People can read traditional printed books a good bit faster than eBooks on tablet computers, a new study has found.

The study tested peoples' pace of reading on two popular e-reader tablets – Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle 2 – as well as a standard PC monitor and a plain ol' regular book.

The 24 study participants read short stories by the author Ernest Hemingway, chosen "because his work is pleasant and engaging to read, and yet not so complicated that it would be above the heads of users," said Jakob Nielsen, who led the study for the Nielsen Norman Group.

On average, it took people more than 17 minutes to read the selected tales, which Nielsen wrote is "enough to get them immersed in the story" and is also "representative for many other formats of interest, such as whitepapers and reports."

To make sure people did not just skim the stories, the participants were given a reading comprehension tests afterward.

Overall, the study revealed that people read text 6.2 percent slower on an iPad than on the printed page. With the Kindle, reading was 10.7 percent slower.

Nielsen noted that this difference between the e-readers was not statistically significant, however, so in the end the only fair statement is that "tablets still haven't beaten the printed book," Nielsen wrote.

Popularity contest

Study participants also rated each reading implement from one to seven — with seven being the highest — and provided feedback as well.

The default iBook app on the iPad used for the test took top prize, but just barely, scoring a 5.8. Amazon's Kindle, the close runner-up, ranked 5.7 and the regular book came in third by a hair at 5.6.

Users did complain about the iPad's heaviness and the Kindle's poor screen contrast with gray-on-gray letters. Participants also "disliked the lack of true pagination and preferred the way the iPad (actually, the iBook app) indicated the amount of text left in a chapter," Nielsen noted.

At any rate, e-readers dusted the regular computer screen, which was judged at 3.6, though partly because people "felt uncomfortable with the PC because it reminded them of work," Nielsen wrote.

Speed and comfort

Most promising, perhaps, for printed book publishers that feel rightly threatened by the rise of the Internet and e-readers was the comment that users thought "reading the printed book was more relaxing than using electronic devices."

Nevertheless, e-readers are only going to get better, Nielsen noted, and smartphones might soon rival such dedicated devices.

"This study is promising for the future of e-readers and tablet computers," he wrote, and "we can expect higher-quality screens in the future, as indicated by the recent release of the iPhone 4 with a 326 [dots per inch] display," or the much-touted retina display.

Indeed, as Hemingway might have said, "the sun also rises" for digital reading as ever more ordinary aspects of our daily lives go hi-tech.

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