iPhone as eBook Part 1. The Screen

OK, so this is the first part of my look at using the iphone as an e-reading device. A couple of caveats before I begin. Firstly, I’m going to break down the review into a number of components – reflecting what I think are the major gotchas in ebook devices so far. Secondly, whilst my iphone is hacked, it’s only hacked to make and receive phone calls in Australia. I haven’t installed any other third party apps, and for the purposes of this review, I’m treating the iphone as out-of-the-box. Because whilst some of us are happy enough to fiddle with our toys, most people aren’t. (I know that’s contradictory, but until apple will sell me a phone in Australia, it’s the best I can do.)

That said, here goes. I’ve had the iphone for about a month now, and read one and a half novels, lots of webpages and more than a few shorter word and pdf documents. I suspect the novelty of the device will wear out (it hasn’t yet) so read my impressions in that light. Note that this is NOT a review of the iphone overall. There’s plenty of those.

Instead, I’m focussing on the iphone as ebook reader, right here and right now. And the first thing people ask about when considering an e-reading device of any sort is the screen.

The Screen.
I’ll cut to the chase. The screen is a thing of beauty. The specs don’t seem special (480 x 320 pixels, and 3.5 inches in diameter, about 163 dpi apparently) but in real life, it’s bright, surprisingly readable even in sunlight, and easily the nicest handheld screen I’ve used. What’s amazing is that the home screen doesn’t look like it’s a screen at all – it’s sharp enough to look like a sticker – which probably has something to do with the icon design too.

Did I mention that it’s bright. You can read this bugger outside. I’ve set the brightness to about a third of its maximum setting and it’s still too bright to read in a darkened room. So daytime settings need to be turned down for the bedtime read. Pity the brightness control is buried a few levels down in the settings screen – and the brightness sensor doesn’t really do the job automatically.

I haven’t tried the VGA screens on some of the PDAs like the Dell Axims. Nor do I have a Nokia N810. But compared to my old Treo 650, the iphone has a pin-sharp screen. Even scaled down webpages are readable; almost by inference – because the type is minute. Reading webpages and the like is actually pleasurable, especially with the very handy double tap and pinch interface. I have to confess to browsing in rooms of the house where I shouldn’t be allowed to browse.

And the anti-aliased text is simply beautiful, making the words and sentences of an ebook a delight. I read geek mafia, which pans out at about 100,000 words, and am slowly munching through The Bourne Identity (don’t ask – blame the film). Geek Mafia was html, sized pretty well. And I resized a pdf of Bourne to suit. About 200 words per page in Times New Roman is perfectly readable – and enjoyable. And the slightly nauseous feeling I sometimes get from reading an LCD screen only happened when I was reading on a bus into the city. For me, that also happens with ink on paper books.

Size Matters
But the iphone is not perfect for ebooks – yet. Why? I think that for most people, the screen is probably too small for reading long form narratives. One pocketable device which combines web access, email, ipod, youtube, telephone and ebook reader demands compromises which convergence geeks like myself might accept and embrace. But an iphone is much smaller in real life than pictures on the web suggest (which in most instances is a bonus).

For reading emails, webpages and short documents, the screen size isn’t a problem. But for something like a novel, it’s not quite right. When the text is sized for comfortable reading, there’s not really enough words on the screen. Rotating the screen doesn’t help. You get more words per line, but the number of words per page is no better. At normal print font sizes, the words are beautifully readable. But the iphone is a third the size of a paperback, so with the same font size, there’s a third as many words on the page.

In all honesty, the problem isn’t the screen but the need to interrupt your reading with constant ‘page turns’. You find yourself hitting the next button or scrolling the page way too often. It interferes with the quest for immersion in the text. But I think the solution might be pretty straightforward. I suspect that e-reading software which provided some kind of auto-scrolling mechanism would be all that’s required to overcome the screensize limitation. Something that let you set a scroll speed, so that the iphone could do the work of page-turning, leaving you to do the reading. Bring on the iphone SDK.

For the moment, it’s not a deal breaker. The iphone has a screen to die for and is perfectly usable as an ebook reader (it’s definitely as good as a Treo, Jasjam or any other smartphone out there) but for non early adopters, the screen may just not big enough to be totally comfortable. I’ll definitely be using it as an e-reading device, especially when travelling. But I’m not your average user…

However, screen size isn’t the only issue that needs addressing. In Part 2, I’ll look at getting books onto the iphone…


1 comment so far

  1. […] time to get back to the iphone, and how I’m liking it as an ebook reader. A few weeks ago, I raved about the screen, except for its size. Today, I look at the here and now, and whether it’s reasonable to […]

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