It’s brain-dead obvious that display quality and clarity is key to the reader experience of anyone reading ebooks. And in that respect, ereading enthusiasts are becoming very lucky people. Because tablet and ereader manufacturers are now pushing their technologies to new levels and ever closer to the realm of print.

displayDisplayMate, “The Standard of Excellence for Image and Picture Quality,” offers the following demonstration, in its “Flagship Tablet Display Technology Shoot-Out,” pitting the Amazon [easyazon-link asin=”B00BHJRYYS” locale=”us”]Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″[/easyazon-link] against the new Apple iPad Air and the now ageing, but still very highly specced,  [easyazon-link asin=”B00ACVHKSC” locale=”us”]Google Nexus 10[/easyazon-link], with commentary by Dr. Raymond M. Soneira, President, DisplayMate Technologies Corporation. The extremely detailed and wide-ranging analysis that follows, across issues such as image contrast accuracy and absolute color accuracy, obviously goes far beyond what’s needed to assess the quality of these devices as platforms for reading ebooks onscreen. Also, as these are “all full size tablets that have 9 to10 inch displays,” they are above the preferred form factor for some ereaders – although I doubt that Amazon put onscreen reading aside when it came up with the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9”, or Apple with the iPad Air. But similar resolutions and performances are already appearing in smaller devices, and as “top-of-the-line and state-of-the-art” in display technology, those two devices in particular are excellent references for the current realm of the possible. The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 particularly, according to Soneira, is “the best performing tablet display we have ever tested.”

If we take a straight pixels-per-inch to print dots-per-inch comparison, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9” rates at 339 ppi, the iPad Air at 264 ppi, and the Nexus 10 at 300 ppi – all against a basic cheap paperback dpi of around 300 dpi, though some library sources quote 1200 dpi as a better standard for truly comfortable sustained reading. That may be so, and certainly something to aim for. But the print paperback industry gets by on 300, if not less, without especially strong complaints from readers. And device makers are already pushing the envelope further, especially on smaller devices. Soneira cites elsewhere the HTC One, with its 4.7″ 468  ppi screen. Yes, stick an HTC One beside a cheaper paperback and see which works better for you.

And in comparison with any other onscreen reading option, tablet displays of this caliber simply blow away the opposition. All deliver “up to twice the number pixels as your 50 inch HDTV, but on a 9 to 10 inch screen,” notes Soneira, adding that the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and iPad Air, with their “top notch picture quality, absolute color accuracy, and accurate image contrast” are “not only much better than any other tablet, they are also much better than most HDTVs, laptops, and monitors. In fact, with some minor calibration tweaks they both would qualify as studio reference monitors.” He also cites excellent grayscale and image contrast and viewing angles, although allowing that screen reflectivity in high ambient light remains a major challenge for current and future devices.

I hope this isn’t coming across too much like gadget hype. Some people simply will never get used to reading onscreen, and will always prefer print. But the sacrifices that you used to have to make to read on digital devices are rapidly diminishing to zero, and your eyes will thank you for that.


  1. There is an important variable in this area that doesn’t get enough attention and that is the role of human perception. Video compression, for example, is guided by the findings of neuroscience in pursuit of the goal of discarding as much data as possible without human viewers noticing. As it happens, we humans can safely ignore quite a lot of data and still have a vibrant visual experience. So perhaps here, too, we have more data than we need or can even process. Physical specifications have to be considered within the context of human perception.

  2. This focus on screen resolution and pixels is such an unnecessary and in the long run damaging distraction to the issue of digital publishing and is becoming quite concerning. Very little is being focused on books, how they are consumed or distributed digitally, and what new forms they can now take. The content we watch and read is left to stagnate in the swamps of Amazon, (haven’t they figured out how stupid that url is yet?), Netflix, and Hulu while a masturbatory device war rages over real estate that is rapidly becoming inconsequential. It is not about technology or devices it is about content.

    If Barnes & Noble spent the money they have on the Nook instead on buying The New Yorker and giving away subscriptions for free as long as you buy one book a month they would be doing much better.

  3. Business and distribution models, and consumption patterns, are certainly hugely important. Yes, there are new possibilities to enhance and expand the nature of ebooks. And self-publishing may or may not be changing the nature of literature, but it certainly is making a huge difference to the type and amount of literature that is being written (as well as possibly to the quality, but that’s a different story). And I wouldn’t be surprised if analysis of the average length of the texts that people read nowadays shows a renaissance of short forms.

    But TeleRead is full of articles on all that *as well*. And reading experience does matter. If, for instance, textual clarity is key to sustained reading, then screen quality would make a difference to all those debates raging about attention-span, concentration on ebooks, etc. And remember that the Kindle, Nook, etc, were all intended as the front end of a business and distribution model. That is their purpose and context. In this instance, I’m just focusing on the front end rather than the rest of the value chain.

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