Posted on Tue 06 June 2023

considerations for ebook reader interfaces

It’s a nice title, but what this really is, is my personal preferences on interfaces for reading fiction. Everyone is allowed to have preferences. Mine are special because I read a lot – on average, a little over 200 books each year…

Statista (no link because they are essentially a news site, just one with a longer news cycle and an odd focus) suggests that 3 in 4 Americans read at least one book per year, with average expenditure just over $100. They also claim that the recreational book market in the USA is about $25 billion, which is consistent - a third of a billion Americans, times 100, times 0.75. $100 gets you four new hardcovers, or six first-rank ebooks, or roughly a year of a Kindle Unlimited subscription when it goes on sale, or between ten and a hundred regularly priced ebooks. I will not abide by DRM and assert that anything I get to read, I get to store in memory (internal or external) as long as I can.

So, the first point: format. The best and most widespread current format is EPUB, which is a slightly formalized version of wrapping HTML and CSS with some naming conventions in a ZIP-compressed archive. This is the dominant format and anything else should be convertible into it, with two exceptions.

Comic books are best wrapped in the CBR or CBZ formats, which are RAR or ZIP archives of JPEG or PNG images, named in page order. Simple and effective.

Books which depend on precise layout – typically technical illustrations or art books – do best in the ridiculously overcomplicated PDF, which is optimized for print but can be displayed on screen.

The reading of comics and art books is, as far as I’m concerned, a different category than reading fiction. It’s fine by me if the software is similarly specialized – I don’t demand a unified reader. Hardware which is adequate for reading fiction is not necessarily adequate for viewing comics; a good comics viewer may be unwieldy for fiction on the go. (An A4-sized display is great for comics or art, but tends to be as heavy as a lightweight laptop (or, indeed, functionally is a lightweight laptop); an A5-sized display is about the same as a mid-sized hardcover page, and an A6 approximates a paperback page – and is achievable on a large smartphone.)

Here’s what I won’t compromise on:

  • display density of 200 dpi or higher
  • fast page turning. How fast? Fast enough that I don’t notice it.
  • lighting for reading in dim and dark circumstances
  • a readable dark page with light letters, for nighttime reading
  • controllable brightness
  • the typeface I like (Palatino or a close relative) in the size that I want
  • with line spacing under my control (I typically want 0.85 to 1.2)
  • nearly everything on screen is the book itself - one status line is good; I prefer footers to headers.

Features that I like but don’t need:

  • an OPDS client to fetch books from my server
  • a sync client to keep track of the last page read on each book across devices
  • one-touch access to the table of contents
  • reprogrammable/customizable menus and gestures

Features that I find nearly useless:

  • a book-cover based file browser
  • timers
  • dictionary lookups
  • multiple bookmarks per book
  • note-taking

Features that I need to turn off if they exist:

  • speed-reading gizmos
  • animated page flips
  • text-to-speech output (obviously useful for other people)


OLEDs are the best in the dark. All modern displays are pretty good in indoor moderate lighting. E-Ink is only superior in bright sunlight, and you never get color (or at least good color) with E-Ink.

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