On speed reading, Wikipedia says:

Speed reading is any of several techniques used to improve one’s ability to read quickly. Speed reading methods include chunking and eliminating subvocalization.

All technical attempts at enabling speed reading that I’ve seen have aimed at eliminating subvocalization; i.e. stopping that inner voice from silently speaking the words you’re reading.

The idea is that it takes more time for your inner voice to speak the words than it takes your mind to understand their meaning. So you end up reading slower than you can because your mind understands and then waits for the inner voice1 to finish silently producing the sound of the word to move on.

The solution I see most often is Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), and specifically the static mode where the words appear one at a time, replacing each other in the same location, instead of the focus or highlight box moving across lines and paragraphs.

One solution that I tried is Spreeder. Spreeder is web-based, and is fairly simple. You paste some text into a text box, click a button, and start “spreeding”. You get a decent set of options.

Spreeder options

What it does, it does well. But what it doesn’t do is a lot.

The first way you can use Spreeder is to have it loaded in a different tab, copy text from the page you want to read, paste it into the Spreeder text box, and start. That’s a lot of steps. There is a Spreeder bookmarklet that you can place in your browser’s bookmark bar, but it’s not fast to use. You can’t be on a page you’d like to read, click on the bookmarklet, and immediately be ready to start, Instapaper-style. You have to select some text first, which is still a hassle, and on many pages with bad layout, is not possible without also selecting a lot of junk from sidebars or other places.

All of that I could put up with, except that I’ve found that RSVP as it’s done today doesn’t work very well for online content. The main reason is links. I want to see the links, and they don’t show them to me. You lose links and you lose all other text-formatting. Online content is not like books. It’s dynamic and connected, and I want to know when the author has decided they want to link to something, and choose to pursue that link. That’s not an option in any of the apps I’ve tried.

You also don’t get to see photos, or interesting layout, or pretty much any non-text-based method that the author is using to enrich the content or communicate something.

Until a solution exists that properly addresses those shortcomings, the only content that RSVP works well for is ebooks.

Back to ebooks. Crappy ebook ecosystems that lock you into using crappy reading apps is a post for another day maybe. For now, I’ve found a really well-designed app that has quickly become the main way I read DRM-free ebooks.

Outread [iTunes link]

iOS app icon and two of the three screenshots taken from Outread's press kit.

Outread works with DRM-free ePubs, .rtf files, and .txt files. You can add files from a URL, from your Dropbox, and for the first time that I have personally seen in an app I use, iCloud drive. If the ePub you’re adding has chapters, Outread will recognize them, which really took me by pleasant surprise.

Outread supports the two RSVP modes discussed above: static and moving. As you can see in the second screenshot above, you can control the Marker size (the size of the chunk of text) and the Reading speed all the way up to a questionable but enticing 1000 words per minute.

You can connect your Instapaper, Pinboard, Pocket, and Readability accounts. I tried connecting my Pinboard account, and it seemed to work okay, but the number of articles it downloaded was limited, and as far as I could tell there were no options to tell it to only download unread articles, or allow you to mark articles as read. I’ve already mentioned the reasons why I don’t think RSVP is good for online articles, so I’m only going to use Outread for ebooks.

Outread is great.

But there are some downsides:

  • A huge impact on battery. This is the worst problem. I really don’t know why, but Outread just destroys battery life. It drains the phone’s battery faster than any app or game I have ever used. It is so heavy that the first thing that brought this to my attention wasn’t the speed of the drop in charge, but the fact that I would feel the iPhone heat up through its case. You can make this a bit better by turning on Low Power Mode in Settings > Battery2. With Low Power Mode turned on I can no longer feel the phone cooking, but the battery is still drained very quickly.

  • No highlighting and no annotations. Most of the books I read are non-fiction, and I use highlighting a lot. On a Kindle, you can get a text file with all the highlights listed with their locations in the books. On iBooks you can, with some wrangling, collect all your highlights from the book. I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do about this. Outread is too good not to use, but I do want to continue highlighting and taking notes. Maybe as I read I will make a note to go and highlight sentences or paragraphs in iBooks. Seems finicky, but it’s the best solution I can currently think of.

  • Limited font options. This is not a big deal. The app currently supports Helvetica Neue, Georgia, Avenir (the default, and my current choice), Baskerville, and OpenDyslexic. I’d like to see a few more, but Avenir is pretty good. I’d also like to see a higher maximum for font size. The size pictured in the screenshot above is the maximum, and it’s pretty small for a maximum.

Update (23/09/2015)

Unfortunately, there is an Outread bug that leads to the app sometimes skipping a few lines when importing ePubs. It is rare enough that it took hours of reading for me to come across it once, and many more hours of reading for me to come across it in another book. There isn’t an obvious tell. I only realized something was wrong because the text suddenly stopped making sense and it seemed like the author had switched to a completely different topic in the middle of the sentence. I opened the file in Calibre and confirmed that the ePub file was not at fault.

I reported the bug to Outread support, but for now, I am sadly back to iBooks.

See also:

  1. Which, yes, is part of your mind. You know what I mean. ↩︎

  2. Low Power Mode is an iOS 9 feature, and iOS 9 is currently in beta. There is a possibility that the huge battery drain is something related to the beta and might work itself out when iOS 9 is officially out, but I doubt it. This doesn’t happen with any other app that I use. ↩︎