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Does ebook reader the discussion begin and end with backlights?

I had a mini debate/discussion with the readers over at MobileRead about whether backlights were important. I thought that they were and wouldn’t buy a reader without one. Most everyone over there thought that backlights were really secondary to the better display of an e-ink device. What say you?


If you don’t have an ereader with a backlight, you’ll have to get a booklight. Here are some booklights that I have used in the past:

  • Itty bitty Zelco bitty booklightI bought at Barnes and Noble because a) BN would have the best booklight available, right? And this one is packaged just for readers. It also had a battery pack and an AC adapter. I thought I would really appreciate the convenience of the battery pack while traveling and the AC adapter at home. Yet, the AC adapter cord was short and I often found myself fumbling around for an outlet near the bed. (hotels weren’t always so tech friendly). The battery pack convenient but it relied on 4 C! batteries which turned the itty bitty book light into a behemoth thing. Basically, the 4 C battery pack defeated the whole idea of the portability of the booklight. There was always a cord dangling from the itty bitty booklight (either to the AC adapter or the battery adapter) so you could only lay on one side or else the cord was all entangled in your body. Everytime I adjusted my body, I had to adjust the stupid cord. Can you tell I had trouble with this thing? The batteries wore out quickly and the light bulbs burned out too. Maybe the worst part (besides being choked by the cable as I tried to get comfortable reading in bed) was that this thing is a great big paper clip and on paper back books, I had to paperclip about 20 pages together in order to prevent the itty bitty booklight from tearing the back cover off. D for the itty bitty booklight.
  • LightwedgeSo I thought I was done with the clip on booklights and tried the lightwedge. Another failed Barnes and Noble purchase. Obviously I wasn’t thinking when I bought this sucker. Do you know that you have to move the wedge EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU TURN THE PAGE. Yep. If you don’t, then the words from the previous page blur the current page. It’s like you are reading on top of a lightbox (one of those things used for tracings). And the booklight comes in paperback and hardcover size so I bought the paperback size because I mostly read paperbacks. When I did read a hardcover, I had to move the wedge up and down to cover the entire page. Plus, you have to pretty much hold onto to the book and the booklight unless you are reading a hardcover on a flat surface which is really a common way to read books. NOT. The wedge scratches easily and must be used with the tenderest of care. It’s really not made for travel. Who is designing these booklights? D for the Wedge.
  • OwlIt was back to the clip on lights. This time I went for small, small, small, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the book light ripping apart my paperback book. I went for integrated battery so I wouldn’t choke myself on the cord. I bought this booklight at Waldens. I bought 5 of them before I gave up on it altogether. It is powered by large watch batteries which I could not find locally so when the booklight died, I bought another one. Unfortunately, the power of the booklight barely lasted through one book. Further, you kind of had to manuever the head of the booklight so that the page was illuminated. At its brightest power, it could cast light on both pages, but that bright light barely lasted. It did come in a variety of colors though. This one is Ned’s. He never throws anything away. I am sure mine are at the landfill somewhere. D for the mini clip on.
  • Fliplight Because I can’t get enough of a good thing, I tried one more time. The FlipLight T1000 had a larger clip but also featured an integrated battery pack. Because it ran on 4 AA batteries, it would be easy to replace the power supply. This did illuminate both pages very well, but because of the battery pack, you need to support both the booklight and the book in your right hand. As you can see by the picture, it drags down the book. C for the FlipLight.

Alas, booklights and I have never had a positive relationship. I can’t imagine having to use a clip on booklight for an ereading device. The ability to have the light integrated into the device is quite important to me. Is it important to you? Drop a comment either way and I’ll enter you to win a four pack of Johanna Lindsey reprints: The Pursuit, Love Me Forever, Joining, and The Heir.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. May
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 08:03:15

    Don’t put me in the draw, but I voted for I wouldn’t buy one without a backlight.

    It is simply more convenient. You don’t have to worry about lighting at all.

    Those booklights were pain. I bought one for a flight, and it didn’t even last me through the flight!

  2. Nicole
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 09:25:32

    Well, since if one wants e-ink, you can’t have a backlight just due to the way the technology wants, I figure it’s a moot point. I want e-ink eventually, so I don’t care about the backlight.

    Yes, the backlight is nice for when I read after Nick’s gone to sleep, but I can also just as well go into the other room. And the times when I read in the dark when I can’t do that are few and far between, and then I can just rely on a booklight.

    So yeah, I’d buy an ebook reader without a backlight. But the next one I buy would be an e-ink one, probably.

  3. Rosie
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 10:19:23

    What a relief to know that someone else has purchased as many book lights as I have! My DH and kids tease me because I’m eternally in search of a good book light for when we travel. I had almost the same identical experiences as you did with yours.

    As for an ebook reader I don’t have one yet. I keep reading and hearing how convenient they are and have just procrastinated getting one. However, I can’t imagine not having a back light between traveling and late night reading I think it would probably be pretty essential.

    I have the books in the drawing. Please don’t include my name.

  4. Angie
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 12:54:30

    I wouldn’t love either of the two readers I have nearly as much if they didn’t have backlights. Of course, I also don’t know what e-ink technology is, so I’m blissfully ignorant in that regard ;)

    I use my Ebookwise in lowlight situations quite frequently, so I need the backlight and I don’t want to have to mess with anything extra to get the light (like something I have to attach).

    And you can keep me from the drawing as well since I also own a good many of those books :)

  5. LorelieLong
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 12:56:44

    I think a backlight’s required, but not because of reading in the dark. If I’m using my ipaq out in bright sunlight, I can’t see unless I tap the backlight on. Dunno, maybe that’s just something with the ipaq display but it’s sure necessary for me.

    On a slightly related topic. . . Janes, how many different ebook reader programs do you have loaded? I’m up to three so far. Gower microreader, Adobe Reader, and Microsoft Reader. Am I an idiot? Is there any program that reads everything?

  6. Janine
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 16:45:51

    I don’t own an ebook reader, and because of my ignorance on the subject, I googled “e-ink” and ended up at the E Ink Corporation’s website. From their press release page, it was just a link away to an article from the June 5th issue of Electronics Weekly, by one Richard Wilson. In the article I found this paragraph:

    The paper-thin displays are enabled by an electrically addressable ink embedded in a polymer matrix, resulting in a reflective display technology which requires no front or backlight, is viewable under a wide range of lighting conditions, including direct sunlight, and requires no power to maintain an image – resulting in a significant increase in battery life.

    Color me confused. If the e-ink technology requires no backlight and is viewable under a wide range of lighting conditions, then why does having no backlight matter if you have an e-ink ebook reader?

    I know I probably just said something dumb to which the answer is obvious, but it’s a subject I know less than nothing about. Please bear with me and explain the difference the backlight makes.

  7. Bev (BB)
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 16:50:39

    I don’t even see the point of having an ebook reader without a backlight. ‘Nuff said. ;p

    Oh, and another good booklight is the Nite Owl from Lumatec. I couldn’t find the exact model my daughter has but this one is similar in design. Hers has lasted several years which I can’t say for many of the others, including the Itty Bitty. The only real problem she reports from it is that the light is a little bouncy.

  8. Jane
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 17:45:40

    Lorelie – I have mobipocket, ereader, adobe reader and ubook on my handheld but I try to buy everything in mslit and convert it to html to read with my ubook. It’s a huge hassle, imo, to have to have several programs to read a book. Definitely a flaw in the ebook market.

    Janine – Nicole is right. Eink technology does not allow for backlighting. My understanding is that the backlighting ruins the paper like emulation of the eink display. Therefore, in order to read in low light or nighttime conditions, you must have an external light source (lamp or booklight). All current ereading devices have a light that is built into the device.

    As a lover of the ebook technology, I dislike the idea of having to attach some thing to allow me to read a book in low light or nighttime conditions. I don’t want a clip on device to ruin a $350.00 reader. I’ve been able to read a book in the car, plane and even the movie theater with my ebook device because of the backlight.

  9. Janine
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 18:37:12

    So then my mistake was in assuming that when the article I quoted said that e-ink is viewable under a wide range of lighting conditions, they were including low light? Because it said that e-ink did not require backlight, I had thought that it was readable even in relatively dark conditions and even without a backlight. I gather that’s not the case, then?

  10. Nicole
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 19:23:37

    Janine, think of e-ink technology like a book page. it’s like paper, only not made of pulp. :-) So anytime you can or cannot read a paper book, the same applies to an e-ink display. I like it because it will use less battery power and be easier on the eyes. And I figure if I do need to read in the dark, there will be a booklight.

    But that’s just me. ANd because I think the tech is cool. I’d love if they came with lights, like a built in lightwedge, but if not, it’s still cool.

  11. Janine
    Sep 24, 2006 @ 19:33:45

    Thanks, Nicole and Jane. I don’t have any ebook reader experience but I think I might prefer e-ink because of it being easier on the eyes.

  12. Francesco
    Sep 25, 2006 @ 06:01:30

    If, as I have read, e-ink has about the same resolution & contrast ratio as paper, it can be treated like paper & paper books do not come with or need backlighting. An advantage of e-ink is claimed to be its very low power consumption (battery life is measured in thousands of page turns). If a light was incorporated that avantage goes out the window.So no if e-ink lives up to its claims I would not need a back light om an e-enk e-book reader.

  13. Holly
    Sep 25, 2006 @ 17:07:24

    I bought an ebook reader awhile back not realizing it wasn’t backlighted and I HATE IT! It’s very hard to read. I have other issues with it now, too, but I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t buy another one without a backlight.

    As for the book lights, I’ve got 5 or 6 of them. In the car, my purse, my desk, at home, everywhere. They’re fabulous. ;)

  14. Angiew
    Sep 25, 2006 @ 17:13:22

    If, as I have read, e-ink has about the same resolution & contrast ratio as paper, it can be treated like paper & paper books do not come with or need backlighting. An advantage of e-ink is claimed to be its very low power consumption (battery life is measured in thousands of page turns). If a light was incorporated that avantage goes out the window.So no if e-ink lives up to its claims I would not need a back light om an e-enk e-book reader.

    I’m going to admit that this comment confuses me a little. All that means is that you can read it anywhere you can read a paperback…which is to say not in low light or no light areas, as many people are saying they use their ereaders. So in that case, they would need a back light, to take advantage of an ereader in the same manner they do now.

    What I hear people saying–or what I myself am saying–is that the advantage of having a backlight is one we wouldn’t want to trade away for an ereader that looks like a paperback on screen, because it takes away one of the advantages of the ereader. And my Ebookwise has a 10 hour battery life, which I’ve so far not come even close to having to worry about draining, so extended battery life isn’t a trade for no backlight for me.

  15. Jenny
    Sep 29, 2006 @ 20:22:43

    Backlight is useful for people who read at night or low light conditions but as others have mentioned, the very nature of the Eink technology precludes the integration of a backlight. It’s more for readers who dislike the strain of reading from LCD due to glare and reflectiveness. I guess it’s not possible to have the best of both worlds. Perhaps for those who can afford it, they can have two ereaders–Eink for day reading and a backlit device for night.

  16. Robert Mitchell
    Mar 18, 2007 @ 21:35:17

    To Angiew, E-ink doesn’t have a backlight because it’s similiar to paper in this respect also. A backlight won’t work. It has to be front lit.

    One of the things we have been discussing from the beginning at NAEBllc was whether we should incorporate a reading light since we had determined we wanted to use an e-ink display. The main concern was power consumption and whether it was worth the trade off.

  17. LIbby Andrews
    Nov 20, 2007 @ 01:12:20

    I have owned two digital book readers. The first was an Ebook and it was AWESOME!!!! The company ultimately went out of business. It was backlit and I found that to be one of the best features. It also had a built in dictionary which was really useful.

    I now own the Sony reader and after using it for a couple of books I won’t ever use it again. It does not have a back light, it does not have a built in dictionary and the font sizes are very limited!

    One of the major advantages to using a reader is to be able to read in bed without disturbing your partner and without cables, replacing light bulbs, batteries etc….

    I would love for one to come out with the features of the original Ebook.

  18. Sarah
    Nov 20, 2007 @ 13:32:00

    I fully agree with Libby Andrews. I need my back lighting. I loved the original ebook from RCA. I now have a Franklin 911 ebookman. I wish the display was bigger and it was easier to turn pages, but I love the backlit feature. I want to read in the dark after my husband has gone to bed. Give me a bigger backlit device with USB and I would buy it in a second.

  19. Rob Hudson
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 02:34:56

    I don’t think the backlit units are going away any time soon. There are too many commercial applications for them.

    For example, we use the ETI-2 (eBook Technologies) backlit ebook readers for the newspaper carriers who use our software. Instead of delivering papers using paper route lists with the dome light on, they have a backlit eBook device mounted to the windshield. It is immensely safer to use while driving.

    In demonstrating the necessity of backlighting, these pictures say it all:
    eBook Devices used for night time newspaper delivery
    In addition, I have yet to see an E-Ink device that is as rugged as the ETI-2.

    Lastly, since the E-Ink is monochrome only, and many commercial uses of eBook technology require color, E-Ink will not supplant color eBooks.

    eBook devices are gaining popularity in commercial applications. Aside from our software for the newspaper industry, these devices are also in use in the military and in other government applications. Most commercial users will not justify the price difference between the ETI-2 and E-Ink devices.

    E-Ink, while promising, will be unsuitable for commercial use until:

    1) Its price comes down
    2) There is a backlight or integrated frontlight option
    3) There is a color option

    This is good news for the consumer users who prefer back lighting. You’ll continue to have devices to choose from for some time to come.

    Rob Hudson
    [email protected]
    MyDistrict.Net – Newspaper Circulation Software

  20. Eileen Patchett
    Jul 30, 2008 @ 21:17:39

    Just wanted to make a comment, then ask a question –

    I bought (7 yrs. ago) a RCA ebook, Model REB1100, and just loved it –

    Now, it seems to be obsolete – how can I put this gem back on the cutting edge –


  21. Robert Dupuy
    Jan 14, 2009 @ 10:38:39

    Don’t clip the light to the book.

    Get a small piece of tough cardboard and clip the light to that. What I do, is just use the jacket protector that came with my ebook device.

    (it uses 1 AA battery, and I use rechargeable batters, so no ongoing expense

    I read in bed, I would ideally like to read on my side, but what I do is just read on my back. I position the lamp clipped on the protective jacket such that its turned around and casting the light back away from my body towards where I will hold the ebook device.

    I then just position the ebook device so that its the best visible.

    Its not too bad, not idea, but OK

  22. MoJo
    Jan 14, 2009 @ 10:40:46

    Does ebook reader the discussion begin and end with backlights?


  23. Robert Dupuy
    Jan 14, 2009 @ 10:52:01

    p.s. you’ll notice this is 99 cents.

    B&N sells a similar one for $8.

    This type of light really works well for me, because, as you can see, if you clipped it to the back of the book, it angles around and shines downward on the page.

    If you clip it to a piece of cardboard, and lay it on your chest as you are reading in bed, that angle, is just the perfect upwards angle, now casting the light just where you would hold the book above your body.

    of course, a backlight would be much, much better…but I must admit not having the backlight did not prevent me from buying the book reader, even though I primarily read at night, and in bed.

  24. Steve
    Sep 22, 2009 @ 05:06:23

    Oh my gosh it was like reading my own book light story! LOL! You have convinced me my ebook reader needs it own light. (I don’t know if backlight or another solutions). Funny post, thanks!

  25. Stacie
    Sep 24, 2009 @ 20:47:10

    I have an ebook reader, and I enjoy reading at night. My ereader does not have a backlight. I used to read ebooks on my laptop, but then my eyes started drying out and my eye doctor said having no backlight reduces strain on the eyes. I guess reading an ereader with a backlight is the same as staring at a computer screen for hours without a break.

    I don’t want to take a break when reading, so I bought a bedside lamp from Lowes for $9. After 4 booklights I realized that it was the easier option. I use the ebook light kind of like the flipbook light and attach it to my ebook cover when traveling. It doesn’t really light the whole screen though, so I wiggle it as I read. (I have a 6inch EZ Reader.)

    If anyone has a better light for it please reply.

  26. Jane
    Sep 24, 2009 @ 20:51:12

    @Stacie: I think some people have liked this one.

  27. claudette griffith
    Feb 08, 2010 @ 19:54:35

    I just received a nook as a gift, which was great, until I realized it wasn’t backlit… I am a bedtime reader, and have gone thru so many booklights, draining them dry in one sitting, so i was thinking I would take the nook, climb into bed and enjoy a great read… went thru the tutorial, all the while looking for the backlight feature only to realize there wasn’t one… I think they are absolutely a MUST… Seriously thinking I should return it…

  28. Jane
    Feb 08, 2010 @ 20:17:02

    @claudette griffith: Hi Claudette. The lack of a booklight is one reason I read on my iPhone. If you are looking for an ebook reader that has light integrated, there is an old Sony 700. It’s got lights that surround the screen but the clarity isn’t as good during the day.

  29. david braunstein
    Jun 23, 2010 @ 10:31:51

    I see that this thread is four years old and still quite relevant. I am amazed that every time that I mention back lit ereader
    in some forums, someone always screams back that eink cant be backlit. I understand that but if some one is going to spend 100-200 dollars, there should be some way to read the device in the dark. Maybe eink isn’t the best solution, maybe pixel Qi or something else it.

  30. Jane
    Jun 23, 2010 @ 10:36:27

    @david braunstein I read almost exclusively on my iPhone at night. I have heard that the Pixel Qi is supposed to come to market on some device in the next couple of months. Fingers crossed. Adam by Notion Ink, the Android table with the Pixel Qi screen, has been pushed back to Q4.

  31. Review of the Kindle 3 Lighted Cover (and a brief history of lights and eink devices) | Dear Author
    Sep 05, 2010 @ 04:01:40

    […] I get into the lighted cover, I have to tell you that integrated light for ereading has been kind of a crusade of mine.  It was one of the things I liked the least about eink devices when they debuted and why I had […]

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