eReader Fonts – Importance of Fonts for eReaders

The Font Feed Blog claims that the iPad is missing good typography. It lists 3 main problems with the use of fonts in the iBooks App –

  1. There’s full justification without using hyphenation which adversely affects spacing and readability. 
  2. No support for embeddable fonts.
  3. Only Palatino out of the 5 available fonts is suitable for books.

Interestingly it praises the Kindle –

Unlike Apple, Amazon clearly did their research here. PMN Caecilia isn’t well known outside the typorati, but it’s one of the more readable typefaces ever designed and its low stroke contrast and slab serifs serve the Kindle very well.

All this helps shine attention on the importance of Fonts for eReaders. Let’s start by listing the Fonts that are available.

What Fonts are used in various eReaders? What Font options are available?

Here are the Font choices dedicated ereaders provide –

  1. Kindle – It uses PMN Caecilia which is a serif font designed by Peter Matthias Noordzij in 1990 and published by Linotype (Caecilia is Peter’s wife’s name). Kindle allows for 6 font sizes. 
  2. Kindle DX – Same as above though the largest font size is bigger. 
  3. Nook – It has 3 Fonts including Helvetica Neue (sans-serif), Amasis (serif), and Light Classic (serif). Amasis was designed by Ron Carpenter in 1990-1992. Neue Helvetica was created by redesigning the Helvetica typeface in 1983 (redesigned by D. Stempel AG). Nook has 5 different font sizes.
  4. Sony 505 – This uses Dutch Roman (Dutch 801) as the default body font and Courier and Swis701 for the interface (courtesy MobileRead). Interestingly a Sony 505 Font Change Guide lists the author’s favorite font as Caecilia (the one on the Kindle). Caecilia costs $29 if you want to buy it for individual use. His 2nd choice is a free font – Bitstream Vera Serif. 
  5. Sony 600 – Uses Dutch 801 as the default font. It comes with a Font Fusion Engine from BitStream. The Sony Reader Touch Edition allows 5 font sizes. It also has a ‘Zoom In’ feature that lets you zoom a page ( you can zoom the page while using any of the 5 font sizes, there’s a very cool sliding scale, and the downside is that page turns don’t work when you have zoomed a page).

Dedicated eReaders seem to be focusing on making things simple with only the Nook allowing changeable fonts (out of Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader).

With the iPhone and iPad we see a huge variety of fonts available across the various apps.

iPad Font Choices

  1. iBooks – Baskerville (a monospace font), Cochin (a serif font designed by G. Peignot in 1914 which despite the criticism by Font Feed is my favorite), Palatino (also a good font, designed by Hermann Zapf in 1986 and named after Giambattista Palatino, a master of calligraphy), Times New Roman (designed by Stanely Morison and Victor Lardent in 1932 specifically for The Times of London), and Verdana (it’s a computer screen optimized font designed for Microsoft by Matthew Carter – Really? Steve Jobs used a Microsoft owned Font?). iBooks allows 10 font sizes.
  2. Kindle for iPad – It’s a font that’s very similar to Caecilia and at the same time there are some slight differences so not sure what font it uses. There are 5 font sizes.  
  3. Kobo Books for iPad – It uses Baskerville, Verdana, Georgia (serif typeface, also designed by Matthew Carter for Microsoft, named after a tabloid headline – ‘Alien Heads found in Georgia’), and Trebuchet (sans-serif, yet another typeface designed for Microsoft – this time by Vincent Connare, named after the trebuchet siege engine after Mr. Connare heard someone ask a Trebuchet related interview question). Kobo allows 9 font sizes.
  4. Wattpad – It has Georgia, Courier, Arial, AppleGothic, Courier New, and Zapfino. It also has an astounding 26 font sizes.

There’s definitely a healthy selection of Font choices on the iPad.

iPhone Font Choices

  1. Stanza is the star here with 26 different fonts and 22 font sizes. The Fonts include –

    American Typewriter, Applegothic, Arial, Arial Hebrew, Arial Rounded MT Bold, Arial Unicode MS, Courier, Courier new, DB LCD TEmp, Geeza Pro, Georgia, Heiti J, Heiti K, Heiti SC, Heiti TC, Helvetica, Helvetica Neue, Hiragino Kaku Gothic ProN, Marker Felt, Thonburi, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, Verdana, Zapfino.

  2. iBooks will arrive on the iPhone in June and will probably have the same fonts as on the iPad. 
  3. Kindle for iPhone has just one font choice and 5 font sizes.
  4. Kobo Books for iPhone has a plethora of font choices – Arial, Georgia, Helvetica, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, and Verdana. It also has 5 font sizes.  
  5. B&N eReader has 8 fonts – Arial, Courier, Georgia, Helvetica, Marker Felt, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, and Verdana. It supports 6 font sizes.  

The iPhone has a very healthy selection too. You could argue that Stanza has the best selection of Fonts and until Stanza for iPad arrives the iPhone beats the iPad in font choice.

Why Fonts are important for eReaders

 Let’s start by talking about serif and sans-serif fonts

  1. Serif fonts have little details (called serifs) at the end of alphabets – the little arches at the top and bottom of the stem of a ‘capital I’ in printed books are one example. Serifs are used in traditional printing and in books and are considered more readable.
  2. Sans-serif fonts do not have these little flourishes (sans-serif = without serifs). They are considered more legible on computer screens and are preferred for webpages – mostly because computer screens don’t have enough resolution to show serifs (which are generally tiny) properly.

eReaders, since they have much higher density of pixels, tend to prefer serif fonts. Perhaps the fact that books use serif fonts also motivates eReader companies to use serif fonts.

Here are some of the ways in which fonts are important –

  1. Readability – The right font increases readability. Obviously, size and line spacing and other factors play a big role too.
  2. Aesthetics – Fonts, when used intelligently, can increase the aesthetic appeal of a book.  
  3. Personalization – Font choice would let readers choose a font that suits their reading preferences.
  4. Book Uniqueness – Font choice would also let authors and typesetters choose a font that best suits a book. 
  5. Familiarity – Use of Serif Fonts makes reading on eReaders closer to reading an actual book (as opposed to reading a computer screen).
  6. Long Form Reading – There was a belief (unproven) that serif fonts helped guide the eye when reading long passages of text.
  7. Recognition – (unproven) Serifs make it easier and quicker to recognize alphabets and words and improve/quicken the reading experience.

My personal preferences for reading fonts are Caecilia on Kindle (though that’s the only one available), Amasis on Nook, and Cochin on the iPad. These are all serif fonts. They also happen to be prettier than sans-serif fonts as the serifs add a lot to the character and beauty of individual alphabets (in my opinion).

How important are Fonts for eReaders?

This is a very subjective question. Before writing this article my understanding of serif and sans-serif was non-existent so consider the next section a rough stab at quantifying importance.

  • Font choice is definitely important to help eReaders cater to individual preferences. Font choice is also important to help books set themselves apart and add beauty and character.
  • Fonts have a lot of impact on readability without most users understanding why – By providing a variety of font choices you increase the probability that a user likes reading on an eReader.
  • By using serif fonts you cater to an eReader’s strength (high density of pixels) and make the reading experience very familiar (similar to printed books). This helps ease the transition from physical books to eReaders.
  • There are three effects fonts can have – increased aesthetics, more comfortable reading, quicker reading. These are obviously great for reading and readers.
  • The ability to Change Fonts allows eReaders to be much more flexible than a physical book.

We’ve basically stumbled on to a factor that may very well be a Top 10 factor for eReader success. Except that people don’t really understand it and it’s hard to get it right without introducing too much complexity.

Take the Kindle which allows no font selection and at the same time uses Caecilia – one of the best fonts for reading. You could argue that’s simpler and safer than allowing 5 font choices and confusing users. However, when you consider how much individual tastes vary, allowing 5 to 10 high quality fonts on an eReader might end up being a better choice.

There are a few things the Kindle and other eReaders should consider providing – the option to bold and unbold font, more font sizes, and some high quality fonts that users and book designers can utilize. These would add a lot to the existing features that the Kindle, Sony Reader, and Nook already provide – decent range of font sizes, variable line spacing, and words per line – and help accelerate the adoption of eReaders.

9 thoughts on “eReader Fonts – Importance of Fonts for eReaders”

  1. Are there any monospace fonts available on any of the platforms? I’m curious to see whether all computer-programming books would need to be in the dreaded topaz in order to have legible code-samples.

    Monospace fonts are *not* good for general reading, but for certain things like software code, they are essential. They can also be useful for setting off a chunk of code.

    I’ve never seen a sans-serif monospace font, but I’m sure they exist. The monospace font most people seem to know best is courier…

    1. Yes. The monospaced fonts are available on many platforms. For example epub can carry along fonts inside the epub file.
      You can also have pdf file formatted specifically for the display size of the reading device 5″, 6″, 9.7″.

      The FB2 file format can have “code” tag that can be set up to use monospaced font. PocketBook is one example of an e-ink reader that uses FBReader (whose native format is FB2 file) as a principal reading application. PocketBook readers are very highly configurable regarding user interface and book format. There are numerous other readers that support FB2 file, sometimes through the unofficial firmware. Search for Open Inkpot project.

    1. For most people simple is better. For technically adept people and those who like to customize, choices are better.

      Most people stick with the default and never even change it.

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