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How I turned an iPad into the ultimate distraction-free reading machine

How I turned an iPad into the ultimate distraction-free reading machine
By Harry McCracken • Issue #11 • View online

So help me, I don’t feel like digital devices have destroyed my ability to concentrate. For a long time, I’ve had a policy of granting only a few apps the ability to display notifications (Slack yes, Gmail no). I may fritter away time on Twitter, but I tell myself that it’s a good way of generating story ideas, and that’s not too far from the truth.
But recently, I realized that none of the devices I use regularly are all that great for distraction-free reading. A phone is too dinky, and is wholly impractical for entire classes of reading material, such as scanned PDFs from the Internet Archive and digital comics. My 12.9” iPad Pro, meanwhile, is the coffee-table book of tablets—beautiful and spacious, but a bit of a handful.
This led me to crave a device sized somewhere in between. One, in other words, roughly the size of … well, a book. And one devoted entirely to reading and stripped of everything that might get in the way. In the words of Jeff Bezos back when he was introducing the Kindle e-reader in 2007, I wanted something that would disappear in my hands.
And indeed, I tried satisfying my urge with a descendant of that 2007 Kindle—a Kindle Paperwhite I had around the house. But I found it lacking for my particular purposes. For one thing, its PDF support—at least for my scanned books—was less than worthless. (They came out with letters randomly missing.) The Paperwhite’s 6-inch screen isn’t that much bigger than a current smartphone. And there are things I like to read—like full-blown newspaper apps and articles stored in Pocket—that aren’t available on a Kindle.
I then switched to an $89 Kindle Fire 8 tablet and even hacked it into allowing me to install apps from Google Play. (Amazon’s own AppStore lacks even such necessities as a decent PDF reader.) I was happier than I was with the Paperwhite. But even eight inches of screen is crammed for PDFs, and the Fire’s budget price is painfully apparent in its grainy screen, which doesn’t feel like paper at all.
Eventually, I realized that the device that came closest to meeting my needs was one I hadn’t even considered: an iPad. Not the iPad Pro or Mini, but the plain old $329 iPad—the one most directly descended from the original 2010 model.
By the time I came to this epiphany, Apple had released a new version of the cheapest iPad, officially known as the eighth-generation iPad. Its 10.2-inch screen offers the book-like dimensions I was looking for, with way better quality than the Kindle Fire. And at slightly more than a pound, it’s much more pleasant to kick back with than my heavy-duty iPad Pro. (I could also have opted for the much more upscale new iPad Air, but it’s overkill for what I’m doing.)
Settling on a piece of hardware was only part of my work. I wanted to set up the iPad so that the sources of reading material I wanted to focus on were at my fingertips, and nothing would tempt me to divert my attention.
I stuck all the Apple apps I wasn’t planning to use for reading into a folder out of the way on the second page of the home screen, where I could pretend they didn’t exist. Then I installed the following reading-centric apps and put them all on the first page, along with Apple’s own News app:
  • Adobe Acrobat
  • Kindle
  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • The Atlantic
  • The New Yorker
  • Flipboard
  • Pocket
  • Panels (a fine comic book reader)
I also installed Dropbox (since that’s where some of my reading materials are stored) and 1Password (so I could log in to the other apps). And that was it. I left off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and everything else that was predominantly about user-generated content and algorithms. Even logging into Google or YouTube in Safari would have violated my plan.
I also did my darndest to disable every possible notification in every app, so that there was no scenario in which my tablet would divert my attention. Getting an iPad to a true no-disruption state has proven to be a never-ending battle: A couple of days ago, while I was still in bed, it began ringing at me. When I tried to figure out why, it turned out to be a phone call from a spammer rerouted from my iPhone. (I don’t even want to take calls from people I love on this device.)
I mostly use my reading-only iPad mostly in the evening, after I’ve put my work iPad Pro aside and shut off my iPhone for the night. Sometimes I dip into Kindle books or PDFs; other nights, I catch up on the news, including articles I’ve saved in Pocket during the day. It’s rare for me to use it for more than a half-hour at a time, but it’s way more rewarding than 30 minutes spent fiddling with my phone.
Keeping the quantity of apps on this iPad low is part of the idea here: I don’t want to be overwhelmed with choice. It’s a digital equivalent of the books I choose to stack on my nightstand—which makes sense, because that’s where I keep the iPad, too.
One thing that’s been a revelation has been reading the TimesPostAtlantic, and New Yorker in their iPad-app form. In recent years, I’d mostly gotten to their content the way I find a lot of stuff these days: by stumbling across it on Twitter. In the apps, I see everything in one place and can focus my attention on one publication rather than careening from site to site. It’s all relaxing in a way that digital content consumption rarely is: I’ve even been reading the Post’s comics section and doing New Yorker crossword puzzles.
As I read, my brain seems to switch into a different setting than its usual default. The closest I get to cheating is by occasionally dipping into Twitter in Safari. But even that I do without logging in and tumbling into a feed—I just read individual accounts at my own discretion.
This whole exercise has felt like taking a Swiss Army knife and ignoring the scissors, screwdrivers, nail file, and other gewgaws. A lot of the time, I don’t even need to be on Wi-Fi. This isn’t the experience that the modern iPad was designed to deliver. But so far, it’s been exactly the experience I’d hoped for.
And now I’m mulling over ways to judiciously extend it without going too far. For instance, it would be nice to have a way to read newsletters. But since the last thing I want is my entire inbox staring at me from the screen, I may need to set up a separate newsletter-only email account. Or maybe Substack’s new newsletter reader will evolve into something that fits the bill.
I might even consider listening to music on this iPad—not Spotify in all its rabbit-hole expansiveness, but my own collection of MP3s, which deserves more of my attention than I’ve given it in recent years.
Then again, I don’t want to rush things. At the moment, my reading-only iPad remains utterly silent, and that is part of its charm. Dead-tree books and magazines don’t make noises—well, maybe the odd rustle of pages being turned—and the more this tablet feels dedicated to a specific purpose, the more I like it.
Versatility is all very well—it’s why I love my iPad Pro, which I’m using to write this newsletter. But even in an age of digital abundance, less really can be more.
That’s all for this issue. Thanks for putting up with my unreasonably long period of radio silence since the last newsletter. If you want to read a piece about another one of my favorite gadgets of 2020, here’s my paean to my e-bike over at Fast Company.
Stay well, and I hope to see you more often in 2021.
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Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

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