iPad makes paper obsolete

By Farhad Manjoo, The Slate
Posted5/26/2012 7:41 AM

I didn't expect to quit paper so easily. Sure, I love technology, but I also love reading, and I've always found paper to be the most pleasurable delivery system for the written word.

I stopped subscribing to a daily print newspaper around five years ago, but that was mostly because of price, not utility. I long believed that the Web and e-readers were functionally inferior to newsprint, which is fantastically good at laying out lots of stories in a way that quickly conveys editorial importance. Until a couple years ago, I consumed the majority of the books I read in print -- printed text was easier on my eyes, and I didn't like buying books that were locked up in a format tied to a single device. It was only when Amazon began making Kindle reading apps for smartphones and tablets that I dove into e-books, which were just too convenient and cheap to pass up.


But I thought it would be a long time before I gave up on print magazines. I revere magazines. The New Yorker, Harper's and Wired were my introduction to the glories of long-form journalism, and today I spend too much money on more magazines than I can ever hope to read. Although many print magazines have long offered their articles on the Web and the Kindle, these digital versions were awful approximations of the real thing. They lacked compelling graphic design, and they often presented magazines as a disjointed series of articles, not as an experience you could savor from cover to cover.

Then, last month, I got the new iPad, which is equipped with an ultra high-resolution display. Apple calls it the Retina display, because the pixels are so close together that your eyes can't tell them apart. Practically speaking, this makes for text that's sharper and clearer than you've ever seen on a mobile device. To my eyes, reading on the new iPad feels just as comfortable as reading on a Kindle or even in print.

But where the Retina screen really shines is in displaying graphics. The Retina iPad is the first electronic device on which photos look better than they do on magazine pages. Colors are more brilliant, they never fade, and the shots are dynamic -- many newspaper and magazine apps let you expand and zoom in on photos, allowing images to play an even bigger part in a story's narrative.

It's taken time for the magazine industry to catch up to the new iPad -- only in the last few weeks have some of my favorite magazines, including The New Yorker, released apps that take advantage of the Retina display. But now that they have, the iPad has become transformative. The Retina display has brought iPad magazines up to par, as a reading experience, with their print counterparts. And when you consider the other advantages of iPad mags -- you can have lots of them on hand, you can read them in the dark, you never lose your place -- the electronic version wins the day.

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In fact, since getting the new iPad, I've pretty much stopped reading on paper altogether. Now, other than greeting cards, I've got no use for the stuff. When I do page through print newspapers and magazines, I feel something novel -- the sensation that I'm experiencing an inferior product.

I'm surprised by how quickly I shifted to a paper-free lifestyle. For one thing, the magazine industry doesn't have a good track record with technology. When Apple released the iPad in 2010, many publications rushed to colonize the device, but I found their initial efforts lacking. iPad versions of my favorite print magazines were often buggy (The New Yorker app crashed so often I quit using it), required lengthy downloads of new issues, and sometimes demanded a separate subscription from the print version.

But publishers fixed things surprisingly quickly. Now most major magazines have beautiful, technically sound apps. (The New Yorker's hasn't crashed in weeks.) Magazines have also begun to offer their digital content at a sensible price; indeed, many of them give you the digital version as part of a standard print subscription. That's a terrific deal for everyone -- magazines get to keep me as a print subscriber, which is good for their ad rates, while I get to read their stuff in a variety of ways.

The bigger surprise, though, is how much the Retina display has increased my enjoyment of the iPad. When Apple added the high-resolution display to the iPhone two years ago, I thought it was pretty but superfluous. A phone is a device that I glance at while on the run, not one that I bury my nose in when I'm looking to relax. However great the pictures and text look, I'm going to reach for a larger screen if I'm in the vicinity of one.


I used to think of convenience as the iPad's main strength, too. Because of its shape and long battery life, it's an easy way to browse the Web anywhere in the house. Plus, you can use it to play games in the bathroom. But the Retina screen has made the iPad more than just a convenient consumption device -- now, for some uses, the iPad offers a qualitatively better experience than a PC. In addition to improving magazine browsing, the Retina screen has made the iPad my premier place for looking at photos. When I browse pictures on my much larger computer screen, and my even bigger TV screen, they look blurry by comparison.

This too-blurry thing has begun to haunt me, actually. When I switch from the iPad to a regular computer monitor, everything looks uglier, and it takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust. I put up with it because I have no choice -- I can't get a laptop or desktop with a screen as good as the iPad's.

Apple seems to recognize the power of this effect -- there are reports that it will soon add Retina displays to its laptops. This would be a boon to the many graphic artists and video producers who use Apple's portable machines, but I think it would prove attractive to regular people, too, especially if the Retina upgrade comes at no additional price (as happened on the iPhone and iPad).

No other computer maker has figured out how to add these super-resolution screens to their devices, so Apple has a chance to lead the market and force everyone to catch up. They'll have to. Once you see how good these paper-killing screens look, you can never go back.

Manjoo writes about technology for Slate.

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