Sunday, 7 April 2013

Serious reading on an Android smartphone

I am still routinely assured, both by colleagues and clients, that "no one reads long-form articles on a phone". My response is always the same: "I do." If I'm feeling frisky, I'll probably mention that I read full-length novels on my phone, too. I am currently reading Moby Dick. Do these people even have smartphones?

Isn't that what they're for?

I have been reading books and feature articles on a small screen since I got my first Android phone three years ago. It always seemed to me to be a killer application. Unlike a paperback, my phone can be slipped into a pocket, so it's always with me. And it doesn't contain just one book or one magazine but an entire library, continuously enriched with fresh material of my own choosing.

Remember when serious reading required a pencil, a highlighter and a separate notebook? The smartphone replaces all of these in a single device. Individual sentences, longer passages or complete articles can easily be bookmarked, copied to a notebook, emailed to a friend or posted on Twitter with a swipe of the finger and a couple of taps.

And here's the real clincher, I can read in the middle of the night without waking up my wife by turning on the light.

I can see clearly now

And improvements in both hardware and software are further reducing the barriers to small-screen reading. The screen of my HTC Desire was considered excellent in 2010 - 3.7 inches AMOLED, 480 x 800 (252 ppi pixel density).

But the Nexus 4's display is even better - 4.7 inches WXGA IPS, 1280 x 768 pixel resolution (320 ppi). Contrast is better, and characters are sharper. In fact, the 'print' seems to me easier to read than that of many books, let alone newspapers.

Do we really need so many browsers?

Quite a lot of my daily reading still takes place in the browser. I now use Chrome for Android (free) and it seems to do an excellent job of formatting most web pages for the Nexus screen. I leave the User Agent on the default Android setting, and am usually able to reach the right level of zoom even on non-responsive desktop sites without any difficulty.

Many modern news and social apps include their own built-in browsers. The Google+ app for Android (free) opens links in the default browser (and on the Nexus Chrome opens very snappily). But my Twitter client, Falcon Pro ($1.49), and my RSS reader, Feedly (free), both use their own built-in browsers, as does BaconReader for Reddit (freemium).

Long-form reading in the built-in browsers of Falcon Pro (left) and Feedly (right).

I suppose the developers of these apps prefer to keep users within their own environments, though most do at least offer the option to open a link in the phone's main browser. But it still seems strange to replicate the same complex functionality three or four times on a single device. Wouldn't it be more efficient to rely on a single browser?

Night and day

I quite often save long-form articles to Pocket (formerly Read It Later, free) in order to - well, read them later. Pocket doesn't use a built-in browser. Instead, it strips out all but the essential components of the web page at the moment you 'pocket' it, in order to optimise the reading experience on whatever device you eventually choose to consume it. That optimisation is far-reaching. Notice in the screenshot below how Pocket dims both the three Android soft buttons at the bottom of the screen and the notification bar at the top, in order to reduce distractions.

A fully optimised reading experience. Pocket (left) and FBReader (right).

FBReader (free), which I finally selected as my e-book reader after trying just about every reader available for Android, performs the same trick. Indeed, it goes further by suppressing the notification bar altogether. If you haven't yet got into e-books, give it a try. Most classic literature (at least in English and French) is available completely free, and even a hefty novel like Moby Dick typically weighs in at only 500kB, so you can afford to keep several masterpieces on your phone.

Feedly, Pocket, and FBReader all offer 'Night' reading options, with white text on a black background. But I find black on white easier on the eye, and simply dim the screen's backlight to the minimum setting when I am reading during the night.

And so to bed

Clients and colleagues will no doubt continue to insist that nobody in their right mind would ever read anything longer than an email message on something as small as a phone.

But I think they've got it the wrong way round. I almost never sit in front of a desktop PC to do any serious reading. I'd rather relax in my favourite armchair, or curl up in bed with a good smartphone.