Kindle Paperwhite - Typography

Joshua's 9/10 review reflects my overall impression of the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, I have fallen in love with mine. However, an area of frustration is the group of typefaces chosen by Amazon. Typefaces, or to be less accurate, fonts, are hugely important to the experience of a reading device.

Caecilia (Default)

Caecilia is a slab serif. As a humanist typeface the shapes of the characters are intended to better represent our handwriting, making Caecilia very readable. A bold font with fewer frivolities compared to other serifs, Caecilia is a reasonably sensible move by Amazon. Despite slab serifs usual reservation for headlines and titles, I can understand why some enjoy Caecilia on the Kindle, it's boldness works well on the Paperwhite's display, which at 221 PPI is not as sharp as print. However, Caecilia is certainly not for everyone, a slab serif to me is unappealing, an awkward intersection between serif and sans-serif that doesn't sit quite right.

Futura

Futura is a wonderfully elegant geometric sans-serif. I really like Futura, without doubt the Paperwhite renders a page beautifully with Futura. My intention however is to read, not admire. There is a good reason geometric fonts are not used for body text in print - in spite of their elegance they don't read well. A very bizarre choice for an e-reader,

Helvetica

This neo-grotesque sans-serif surely needs no introduction. Unlike Futura, the choice of Helvetica is a perfectly sensible. There are a group of neo-grotesque and humanist sans-serifs - including Helvetica and Tahoma - which are wonderful to read. My gripe with these sans-serifs is that they are perfect for reading on a screen but poor on paper. Sans serif typefaces do not work well as body text in print - e-ink displays are more akin to print than conventional screens - I cannot comfortably read a book in Helvetica on the Paperwhite. Helvetica is a sensible choice because, in spite of the readability issues on e-ink, some people will choose a sans-serif regardless, and Helvetica will be as good as any for these people.

Palatino

Palatino is an old-style serif typeface. Old style serifs are humanist with great readability and fully bracketed serifs. Palatino is widely used in non-fiction books. A great choice for the Paperwhite, much more readable than the system default Caecilia - one has to question why Amazon didn't make this the system default. Despite displaying well, reading nicely and being a great choice for the Kindle, my personal preference would be for something different.

Baskerville

A timeless typeface, Baskerville is a transitional serif. While retaining much of the readability of old-style serif, transitional serifs have a more pronounced distinction between the thicker and thinner strokes. In the case of Baskerville there are sharp serifs, more rounded characters, greater regularity and consistency and this is remarkably at the benefit of readability rather than the detriment. It's a striking font. However, when you select Baskerville on the Paperwhite you are presented with a mess. Perhaps caused by the display resolution or the font rendering engine, the outcome is text that looks half dissolved in the screen. E-readers are certainly closer to print than conventional screens, however viewing Baskerville on the Paperwhite is an unwelcome indicator that they are not yet equals. Readability is not the issue with Baskerville on the Paperwhite, worryingly the issue is legibility.

Closing Thoughts

There are five typeface choices. One of which shouldn't be there, another of which is justified but nobody should use, the system default can best be described as "okay" - leaving two truly sensible choices if we were choosing for a printed book - however one of these displays awfully on the Paperwhite.

I made a point of highlighting the categories of these typefaces. Slab-serif, geometric sans-serif, neo-grotesque sans-serif, old-style serif and transitional serif. It doesn't appear as if Amazon considered the application of these typefaces, instead they just bundled one of every kind of typeface.

I hope Amazon can learn from Google. Prior to Ice Cream Sandwich I was of the mindset that we could apply the same lessons learnt with desktop and laptops with mobile devices. Helvetica looks perfectly fine on iOS devices and Droid Sans was okay on Android devices. Along came Roboto, a typeface that that transformed reading on a mobile device - Roboto was not only refreshing and good looking but crafted with serious consideration to the types of displays upon which is would be displayed.

Amazon need to carefully consider their Kindle's display, its strengths and limitations and the application of the Kindle. Futura clearly highlights the strength of the Paperwhite's display, but that ignores the application of the device as an e-reader. Is it too much to ask Amazon to get their engineers in the same room as typographers to make choices that not only look great on the Paperwhite but are sensible, readable fonts well suited for large bodies of text?