Help me read PDFs in the palm of my hand
November 2, 2012 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Best tablet or e-reader for reading PDFs? Difficulty: must be lightweight, with a smaller screen than an iPad, and preferably less than $250.

I recently bought an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite for just reading PDFs, not books. (I prefer reading real books to those on a device, I can't help it.) However I need to read a ton of long pdf files for my job and don't want to lug my laptop or printouts around all the time. The iPad is overkill for what I need, and also too big and heavy for something I'd like to just carry around with me all day in a jacket pocket.

I liked the lightweight nature and the non-reflective surface of the Paperwhite as well as its long battery life, but the PDFs' text ended up being just too small on a 6 inch screen for me-- I really want to be able to see the entire page at once without having to squint. The only way to adjust it was to zoom in on the top half, zoom out, scroll down to the second half and zoom back in again. Plus every time I turned a page the screen would flash black for a split second, which gets old when you're reading 120 page PDFs everyday.

I'm thinking of buying an iPad mini but I'm not interested in all the other apps and features, as I already have a macbook and an iphone, and my reader would literally ONLY be for reading PDFs, so I'd prefer not to have to spend $329 and up on it.

I know there are a lot of other small tablets/readers out there by lesser known companies, but I don't know which ones are best for PDF reading and also don't have the same problems the Paperwhite does.

I don't care at all about what books they offer or 3G or any of that stuff as long as I can plug the device into my laptop and upload files directly.

Added complication: I have really sensitive eyes, so any tablets/readers that are more like the non-reflective surface of the Kindle paperwhite would be a bonus.

Thank you so much!
posted by np312 to Technology (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Nexus 7. Even more so now that the 16GB is $199.
posted by thewalrus at 2:32 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Or an Archos 80 if you find an 8" screen more appropriately sized.
posted by wierdo at 2:35 PM on November 2, 2012

Nexus 7 is the obvious answer. Find a friend that has one and try it out with a few sample PDFs?

The Kindle App is probably the best PDF reader, although the stock one is OK.

You're not going to find any e-readers in a larger size unfortuantely, which sucks for those of us who need to read PDFs.

You *might* get some mileage out of a Kobo or other e-ink reader, as some of them are able to follow the PDF text reflow hints and will display the content of the PDF in a more e-reader friendly fashion. The Kindle can't do this, which is why it makes an especially poor PDF reader.
posted by pharm at 2:37 PM on November 2, 2012

Best answer: The Kindle Fire display is 7" and it handles PDF just fine, for $160.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:44 PM on November 2, 2012

Depending on the complexity of the PDFs you read, I would first try out the Nexus with the PDFs you want to read, before buying. The low-end models are not too snappy with more complex docs that can come from (say) science journals. Based on prior experience, I would not get an Amazon Fire for that same reason.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:45 PM on November 2, 2012

If the PDFs aren't too equation or table heavy you can use calibre to convert them to a mobi file that you can then load on the kindle and read in its native format

I got used to the screen flash on page turn fairly quickly.
posted by kbuxton at 2:51 PM on November 2, 2012

There's also a way to convert a PDF to Kindle format by emailing it to with Convert as the subject. I've done that several times with good results, especially if the PDF is mainly text. Look under your Amazon account for your specific email address to do this.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:57 PM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, let me also suggest trying converting the pdf to a mobi file before buying a whole new device. I also use Calibre and it works pretty well (not for graphics, but certainly for text). Then the text will be properly sized (and you can also then adjust the size/font with the native Paperwhite tools).
posted by leesh at 3:05 PM on November 2, 2012

Best answer: This has been a problem for a lot of people with PDFs - I know that I avoid reading them on my Kobo because the constant scrolling is annoying.

If your PDFs are 8x11" like many science journals (as opposed to trade paperback sized, as with some social science and humanities journals), the only way to read them near full-size on an E-Ink (non-reflective, no backlight) page would be the large-sized Kindle DX - but that would be a larger screen than an IPad, though it is much lighter than an IPad.

The Kobo ereader will display PDFs in landscape mode, so that you can read the top half and then the bottom, which saves a bit on the zooming. But that's still much too small for letter-sized PDFs.

If I were you, I would check out a Kindle DX - it would not fit in a pocket, but it is cheaper and lighter than an IPad and my friend has had good success reading academic PDFs on it (letter sized, etc) at just a little under fullsize.
posted by jb at 3:10 PM on November 2, 2012

There just aren't many options here, although the Nexus 7 is given high marks all over the web. The Kobo e-reader and Nook Glo won't have any edge over the Paperwhite.

As a temporary fix, have you tried landscape mode? You can also use pdfscissors to crop useless margins and split double columns. Not so great for 30x4 page papers, but perfect for 1x120 pages!
posted by tintexas at 3:10 PM on November 2, 2012

My experience with putting dozens of PDFs onto a Kobo is that using Calibre on its own was a bit hit and miss. With PDFs that didn't convert easily, the best results were achieved by:
  1. Opening the PDF in Acrobat (not Reader) and doing OCR in case it's not already recognised. In Acrobat X that's Tools | Recognize Text | In This File.
  2. Export from Acrobat in RTF format. (HTML is occasionally worth trying as an alternative with a document that's heavy on tables etc.)
  3. In Calibre, convert from RTF to EPUB. For your Kindle, you'd convert to MOBI instead.
All three of those steps take some time, even on a fairly fast computer, but the result is a near-perfect ebook version of the original PDF. The only downside is that the original page numbering is lost.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:11 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry if this is obvious, but did you try changing to landscape orientation on the Paperwhite? (Does it do that?) That's what I do to read pdfs on my Kindle Keyboard, which has the same size screen. I'd still prefer it to be a little bigger, but it's way more readable than portrait, and without that whole zoom in, zoom out thing. It also helps to increase the contrast when I'm reading pdfs.

My experience with this is mainly screenplays--maybe wouldn't work as well with documents with less white space.
posted by lampoil at 3:11 PM on November 2, 2012

You can also use pdfscissors to crop useless margins and split double columns.

Huh; so there is someone else out there who's thought of that usage scenario. Lately, it seems like the first thing I do with any new computer is add "alias briss='java -jar /Users/fifthrider/briss/briss-0.0.13.jar'" to the ~/.profile file...
posted by fifthrider at 3:54 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you are ok with lcd, the fire/nook/kobo arc are all various levels of cheap tablets. But then the screen glows. If you can find an old Sony Daily 900, it had a large e-ink screen.

The mobileread forums are pretty good for this sort of information. They seem to suggest the Onyx Boox for a large e-ink reader.
posted by jeather at 3:57 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you are talking about e-ink, then PDFs are not going to work well. On any device. PDFs are all about locking down a document, and e-ink readers need documents to be flexible and flow; txt and html and epub files are those readers' best friends.

With one exception: the Kindle DX, which is a large-size e-ink reader specifically designed with PDFs in mind. With that one there's no resizing because the screen is already 8.5 x 11. You have to get one quick, though. Apparently they are being discontinued.

You have a number of options with a non-e-ink device: Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, iPad, even more. But first you have to decide how much you want e-ink.
posted by zardoz at 5:12 PM on November 2, 2012

I was also going to suggest the Kindle dx.
posted by cider at 6:21 PM on November 2, 2012

Best answer: I have a Kindle DX and use it for exactly this. The screen is about 30% smaller than an 8.5"x11" page, but it works great. Full color photos don't render very well, but text and graphs are fine.

They are pricey compared to the 6" kindles, but, to me, the larger size is worth it.
posted by gimletbiggles at 9:37 PM on November 2, 2012

Best answer: If you end up with some flavor of iPad, get a PowerSupport nonglare cover. It makes a huge difference in the amount of reflectivity. Maybe buy a used iPad 3, which are sure to be flooding the market? I love mine for reading PDFs.
posted by bchaplin at 4:53 AM on November 3, 2012

Best answer: I too have a Kindle DX, and use it for exactly this. You can find one used for around $225-250, depending on how patient you are. (camelcamelcamel is your friend.)

The Nexus 7 is a good second, in theory, though I haven't found the perfect PDF reader app yet.
posted by silentbicycle at 5:36 AM on November 3, 2012

I agree with the Kindle DX and also with converting your files to epub if possible. Although I've been fairly happy reading my epubbed files on my Nook Simple Touch and Nook Color (for those where I need a bigger screen). You can get a refurbed Nook Color for $99 now.
posted by BibiRose at 8:22 AM on November 3, 2012

About PDF reader apps for Android / Nexus 7s: Mantano Reader Lite is pretty good.
posted by silentbicycle at 7:21 PM on November 25, 2012

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