Can the iPad2, with its 132ppi 1024 x 768 screen, be used to comfortably read pdfs without the need to zoom and scroll about single pages?

That was a question that troubled me when I was splashing out for one earlier this year. To try to get a better idea of what a pdf viewed on only 800,000 pixels might look like was hard. Neither my attempt to I resize a pdf window to the correct number of pixels (too small) nor my attempt to screengrab  a pdf at a higher resolution and shrink it using GIMP (too fuzzy) were particularly informative. I just had to take plunge and see.

There’s enough wiggle-room (as you can see in the screenshots below) to suggest that there’s no definitive answer, I think the answer is probably yes. But, that’s only if you take advantage of some nifty capabilities of pdf-reading apps, Goodreader being the one I use, mostly thanks to its almost seamless Dropbox syncing capabilities.

Below is a screengrab of a standard, US letter-size, pdf, displayed unmodified on the iPad. The size, when the image is viewed inline with this text (and not in its own separate window), is approximately the same as it appears on the iPad (there is some loss of resolution which can be recovered if you click on the image and open it in its own window).

Click on the image to simulate holding the iPad close to your face whilst squinting.

The screengrab above demonstrates that virgin pdfs aren’t great to read. The main body of the text can be read at a push, but it’s certainly not comfortable.

Thankfully, the bulk of the discomfort can be relieved using Goodreader’s cropping function, which allows whitespace around pdfs to be cropped out (with different settings for odd and even pages, if required).  A cropped version of the above page looks like this:
A marked improvement which could be cropped further if you weren't too worried about losing the header information. Click on the image to see the screengrab with no loss of resolution.

The image above demonstrates that cropping can be used to get most value from the rather miserly screen resolution (the same on both the iPad and iPad2, though almost certainly not on the iPad3, when that’s released).

But, cropping doesn’t solve all tiny text traumas.  There are some circumstances, such as with particularly small text like the figure legend below, that necessitate a bit of zooming.

The figure legend is a little too small to read comfortably, even when the page is cropped.

I don’t mind zooming in to see a figure properly, but that’s probably a matter of personal taste.

If you’re used to using an iPhone4, with its ridiculous 326ppi retina display, then you’ll find reading pdfs on a current model iPad a bit of a step back. But, it’s passable and I certainly don’t mind doing it. It certainly beats printing, carrying and storing reams of paper.

Last night I capitulated and ordered an iPad2.

Since blogging about whether it might be a good idea to get one a while ago, I have noticed mention of iPads cropping up more and more in my RSS feeds.  Of course, this is down to the release of the latest version of the iPad, but I generally find it easy to ignore the engadget hype posts about stuff I’m not all that excited about… for example I really don’t give a toss about the Nintendo 3DS and there’s a fair amount been written about those lately too.  More difficult to ignore have been the mentions in the academic blogs I subscribe to (such as the consistently interesting Profhacker) and recommendations from friends (such as @pam_psych).

Other contributing factors have included the construction of  a ‘reading nook’ in my office, having to over-ride my HP printer’s helpful out of ink notification (if you’re out of ink, why can I override you and still get perfectly readable printouts?)  and noticing my ‘to read’ GMail label pile up to over 20 items once again.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was seeing Alex Easton give a very smoothly presented departmental seminar on Friday, all administered using, rather inevitably, an iPad.

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...
Look at his smug little face. Image via Wikipedia

Which has led me to quite a conflicted state of being.  I dislike Steve Jobs immensely.  I despise the arrogance with which he suggests that the iPad is “magical” (I invariably had to stop myself from spitting on the sign that proclaimed this ridiculousness outside the Washington University Bookshop).  I even bought an Android phone so I wouldn’t line his pockets.  But the allure of a well-designed, perfectly useful product has made me eat my words and give him some of my heard-earned cash.

So, I’m now looking forward to the day in May when I receive my magical and revolutionary product.  I’m eagerly awaiting the sense of frustration I’ll feel when I realise that its 1024×768 resolution isn’t quite good enough to read a single page of a pdf article in fullscreen.  I can’t wait until the perfectly standard use of Flash on a website I’m viewing fails to load.  I’m on tenterhooks to experience the pointed glances that scream “pretentious wanker” at my smug little face.  Because from within my £399 walled garden, I will have even more reasons to dislike Mr Jobs.


Having just skimmed the Lifehacker article below, I started thinking about what habits I have started incorporating into my work-day, and what habits I really need to cultivate.

Lifehacker’s “Why and How I Switched to a Standing Desk”

Drinking More Water: At the start of the year I bought a Brita filter jug with the aim of drinking more water.  Seeing the jug on my desk every morning compels me to fill it up and I probably drink a couple of litres throughout an average working day.  This new habit has got rid of a lot of evening headaches and I’m pretty happy with it.  More frequent toilet breaks don’t hurt with breaking up the monotony of a day sat at the desk either.

Standing Desk: There seem to be a few benefits to making the switch to a standing desk.  First, my posture is worsening by the year, and I seem to be collecting muscular pains which are exacerbated by hefting an all-action two-year old around in my spare time.  I imagine a standing desk would get me focused much more on my posture and the body-mechanics that facilitate my working day.  Second, anything to get a bit more physical activity into my life right now would be a good thing – Scottish winters aren’t blessed with an abundance daylight hours or days that scream “Go out for a run” at me.  The barrier making the conversion seems mostly to be social. I don’t want to become ‘The guy in Psychology who has his desk up on reams of printer paper.’  I’m also worried that I wouldn’t make it through the initial 5-day breaking-in phase.

Running: I ran my first half- and full-marathons in St. Louis.  As part of the training for these events, I got into a nice routine of running around Forest Park (close to 7 miles) at least twice a week.  that’s fallen by the wayside recently.  I hope it’ll pick up again in the summer, but I think I’ll try and catalyse that change by going for runs during my lunch break.  I just need to find a suitable shower facility in order to maintain basic standards of hygiene.

Being less wasteful with toner/paper: I don’t like reading journal articles on computer monitors.  Therefore, I print thousands of pages a year, most of which I only read once.  Most of these articles end up catalogued in my Endnote database (if they’re lucky) and locked in a metal filing cabinet with a few notes scrawled on them.  That’s quite a waste of paper and ridiculously expensive toner, which I now have to buy myself.  Motivated by saving trees and money, I’m starting to consider other options.  Now that they’ll display pdfs, I’ve thought about a Kindle; the e-ink is easier on the eye than an LCD screen, the battery lasts for weeks and they’re (relatively) cheap.  BUT they won’t display colour, something I need if I’m to follow the neuroimaging papers I read.  Colour alternatives like the iPad and Nook Colo(u)r have some combination of a shocking battery life, back-lit screens and a horrendous price-tag and I’m not sure it’s worth taking a punt on a gadget that may end up presenting me with more problems than it solves.  For instance, I don’t know how I’d make notes effectively on an electronic pdf document using each of these devices.  I’m settling on the thought that I’ll wait for colour e-ink before committing to wasting less paper, but it does seem like a shame that there isn’t something suitable on the market right now… and I’ll probably be waiting years.

I’d be interested in reading comments from anyone who has converted to a standing desk or bought a Kindle/iPad for the purposes of reading journal articles.  Nothing’s ever going to be without its own problems, but do these innovations improve overall working conditions?