Skip to main content

LCD Screens Cannot be Read Outside, And Other Nonsense

A reader left a comment this morning on another post, and after reading it I was inspired to respond to it in a post. The crux of the comment was repetition of a couple pieces of marketing nonsense created by E-ink:

Of course it is clear that if you really want to read for a longer period or let alone outside, the iPad (or any other tablet) is impossible to use.

I can say from personal experience that neither part of that statement is true, and I wish people would stop spreading it around.

I’ve taken a number of trips recently, including TOC ( few weeks ago), CES 2012 (January), and a number of trip to NYC last fall. As you can probably guess, I usually have one or more tablets and ereaders with me, and I read on them everyday.

I don’t usually blog about the devices I use on these trips, but I’m beginning to think that I should. It would give you a better idea of what you can really do with the gadgets, so you wouldn’t have to rely on the marketing hype put out by the gadget companies.

For example, my main reading device on the TOC trip was the IdolPad, a $99 Android tablet. I didn’t even carry an E-ink ereader (even though there were a bunch in my luggage). I saw no need because I’m fine with reading on an LCD screen and the tablet worked just fine outside.

And I had plenty of time outside, too. Navigating around Manhattan involves walking a few blocks both before and after riding the subway. Whenever I was stopped at a crosswalk, I whipped put the IdolPad and read.

And then there was the trip to CES 2012. For this trip I carried the Kyobo Mirasol eReader and my (original) Samsung Galaxy Tab. I didn’t mention it at the time, but I was running a battery life comparison. Even though I used the Galaxy Tab more than the Kyobo, it still lasted longer (2 days vs 2.5 days).

Getting around Vegas involves riding the monorail a lot (3, 4 times a day), and all the stations are outside. It is quite sunny in January in Las Vegas, and yet my Galaxy Tab worked just fine.

What’s more, I’m now back to using the Samsung Galaxy Tab as my main reader. There are times where I am tempted to switch to E-ink, but the sheer bloody usefulness of being able to switch quickly from reading to Twitter or email is enough to keep me on the tablet. And yes, I do carry the tablet while I am running errands outside.

So don’t tell me that one cannot read on an LCD outside, or that it cannot be done for long periods of time. I know that this is not true.

Similar Articles


Mike Cane February 25, 2012 um 9:39 am

It’s true LCDs are worthless when it comes to pre-iPhone devices. Man, Apple didn’t only change phones, they changed the minimally-acceptable backlight level too. On full blast my LifeDrive is like a near-off setting on the iPhone! The same for my old GENIO Pocket PC. The only LCD that was good outside was the monochrome screen of the Palm III and Sony CLIE. Your LCD is bright outside thanks to Steve Jobs!

fjtorres February 25, 2012 um 10:52 am

Well now, if you go that far back, you should remember the transflective LCDs of the iPaqs, Jornadas, and other PocketPCs. 😉
They were perfectly fine for outdoors use. And then some.

Mike Cane February 26, 2012 um 2:52 pm

The GENIO had such a screen too. I was not very impressed by it.

Sweetpea February 27, 2012 um 2:33 am

Yet, I can read my PDA screen in full sunlight with the backlight completely turned off.. Which naturally increases the battery life as well.

Zetmolm February 25, 2012 um 10:50 am

OK, so some people prefer LCD, other people prefer E Ink. But don’t say there is no market for apples because you like oranges better. This is a non-discussion really.

fjtorres February 25, 2012 um 11:04 am

The value of eink is primarily in the extreme battery life they make possible at very low cost.
Outdoor readable LCDs have always existed. But they have to be engineered for outdoor use and that adds cost to the panels and the devices.
Most laptops and cheap gadgets simply go with indoor-grade LCDs because they are cheaper.
Nothing wrong with that since most are in fact used indoors.
There is nothing inherent to LCD tech that forbids outdoor use since the LCD layer is strictly a light valve. The challenge lies in getting enough light *behind* the panel to avoid getting washed out by sunlight.
Stronger backlights are one way–and LED backlights are way better than CCFLs for that use–but it will drain batteries faster than indoor use on the same device. Transflective panels are a good solution but expensive to build and rarely used these days. Hybrid LCD panels are also possible. I.e., Pixel Qi.
One thing I’d keep an eye out for are the newer light-pipe panels and films being developed for side-lighting LCD TVs. Some of that might scale down to mobile devices to bring transflective tech back.

Mike Cane February 26, 2012 um 2:55 pm

>>>The value of eink is primarily in the extreme battery life they make possible at very low cost.

Which is why people with otherwise no interest in eBook devices are buying the Nook Touch and rooting it to be an eInk Android tablet.

AdamB February 25, 2012 um 11:27 am

"There are times where I am tempted to switch to E-ink, but the sheer bloody usefulness of being able to switch quickly from reading to Twitter or email is enough to keep me on the tablet."

Why does no one make an e-ink tablet? I would love to have a device that is primarily for reading, but could also have productivity apps installed. Is it because of the low refresh rate — maybe manufacturers are afraid users would complain its not suitable for video and games?

charlie dulin February 27, 2012 um 6:12 pm

Its mostly the video and gaming that keeps them from being made.

Piotr February 25, 2012 um 11:32 am

I hope this post wasn’t created because of my comment to 9.7" e-ink readers because that isn’t what I wanted to say (that LCDs can be read outside)….

I still think that if you want to read a book for let’s say 5 hours a day , e-ink is much better than LCD but I agree with Zetmolm that some people like one thing and some other thing.

I know that there are people who can read on LCDs for a long periods of time , but I am simply not one of them.

Saying that there is no market for 9.7" e-ink readers because you can have a decent tablet instead is a NONSENSE for me.

So tablet has more possibilities because you can watch movies,play some games , and websites looks much better in color – agreed.

But when you are buying e-ink reader you know that you are buying it for reading and (nowadays) some basic web browsing which let’s you read your e-mail or news. There are many people (again check onyx and pocketboox sell figures) that prefer this functionality+e-ink than iPad and the rest…

I really don’t understand why Amazon (apart Kindle DX failed attempt really) , B&N , Kobo and the rest can’t see it. Here in Europe (I am writing from UK) we have many 9.7" ereaders to choose from but they are expensive. I am sure that if some of those "blue chip" ereader companies would enter that market seriously (not DX please) the prices would drop instantly.

9.7" represents A4 format and for PDFs this is the recommended size and for me only size to read. PDFs were created for printing on A4 sheets…

As I am computer scientist I can’t understand why Kindle,Nook , Kobo (Sony is a little better here) can’t properly handle PDFs ? Onyx and Pocketbook ereaders( not only 9.7") can do this without problem. This is software issue not hardware so should be fairly easy to introduce (software updates are other issue here… again onyx is much better).

This is the only part where we disagree Nate- there is market for 9.7" e-ink ereaders.

There are some rumours of hybrid (switching modes between e-ink and lcd on the same device, allegedly Apple is interested in this but I don’t believe in this- they seem to ignore everything e-ink related) but that probably happen in the next 3- 6 years ,however I am sure it will happen eventually.

The first company being able to offer hybrid will earn a fortune – no doubt about this…

Anyway I am a BIG BIG fan of your blog Nate and I am visiting it every day because I know that if anything important will happen in tablets/e-ink readers market it definitely be here 🙂

Nate Hoffelder February 25, 2012 um 1:04 pm

I don’t think it was your comment; the quote above is from the comment.

karen wester newton February 25, 2012 um 11:55 am

There is "outside" and then there is "bright sunshine." A few years ago I went to Cuernavaca, near Mexico City, to attend a family wedding. The hotel was lovely, but older and the only place the wifi worked was by the pool. I can remember hunching over my laptop with my beach towel draped over both the laptop and my head, trying to read the screen. I suspect I would have been okay if I had been able to drag my chair off into the trees of the nearby grassy area but the signal didn’t carry that far, and I was stuck sitting by a large pool of water reflecting the beautiful but very bright sunshine. My clunky Kindle 1, on the other hand, was useless as far as connectivity (no wifi and the 3G didn’t work in Mexico) but perfectly readable. It’s no accident that Kindle commercials about glare usually feature either the beach or poolside, the two worst places for glare. I have a friend who regularly uses his laptop in his backyard, but he does have a shady area to sit in.

I also think reaction to LCD varies. I have heard people insist that eyestrain with LCD is a myth because they can read for hours with no problem. For them, I suppose it is, but we are not all alike.

Nate Hoffelder February 28, 2012 um 4:56 pm

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The Japanese don’t care to, the Chinese wouldn’t dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one.
At twelve noon the natives swoon, and no further work is done –
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

-Noel Coward

Gregory Potts February 25, 2012 um 6:45 pm

Sure, the notion that you cannot read LCD in the sun at all is a myth, although the sun can reduce visibility somewhat. I suppose it is all just about personal preference. I love e-ink devices, both for the battery life as you suggested, as well as for the lighter weight and more compact. I also like reading on a device on which I can’t get distracted by e-mails and Facebook. It helps keep me focused.

Dave Crane February 26, 2012 um 4:36 am

Somehow I do not see 9.7″ e-readers conceived to be taken with you to use, whenever you stop at a crosswalk. These devices would be for guys like me that like to read sitting on a sofa for hours on end. Surely if you are commuting and you want to access your Twitter, read mail and ocassionally read, a tablet is great. But for serious reading I would still prefer a dedicated reading device.

Xyzzy February 26, 2012 um 6:12 am

From what I can tell, whether one can comfortably read for long periods (or without various side-effects) on an LCD depends heavily on how light-sensitive the individual’s eyes are, either all the time or at the moment.

Using a LCD when I have a headache tends to turn it into a migraine, and if I already have the migraine, the LCD will worsen it . I also get headaches/migraines & visual trouble *far* more often when using a LCD for a prolonged period than I do otherwise… For some reason, I also see shimmering & afterimage-like color halos/blobs if I look at a light color or white on a LCD, and it gets substantially worse if I try to read text against it.

For whatever it’s worth, I’m not generally light-sensitive, and my vision is okay (reading glasses made the problem much worse). This seems to be an issue just with digital screens, and it’s not remotely as bad with LCDs as it was with CRTs due to their flickering. I’ve encountered many others on the autistic spectrum that have the same sensory quirk, though nobody seems to have an explanation like we did for CRTs.

Xyzzy February 26, 2012 um 6:16 am

Er, I should’ve said in the first paragraph that it *usually* is related to light-sensitivity for folks, since it doesn’t seem to be the explanation for me…oops.

Either way, any commentary about reading on LCDs falls into YMMV territory as far as I can tell.

Ilene Frank February 26, 2012 um 8:09 am

I understand Nate was objecting to the blanket statement that reading LCDs for long periods of time or in sunlight is "impossible." It’s not impossible, but may be all but impossible for some. Some readers prefer E-ink. 'Reading LCDs in sunlight works for me' might be a useful data point, but… well, I hope the device-makers don’t abandon those of us who like reading E-ink for extended periods of time and in bright light Xyzzy, I’m with you. I have a difficult time with LCD screens and so do I. I agree with the YMMV statement. I do like all those apps and other stuff, so I have more than one device and decide which one – or which ones – to take with me depending on where I’m going. I’m over the idea that one device is going to do everything.

Sheogorath April 5, 2012 um 12:17 pm

@ Xyzzy: I believe your issue to ne caused by the same thing as in CRT monitors; flicker. You see, while the LCD screens of small devices are backlit by LEDs, the majority of large devices' screens are backlit by CFL AKA compact flourescent light, which flickers. Granted, this flicker is too tiny for most people to detect, but that doesn’t stop it from causing headaches in individuals sensitive to the flicker. In fact, all affordable energy saving light bulbs are CFL, so a person with lupus has to either pay over the odds for LED bulbs or go without lighting at all in places that don’t have traditional bulbs as an option.

Mike April 13, 2012 um 5:46 pm

You guys are all overlooking one important factor in e-readers. I don’t know what you can get away with but I work for a living. I can’t even bring an MP3 player to work. But I can bring a book. If e-readers are going to be "accepted" in places where a cellphone isn’t, some of them need to be strictly for reading only.

Sure wish I could bring my tablet in and read it on break.

Write a Comment