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LCD vs. e-ink: The eyestrain debate

With the upcoming release of the Barnes & Noble Nook Color "reader's tablet," a lot of people are talking about eyestrain when using a backlit display technology like LCD. Is it a myth?

Eye on e-reader displays: straining for an answer.

As most people know by now, Barnes & Noble is releasing a new Nook Color e-reader in a few weeks, and that e-reader's color screen is an LCD. As soon as the company announced that its new e-reader had an LCD and not some sort of more exotic screen technology, some readers cried foul. In fact, the first comment out of the gate on our Barnes & Noble unveils Nook Color post was about eyestrain.

"It's very neat-looking, and the price point seems aggressive enough to make an impact for sure. That being said, is eyestrain an issue? I thought the benefit of e-ink was a combination of ease of reading, outdoor or well-lit reading, and battery life..."

A little farther down, another commenter wrote: "LCD technology for an eReader is going backwards for me. It's not that reading on an LCD is so horrible for me, but rather reading on an e-Ink display is so much more pleasing to my eyes."

Other readers came down more favorably on the side of LCD, saying they stare at a computer screen all day and it doesn't bother them. However you look at it, though, the Nook Color hasn't even hit stores yet and the debate over eyestrain is already raging. We got some of this when the iPad came out, but the discussion is more amped up because Barnes & Noble is calling the Nook Color the "reader's tablet," whereas the iPad hasn't been marketed first and foremost as an e-reader.

When we asked William Lynch, Barnes & Noble's CEO, about the potential for eyestrain with Nook Color screen, he said the company had done extensive research on displays and discovered that eyestrain with LCDs was not the huge issue many people were making it out to be. Furthermore, the company is also using a high-resolution next-generation panel from LG that's backlit with LED.

Now, it's not that I don't take Mr. Lynch at his word, but I thought I'd put in a call to an impartial third-party who might be able to shed some light on the issue. So I dialed up my ophthalmologist, Dr. Mark Hornfeld, who has a practice in Manhattan. I said, hey, Mark (yes, I call him by his first name), do any of your patients talk about reading with the iPad, Nook, and Kindle? Are people concerned about eyestrain when using these new e-readers? What's the deal?

Well, he said that a lot of his patients did talk about using the new e-readers. However, the problem, he said, is that when a lot of people hit 40, their near vision starts to diminish, which is why people need reading glasses. Your eye starts to lose its natural ability to accommodate for distance. The muscles in your eye can't bend the lens as well as they once did because your lens gets harder with age--and it becomes harder to bend. So you end up holding a book or an object a little farther back to compensate. For a lot of people, this starts to happen at 40 or 41 and just gets progressively worse, then levels off when you're between 50 and 52.

A backlit or nonbacklit display doesn't make a difference, Hornfeld says. And if you're reading a bright screen in the dark, your eyes will adjust. Your pupil gets large in the dark, so when you turn on a brightly lit display, it may bother your eyes at first, but they'll compensate. It's like when you wake up in the morning, open the shades, and are blinded by the light at first. But then you get used to it.

Hornfeld notes that when you read or watch a movie, you simply don't blink as much, so you're eyes can get dry--especially if you're already prone to having an underlying dry-eye problem. (A New York Times article earlier this year also made a similar point about not enough moisture because of lack of blinking. It also offers some reading tactics to reduce the potential for eyestrain).

Hornfeld says that today's LCD screens aren't going to give you eyestrain. That said, some people simply like the way e-ink appears on the page, and some prefer how the iPad displays text. It's an aesthetic issue more than anything else. In other words, you can simply be averse to one screen or another--but that doesn't mean it will give you eyestrain.

Personally, I read on an iPad as well as on e-ink devices like the Kindle and Nook. I actually have the opposite problem from what Hornfeld says happens to people at 40: my far vision is getting worse, whereas my near vision remains just fine. I haven't noted any difference in eyestrain from when I read on the iPad or when I read on the Kindle or Nook for long periods. Yes, the battery life is worse on an LCD device like the Nook Color than an e-ink Nook Wi-Fi or 3G. But my eyes feel about the same regardless of whether I'm using an iPad or the Kindle. The delayed flash of a e-ink page turn and sometimes ghosting of letters or images on e-ink e-readers didn't bother me as much as it does some people I know, though the latest generation e-ink readers (Kindle, Sony) have a new "Pearl" screen that helps remedy these little, nagging flaws.

Do I like the look of the text on one device over another? Sure, I much prefer using an e-ink device outdoors in sunlight. Given the choice indoors, I don't have a real preference; they both look pretty good to me, and I even don't mind reading on my iPhone 3GS or iPod Touch 4G (the Retina Display seems quite good for reading, I just wish it was on my iPad).

Now I can't tell you yet how reading with the Nook Color will be because I haven't spent any time reading with the new device. But from the looks of it, the screen seems just fine. Yes, it's a fingerprint magnet like the iPad's screen (what touch screen isn't?), and yes, you'll get some reflections even though Barnes & Noble has put a special laminate on the glass to cut down on glare and improve off-axis viewing.

Of course, what I think is appealing aesthetically and what someone else thinks is appealing aesthetically are two different matters. I happen to feel comfortable reading on an e-ink or LCD device, but others will have their own preference. At the end of the day, for better or worse, everybody's eyes are different, and there are many reasons for eyestrain, most of them not related to screen technology. Heck, my eyes sometime bother me after reading a paper book after a while.

What do you guys think?

Editors note: with our poll numbers solidifying--and e-ink holding the big lead--it's interesting to note that the breakdown appears to resemble today's e-reader market. E-ink e-readers still make up the bulk of dedicated digital reading devices at this time, but the iPad has a significant presence and plenty of people own both a dedicated e-ink e-reader as well as an iPad (or they read on a smartphone or iPod Touch). You can infer what you want from the results, but that's just our quick take.