Ask LH: Is E-Ink Really Better For My Eyes Than My Tablet?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve heard that tablets with bright screens can cause eyestrain and other problems. Am I better off getting an e-ink device like the Kindle? Thanks, Troubled by Tablets

Dear Troubled,

The common belief goes like this: because tablet screens are backlit and emit blue light, they cause greater eye fatigue than e-ink, which isn’t backlit and is designed to look like a piece of paper rather than a screen. Anecdotally, I’ve always believed this to be true. However, all the research I could find on e-ink devices suggests that they don’t offer any eyestrain benefits over LCDs. The New York Times explains:

Today’s screens are definitely less tiring to look at than older displays, which refreshed the image much less frequently, causing a flicker. Carl Taussig, director of Hewlett-Packard‘s Information Surfaces Lab, said the 120 Hz refresh rate typical of modern screens is much quicker than our eyes can even see.

“The new LCDs don’t affect your eyes,” Mr. Taussig said. “Today’s screens update every eight milliseconds, whereas the human eye is moving at a speed between 10 and 30 milliseconds.”

So the research says “no” — e-ink isn’t inherently better for your eyes. However, each type of screen does have its own advantages and disadvantages. Some examples:

  • Tablets such as the iPad are much harder to read in bright light, and their screens can produce a lot of glare. E-ink screens, on the other hand, work fantastically in bright light.
  • E-ink has a low contrast ratio that is difficult to read in low light. Tablets, being backlit, are much easier to read in darker locations.
  • If you’re reading a tablet in the dark — particularly at night — the blue light can cause insomnia and other problems. In that case, a paper book might be best — it’s easier to read than e-ink in low light, and doesn’t come with the problems of a tablet.

Everyone’s needs are different, and you select to pick the type of screen that fits your needs. If you’re looking for an ereader to accompany you to the beach, you’ll definitely want to go e-ink. If you’re looking to read inside and during the daytime, a tablet may be better. And, no matter what you’re reading on, take a break every 20 minutes or so if your eyes are feeling tired. That’s going to be a much bigger cause of eyestrain than the type of screen you’re using.


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