Fonts: Reading PDFs and ebooks on screen

April 13, 2009

When I flew to the US recently for the WritersUA Conference in Seattle, I spent a LOT of time on planes, and hanging around in airports and hotel rooms. As I don’t sleep on a fight — even a 14 hour one — I need something to occupy my time. I’m not a big movie fan so I usually only watch one or two of the 40+ typically on offer, and maybe a TV episode or two. That takes care of about 6 hours. Likewise, I rarely read much fiction these days and rarely buy physical books or borrow them from the library any more.

Prior to leaving, I created a folder of all those PDFs I’ve been meaning to read and podcasts I’ve been meaning to listen to. On this latest trip, I mostly listened to podcasts while driving to/from the airport (it’s a 3+ hour drive, so I can usually knock off a few!). On the plane and when I didn’t have internet access, I read some of the PDFs.

And this is what I found: serif fonts are much harder for me to read on screen than sans serif fonts.

I was zooming the PDF text up to 125% or 150% so that I could sit back comfortably to read it on my laptop. Even at that zoom factor, the thin stokes of fonts like those in the Times and similar font families got lost against the white background. One factor for this lack of readability could have been that I had the brightness on my laptop turned down a lot so that the light from the screen didn’t disturb those around me too much. But it wasn’t just the thin strokes — the serifs also affected the readability as they added ‘noise’ to the text.

This is by no way a scientific study ;-), just a personal observation after reading some 500+ PDF pages on screen over many hours.

I guess the take-away from this is to consider how your reader will be reading the PDF or ebook you create. Do you expect them to print it out or read it online? If online, have you considered how the brightness settings and zoom factors may affect readability of the font you have chosen? You may not know or be able to find out the answers to these questions, but consider them when you are creating a PDF or ebook.

[Link last checked April 2009]


  1. If it is a longish ebook (10 pages or so), I tend to print it out. Shorter than that and I will try to skim it.

    I just printed out an article on the Old Fashioned cocktail because I want to read it while eating lunch (at my desk, of course), then take it home and try out the recipes. The article is 28 pages long, too.

  2. For a series of long flights (5 to 6 days worth!) I wasn’t going to print out 500+ pages. The paper and ink costs alone — including environmental costs — would be daunting enough. Then there’s the extra weight and bulk in my checked in or carry-on luggage, possibly tipping me over the edge for ‘free’ luggage. Printing was NOT an option I considered. Many of these PDFs were quite small, I was interested in reading them, but then I was happy to delete them.

  3. Here’s where I get flamed. I need to print things out so I don’t have to read them onscreen with my over-40 eyes!

  4. No flaming from me on that one ;-) My over-40+ eyes aren’t the best either. And nobody gets any younger, so it’s good that programs such as Adobe Reader and Word allow you to zoom in. And that’s really my issue here — even zoomed in, I found the serif font PDFs much harder to read than the sans serif PDFs.

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