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iPad 2 as e-reader: Glare still an issue

Yes, the iPad 2 is thinner, lighter, and faster, but not much has changed with its screen--and that means it's still prone to glare.

The iPad 2's glass screen is still very reflective. David Carnoy/CNET

Let's get something out of the way right off the bat. I have an iPad. The original. I use it as an e-reader. I like it as an e-reader. I consider it a very good e-reader. But it's not perfect.

Like a lot of other people, after the lines died down last Friday, iPad 2 launch day, I took a trip to my local Apple store to mingle with the crowds and handle the object that has been getting so much attention. My mission, however, was a little more focused than some people's. Sure, I took the Web browser for a spin and tried to get a feel for how much zippier the thing might be. But I largely ignored the built-in front and back cameras and other new features such as the Garage Band app because plenty has already been written about that stuff.

What I was most curious about was how the iPad 2 performed as an e-reader and whether Apple had done anything to the screen to make the reading experience better.

As some of you know who've visited an Apple store, Apple only loads certain apps onto their demo devices, and the Kindle or Nook apps aren't part of the offerings (only iBooks is, which I don't blame Apple for doing). So I popped open iBooks and opened a few of the titles that were present in the library, which included a few novels and color children's books.

The first thing you notice, of course, is that the iPad 2 is lighter and thinner than the original. One of the problems with the original iPad was that it was a bit heavy and you really had to prop it up on something when reading for long periods. The iPad 2 shaves off 3.2 ounces, bringing the weight down to 1.3 pounds, and it makes a difference. Not a huge difference, but 3 ounces is 3 ounces, and I'll take it. That said, it isn't light, and you'll still have to prop it up when reading for long periods.

Where you'll also see an improvement is in the overall speed and responsiveness of the device. It's not a major difference when it comes to e-reading, but e-books seemed to load slightly faster and those of you with large libraries should find that covers images get drawn to the screen more quickly when your library loads.

In June, Apple is scheduled to force booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo to modify their apps to sell their wares through the apps themselves (with Apple taking a 30 percent cut of sales), and it remains up in the air how those companies (and many others) will respond to those demands. But thanks to the new dual-core A5 processor, the iPad 2's browser is also faster--up to 50 percent, according to reports--so for now anyway you'll be able to browse and buy e-books more quickly.

Any performance boost is good. But the real question I had was whether Apple had done anything to reduce the glare issues encountered from overhead lighting and sunlight. Apparently, according to the helpful Apple rep in the store, the answer is no.

She said that while Apple had taken steps to make the screen more fingerprint-resistant, the screen had remained basically the same in terms of resolution and contrast. While it's no Retina display, text appears sharp and the touch screen is great for navigating content, flipping pages, and highlighting words to look up in the dictionary (or just highlight for future reference). Since this is an LCD, you also won't have an issue reading in the dark, like you do with e-ink e-readers.

The rep said the fingerprint resistance was accomplished through a special coating on the screen. She also said Apple's new Smart Magnetic cover "automatically" removed fingerprints while it was on. The process seemed to involve the microfiber cloth magically lifting prints while it protected the screen. (Since there were no Smart Magnetic covers around to try out, I'll have to get an update on this from Donald Bell, who has CNET's only iPad 2 review sample out in SF).

If Apple has indeed made changes to the glass layer of the screen to make it more fingerprint resistant, it's hard to tell. The one thing I can tell you is that it didn't make any changes that would make it more glare resistant. It's still very reflective, which becomes a problem when you have any overhead lighting to contend with (those "flares" you see in the pictures are Apple's in-store lights, which are attached to the top of a glass ceiling far overhead). This reflection is issue more common than you'd think. Really, any overhead light will cause some glare and I find myself frequently adjusting my iPad's angle to help reduce it.

Does this make the iPad 2 a bad e-reader? No, as I said, it remains a very good one. But the fact is any time you put a layer of protective glass over the top of any screen (and this goes for any tablet and a lot of laptop displays), you're going to be greeted with some irritating reflectivity. I will say that I preferred the white iPad 2 over the black one for the simply reason that the white border seemed less reflective than the black one.

Later this year, we should start seeing anti-reflective color display technologies such as Mirasol hit the market. These types of displays don't appear to offer quite the color saturation that the iPad 2's display does, but they are viewable in direct sunlight, which is another complaint people have about the iPad and iPad 2: they just aren't as usable as they should be outdoors on a bright day. If you've seen Amazon's sometimes entertaining Kindle ads, you know that outdoor readability is a competitive advantage Amazon likes to tout. You can expect more of those ads.

So, what's the bottom line on all this? Well, if you're buying the iPad 2 as an e-reader, you'll be mostly happy. Just know that it still has one glaring problem.

The black iPad 2 appears to be more reflective along its border than the white version. David Carnoy/CNET