Is there a better way to read .pdf's?
January 22, 2006 5:45 PM   Subscribe

What software do you use to read academic papers online?

I'm an Engineering student and I often find myself reading academic papers online in .pdf form. They tend to be very information-dense, with small type and small figures, and are often difficult to understand until I've gone through them two or three times. I find I always prefer printing them out, since that way I can easily flip between pages to look at an earlier figure, for example, or to re-read a section. But printing is not always possible or convenient.

I wonder if there is any software out there specifically designed to make this easier - i.e. quickly flipping between pages, showing two pages at once side by side. I can't quite identify what specifically frustrates me about reading .pdf's on my computer and I don't know what I would do to fix it; what I'm hoping is that someone out there has thought about it.

PS I'm on a mac.
posted by PercussivePaul to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I alternate between pdf and dvi. For most things, I find the viewer xdvi nicer, but it's more of a pain if your file has external figures, and doesn't enable you to search for a word. When I'm impatient and only likely to look at the file once, I use xpdf.

For the two pages side by side, the obvious answer is to run two instances of your pdf viewer. Particularly on one of those wide Mac screens.
posted by Aknaton at 5:52 PM on January 22, 2006


two instances of pdf viewer - I tried that once a while ago and it doesn't work. Preview just brings the window with the already open document to the front. I just tried it with Acrobat Reader and it does the same. Is there another tool I could try it with? or do you know of a way to tell these tools to open two instances?
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:07 PM on January 22, 2006


I actually tend to print papers because it's just nicer to have a copy later, I can mark it up, give it to people, etc. You said you do this, but I can't honestly say there's a better software method to do it like that.
posted by kcm at 6:27 PM on January 22, 2006


I prefer paper, like you — but on a computer, I use Preview and just toggle the magnification and scrolling. If I need to display multiple pages, I just copy the document (Option + Drag) and open both, one scrolled to Page X and the other scrolled to Page Y.
posted by cribcage at 6:27 PM on January 22, 2006


You've got to print them out. The ineffable difference you're describing is just due to the fact that it's harder to read a lot of dense text on a computer screen than it is on paper.
posted by Hildago at 7:49 PM on January 22, 2006


Ooh, you have to check out a program called Tofu, seeing as how you're on a mac. It displays text (from pdfs) in collumn format, like a newspaper. It's easier on the eyes and makes reading things on the screen less painful.
posted by rossination at 8:22 PM on January 22, 2006


Tofu doesn't seem well suited to my particular problem (journal papers are already in columns... plus often scanned as images, so there's no text to reformat), but thanks for the tip anyway, rossination.

Hidalgo, you starting me thinking: if it is harder to read text on a screen than it is on paper (and I would agree that it is), then why has the basic .pdf reading interface barely changed in the past decade? This sounds like a problem that should be (and probably is I would guess) an active area of research for human-computer interactions people. I would think there is a better way than what's currently available and there is certainly market demand.

For example: how about selective zoom, like the OS X dock, so I can read small text without losing my place on the page or within the document. or take the iPhoto interface and apply it to pdf documents (where you get FAST zooming from one item to many). And give me mouse gestures so I can zoom and switch pages without moving and clicking. Or better yet, if I get a tablet PC (which I might one day - they look very handy), let me do pen gestures for document navigation, and make annotations and marks in the usual way.

what's missing is a fast easy way to read text and navigate the document. you can't really do both at the same time. Tofu is encouraging because that indicates to me that there are people working on this problem. maybe in a few years we'll have enough graphics power to do the things I'm thinking of.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:26 PM on January 22, 2006


I agree with the "you have to print it out" crowd. But if you insist on reading online, I would consider taking the pdf and emailing it to yourself at a gmail address.

When your email arrives click "view as html". I find this formatting much easier to read onscreen and as I recall, it will include the figures. The huge advantage is that it's one long document that you can scroll up and down, not a bunch of "pages".

There may be another way to get google to let you view it as pdf, but I don't know of it, particularly if the URL from which you're getting the paper requires a password or university IP, it might be hard.
posted by duck at 9:53 PM on January 22, 2006


I tend to print things out.

The reason why it's harder to read on screen, as I understand it, is twofold: lower resolution, and lower contrast. The crisp letters and sharp contrast on paper is what does it, not any particular formatting of the text. So my gut feeling is that, until we get decent epaper displays, paper will always be better for reading. The real issue, I think, is not navigation and size of the text - we read much smaller text in newspapers and books all the time - it's contrast and resolution.

On the selective zoom thing, the TexShop PDF viewer (don't know what they use, offhand) does that. If you click, it makes a little magnification box around your cursor. Sorta neat, but requires too much interaction to be useful for reading.

Other random links that are vaguelly on topic. The Archy application being developed at the Raskin Center has some novel interaction techniques. It just works for text right now, and isn't very useful on the mac for some hardware reasons, but if you're interested in novel interaction techniques, they've got some cool ones.

Also, Malcom Gladwell of Blink and Tipping Point fame wrote an article for the New Yorker in 2002 titled The Secret Life of Paper. While not strictly about the problem you describe, it tries to explain why paper has (and likely will always have) a special place in our society.
posted by heresiarch at 9:58 PM on January 22, 2006


As a grad student in chemistry with a boss who really really emphasizes reading the literature, I have to read quite a few papers weekly--and I always print them out. I have to present these papers, and there's no way I could read them for sufficient understanding to communicate main points & figures without writing all over the paper. I underline, circle, draw arrows and asterisks, highlight in different colors, etc.--all things I can't do on my laptop (also a Mac).

When I want to go through a pdf article on my laptop without printing it out (to see if it's worth printing, for example), I make lots of use of apple-plus and applie-minus to increase font size. I also use the "fit page" and "fit width" buttons in the Acrobat toolbar a lot. But you're right, it can be annoying to read this way. Which, like was noted above, is why I print things out for the most part.
posted by rio at 10:14 PM on January 22, 2006


I use a tablet pc. This allows me to draw, underline, highlight and write all over the actual article text, and keep it all in one place. It works really well. Although there is one intermediate step - since acrobat reader is not ink-aware, I have to "print" the papers to the windows journal virtual print driver, which then presents whatever you printed out as an inkable surface. It also has a nice feature of providing a tabbed interface at the bottom of the page, with each tab corresponding to a page in the document. That lets you flip around pages really, really quick, but it loses usefulness for documents longer than a dozen pages or so.

Another nice thing about using the tablet for reading things on screen is that you can hold it vertically, corresponding more natively with the common paper orientation. My 12.something inch screen is perfect for fitting a full page of text on screen.

So - I doubt it helps your current situation, but if you were considering purchasing a tablet pc (and running windows on it), maybe this feedback will help you make a decision.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 11:17 PM on January 22, 2006


PDF files in acrobat are so much easier to read if you hit the full screen button on the bottom left. This doesnt work if you have a pdf opened through a internet browser.
posted by stratastar at 2:15 AM on January 23, 2006


quickly flipping between pages, showing two pages at once side by side

You can do this in Apple's Preview. Open a PDF. Go to View in the menu. Choose PDF Display, then choose Facing Pages. You'll probably want to check the option for "Open drawer only for table of contents" in Preferences.

As far as flipping between pages, Apple-right arrow and Apple-left arrow do the trick.

I'd also recommend playing with Preview's slideshow option. Depending upon your screen size, it might be the perfect way to view PDFs full-screen.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:29 AM on January 23, 2006


Or if you can wait, the Sony librié e-book reader is just a few months away.
posted by labnol at 7:34 AM on January 23, 2006


For articles published fairly recently, most journals give you the option of .pdf or .html. The html form allows you to click on references (this is where tabbed browsing is nice), and you can click on figures and display them as full screen. The text is continuous and you can drag or scroll wheel between sections without the jerkiness of separate pages. Some of the problem with a .pdf is that you can't see the whole vertical span of the page, so when you get to the bottom of a column you have to scroll back up to the top of the page to continue reading. The single column, continuous format of the html version solves this. I do end up printing a lot of articles, but use a two sided printer to save on paper.
posted by 445supermag at 7:51 AM on January 23, 2006


I'd tried 'facing pages' before but it was kind of awkward - it was a pain trying to get things to fit properly and I would always end up doing manual scrolling. However I'd never tried a slideshow with facing pages. It's (just) big enough that I can read two pages side by side, and flip between them quickly with the arrow keys. That's tremendously helpful.

Thank you everyone, but especially Mo Nickels for the slideshow suggestion, and heresiarch for that interesting article.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:12 AM on January 23, 2006


Or if you can wait, the Sony librié e-book reader is just a few months away.

It's beautiful! How much is it going to cost? And will they then come out with a normal sized 8.5x11 version? How much longer before they make a version where you can marginal notes? I love it!
posted by duck at 8:12 AM on January 23, 2006


It is not flawless, but I read a great deal of my papers either on my PC or my Pocket PC using Repligo. The program requires conversion into its own rgo format from pdf, Word, html, or whatever you are using.

The advantages: highlighting and annotation.

The disadvantages: on rare occasion the conversion doesn't come out perfect

- a doctoral candidate in political science

One More Thing: I'm looking forward to the new version of OneNote. It is said to handle pdf files much better, allowing for search, annotation, highlighting...
posted by gbanidoo at 9:57 PM on January 24, 2006


It is not flawless, but I read a great deal of my papers either on my PC or my Pocket PC using Repligo. The program requires conversion into its own rgo format from pdf, Word, html, or whatever you are using.

The advantages: highlighting and annotation.

The disadvantages: on rare occasion the conversion doesn't come out perfect

- a doctoral candidate in political science

One More Thing: I'm looking forward to the new version of OneNote. It is said to handle pdf files much better, allowing for search, annotation, highlighting...
posted by gbanidoo at 9:59 PM on January 24, 2006


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