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We all have to handle large amounts of information on a daily basis, but some of us find it hard to focus on the information displayed on electronic devices. It's easy to read through tens of pages in a book for a few hours; but when it comes to a small article online I have trouble focusing after only a few pages.

I usually have to rely on printing important articles, but that's counterproductive in the long run. So what can be done to improve electronic reading? Do font and typesetting matter at all? Is there software that would help present the information better?

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Can you please identify the problems clearer? e.g. muscle pain in neck or back from reading; sore eyes; lack of abilities to make note on reading, etc. It will make it easier to provide answers. – Dmitry Selitskiy Jun 23 '11 at 22:03
No actual physical problem like the mentioned but harder to concentrate compared to printed text. – Renan Jun 23 '11 at 22:07
ok thanks. I suspect this may be subjective... I often find it easier to concentrate for on-screen reading comparing to paper. Let's see what sort of answers we get. – Dmitry Selitskiy Jun 23 '11 at 22:09

10 Answers 10

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Can reading electronic displays be made more comfortable?

There are successful attempts that have been made by implementing electronic paper devices, which bring the experience as close to paper as it could be. If you have the money for it, consider buying one of those devices.
If, on the other hand, you want to read more comfortable on a computer screen, read on...

We all have to handle large amounts of information on a daily basis but some of us find it hard to focus on information displayed on electronic devices. It's easy to read through tens of pages in a book for a few hours but when it comes to a small article online it's easy to yawn all over a few pages.

I've been going through a lot of study material over the past five weeks, most of it on my laptop screens. The only yawning was where I was trying to learn too much without a pause, which boils down to a first point that I want to make:

If your eyes feel tired from staring at the PC screen, it's important to take a small pause. If you are doing the pomodoro technique, the small pauses scheduled there are excellent for that matter...

Room lightning has an effect too. While I've been happily reading the whole day, I'm now in a darker room which kind of strains my eyes. Putting the back-light lower does help a bit, but on the other hand, makes it too dark and thus harder to read things.

Please note that the type of lightning plays a role too, I could subjectively compare them from good to bad: LED > Mh > T5HOs > T5 > VHO > CP > T8 > T12 > Incadencent > Candles > Matches.

I usually have to rely on printing important articles but that's counter productive in the long run. So what can be done to improve eletronic reading? Does font type matters at all? Any software helps sorting out the information better?

It's important that your screen is set right; the various characteristics that play a role are back-light, brightness, contrast, sharpness and refresh rate:

  1. The refresh rate should be set such that your screen won't be flickering at you, I believe this is 60 Hz for USA and 50 Hz for Europe but I'm not entirely sure.

  2. Next, you should set your back-light according to your light such that your monitor doesn't come out too bright or too dark. Then, you can verify and fix the other characteristics with Lagom LCD test.

  3. For Windows XP, get through the ClearType Tuner. For Windows Vista/7, look it up in your start menu.

As for fonts, it (subjectively) boils down to serif fonts for prints and sans-serif fonts for the web.

When typefaces are digitised for use on computers, the letter forms have to fit within a relatively small pixel grid, often leading to what are called the “jaggies” ( Rubinstein, 1988 ).

Many web professionals such as graphic designers claim that this relatively low resolution cannot render effectively enough the fine finishing strokes of serif typefaces, and that sans serif typefaces lend themselves more naturally to being digitised, and come out cleaner and thus more legible.

Which are more legible? Serif or sans-serif typefaces?

Legibility plays a big role here as outlined in the above article, Humanist Sans-Serif fonts feature this mostly.

These are the most calligraphic of the sans-serif typefaces, with some variation in line width and more legibility than other sans-serif fonts.

Wikipedia - Sans Serif

The most famously used Humanist font is Verdana, there are some variations and a paid version which might feature better readability.

Other Humanist fonts that you could check out include the more recent Calibri, Johnston, Lucida Grande, Segoe UI, Gill Sans, Myriad, Frutiger, Trebuchet MS, Tahoma and Optima, a.k.a. Zapf Humanist and Ubuntu.

I don't know what you are exactly looking for that sorts out information better...

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In terms of screen light, I use It fiddles with your screen based on the time of day and ambient lighting in order to achieve as little strain on the eye as possible. – Mihai Oprea Jun 24 '11 at 8:10
@Mihai: I'm aware of that tool, although I don't feel like it's working properly to me as it colors the screen in an odd way... – Tom Wijsman Jun 24 '11 at 11:16
That's the impression I got when I used it first, but I got accustomed to it and I can vouch that it works :) One way to test it is move your eyes from the screen to something right next to it. You will see that with normal setting your eyes will ache a little. With flux you feel no difference. – Mihai Oprea Jun 24 '11 at 11:35
@Mihai: Sounds interesting to try, I fixed it back these days by letting it have less effect. But it still have got me bored after a while, so I decided that it wasn't worth having it installed. Perhaps the effect on my laptop screen is different from other screens and I should be looking at a solution that adapts brightness instead, or well, perhaps I might be back to using it in the near future... – Tom Wijsman Jun 24 '11 at 11:49
@Mihai Oprea I installed the program. Maybe it would help me sleep better, you know like the birds when the dark falls. – Theta30 Sep 11 '11 at 20:02

Devices with e-ink (or similar) displays are optimized for the reading experience. I have a Kobo, and love reading on that opposed to reading the same thing on the computer (or a glossy screen). Really, the Kobo screen looks almost just like paper, and is quite easy on the eyes. Plus it can display pretty much anything (as far as I've tried, anyway) if it is in ePub format.

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Readability Redux Extension

I've been using this Chrome extension for the past few days. It did help optimizing the yawning/paragraph ratio, so I decided it's a good idea to share it with you too.

Fast and reliable

Readability Redux is a simple tool that makes reading on the Web more enjoyable by removing the cluter around what you're reading. It can detect what matters and format the text to the previously chosen font, size and background color.


Lay back and enjoy!

Menus, blinking advertisements and other stuff you don't care when you're trying to read - all gone. Although the font is bigger in the re-formatted text, you can actually see more of the actual information.

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I have the same problem; while I'm on the computer all day, I hate trying to actually read a book off of the screen. Reading an actual paperback, I can go for a few hours before my eyes get tired. Reading off of a Kindle, I can go indefinitely.

I don't use my Kindle for technical material because I have the paperback size (actually, the first generation) but I suspect that the DX would be excellent for reading articles; in fact, if I had the money I would have gotten one for reading the articles for my PhD (rather than printing them all out...usually several times).

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I have the DX and I use it to read most things that are more than a page or two in length. I just mail the document to my Kindle email address and there it is. I still love the Kindle 2 for travelling because of the small size. I do occasionally use Kindle for Mac for reading my e-books on-screen, but usually I prefer the Kindle because it's easier on the eyes. – JohnJ Jun 26 '11 at 23:04

I've recently taken to reading such things on my phone, instead of a computer. It's an Android phone with a fairly large screen, so reading information from websites is quite a comfortable experience. Similarly, there's a version of Adobe Reader for the phone which allows me to deal with PDFs. Anyway, it doesn't allow you to set a bookmark so that you can return to the last point each time you close it down and then later come back to it, which is a pain. I've also taken to reading books on there, using a fabulous program called Aldiko which reads epub files.

Depending on what you need to read there is a free program called Calibre which runs on Windows, Linux and Mac and will allow you to convert between a variety of formats favoured by different eBook readers and phones including to and from PDFs (although it struggles with multi column PDFs) so you may be able to convert from an existing file to a format you want.

Instead of a phone you could try a Kindle, it can cope with PDFs, you can convert other formats to the MOBI format it uses (using Calibre). Also it comes with network connectivity and an experimental (aka primitive) web browser, which can handle text and images on web pages but is quite limited beyond that scope.

With either of these options you should be able to read more comfortably, than whilst sat at a computer although you may have to pay for the privilege.

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From my experience, e-ink devices e.g. Kindle and PocketBook BOOX (9 in screen) are (much) more comfortable to the eyes than LCD or tablet screen, possibly because it does not produce light.

However the software running the e-ink devices (so far) have much less functionality and speed than the software running the tablet and computer devices. This is great to focus and concentration if you are reading a long article or a book often consecutively. It is great for focus because you cannot be distracted from it (no email, facebook, widgets etc etc). They are like single-task single-purpose devices.

If you want to read lots of small articles or to jump back and forth between lots of documents, then you may find e-ink devices too slow for your needs.

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I recently started using the Evernote Clearly Google Chrome Extension. It is a reader that takes away the distractions (like ads, navigation and side bar, etc) and gives you just the text in a nicely formatted way. You also get to pick a theme that keeps a consistent background and font.

Once its installed I just use CTL + ALT + Right Arrow to toggle Evernote Clearly on and off.

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One thing that hadn't been mentioned is having the appropriate eyewear for the distance and size screen you're having trouble with. Consult your local eyewear pro (or two) for specific recommendations.

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My personal guess is that what makes it harder to concentrate on a computer screen is a bunch of these factors:

  • computer display backlight - flickering fluorescent or LED backlight most probably acts directly on your brain (anybody help with research citations, please?). Anyway think of it this way - staring all day at a fluorescent lamp (even though flicker is not always clearly noticeable) - it's irritating, isn't it? Some helpful links on this:

  • computer display brightness - in nature you always look at reflected light. Stating all day at a device directly emitting bright light is far from natural and I guess (help with research citations again, please), it is a factor keeping you more agitated;

  • computer display light spectrum - depending on the backlight again, displays most probably emit an unnatural (= different from sunlight's) spectrum of light. Maybe that has some effect on the brain and attention accordingly;

  • too many distractions on a computer keeping you agitated - emails, RSS feeds, instant messengers, online news, etc - an incessant flow of surprises for your mind keeping it in suspense for the next informational (and emotional) "reward".

In conclusion, modern computer displays are far too far from anything like being ergonomic and I do not see any hope for that to be fixed soon as most users simply do not care.

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This has no scientific basis whatsoever, but it works for me. If I know I will be looking at a display for long periods, I set a timer for 30 minutes and adjust my screen brightness each time it goes off. Sometimes brighter, sometimes less bright. I find that my eyes seem to get less tired throughout the day when I do this.

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