husband refers to as bricks – in my choice of reading. Once I realized the weight advantage of buying e-books, I swore off hard covers for good if I could get it in e (that, and I’m out of shelf space).

    Here’s an example: pick up any hard cover book written by Diana Gabaldon that is not par t of the Lord John Grey series and you’ll see what I mean:

    Dragonfly in Amber:

    hardcover: 2.5 lbs.
    Mass market paperback: 15.2 oz.
    trade paper: 1.6 lbs

    Therefore, the weight complaint about the iPad should be taken in full context of the individual user, their reading interests, and preferred reading ergonomics. 🙂

  6. The theme of the comments is direct competition.
    I’m more inclined to think the ipad has created a new sector and that’s one of the reasons why kindle, kobo, barnes and noble etc are on board.

    I’m more than happy to read the same book on more than one device including my kindle, mac and one day soon ipad

  7. I think it also has to do with where you can grab a ‘slate’ device like an ereader or ipad. Usually you (well, I) stick the corner of the device into the V of your thumb and pointer fingers, like a book… but unlike a book, you usually try to steer away from grabbing onto the screen. If you grab the bezel of a device, it can a bit awkward to hold, which wears out the muscles quicker.

    But one thing I love about ereaders is that I no longer have to bother with keeping the front and back pages pried open to read.

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