Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ranting - On form factors

I'm a big fan of e-readers. And by e-reader, I don't mean your Kindle Fire or Nook Color - I'm talking about actual, e-ink-based readers whose sole purpose is to replace the hundreds of pounds of books on my shelf with a single device. Things like the Sony Reader (my first e-reader was a PRS 350), or the Kindle Paperwhite (my newest reader, a gift from my lovely wife and son). These devices are intended to display text, and that is pretty much their only goal. In my opinion, they meet this goal in an absolutely stellar way. I can carry enough entertainment around in my pocket for years worth of idle-time, and the design goals of the e-ink display make sure that I don't end up with a headache for my troubles.

That's why I'm troubled when I see so many people opting for tablets as their reader of choice. With e-reader sales declining, far too many people are choosing an inefficient and incorrect medium to consume their text-based media. For me, the advantages of e-ink over a tablet are as follows:
  • Reduced eye strain. An LCD is basically a bright light shining at your face. An e-ink reader relies upon ambient light, much like a piece of paper.
  • Increased battery life. An LCD takes a hell of a lot of power compared to e-ink, and a lot of it is due to the frequency of the screen's refresh. The more often a screen has to change, the more power it consumes. E-ink displays change only when you switch pages, resulting in batteries that last for weeks. LCD screens change dozens of times a second, resulting in much greater battery usage.
  • Reduced glare and contrast ratio improvements. LCD is a light-based medium, emitting light in order to generate the images we see. This means that if you shine a bright light back at it (say, something like the sun) then the image becomes much more challenging to discern. This is not a problem with e-ink readers, as they rely upon the reflection of light off of their surface - just like a piece of paper. This also results in a far higher contrast ratio - the difference between dark and light areas on the screen. This higher contrast ratio on e-readers allows the eye to do the same tasks with less energy, resulting in the reduced eye strain mentioned above.
The problem I see is that people want one device that does everything they could ask for - a Swiss army knife of entertainment. This results in millions of misguided individuals using their LCD tablets as a repository for their books and reading material, resulting in headaches and unnecessary power usage.

The issue is all about form factor. The central fallacy that lies behind these choices of gadget is that one form factor can fit every need. You see this confusion all over the place. One example is Microsoft's Windows 8 - a desktop OS heavily designed for touch. Touch interfaces can be excellent for some uses, but with the popularity of the iPad and smartphones far too many people think that a touch interface is the panacea for all computer applications. Touch is imprecise, it lacks sufficient tactile feedback for button presses and such, and requires a flexible display to compensate for the lack of resolution available. Furthermore, it often requires additional software running on a device to handle the input. Instead of a device driver generating interrupt requests, you're filtering the input through an application subject to the whims of an OS.

Human experience, at least in America, seems to be far too focused on fads. A new technology, or product, appears and instantly trumps anything even remotely related to it, regardless of the superior technology. VHS over Betamax. Touch-screen keyboards over physical keys. I suspect that tablet computers are quickly doing this to e-readers, and it makes me sad as both a tech guy and as a reader. I'm not looking forward to the forthcoming headaches once all devices carry a brightly-glowing LCD. I stare at a computer monitor too long as it is.

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