Sunday, October 16, 2011

E-ink and grayness

Sorry for hopping on my hobby-horse again, but it's frustrating to have bought FIVE Kindles now (K1, K2, K3, Dx, and K4), and then giving up on each one every time for the same reason: the grey background. That saddens me because otherwise I love the Kindle.

A representant from E-ink once said on The Kindle Chronicles words to the effect that the current E Ink screen already has comparable or better contrast than newsprint and the paper and ink on most paperback books, and that it's only inferior to the very highest-end laser-printed paper.

So I took out three different paperback books of different age and class (all of them at least a couple of years old, and none being high-end hardbacks with super-white paper), and compared to the very newest and best E-ink screen on the market (the Kindle 4). The books and the Kindle were held next to each other and lit exactly the same, with camera flash, and without reflections. In Photoshop I've then taken a square from the Kindle screen in each and put it over the paper, for clearest comparison.
And I think the photos speak for themselves.

... Yes, it looks dramatic, and it is. But I have not skewed these results in any way, it's as straight and as fair as I could make it without scientific instruments.

If somebody from E-ink reads this, my message is: I am aware that you are market-leading regarding contrast of non-backlit screens, that's an accomplishment. Obviously it must be a difficult problem that everybody is working hard on.   My question is: what exactly is the difficulty here, what makes it so grey? Can't the little plastic balls be made pure white, or is it the oil interfering? Or...?
And further, what can you do about it, and how soon can we expect a markedly brighter screen?

... Here is an un-cropped photo showing the setup: main light is from the flash on the camera, and it's at an angle so it does not reflect.

(Here is how it looks when it does reflect, if anybody wondered.)

Here are some responses I have given to comments on the related thread on KindleBoards. I wrote:

All the books I used were cheapish paperbacks, with the yellowish paper such tend to have (though not the *really* yellowish of an old, very cheap one), and all were at least a couple of years old.

I almost never read outdoors. I recognize the Kindle's superiority if one does that.

This is not meant as an attack on the Kindle. In all other respects I love the Kindle, and it's simply a matter of personal disappointment to me that this is an issue to me. I think I'm in a minority. But I don't think it is an insignificant minority, because I've heard it mentioned here and there, for example when Jakob Nielsen's company tested reading on iPad/Kindle/paperbooks, some of the participants mentioned it as an issue.

Of course a bright reading light helps the issue, but for me it has to be so bright that it's not comfortable for me. For a paperbook, I can reach a good-enough compromise with a reading lamp.

I don't know the percentage of people for whom this is a significant issue, I just know that for me at least it is, and I'm posting it in the hope of bringing awareness about it, and also to see if there is hope that perhaps next year I can buy a Kindle which works better for me. (I own *five* different Kindle models, but rarely use them. It's a bit of a heartbreak for me.)
I also hope to gain some data about what *causes* this effect, what is the technical problem, when all the manufacturers say that they are continually working on better whiteness.

I am happy for all the people for whom this is not a problem, and I envy you.


M.P. McDonald said...

There definitely is a difference, although different Kindles can have varying degrees of grayness. My daughter's is lighter than mine, for instance. But what I want to know is what is the significance of the gray background? Do you feel it makes reading the Kindles more difficult?

I've found that the print on a Kindle is much crisper with no fuzziness around the edges of the letters. That is significant for me because it means I can read with my contacts in. I can't read books with them in. I had to give up reading until I went to bed but now, with a Kindle, the combo of crisper font and increasing the size of the font, have made it possible for me to read during the day as well.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

"But what I want to know is what is the significance of the gray background? Do you feel it makes reading the Kindles more difficult?"

For me, absolutely. In fact it ruins the Kindle for me. I have tried many times to get over it.

I have to admit that I'm a very inflexible person. From some viewpoints I'm like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. It is difficult to live with such a person, but trust me, it's doubly difficult to *be* such a person! :-)

I read a *lot* on my iPad. For me, e-reading came alive when I got my iPad. But I admit it's not perfect for hours of reading, which is why I'm strongly hoping for big future improvements in screen technology, whether backlit or not. (I don't think backlit is *intrinsically* hurtful, it must be a limitation of current technology.)

Timo Lehtinen said...

It is interesting that several people on the KindleBoards thread said they prefer the Kindle's grayish background to the color of the bleached paper books are printed on, saying they can read longer from it. I had thought it's the same at best.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Yes, some have problems with white. I don't know. It has to be very durn bright before I feel any of that.
But it goes to show that there is much variation in eyes and minds, I guess.

Scott said...

Ok. It's not just me. I kept reading how the e-ink is so great and was about to purchase an e-ink ereader (kindle or nook) but played with the store demo models and realized... I found it hard to see and wondered why the background was grey and not off-white/yellow.

I found the grey background hard to read as well. So, thanks for your post. Now, I'm uncertain.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks, Scott.
I just don't understand why so many people actually *like* the grey screen. To me it's like liking food without taste or a car which doesn't move.

Anonymous said...

Hi there - I've been looking for an answer to this question as well (and thank you for an excellent and telling comparison with paper). Maybe the following excerpt might be a realistic explanation:

"Someone can correct me but what I think causes the gray surface is that the pellets (pixels) can't be 100% opaque at that size, so regardless how white they are the black pellets shifted behind will still bleed thru to some extent, plus along the edges. Try taking a colored LED/laserpointer/flashlight and sticking it behind the skin between your thumb and forefinger and you'll see what I mean..."


Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks, A, that might well be it.

Sorry it took a while for your comment to appear. I had moderation turned on for old posts. Hoped it would catch spam, but it was mainly real comments, and I have not been notified when they came in...