Seeing the (back)light

Seeing the (back)light

I still see a lot of confusion in the Kindle forums about the different screen technologies.

It’s not just inexperienced users. Here is an example of a product made specifically for the Kindle Paperwhite, so you would think they would be familiar with the basics of how the Kindle Paperwhite works:

MoKo Vertical Flip Cover Case for Amazon New Kindle Paperwhite with Backlight, BLACK (with Auto Sleep/Wake Function) (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Did you notice that? It says the cover is for the New Kindle Paperwhite “with Backlight”. Presumably, that’s for nothing, since there isn’t a Paperwhite which is backlit. 😉

Oh, and the new and old Paperwhites are the same size, so they didn’t have to specify that either.

The product has 4.5 stars with 3,610 customer reviews, so I assume it’s quite good…but honestly, I’d have to push myself past their description of it before I would consider it. That’s just silliness on my part, I know: it’s like judging the quality of the story in a book by the number of typos. It’s natural to do, but those are really different measures.

So, I thought I’d take a post and quickly explain the different technologies.

No lighting (reflective screens)

When the first Kindle was released in 2007, it didn’t have any built-in lighting. You read it by light bouncing off it…just like you read a paperbook. That screen (and most unlit E-Book Reader screens) used a brand name screen called “E Ink”. I often see that referred to as though it was a generic term, but it really isn’t.

I tend to use the term “reflective screens” for this, and that’s correct, but people get confused by it sometimes. They think of it having a glare…which they also confuse with what happens when you try to read an iPad in the sun. It’s called a “reflective screen” because, as I mentioned earlier, it reflects the light (like a rock or a tree or a wombat or…).

These screens require no energy to maintain an image, which gives them great battery charge life. The technology to “redraw” the screen (when you more from one “page” to another, for example) isn’t that fast…it prevents them from doing animation (for videos or apps), at least at a commercial level at this point.

You need some sort of external light to read these: a booklight, a lamp, or the sun, something like that.

Backlit screens

With a backlit screen, you read what is on it by a light coming from behind the screen. The screen is between you and the light source, and the light is basically shining into your eyes. Those were around before the reflective screens mentioned above. You have them in your computer and your SmartPhone, most likely.

It’s a mature technology: it can do lots of colors, super sharp images, and can redraw quickly enough for HD movies.

They have a built-in light source, which can be nice, but it does take a lot of power. For Kindles, this is what the Fire uses. The battery charge life is much shorter, but one big tip: turn the brightness down. That is the number one thing I find that makes my battery last longer…even more important than turning off the wireless. I have excellent night vision (connected, I think, to my color vision deficiency), so I often have the brightness turned down all the way when I’m inside. I think I can read for an hour and not lose a single percentage point of battery charge.

Another problem with this technology is that the light coming from behind the screen competes with lighting hitting the front of the screen. If the sun is hitting your screen, it’s likely to make it nearly impossible to see the image…the internal backlight just can’t beat the sun.

That’s not glare, as I mentioned above…no “anti-glare” screen will help. Glare has to do with light being brightly reflected from a surface: think of a signal mirror. An anti-glare screen can make something less reflective, but that’s not the issue here.

Turning up the brightness as far as it will go will help when you are in sunlight (although you will burn your battery charge more quickly). I find that I can always read outside, as long as I turn the Kindle Fire so the sun isn’t hitting it as directly. If you are  looking for a place to sit in the park and read, try to have the sun in front of you or to your side, not directly behind you…assuming you are sitting up holding the Kindle in front of you. If you lie on your back and have the back of your Kindle to the sky, you’ll probably be fine. 🙂


A frontlit device (like the Kindle Paperwhite ((at AmazonSmile))) is actually a reflective screen with a built-in light that shines at the screen from the front of it (not from behind it). The light is still bouncing off it as with the “no lighting” screen, so your screen isn’t competing with the sun. This is the best of both worlds. Like a backlit device, you can read it in a dark room (it’s so nice to not have to turn off a lamp after reading in bed). Like a reflective device, you can read it in bright light.

The Paperwhite is the most comfortable reading experience I’ve ever had, including paper.

The light isn’t bright enough to be bothersome, and it isn’t creating the image…the battery charge life is still quite good, comparable even to an unlit Kindle.

Well, those are the three possibilities.

In the future, we may have devices which can switch between backlit and front or non-lit. There have been some dual-screen devices, but they’ve been expensive and haven’t done well so far. Reflective screens will also likely speed up and get color…my guess is that’s where we will largely go, but we’ll see.

Hope that helps…

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Added today: my new free Flipboard magazine, The Weird Old Days (vintage articles on ghosts, sea serpents, psychic phenomena, and more)

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


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