Portable pdf reading - what's the way to go?
September 28, 2008 1:38 AM   Subscribe

What would you recommend for a compact device that reads pdfs? I've recently started train commuting and have 30 minutes on a regular basis to read. There are quite a few large pdfs that I read. I've been using a PSP but it doesn't work well. I'm currently looking at an ipod touch, eee PC, Aspire One, Nokia n800 and would consider anything else that people recommend. ( more inside )

I've been using a PSP with bookr but have found that it crashes on sizable pdfs and often won't display the pdf at a readable resolution without needing to constantly scroll across the page.

The ipod touch is almost a good solution. It just that it appears that you have to email pdfs to yourself to view them and that you can't view them in landscape mode. Perhaps these problems can be overcome by jail breaking the device but I'm not sure.

My Nokia 6110's adobe reader will view everything and work right, but with constant scrolling due to the device's small size it doesn't work well either.

Does anyone have experience with the Nokia internet tablets? There are some cheaply available on ebay Australia so they are also potentially a viable option.

In the end, if you want to read large pdfs do you really have to have a PC? A cheap eee PC or Aspire one might be what's required.

Are any of the epaper devices capable of handling large, graphics containing pdfs? I'm in Australia so the Kindle is probably not viable.

At any rate, it'd be great to have the experiences and opinions from the Blue as to what to do.

(and just as an aside, I regularly read normal books on the train and enjoy that too, it's just that some stuff is more readily available as pdfs)
posted by sien to Technology (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If I wanted to read lots of PDFs without driving myself insane, I wouldn't even try to use anything smaller than a 9 inch laptop screen. 12 inch would be better.

As for software: the evince document viewer supplied as Ubuntu's default PDF reader has always worked fine for me; never felt a need to install Adobe's.
posted by flabdablet at 1:51 AM on September 28, 2008

What about some of other e-book readers out there?
posted by chrisamiller at 1:53 AM on September 28, 2008

It's certainly possible to read a pdf on an eee, but you'll need to scroll every half page, as most pdfs are set up in portrait orientaton.
posted by orthogonality at 2:13 AM on September 28, 2008

Response by poster: chrisamiller: I'm interested in them and would love to know what people's experiences with them are.

But I'm suspicious of their ability to handle anything other than their own ebook formats. That's why the question is there.

flabdabet: Yeah, on PCs pretty much any pdf reader seems to work well. Sumatra pdf on windows is great. I've never had problems on Linux either. On mobile devices, however, the experience is different. Bookr is not bad, but has problems. Things like mobipocket and other similar ebook software setups mangle graphics laden pdfs when they convert them to their own formats.

Personally from what I've seen a pdf reader could work on a device with, say about say a 5-6" screen comfortable. The 7" Eee PC would work, but it would work even better if the whole device was the size of the screen. That space around the screen is such a waste, if I get a PC it will be with a larger screen. But this is heavier than I'd ideally like. Something that weighed, say 500gm would be perfect.
posted by sien at 2:15 AM on September 28, 2008

This Sony digital book setup works with PDF among other files.

I saw a couple of these on display at a local Sony specialty store this summer, and they looked pretty nice, and seemed like a good product. If I had been looking to buy one, I might have spent more time and looked closer/asked more questions, but from the 5-10 minutes I played with one I got a pretty good impression from it.

Let us know what you decide on and how well they work... eventually I'd like one myself. Good luck!
posted by Kimothy at 2:44 AM on September 28, 2008

I have a Kindle, and it is fantastic for this. The Kindle itself works anywhere. It's the Whispernet that does not work, I think. But, you can put PDFs on your Kindle and read them, without Whispernet.
posted by Houstonian at 3:34 AM on September 28, 2008

Response by poster: Houstonian: Have you tried large hundreds of pages pdfs with graphics on your Kindle?
posted by sien at 3:40 AM on September 28, 2008

I've spent a few days with a Sony Reader, and aside from a few missing gee-gaw features it is an admirable machine. I have not tried loading gigantic PDFs on it, but it has handled smaller ones with grace. It can handle a number of other document formats, images, and even a few music files/audiobooks. In terms of battery life it is capable of displaying the entirety of War & Peace multiple times before needing a charge, so going through a huge PDF in one sitting shouldn't be a problem. It is no more difficult to handle than a mass market paperback, is very sturdy, and goes easy on the eyes (again, very similar to print media).
posted by carsonb at 3:53 AM on September 28, 2008

I've read 300+ page PDFs, and I've read PDFs with lots of graphics (not photos, but graphics), but not the combination of the two. But, I can't imagine that would be problematic?

If you are curious, you could post a sample PDF, and I'll see what happens to it on the Kindle...
posted by Houstonian at 4:41 AM on September 28, 2008

can't remember why I bought an N800, but now its sole function is as a pdf and chm reader. I know its smal screen size requires a lot of scroling but its touch screen makes this quite natural. use fbreader in portrait mode.
posted by handybitesize at 4:45 AM on September 28, 2008

I've asked a similar question a while ago. I now own both a Sony PRS and an iPod Touch. The first one works very well, there are tools out there that convert PDFs nicely and do stuff like chopping off the whitespace at the borders to allow better magnification and so on. I'm quite happy with it, the only negative is that it's ugly as hell, and obviously designed by idiots. Use it for a couple of minutes and you'll know what I mean. But still, it's a workable solution and you can get it cheap from Ebay.

The iPod Touch is basically the opposite: it's beautiful, but it's not really good for reading PDFs. It takes too long to redraw and zoom and scroll. I assume in a year or so they'll have a model with enough CPU and memory to handle PDFs well, but for now it's not well suited to serious reading.
posted by dhoe at 4:55 AM on September 28, 2008

i have used the n770, and the n800, as well as i the iphone and tapwave and various palm based pdas for reading ebooks, and the n800 wins. i've yet to be able to justify the expense of a dedicated ebook reader, the cool thing about the n800 is that it has a lot of other functionality too.
posted by spyke23 at 5:30 AM on September 28, 2008

Response by poster: Houstonian: For an example have a look at the pdfs at Sustainable Energy - without the hot air
A popular book by David J.C. MacKay
a 10MB pdf that would crash the PSP with Bookr. There is also a 32MB high quality version that would further test the kindle.

If you could test it on those that'd be grand. Indeed, if anyone has ipod touches or an n800 or whatever those would make a good test.
posted by sien at 5:32 AM on September 28, 2008

I am currently reading a 1000 page PDF on my Sony Reader without issue, and recommend it wholeheartedly (the book and reader). The current reader firmware addresses many issues with the display of PDFs, making the reader much more functional. :)
posted by strangelove at 5:42 AM on September 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks thus far for the informative answers.

Is there anyone out there who has tried an n810? That keyboard looks like it could come in handy.
posted by sien at 5:54 AM on September 28, 2008

The Kindle doesn't support PDF natively; you must convert it.

Go with the Sony Reader, definitely.
posted by nev at 6:14 AM on September 28, 2008

Best answer: Ok, here's what I found:

1. I downloaded the PDF, sent it (free, via email) to Amazon for conversion. Less than 3 minutes later, they emailed the converted file back to me.

2. I saved the converted file to my Kindle, via a USB, and this took essentially zero time to save.

3. After opening the book, I checked the Table of Contents. The links work on the file (that is, on the Kindle I can select the link to the chapter/section, and it takes me to the correct place in the book).

4. The book itself:

- Text is very clear.

- The drawing that is on the first page of Section 1 is very clear.

- The photos of the books that are in the margins of page 2 each resize to make one "page" on the Kindle, instead of being in the margins -- good, because the picture of the books is very clear.

- On Page 4 of the book is a numbered list. On the Kindle, while this is very clear still, the indention is not completely correct. Each item on the list is on its own lines, but Numbers 2 and 5 seem to be indented by about 5 spaces while the others are flush-left.

- On Page 4, Figure 1.1, is a drawing. On the Kindle, this takes up one-half of a "page" (that is, it is between two paragraphs instead of being in a margin), so it is clearly readable -- Love, with the windmills, Hate with the cooling towers, "Two reasons to join Greenpeace" at the bottom with Greenpeace in a different font. Kindle put the graphic between numbers 7 and 8 on the numbered list, with the note to see the footnote above the graphic, the caption for the figure below the graphic, and then Number 8 of the bulleted list below the caption.

- On Page 5, Figures 1.2 and 1.3 of the book are two graphs. The numbers on the X and Y axis came through on the Kindle, but the line graph itself is not there... so that is not so useful. But the text around the figures and their captions came through exactly as expected. Quickly thumbing through, this seems to be true for all the graphs on X-Y axes that are in the margins of the book.

- On Page 24 of the book, in the margin, there is a photo of lightbulbs. On the Kindle, this has been resized (as all the others) so that it is not in the margins, but instead on its own line, below the paragraph closest to it. While on the Kindle it is still clear that these are lightbulbs, some definition has been lost -- it is grayscale (no color on the Kindle) and the third lightbulb (which is a clear chandelier bulb) is a bit hard to distinguish.

- On Page 29 of the book, the photos are very clear. It is obviously two cars in a parking lot... although of course being grayscale you cannot tell that one is red. Likewise with the photo of a package of butter -- very clear, readable label on the butter, but you cannot tell the color of the package.

I hope this helps!
posted by Houstonian at 6:40 AM on September 28, 2008

(I should add that this was the "All in one 10M PDF File" link. Will test the bigger one now.)
posted by Houstonian at 6:44 AM on September 28, 2008

Best answer: (...however, Sony is expected to make a big e-reader related announcement on October 2nd, so it might be worth holding off on a purchase until you see what they're offering.)
posted by nev at 6:47 AM on September 28, 2008

Ok, I cannot test the 47MB file, because I use gmail, and it does not allow email attachments that big.
posted by Houstonian at 6:54 AM on September 28, 2008

Best answer: I have to second the Sony eReader suggestion. I also have a Kindle, and while it does a great jobs with .doc and .txt files, it does a horrible job with PDFs.

First, you have to email them to Amazon to mail back to your kindle.

Then, depending on the PDF, it can be a pain.

I use ALOT of PDFs at work, and I tried to upload several of them to my kindle. The problem was with two-column documents. The Kindle just could NOT render them correctly.

Add in the fact that based on your location, without a US-addressed credit card, buying a Kindle might be a problem. Neverming buying books off of Amazon, and the lack of a Whispernet in Australia.

I have the iPod Touch, the iPhone, a Kindle, and an Acer Aspire One in terms of "portable" devices that could read .PDFs. Best "bang for your buck?" An EeePC or other similar netbook, for the increased functionality beyond reading PDFs. (Surfing the internet, photos, music, etc). If you are insisting on an eBook-only reader, though, I would definitely suggest the Sony Reader for 1) the price and 2) the wealth of formats it can read.

Plus, the worldwide availability of the device.

Just my 2 cents.
posted by Master Gunner at 7:52 AM on September 28, 2008

Best answer: I have an iRex iLiad, which supports PDFs. No file conversion is necessary, and to read PDFs, I simply put them on a memory card and put the memory card in the device. You can also attach the device to your computer and transfer the file to the 128 MB of memory within. The iLiad has an 8.1 inch screen, which is great for reading full page-sized PDFs. Depending on the size of the text, I read either in portrait or landscape orientation, with the text on the page stretching to the full size of the screen. I may have to scroll down (or basically turn the page to get to the next section), but I never have to scroll to the side. I've yet to come across a PDF that wasn't completely legible in landscape mode. Two-column documents work just fine, as well.

You an see some pictures of how I use mine here, here, and here.

iRex also just came out with a reader with a 10.2 inch screen. I honesty think that 8.1 inches is large enough, but I'll probably buy that one if I need a replacement.

The downside to the iRex devices is that they're expensive, more expensive than any other e-reader. Reading on an e-ink screen is a pleasure, the device doesn't get hot, and it handles PDFs with no problems. I read a lot of academic journal articles, most of them with formulas and graphs in them, and it's saved me a lot of paper and storage space.
posted by capsizing at 8:48 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why not a (possibly used) tablet PC? I used to read PDFs all the time on my Thinkpad X41. It weighs 3 lbs. and is very comfortable in the hands with the screen folded flat. You can get a leather portfolio to hold it. I would bet you could pick up a used one for a few hundred bucks.
posted by LarryC at 8:51 AM on September 28, 2008

Best answer: I downloaded the 32MB version of the "Sustainable Energy" PDF and transferred it via USB to my Sony PRS-505 with the latest firmware. You definitely want the firmware update - the old version didn't allow resizing on PDF's. It took about 10 seconds to convert the file.

The Sony has three text sizes selected by a button on the front. In small-text mode, each page of the book is displayed in full on the reader's screen. The text is very small, but if I hold the reader ten inches or so from my eyes I can read it. Same with the charts. It's a faithful rendition of the original PDF.

In the medium and large text modes, the text is comfortably readable but the spacing is completely screwed up. Instead of re-aligning the text with a new margin, it just wraps each line, making it pretty hard to follow. Charts are basically impossible to read. I also can't find the blown-up versions of the figures on page 5, although the picture on page 4 was inserted into the medium-text view. It seems that the reader interpreted the chart and tried to reproduce the two axes rather than just blowing it up as an image. Here's a crappy picture of the two modes - page 5 with small text and a "chart" from page 5 with no image.

I believe there are some conversion tools that can take a PDF (without DRM) and convert it to Sony's native format that would do a better job, but I wouldn't want to read this book on the reader as-is.
posted by five toed sloth at 9:19 AM on September 28, 2008

I had the Sony PRS-500 and it cannot read the large documents you want to read (it was a total pain to read neuroscience papers on). The only reader out there that's good for that size of document is the Irex Iliad and there are some new ones coming out from Plastic Logic that look really great.

The problem with these things is the resolution. You'll need to get one that's bigger than the Sony to have an acceptable reading experience.
posted by fake at 9:36 AM on September 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the informative answers and in particular to the folks who have tried the linked pdf with their readers.

If someone would describe their experience with the files on an n800 that would be much appreciated.

I'll wait for October 2 but am looking at n800s as they can be picked up fairly cheaply here. An n810 is another option. The idea of having a keyboard would make the thing very useful but once the price approaches an Aspire One it becomes a bit hard to justify.

And I'll post back with what I do get and how it goes.
posted by sien at 4:10 PM on September 28, 2008

Thought I'd throw my $.02 in here. I have been looking for the best ebook reader that can handle science articles with equations and photos.

If you already own content and have to get something right now that is relatively mainstream, the Sony PRS is probably the way to go. No converting of dealing with a third party service.

The Kindle is great if you want to read novels on a whim and have little to no library of your own. Not that the stuff I read is particularly 'noteworthy', but the idea of sending everything I read through a company kinda bothers me.

The iRex iLiad is probably the way I will end up going. Main selling point is that the new models have a writable surface, basically turning it into a specialized tablet PC. I need to take notes and highlight things. For casual reading it is probably overkill (but see the comments above on compatible pdf sizes for the other readers).

I currently have a TabletPC (Gateway C141XL), which is great for all those computer-type things, and awesome for having the tablet abilities for work. It is far too large, cumbersome, battery draining, and heavy for use as just an ebook reader. Granted, this is the 14.1" screen, and the smaller 12.1" ones are lighter, but for just ebook reading, you still have the other issues (battery would probably be your primary problem). On the upside, anything you can read on a PC, you can read on it, so zero compatibility problems.

Last, there are a a couple tablet netbooks (Gigabyte makes one and I forget the other off hand) that are in the process of hitting the market. Convertible style, full Windows, long battery life, small screen (want to say it is 8-9", but don't remember), but very pricey. Still, full computer, color screen, compatible with everything, but a little sluggish, requires booting up and maintenance, and is thicker than an ebook reader.

Personally, I'm stuck between the tablet netbook and the new iRex. Just decide on what you need, then prioritize what you want, and the decision should jump out at you. 30 minute commute reading? Any can handle that. Would you want to be able to take it to the coffee shop and check email as well? Or will it live at your bedside and be read from for hours at a time? It all comes down to intended use (and projected use), but consider the possible uses and see if there is anything more alluring than the situation you intended (like the coffee shop example, if you weren't considering it).

In short:

Cons: Shorter battery life, bulkier, harder on the eyes
Pros: Compatibility, color screen, full app versions

Ebook readers:
Cons: One trick pony, new tech with a few quirks (like slow page turns on some models), black and white, transfer and conversion issues different per model, often as expensive as a cheap netbook.
Pros: Long battery life, easy to read, smaller, lighter

Hope that helps!
posted by neuroking at 5:21 PM on September 28, 2008

Best answer: Just tried out the large PDF on my N810. With the built in PDF reader, it opened quickly and easily. Scrolling about the page worked like a charm, though zooming was a bit slow (one second or so per increment). Text was small but legible in fullscreen fit-width mode. New pages took around half a second to appear.

The built in reader does not support rotation, indexes, page thumbnails, or searching text.

Evince, an open source alternative to the built in reader that supports the above features worked like a charm. Page turning was almost instantaneous (I believe it prerenders the next few pages), and scrolling was much more responsive, though not as smooth. Zooming was quick and painless, though it did sometimes take quite a few seconds to re-render the text at a higher resolution, and scrolling while zoomed in was a bit nasty (quick to move, but lagged a tiny bit filling in the new space. Not bad, but you really wouldn't want to be scrolling back and forth every line).

I'd call it a reasonable contender.
posted by SemiSophos at 5:48 PM on September 28, 2008

I would not recommend to go over the top with the wish for a compact device. I got used to to luggage a full-grown laptop to work nearly every day and I am relatively happy with it. I am planning to buy laptop again, albeit a slightly smaller and lighter one (currently 15'').

If the urge strikes for a compact and high quality display I am printing a manageable part on a laser printer and use a ring binder.

evince works okay for most PDFs I found it becomes sluggish on certain files. I blame the images included but I am not sure about that, I run with kpdf which feels faster.
posted by EuroBunny at 5:59 AM on September 29, 2008

I would strongly, strongly consider a product that uses E-Ink if you are going to be using this device exclusively for reading. If you haven't seen the display screen of a Kindle or the Sony Reader, you really need to find someplace you can sneak a peek before making a decision either way. A laptop screen is no comparison. I haven't extensively used either of the machines, and when I played with one (the Sony) I got the feeling that it was really one generation out from them nailing the execution, but if I were to buy a device exclusively for reading electronic books, I would not choose anything else.
posted by fishfucker at 7:48 AM on September 29, 2008

Best answer: Tried the 32mb file on my n800. Worked fine, text and graphics display well with the standard pdf reader. Turning a page takes just under 1 second, text size is reasonable. However I would side with other posters and suggest that you consider a dedicated reader if you sole aim is to read, rather than surf, email etc.
posted by vaxtv at 2:59 PM on September 29, 2008

Response by poster: I am considering e-ink things, the problem being their cost (less of an issue for you Americans) and their single use.

If there was an e-ink device that was regarded as decent for $AU 150 I'd get it. But at the price multi-function tablets like the n810 are looking pretty good.

Just one more question, does anyone know if a successor to the n810 is scheduled to come out soon?
posted by sien at 8:35 PM on September 29, 2008

Nokia has just begun discussing ideas for the Maemo 5 platform ("Fremantle"), which will be the successor to the current line of Internet Tablets. It looks to be a relatively significant overhaul, but it's also quite a ways off.

In poking at my N810 today, I just noticed that neither the bundled PDF software nor Evince support bookmarks. That might be a bit of a put-off for extended reading.

I also just got to see a Kindle in person today, and e-ink really is something special.
posted by SemiSophos at 3:36 PM on October 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all your advice, I've just got an n800 from ebay. It is very disappointing that the built in pdf reading only zooms at 150,100 and page width. If anyone knows a better one please post to it, otherwise I'll see what I can do.
posted by sien at 8:23 PM on October 19, 2008

Oooh, here's some video of the Plastic Logic ones that fake was mentioning. Now they're beginning to seriously look sci-fi, I wonder how much longer until they're flexible.
posted by XMLicious at 2:36 PM on October 24, 2008

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