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PC Gamer magazine is trying something new. A few weeks ago, I got email announcing that my “online copy” of this month’s issue was available online. I was somewhat concerned: did this mean our copy was available in addition to, or instead of, the print copy our subscription had paid for? Were we still getting a print copy in the mail? Did it mean I would have to go through some kind of rigamarole to inform them that, yes, I still wanted one? Did it mean they aimed at phasing out print entirely? The email was vexingly mum on the subject. Busy with other things, I set the matter aside, and it became moot when our print copy arrived a few days later. Still unanswered is the question of whether print will be discontinued entirely somewhere down the road, after customers have been market-tested.

Again yesterday, email informed me that my online copy is available. This time I skimmed it online, which answers a question I’d only pondered in the abstract before. Like many readers, I like the physicality of a book—or in this case, magazine—over electronic screens. But how much of this preference is materially justified, and how much merely another example of preferring the formats we grow up with?

Answer: some of both. I mean, I still see no real cause to complain about the Kindle and similar electronic books, not beyond “it doesn’t feel like a book in my hands!” (Well, okay, fingerprints on the screen. Not a deal-breaker.) But reading my magazine online was definitely an inferior experience.

It was a lot more work, for one thing. Unless the page is sized perfectly to the screen, and the screen is sufficiently large, reading means clicking and scrolling the pages around to reveal the next block of text, a job that you can handle simply by flicking your eyes across a printed page. Also zooming in to read, zooming out to select pages. Nor can I read the magazine from a comfy chair. Reading business documents—searching job applications, contacting fellow students by email, shopping for plane tickets—on a desktop computer is entirely appropriate; reading a book or magazine strictly for pleasure should be portable: desk-free, outlet-free, battery-free, and available in a variety of postures and positions. And, though this could not be said generally of all publication, the online version of PC Gamer suffered from being designed for print and ported to pdf: the eye did not slide naturally over the page layout, but fumbled awkwardly for the right spot to start reading and then again for the right spot to click on to the next page. It’s hard to take in picture and caption at once, and especially to take in a broader gestalt of multiple images captured from a single game.

Online reading is the way of the future, and we’d better get used to it; kids growing up comfortable with various e-readers will combine with lower production costs to reduce print to a nice market. That’s okay. It’s okay even if I and other middle-aged fossils fail to make the transition. Shortcomings will eventually be overcome. But it’s not going to happen until electronic publishers learn to reproduce or circumvent all the small but irritating ways e-reading fails to deliver the print experience; simply turning print pages into pdfs isn’t enough. And until they do, I remain leery of publishers pushing the new electronic format upon us, free online copy or not.

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