Reading in the modern age has changed. I can’t remember the last book I read that was printed on actual paper. Not too long ago, I once again aspirationally purchased an 8.4″ tablet, the unlucky 13th tablet in a string spanning back five years, with the intention of making a dent in my reading list, which had been accumulating for a while. The screen is gorgeous, far sharper than any desktop monitor, but I had to spend some time setting up the layout and font sizes just right to what I felt was the ‘right setup’. Naturally, I wandered off into a procrastinating tangent of what was the optimum setting, and how did it differ from reading on a phone, a laptop, or a desktop monitor. I had originally intended to do the majority of reading on my phone for convenience, but it proved to be near impossible – it was the miniscule screen combined with the never-ending flipping/scrolling of pages that was unbearably irritating.
My intention was simple, disregard things which cannot be measured (like reading comprehension and enjoyment, both of which are incredibly important, but we shall ignore for now), and just stick to the business of cramming words into eyeballs. The key metric which I wanted to capture was how many words could be displayed on the screen at a time. The more words, I generally found the easier it was to read, up to a point of course. There was less time wasted scrolling/flipping breaking the train of concentration, you see. Having to jump your eye focus around to figure out where you left off takes it’s toll.
To measure this, I took an article (this one from Politico) of roughly 2,500 words and fed it into Pocket, which removes the unwanted cruft and displays the article text in a neat column. The benefit of course, is I could immediately show the same article on all devices near me, formatted in the same way. The results were as follows:
The (S)mall/(M)edium/(L)arge font sizes were chosen within a ‘comfortable’ range of what I normally read in, given the size of the device and distance from the eyes. The laptop and desktop monitors were set at roughly a ‘medium’ level with the same criteria. Adjusting the font size, as seen on the phone (5.1″ 1920×080 screen) and tablet (8.4″ 2560×1600 screen), resulted in a 30-50% improvement in word density per page, all still quite readable. The laptop (a 13″ 1366×768 screen) fared only better than the phone. The larger 27″ desktop monitor (2560×1440) in portrait yielded the maximum results at a whopping 693 words per page. Read my earlier article on the benefits of turning your monitor sideways.
However, it’s not so cut and dry – I found the benefit of having more words per page tends to drop off at a certain point. This seems to be partly due to the too-frequent page flipping only applying to very small devices like the phone and possibly laptop, and also that if you’re reading at your desktop monitor, you’re probably less comfortable and less efficient than reading on your tablet on the couch or in bed. Unfortunately, we can’t really quantify this, but we can figure out just how frequent the flips occur.
As expected, reading on the phone with the largest font results in more than 6.5 flips per minute, or a page flip approximately every 9 seconds. I based this on this reading speed test, which can be done in-browser. This goes up to every 20-28 seconds for the tablet, and finally up to 27-50 seconds for a large desktop monitor. As you can imagine, the less page flips the better. Logically, the next question is, how many flips does it take for typical reading circumstances?
I won’t make a graph out of this one, as it would become a bit cluttered. I used two types of reading as examples, the first being a medium-length article (like the one linked above), and an extreme example, one of the longest books every written, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Only four page flips are required for the medium article on the 27″ portrait monitor, but 21 page flips are required on a smartphone. For the long example, more than ONE HOUR is spent just flipping pages (at an average page flip speed of 0.75 seconds), that is, if you had the monk-like resolve to read War and Peace on your smartphone. This is an achievement in itself, but that time lost flipping pages is not coming back, not to mention the RSI in your bloodied thumb.
- It’s difficult to quantify reading efficiency, but based purely on how many words can be shown to your eyes in the minimum amount of time, the 8.4″ tablet ranks equal with a large 27″ monitor, which has more than 15+ times the surface area. The smartphone and laptop are horribly poor for reading efficiency. There’s probably a reason why since the papyrus scrolls and stone tablets of ancient times, the page-sized portrait seems to be preferred.
- According to a Pew study from 2014, reading has shifted onto electronic devices, and onto articles (including long-form articles), but books still hold a large percentage. Reading overall has also decreased in frequency.
- Audiobooks are also growing in popularity, but I dislike them purely for the reason that you can’t consume the article at your own pace. When I read something, usually I’ll size up the article, then quickly skim through to identify which parts are important. Often articles have the meaty, important parts, and the filler material. This can be a massive time and attention saver.
- Landscape screens in general are quite poor for reading, our eyes tend to prefer narrower columns of text to more easily anchor and jump from one line to the next, hence newspapers and magazine columns evolving to their existing form.
- Likewise, trying to fit small text on a screen with poor pixel density is a recipe for annoyance if not discomfort. If you do invest in a reading device, make sure it has a sharp enough screen. Ideally a microSD slot or sufficient storage so you can cram your growing book collection on there.
- There are plenty of books on improving reading speed and comprehension, like grouping words together, optimum column widths, font choices and much more. Training reading ability will pay off greatly in the longer term.
- As always, some reading is better than no reading, so even churning through a few short articles on your smartphone while you’re in line is still better than waiting till later. Remember that our concentration wears off after a certain time, but also, information retention tends to be greatest with less multitasking going on.
- Our attention spans are rapidly getting shorter, and trying to read on a phone or computer which has any number of tempting distractions can obliterate any reading efforts. Keeping a dedicated reading device clutter-free, can often encourage better reading discipline.