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eReader vs. Tablet: which screen should you be reading on?

By Kobo • April 28, 2024Kobo Products and Features

Do eReaders cause less eye strain than tablets such as iPads?

Is having another device to charge worth it?

If you’ve already got an iPad, should you also get an eReader?

Read on for answers to all these questions and more…

Reading has been shown to reduce stress, improve cognitive function, improve quality of sleep, and even lead to greater longevity. Everyone should be reading more. One of the easiest ways to add more reading into your life is to take advantage of the convenience of eBooks with a book-sized device like an eReader or a tablet such as an iPad.

Tablets have always been able to run apps for reading eBooks and do everything we expect a smartphone to do. Meanwhile, the newest eReaders feature color screens, stylus compatibility, and Bluetooth for playing audiobooks. But despite these and other similarities, there are still some significant differences between tablets and eReaders.

Despite numerous similarities, eReaders and tablets are still very different devices

If you’re trying to decide whether to read on an eReader or an iPad or Android tablet (or your smartphone) there are a few key factors that differentiate the reading experience on a tablet with an eBook app vs. reading on an eReader.

eReaders vs. tablets: key differences

Eye strain

Digital eye strain” and “computer vision syndrome” are by now familiar conditions caused by extended use of tablets, computers, and smartphones. With illumination provided by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) the screens of these devices are emissive, meaning they’re made visible by shining light at your eyes. The brighter your surroundings, the brighter those lights need to shine. Emitting light directly towards your eyes is part of what allows a tablet to produce vibrant colors, but studies have observed a lowered blinking rate among users looking at emissive digital devices, leading to dry eyes and feelings of eye strain. Among children, the effect of excessive exposure to computers and tablets can lead to conditions that impair the eyes’ ability to track across a page, making reading difficult.

The screens of phones and tablets are emissive, meaning they’re made visible by shining light at your eyes

The screen of an eReader uses a non-emissive technology called E Ink. An E Ink screen consists of an array of tiny black and white ink particles that physically move in response to an electric charge: as you “turn the pages” of an eBook, the eReader re-arranges these particles in a fraction of a second, like a printer applying ink droplets onto a sheet of paper.

With an eReader, each page of the book is “printed” in E Ink the moment you’re ready to read it. Because of E Ink’s paper-like quality you can read on an eReader in a wide range of lighting conditions, just like a printed book. But with an eReader you can increase the font size and line spacing, which can bring relief to tired eyes that even a printed page can’t provide.

Blue light, eye health, and sleep

Most of the light emitted by LEDs—the light source behind phones tablets and computers—comes from blue light, the part of the light spectrum with the shortest wavelengths and highest energy. Exposure to blue light has been shown to decrease the ability of cells in the eye to repair themselves, raising concerns of vision impairment, especially in children.

Additionally, while the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin is impacted by any kind of light, research has shown blue light to have a significantly more powerful effect than light from other parts of the spectrum. Because interfering with our natural sleep cycles can lead to an increased risk of health conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and depression we need to be careful about our exposure to night-time illumination.

You can read on an eReader in a wide range of lighting conditions, just like a printed book

To enable night-time reading, most eReaders come with built-in adjustable front-lighting. If you’ve ever had a battery-powered “book light” that clamps onto a hardcover book so you can read at night, you’ll find the illumination built into an eReader is similar—but a lot smaller. Front-lighting uses tiny lights embedded around the edge of the eReader’s bezel to reflect light off the screen, just like how a lamp reflects light off of a printed page. Many users who prefer a low setting find they can leave their eReader’s front-lighting on all the time since it isn’t noticeable in well-lit rooms, and it makes little difference to how many days the battery lasts between charges (see “Battery life” section below).

eReaders use indirect front-lighting for reading in dim surroundings

An eReader with ComfortLight PRO turns the color of its front-lighting to an increasingly warm tone over the course of the day. Compared to a tablet or phone’s “night mode” that performs a similar function, the emissive screens of tablets still emit significantly more blue light than eReaders.

Like front-lighting, the effect of ComfortLight PRO can be adjusted manually, or you can set it to automatically reach its warmest, campfire-hued setting when you usually want to get to sleep.

Color screens

eReaders such as the 7” Kobo Libra Colour and its compact cousin Kobo Clara Colour use another kind of screen technology, E Ink Kaleido™ 3. Just like the black and white version of E Ink, this color-enabled E Ink is similar in tone and texture to paper. E Ink Kaleido™ 3 applies a 3-color (red/green/blue) filter array over the screen, which appears colorless when only the white ink particles are visible. Remember what we learned back in science class: since white light includes all the colors in the spectrum, to display colors we need filter some light out.

E Ink Kaleido™ 3 produces colors by selectively absorbing light with black ink particles

Source: https://www.eink.com/

E Ink Kaleido ™ 3 uses black ink particles to selectively absorb light and keep it from bouncing back through the filter. Using this non-emissive light-filtering technique, eReaders with E Ink Kaleido™ 3 screens are capable of displaying over 4,000 colors.

Color E Ink is similar in tone and texture to paper

Notes and stylus

Different Android tablets work with different universal and proprietary stylus accessories, and iPads of course work with Apple Pencil.

eReaders such as Kobo Libra Colour, Kobo Sage, and Kobo Elipsa 2E all work with Kobo Stylus 2 for highlighting and annotating eBooks, as well as marking up unlocked PDFs which you can load by a USB-C connection, or by syncing these eReaders with Google Drive or Dropbox.

Weight

For a given screen size, tablets tend to be heavier than eReaders: the 8” Kobo Sage eReader weighs just 241 g, while a comparable 8.2” iPad Mini comes in 20% heavier (56 g) at 297 g.

For a sense of what that feels like in your hand, the paperback edition of the first Harry Potter book is 275 g, and the hardcover is about twice as heavy.

For a given screen size, eReaders tend to be lighter than tablets

Battery life

With daily reading sessions of an hour or two, any eReader will typically last well over a week on a full charge. Like current Android devices, Chromebooks, and most laptop computers (including Macs), eReaders today use USB-C to charge. So if you’re packing for vacation and bringing any other electronics, it’s unlikely that you’d need to bring a separate cable to charge your eReader.

Any eReader will typically last over a week on a full charge

As the battery of a tablet loses capacity over time with every recharging, many users find their tablet needs a midday top-up if they want to use it late in the evening. Because eReaders require such infrequent charging, not only do their batteries typically lose capacity more slowly than tablets, but it's also harder to notice when they do.

Apps

Kobo eReaders can be synced to read library books borrowed with the Libby app (for libraries that use the OverDrive digital lending service), and they can sync articles you’ve saved to read later using the Pocket app.

iOS and Android tablets can also use Libby and Pocket, plus millions of other apps including social media, video streaming, games, and instant messaging.

Kobo apps on Android and iOS sync all your reading activity with Kobo eReaders—including notes, bookmarks, and highlights—so you can always pick up your book where you left off, however you choose to read.

Longevity

Because the usefulness of an eReader doesn’t depend on ever-increasing computing power to run the latest games (and because of their infrequent need of charging) the eReader upgrade cycle is very slow. Many eReaders from the 2010s are still in regular use.

The lifespan of tablets varies between Apple and different Android manufacturers, but software support lasting over 10 years is still considered exceptional. As for hardware, since a tablet’s battery only runs for a matter of hours per charge when brand-new, as it starts to lose capacity with age it’s more noticeable than when the same happens to an eReader.

Fortunately, the latest eReaders are user-repairable, with repair kits and parts (including batteries) available from iFixit.

Many happy readers are still using eReaders from the 2010s

Conclusion: is an eReader or tablet better for reading?

For anybody who is considering an electronic device to help them spend more time reading, an eReader makes more sense than a tablet. An eReader will let you read several whole books between charges, so it’s not another device to worry about plugging in every night. And you don’t have to be concerned about blue light and eye strain either, since the E Ink screen of an eReader doesn’t use LED backlighting, and an eReader with front-lighting is optically similar to a book with a reading lamp built in. eReaders can save you from another kind of strain: most weigh only as much as a typical paperback book. Like a tablet, an eReader will allow you to borrow eBooks from your library, listen to audiobooks over Bluetooth, and read other kinds of files like PDFs in the comfort of your favorite reading spot. But few devices today retain their usefulness for as long as an eReader does.

An eReader is the right device for anybody who wants to spend more time reading

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