Reading eBooks on a Tablet Comfortably in Bed (also: watching movies)

But she decided that she might as well go to bed no matter what time it was. One whole wall was filled with books, both shelves and spindle racks. She found a spool of Kipling’s Just So Stories and took it happily upstairs with her.
Here she found another small surprise. The bed in the room she had been given was as modern as next week, complete with automassage, coffee dispenser, weather control, reading machine, etc. — but the alarm circuit was missing, there being only a plain cover plate to show where it had been. Jill shrugged and decided that she would probably not oversleep anyway, crawled into bed, slid the spool into the reading machine, lay back and scanned the words streaming across the ceiling. Presently the speed control slipped out of her relaxed fingers, the lights went out, and she slept.
“Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein (written in 1960!)

I spend a lot of time in bed — most people do, usually up to 8 hours. While most of the time in bed is spend on sleeping and/or sex, some time is also used for reading or for watching movies. Given that almost all of my books are digital (Creating a Virtual Library109 scanned books later …), I looked for a way to read digital books comfortably in bed. Sure, an iPad is probably lighter than one of the later Harry Potter novels, but it’s not that comfortable, esp. if you fall asleep.

One thing that immediately came to mind is the quote in the beginning of this posting. When I first read that book ages ago, I was smitten by the idea of having such a reading machine in my bed. In the year 1960 it was science fiction, but today this is actually possible — with available technology. You don’t need a big flat-screen hanging on your ceiling, or a projector placed vertically to project the screen on the ceiling*.

Set Up

I usually read on my iPad — so I use the iPad as a screen. Given that the ceiling would be too far away for that size, I use a monitor arm designed for iPads (relevant because the arm is calibrated for this weight class).

Normally it’s screwed onto tables and the screen is in front of you. But if I wanted to use it while sitting, I would simply place it on my stomach/lap. Instead, I screwed it onto the side of my bed and placed it in a way that the screen is directly above me when I lie down (see photo). When the iPad is off, the mirroring display surface is perfect to align the iPad with my eyes. BTW, I also use a different holder to prevent the iPad from falling out. The default one seemed to risky.


Using a monitor arm for an iPad to allow for comfortable digital reading in bed.

The arm actually allows for portrait and landscape mode with a simple turn and the power cable of the iPad is just long enough to reach the power outlet. It’s also nice to connect the iPad with the speakers I have tied to my bed (the right one is moveable to ensure equal distance to the position when I lie down) or to use headphones (/!\ Strangulation Risk (if with cable)!).

It’s a bit strange to operate the iPad this way, especially if the light is out — you almost feel like an astronaut. But the position is very comfortable for reading. No need to sit upright, no bending — you can just lay down, relax and see the screen floating in front of you. Just select the correct orientation of the iPad screen and lock the screen orientation before you strap it into the holder.

The arm can be easily moved out of the way. Relevant for sleeping — if you move around in your sleep — and for waking up. Seeing such a thing directly above you when you wake up is not the most relaxing start into the day, esp. when the iPad is not strapped in. The holder alone looks like a monstrous 4-finger hand.


Normally, I use my hands to turn the pages. Fiction works well in portrait mode, as most novels are small enough to fit on one page. With scientific articles, I find that landscape mode is often best. I read those much slower anyway and frequently make highlights and annotations (see writing below). BTW, GoodReader finally was updated for iOS7 and is better than ever.

I’m skeptical of automated page flows/turning — tilt does not work that well (the screen should be horizontal and is not in your hands). And as my reading speed varies, I don’t want my reading speed to be dictated by a program. So I’m currently trying to find a way to turn the pages more easily. Perhaps a remote with an iPhone/iPod would work, or using the keyboard. But it has to be something that easily survives a fall on the floor (if I fall asleep). Alternatively voice commands would be possible (if I am alone). But not sure whether there are programs available for this. In the future, it will probably work with eye movements. There are already smartphones with built-in eye-tracker and actually, this would be a nice feature if done well. The screen could then also turn off immediately when the reader falls asleep.

Still, even without an external or automated control, reading works well.


You can also write in this position. I would not recommend using the on-screen keyboard — you move exactly against gravity, which is very tiring. The gravity per se is not much, but the blood flow to the arms becomes more difficult over time. Using a Bluetooth keyboard works fine for short annotations (e.g., when reading scientific literature). You need to be able to type blindly, though. Given that the “f” and “j” key have slight marks on them, finding the correct position for the hands is fairly easy. Just place the keyboard on your lap and type when needed.

Watching Movies

Of course, you can also watch movies this way. Personally, I use vlc to display movies, given that I use digital copies of movies I bought and vlc allows for the display of subtitles. GoodReader works almost as well when subtitles are not needed. It’s not a surround sound experience with a big screen, but if I want a big screen cinema like experience, I actually visit the cinema. Personally, with most movies, I love to focus on the story and the details — and for this an iPad is enough. Just don’t watch a horror movie in that position — trust me, just don’t. You have the screen immediately in front of you — and given that you are lying down, even with a soft mattress you cannot move back that far. Porn on the other hand works really well (well, you have both hands free, actually).


So, all in all, it’s a nice solution. Even if you fall asleep, the screen will turn itself off after a couple of minutes (depending on your settings and the program used). It might still be a newness effect, but I’ve watched a couple of movies this way and read a couple of scientific articles while making annotations, and it was very, very comfortable. It’s brilliant to comfortably end the day, or do something while you are lying with a cold in bed (that 25 km run probably wasn’t the best idea).

However, I am not sure whether this position is too taxing for the eyes in the long run. But that’s something to be seen (or not). I also think it might be better to screw the arm to an external structure (bedside table might work), so that the screen stays still when you move around in the bed, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Because so far, I’m happy with it.


* BTW, a projector is actually a bad idea. I tried this out a couple of years ago when I had one overnight at my apartment. In many cases, cooling is difficult when placed vertically (not designed for it), you have to place it on your bed or above your head (and it hopefully can correct the distortion), the sound of the fans is way too loud, and I would be skeptical regarding the heat and the possible fire risk**. LED projectors might work better (I did not try out those), but many problems remain.

** You have a smoke detector in your bedroom, don’t you? You might be confident that you would feel the heat of a fire, which is why many people say they don’t need a smoke detector. But in most cases, the fire never reaches you while you are still alive. The smoke is quicker — and much deadlier. There is furniture that produces an extremely poisonous smoke. One good whiff or a couple of shallower ones — and that’s it. Seriously, smoke detectors are cheap and there are magnet plates for them available. Simply stick one plate to the ceiling (comes with double-sided adhesive tape) and the other on the detector. The magnet will keep the detector on the ceiling and still allows you to remove the smoke detector when you need to exchange the battery. It’s a matter of minutes — which can give you (and your offspring) years or even decades of life.

Categories: Improving your Creativity, Infrastructure, iPhone/iPad, Learning, Tools, Writing

3 Comments on Reading eBooks on a Tablet Comfortably in Bed (also: watching movies)

  1. Nighthawk // April 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm //

    Thank you, a very good tip! I implemented also myself 🙂
    I find it useful when I need to read scientific papers and particularly if I am too tired after the daily work, it is far more convenient in bed to work for some extra hours. The only problem that I have, is that my current bluetooth keyboard does not support “task switching”, so I don’t like always raising my palm to switch apps. Does official Apple keyboard works well in this regard ?

  2. If you mean cmd + tab to switch between apps — nope, I don’t think so. Tried it out but it did not switch between the apps. Would be nice if it did. Not sure if there are ways to add such a functionality …

  3. Nighthawk // April 7, 2014 at 11:21 am //

    Thanks Daniel for the reply! Then, that’s a disappointment from Apple, because that functionality should be embedded. I’ve read somewhere that Logitech keyboards offer hacks (workarounds) regarding this issue.

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