E-Ink vs. LCD: What’s The Difference?

 Posted by at 9:38 PM  Tagged with: , , ,
Aug 042010
The iPad vs. the Kindle 2 in sunlight

While I’ve compared the e-Ink screen of the Kindle and Nook with the LCD screen of the iPad before, I might have glossed over the differences too quickly. Today, I was struck by a conversation with a friend who wasn’t really aware of the differences between the e-Ink screen used in the Kindle and the LCD screen of the iPad; he thought the iPad had a “reading mode” that made it easy on the eyes and as pleasant to read on as e-Ink.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field is in full effect.

Let me start off by saying that I am a HUGE fan of Apple; I’ve had Apples since my Apple IIe, and have always preferred Macs over PCs. Heck, Apple should cut me a check for influencing my wife, mother, father, sister, in-laws, and multiple friends and other relatives to buy Macs instead of PCs over the years. But, in this case, Apple seems to be overhyping the abilities and performance of the iPad as an e-book reader.

Simply put: the iPad is a portable computer. It is closer to a laptop than to an e-book reader. It is smaller and lighter than most laptops, but is also more limited in performance and capabilities. But it can be used to check email, surf the Internet, watch movies, and run a variety of apps — many of which are games. Its defining characteristic is its 9.7″ touchscreen LCD display. An LCD (liquid crystal display) is the same type of screen used on your computer monitor, a laptop screen, cell phone, or even most flat-screen TV sets. It is backlit (meaning it produces its own light and you can read/watch it at night), and displays pictures and video in full color.

All current Kindle versions (including the Kindle 1, Kindle 2, Kindle DX, and the new Kindle 3) use an e-Ink screen. Quite simply, you have to see an e-Ink screen in person to understand it (I recommend going to Barnes & Noble to see a Nook, or to Target to see a Kindle), but I’ll try to describe it. e-Ink screens are black and white, and mimic ink on a printed page. Imagine a series of tiny dots of black ink, suspended in little tubes. The Kindle moves the ink drops around — it moves some to the top to create a black dot on the screen, and moves some to the bottom where you can’t see them (this isn’t perfectly accurate, just a visualization to give you a general idea). There is no backlight — meaning that you can’t read it in the dark. e-Ink screens currently can’t show video — it takes about 1/2 a second to switch what’s showing on the display (like to change pages).

While e-Ink lacks color and video, it has some important advantages when it comes to reading. First, it is much easier on most people’s eyes than LCD screens. Since it’s not backlit, it’s more like reading a newspaper than like staring at a computer screen (which can cause eyestrain). I know when I work in front of a computer monitor all day, the last thing I want to do when I get home is stare at another backlit LCD screen. Reading a Kindle feels like reading a book.

Second, e-Ink screens are easy to read outdoors and in bright sunlight (just compare in the picture above). In fact, the more light, the better for an e-Ink screen. Conversely, have you ever had to shade your cell phone screen to read it at the beach? LCD screens (like on the iPad) are hard to read in bright sunlight.

Finally, e-Ink screens take much less power than LCD screens, so the battery in the Kindle 3 can last for a month, while the iPad’s only lasts for 10 hours. The reason for this is that e-Ink screens take no power at all to display an image — they only take a little power to change an image (for example, to turn a page in a book). In fact, my K2 arrived in the box with a welcome message and graphic on the screen that I first thought was a sticker! But you could literally put something on an e-Ink screen and take the battery out, and the image would remain on the screen.

Here’s a quick chart of LCD vs. e-Ink advantages and disadvantages:


+ Full color

Harder on the eyes

+ Can display video (movies)

Takes more power (battery doesn’t last as long)

+ Backlit, so you can read in the dark

Hard to read outdoors or in bright sunlight


Black & white

+ Easy on the eyes; like paper

Can’t display full video

+ Takes very little power (battery lasts longer)

Can’t be read in the dark (like a regular book)

+ Easy to read outdoors, the more light the better

+ Very crisp and sharp

You may notice a pattern: e-Ink screens mimic many of the strengths and weaknesses of ink on paper, which isn’t a coincidence, considering it was designed to emulate printed books. On the other hand, LCD has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of your TV set. But which one would you rather read a book on? 😉

There are a couple of other reasons why the Kindle makes a superior e-book reading device than the iPad: it costs a small fraction of the price ($139 vs. $499), it weighs 1/3rd as much (8.5 ounces vs. 24 ounces), and it’s smaller and more portable. But in this post, I wanted to focus on the displays, and hopefully I’ve been able to dispel some misconceptions and describe the differences between e-Ink and LCD screens. I really highly recommend that you try to see an e-Ink screen in person at a Barnes & Noble store, Target, or Best Buy — or find a friend with a Kindle or Nook. Most people are amazed by how “paper-like” and easy to read an e-Ink screen is. (I do have some more photos of e-Ink screens here.)

If you’re still a bit confused by the differences between the Kindle and iPad, I’ve included this handy chart I found, which I thought was pretty clever. =)

Rock, paper, … iPad?

  18 Responses to “E-Ink vs. LCD: What’s The Difference?”

Comments (18)
  1. Well presented, sir. I must say, I bought into the hype. Now there’s very little chance of me buying an iPad over a Kindle. I will say this, I have a rock and they suck.

  2. Nice Job – I got me a Nook and wonder at people who argue that an iPad is much better at browsing the web and playing games, while still being able to read books on it.
    They “kind of” miss the point and I think, even with your nice and balanced comparison, people won’t get the difference until they have really seen e-Ink (some might still prefer an iPad even for regular reading, but that’s fine).

  3. Thanks for posting your thoughts. I definitely agree that e-Ink really needs to be seen to be understood: every single person I’ve showed it to has been very impressed, almost awed. It really does look like paper instead of a computer screen, and it’s a pleasure to read on. It’s worth it for people to make a trip to B&N or Best Buy or Target to check out an e-Ink screen.

    As for reading on the iPad, some people swear they like it as much as reading on an e-Ink screen. That’s not the case for my eyes or for most people I know, but to each his own. Whatever people want to read on (Kindle, Nook, iPad, paper book, or stone tablet) is really fine by me — I just wanted to try to highlight some plusses and minuses and clear up some common misconceptions about e-Ink vs. LCD screens.

  4. Most of the people who ‘prefer’ iPad for reading, havent really read books on it. They might have taken a peek, read a page or two, and would have liked the nice bright glossy look of a good LCD screen.
    I have been reading books on my laptop/PC since I discovered gutenberg.net 12 years back – and I cant read for more than 2 hours at a stretch without getting an eyesore or a headache.
    On the other hand, I was glued to a book on my Kindle 3 for an entire 16-hour flight – without feeling so much as a strain.

    • I completely agree. I think it’s easy to glance at the slick interface of the iPad, the pretty “bookshelf” and full color covers of the iBooks app, and the “cool” (but ultimately useless for reading) page turn animations, and think that the iPad would make a very cool reading device. And it does fine for reading RSS feeds and the like. But it just doesn’t hold a candle to my Kindle when it’s time to read a novel, or read for hours at a time.

      Speaking of airplanes, I just got off a pair of 5-hour flights, and the Kindle was a life-saver. By comparison, I tried reading on the iPod Touch on the plane, and it gave me a headache literally within minutes. (Not to mention that not only will the Kindle easily last the entire 16-hour flight — unlike the iPad — but it could last an entire 2-week trip on a single charge as well.)

      Bottom line: reading on the iPad is like reading on your laptop, and reading a Kindle is like reading a paper book. It’s up to each person to make their own choice, but I do 100% of my novel reading on the Kindle.

  5. I’m sorry, but I really enjoy the tactile pleasure of rock. Nothing beats it, even after 10,000 years.

    That said, when I have to leave my cave, the Kindle is a *little* more convenient. 🙂

  6. I find my nook to be an awesome ereader. It is my 1st ereader and I love it.That said, the nookcolor not so much. I was waiting for it but I have no need for an iPad type device. I was hoping for color e ink.
    The nookcolor would probably be an awesome device for the college student tho.

    • I’m glad to hear a Nook owner’s thoughts on the new Nook Color — thanks for coming by. The consensus is definitely forming that the Nook Color will probably be good for magazines, cookbooks, enhanced e-books, and maybe textbooks for students. Some will use it as an “iPad Lite” or as a generic Android tablet computer. But I’d keep your Nook classic for serious fiction novel reading.

  7. Nicely written. I am familiar with the e-ink technology and the readers for a few years now even before Kindle (Sony, I think brought it first). Intuitively, and from personal experince I always felt the e-ink devices are far superior than backlit devices for reading. I can’t read a single page of text on LCDs without straining my eyes.

    But then there is this long debate on e-ink vs LCDs here

    I read some of the comments and it looked many people think iPad is a better choice for reading because it has color and all the power. And then some science is posted to backup that LCD isn’t any bad at all. And I almost believed that it might be true that may be it is just a personal prefernce. Technically none of them are bad choices.

    Then I tell myself, if you do not understand the science very well then trust your first hand experience and guts feeling. By that I have no doubt that e-ink devices are significantly superior than backlit devices for the sole purpose of reading.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      I’ve read the article you linked, and was disappointed to see an optometrist claiming that LCD doesn’t cause any eyestrain. I know what hurts my eyes and what doesn’t. I’ve also seen persuasive reasons why e-Ink causes less eyestrain, including that it matches the ambient brightness of the room (think about it: how comfortable is staring into a headlight?).

      While I’ve seen people online claim that reading on LCD doesn’t bother them, I don’t know of a single person in real life who prefers reading on LCD to e-Ink. Also, e-Ink’s battery life and reading in sunlight advantages are beyond dispute.

      I’m thinking about doing a follow-up post with more scientific research — I’ve actually asked an optometrist friend of mine if she’d like to weigh in.

  8. Thanks David! Great write-up. I love my kindle and my eyes have been thanking me for it!

  9. People who prefer iPad, i think, are probably not book worms who enjoy sitting down to read for hours at a time. In my opinion, iPad just cannot compare.

    • I agree with you. I just think they are two different devices aimed at two different uses. (Of course, some people own and use both for different things.) But the media seemed intent on comparing the two and calling the iPad a “Kindle killer,” as if only one could survive, which we know is silly. The iPad has a clock, but I haven’t thrown away my watch. =)

  10. I have an iTouch and once i get a kindle i will be very satisfied witout and iPad (:

  11. Eyestrain from backlit lcd displays is not the issue that manufacturers of e-ink readers would have us believe.


    Surface reflection on shiny display surfaces is very, very irritating though. Reading on a tablet (in relatively bright environments) is improved immensely when applying a matte anti-glare screen protector to the screen face.
    The 2 major advantages of e-ink over lcd displays are battery life, and visibility in very bright light. The e-ink display uses so little power that it can go for weeks without a charge. This alone gives the reader an experience more like reading a book. Books never need charging. My android tablet is great as a book reader most of the time. My android phone is even more convenient because it’s smaller, and can be carried in my pocket. I prefer the backlit lcd displays in low light over e-ink.

    I do like the idea of not having to charge the reader very often, and being able to read in direct sun. I’ll probably buy an e-ink reader just for these two reasons. Charging a lithium ion battery less often also means that the battery won’t wear out as fast, and therefore won’t need replacement as soon.

    These technologies seem to offer the best of both worlds:



    • Thank you for your comment and for sharing your thoughts & experiences. I have heard a relatively small percentage of people (like yourself) for whom eyestrain does not seem to be an issue on LCD screens. Speaking for myself, reading for longer periods on an LCD screen bothers my eyes, whereas reading on e-Ink does not. (I have heard many people say the same thing.) I suppose each person needs to try reading for a long period on LCD to see how it will affect their eyes.

      I do agree the displays you mention—especially Mirasol—seem to be the best of both worlds. The color & video capabilities of LCD, with the battery life, visibility in bright light, and easy-on-the-eyes nature of e-Ink. Surely eventually we will have a color e-Ink/Mirasol technology that achieves that. But, sadly, it’s not ready yet.

  12. I really like the texture and sharpness of e-ink display. Power lasts longer is really great. But the transaction time between different slides are really a shortage of it. However, e-ink is the trend for display in some field.

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