Looking for a flat thingy to read my PDFs on
May 26, 2019 2:48 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a big[gish] e-reader for just my PDFs. The Kindle app on my phone works great for my ebook needs but I'm still printing out my PDFs to read as I hate reading PDFs on my laptop. I need to read a lot of PDFs for the project I'm starting and I'm looking for something...flat to read on I guess?

I need it to have a biggish screen but no extra features. I don't really need a tablet, I prefer to use it for reading only. My dream device would be an eReader with a large screen (close to A4 size) that I could upload my PDFs to via USB. I'd be delighted if it allowed highlighting passages as well. Does a thing like that exist? Is buying a tablet my only option? I looked up a few and tablets that size are super HEAVY. Any ideas from the hive mind? Any solution I'm overlooking? What do you guys read your PDFs on, on the go?
posted by M. to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Not a direct answer to your question but whatever you end up using, consider running your files through a PDF trimmer (e.g. briss). That lets you crop out the margins, and if needed split the actual pages, to get a less-cramped view on the screen.
posted by trig at 3:33 AM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

My iPad mini works great to read PDFs on, but the Kindle Fire 8 is the same size for much cheaper if you just want a PDF reader rather than a tiny computer.
posted by Tamanna at 4:24 AM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sony digital paper is exactly what you’re looking for. Pricey, though.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 4:25 AM on May 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I read PDFs on iPad just fine. Walmart has them for $249 this weekend.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:20 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

A refurb iPad Mini might be a good affordable choice. There are tons on Amazon.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:24 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

What sort of PDFs? If something academic or needing decent reflow capabilites, I'd strongly recommend KOreader as I believe it's far superior to something native like an iPad PDF Reader.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:33 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you could find a refurb Kindle DX, that might be a good PDF reader - but they're long in the tooth at this point and they're kinda overpriced on secondary markets (eBay) as far as I can tell.

Unfortunately an A4-sized screen is hard to come by in eReaders. The Amazon Fire HD 10 is probably the cheapest tablet closest to the screen size you want, and weighs 17.7 oz (500g). That's actually a bit lighter than the DX was, as a dedicated eReader with eInk screen only.

The 10.5" iPad is a tiny bit lighter, but much more expensive. It's also going to be less adaptable for simply uploading PDFs via USB. The Kindle tablets (at least older generations) do let me just connect to a computer and upload media.

I read PDFs on an iPad. The nice thing about the iPad, though it's more expensive and clunkier for copying media over, is that with the Apple Pencil and an app like Notability is that you can highlight, take notes on top of PDFs, etc. I've used that for work when marking up presentations and other docs, and it's a very pleasant (if pricey) experience.

Sorry there's not a better option - I've looked quite a bit, but if one exists, I've missed it as well.
posted by jzb at 5:56 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

As far as uploading PDFs by USB goes, a Surface Pro tablet will do that. It's basically a full-fledged Windows 10 PC in tablet form. There are standard USB ports, as well as keyboard cover options.
posted by xedrik at 6:23 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the suggestions so far!
I'm trying to think outside the box.

I looked up the koreader link but the website does not seem to have a download link. Or rather, the download link takes you to what looks like a list of specs with no obvious way to get the program to download. Any tips on how to do that?
posted by M. at 6:38 AM on May 26, 2019

We do a lot of carrying around tablets in our theater for scripts (easier than turning pages) and all the actors who go electronic rather than paper scripts (so those are PDFs, mostly) like the Kindle Fire. I think it's a bit lighter and easier to see than an iPad.
posted by xingcat at 6:51 AM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

The koreader looks like it requires typing commands into the terminal in either linux or macOS. If that's something you're not comfortable doing I would suggest the other options listed here. I'm a big linux fan but this may not be the easiest way to start learning the linux command line.
posted by mundo at 6:56 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can email your pdfs to your kindle app. I've only read them on the actual kindle, not the app, but it would be easy to try it and see how it works for you. Here are instructions

But I usually read pdfs on my basic kindle, which is small, lightweight and was under $100.
posted by bunderful at 7:12 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another recommendation for a large Kindle; they're relatively weak as far as tablets go but are easy to use, are designed as document readers, and they're comparatively cheap versus, say, a Galaxy Tab of similar size (which are also great tablets, but probably overpowered for what you're doing).
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:32 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Since you said you want to think out of the box and that an ereader (I'm assuming you mean one that uses e-ink) would be ideal, I'd recommend asking this question over at mobilereads. There are a bunch of less well-known ereaders of all different sizes, some of which run Android and therefore android apps. I don't actually know that that would be a great solution for you, since e-ink does refresh more slowly and I didn't really enjoy the experience of reading PDFs on a Kindle DX for that reason. But things might have improved a little in the years since, and in any case the mobilereads people will have suggestions about both devices and apps. (Also, their reader community is large enough that you might be lucky and be able to get someone to show you their device in person. Which would be helpful since mileages may vary on any recommendation.)

One final suggestion when picking a device is to look not just at screen size but at screen width. Lots of PDF reading apps give you the option of just scrolling down continuously rather than paging, so the length of the page doesn't have to affect the reading experience. In that case width is more of a limiting factor, so a wider screen will let you read PDFs without shrinking them as much. (This is also why cropping PDFs to remove their margins can help you get away with smaller/narrower screens.)
posted by trig at 7:33 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Kindle DX is a little too small. I CAN read pdfs on mine, but you have to crop them first, which is fine for a book, but a real PITA for a 5-page article.
posted by 8603 at 7:43 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

If they are text-based PDFs, a basic Kindle is a good option. You can email the PDFs to yourself (to your kindle email address with the subject line "convert") and get the Kindle system to convert it to a native Kindle document, which then allows you to highlight stuff and make bookmarks. It's significantly less effective for documents that have images or tables and graphs.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:01 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm reading medical articles that contain a lot of tables and figures. Converting pdfs used to be a pain back when I used the 3rd gen Kindle Keyboard. It looks like the pricey Sony Digital Paper might be my best option. Over 200 bucks for import taxes notwithstanding.
posted by M. at 8:10 AM on May 26, 2019

I personally don't have experience with the Fire tablets but there's a new Fire 7 Tablet coming out on June 6 for $49.
posted by mundo at 8:13 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a Sony Digital Paper. It's pricey, but mine was a hand-me-down. It's very light, and the size is great for larger PDFs if you don't want to fool around with cropping. My only qualm is that if you're traveling with it, you might want to invest in some sort of sturdier sleeve/case than what it comes with, because it feels really thin and possibly fragile; the person who handed it down to me gave it to me because they didn't like the fragile feel of it, and they were using other solutions for their e-reading.

Also, unlike tablets, the battery goes a while? I literally am booting mine up after over six months of leaving it idle without recharging it and it has plenty of battery left. The touch screen is nice, although a tad slow in the way that e-ink usually is. And loading it up with PDFs from my computer using the USB cable was pretty straightforward.
posted by yhlee at 8:24 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm watching this with interest, because I've had the same question for a while.

The last time I had to make a decision on what to do, I realized that you can buy a ton (okay, maybe not literally a ton, but pretty close) of printer paper and toner for the price of a good A4 or Letter size e-ink reader. It's difficult to justify the cost.

So rather than get a reader, I worked on building a paper-based workflow for my last research/writing effort, where I put electronic copies of everything into Zotero, printed them for review and highlighting, and then as I was reading and highlighting, I'd occasionally snap pictures with my phone of key pages (esp. if I took notes or a lot of highlights that I knew I'd want to reference) using the Dropbox app, and then put the resulting scans into Zotero along with the original paper for safekeeping. (There's no official Zotero mobile app, which is sort of a missed opportunity IMO, although some of my colleagues use PaperShip. I tried it and it didn't work for me, but if you really want to read/annotate PDFs on the device, it's something to look at.)

This worked pretty well and it complemented the workflow for books, which is the same less marking them up, but also involves taking lots of cameraphone-scans.

Anyway, just a thought to consider.

The device that got closest to what I wanted was the really big iPad (13" iPad Pro) and it's basically two midrange laptops' worth of money. I just couldn't figure out a way to justify it when paper and binders are so cheap. /shrug YMMV.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:38 AM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm still stuck in the browsing stage of this, too, so can't speak from experience, but I understand the need to have good reading devices. A slightly cheaper and smaller version of the Sony Digital Paper is the Onyx Boox, which comes in 10.3" versions and 13.3" versions at prices £100 and £200 lower than the respective 10" and 13" Sony versions. It looks like you're in the EU, so I've linked you to the UK Amazon site, which at least means that VAT's already paid on the listed prices.
posted by ambrosen at 9:16 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

As a data point, I hate trying to read PDFs on my regular Kindles (including Paperwhite and Keyboard but not Kindle Fire) because I can't make out what's going on in images, and the zooming-in capabilities are severely limited. In addition, sometimes the Kindle seems to choke on a large PDF and I end up unable to read it, something that's never happened with other formats.
posted by chromium at 9:53 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest the Sony Digital Reader. A few months ago I saw someone using the large one on a train doing just what you mentioned, reviewing medical/scientific literature.
posted by sol at 10:27 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Lots of interesting suggestions on such a device - my only comment is that if you’re seeking something like A4 size, the iPad mini is not for you. (I have an iPad mini and I love it - but not for reading).

My only real suggestion is that instead of loading papers via USB, you look into some kind of “personal cloud” system where you load all of your content onto a server, and then access that content via WiFi/internet. Advantages: all of your content goes in one place, and it’s all available to you (no more “drat I meant to load that paper onto my reader!”), and you can access content via a PC or other device that’s handy (no more “drat I left my reader device at home!”).

I’ve got a system like this for audio / video and I’m currently investigating extending it for ebooks. So I don’t currently have a specific suggestion for you, but it’s looking like the calibre ebook software might provide options for doing this. Note that some reader devices may or may not support this function.

Good luck!
posted by doctor tough love at 12:17 PM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love my Sony A4 e-ink reader. It costs as much as a laptop and the software is a bit buggy, but it lasts for 3 months on a charge and looks great. For reading & marking up standard page-sized PDFs, it's fantastic.

They've changed the name a few times and can't seem to decide whether they actually want a to sell it to consumers, but it was called the DPT-S1 when I bought it. It looks like there are used ones for sale.
posted by eotvos at 12:25 PM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a Kindle DX, a Sony DPT-RP1 and also a couple of larger Android e-ink ereaders (the 7 inch Onyx Nova Pro and the 10.3 inch Likebook Mimas). I strongly prefer the Androids. Here’s how it breaks down for me:

SONY DPT-RP1 PROS: It’s exactly the right size and the PDFs look PERFECT — perfect size, perfect clarity. As mentioned above, the battery lasts a long time and the booting is super fast.

SONY DPT CONS: You can only get PDFs on and off the device with the assistance of a PC or with a buggy mobile smartphone app. Once they’re on the device, you can’t “star” them or move them from folder to folder — that can only be done by syncing with a computer. It has no light whatsoever, which can be disadvantageous at night. And the writing part is inexplicably bad — the stylus needs to be charged separately, and the experience of moving the stylus across the screen feels a little like dragging an Exacto knife across a rock. It’s the most expensive option — and you’ll also need to get this big, fragile thing a fairly expensive case. (Additionally, I’d say to avoid the smaller, cheaper Sony DPT-CP1 — without the ability to render PDFs at full size, Sony loses its advantage altogether)

ANDROID E-INK PROS: They write better and are infinitely more versatile than the Sony. All of them have styluses that don’t require charging and in which the writing experience is good enough that you forget you’re writing on a device. (I use them for all kinds of note taking.) All of them allow you to get PDFs on and off via USB, PC WiFi transfer, or through internet means like Dropbox/Google Drive/Pubmed/email. All of them have fairly sophisticated PDF software which allows for different kinds of reading (i.e. column by column, pinch/zoom, landscape) as well as searching for words and navigating via the table of contents. They’re nice to write on as notepads and nice to read books on (using Kindle, Scribd, Pocket or side loaded books from Calibre). They do permit using Android apps and browsing the internet, but the experience is very limited by the fact that it’s e-ink and running Android 6.0, so it’s more “emergency internet” than “whoa I just got distracted for 30 minutes after looking something up internet.” I think you can buy them in Europe without the import tax you’re talking about on the Sony, but I’m not sure.

ANDROID E-INK CONS: Unlike the Sony, they are not big enough to render a full PDF at full size. And while the software makes PDF reading very good, it’s not as simple and perfect as the Sony’s fast-booting full-screen effect. The battery life is a lot worse than the Sony’s — if you use it a lot you’ll be charging it every day or two. They come without Google Play installed, I think because it’s not allowed in China (?), so you have to jump through a few hoops to set them up. They come from smaller, littler-known companies (although honestly I had to deal with Sony on a warranty once and they were pretty terrible themselves).

tl;dr — if you only care about reading the PDF beautifully at full size, or strongly want the device to not access the internet at all, then the Sony DPT-RP1 is the clear winner. if you care about price, screen lighting, ease of getting information on and off the device, or the experience of annotating and writing, the Onyx and Likebooks are better. If I were buying a single device for PDF reading today, I’d get the 10.3 Onyx Note Pro.

If you have any specific questions feel free to drop me a line.
posted by hungrytiger at 4:39 PM on May 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I followed the link above to Sony because I'm curious about what's available for mobile pdf/epub reading myself. I can't say I was thrilled seeing a 3.2 (out of 5) star average rating in the reviews on the manufacturer's own site. That, to me, is worrying. The product sure looks appealing, but be sure to read the reviews there if you are seriously considering getting one of these!

SONY Digital paper reviews
posted by tenderly at 2:12 AM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

This question inspired me to look around a little, and the following doesn't necessarily help the OP but it's pretty amazing and I thought I'd put it here for anyone else it might be helpful to:

k2pdfopt does a crazy thing where it takes a PDF, turns each page into an image, cuts up the image such that each word is a block, and then builds a new page of a specified size where it reflows all those block to fit in the page. That lets you read a PDF comfortably even on a tiny screen, and (to me this is the most useful part) lets you reflow even PDFs that are just pure un-OCRed scans. I haven't tried it on a wide variety of PDFs yet and can't say how well it deals with diagrams and images (though it's supposed to handle them), but what I did try worked well. It's probably not a process worth going through for every document, but for longer articles or scanned books it seems amazing.
posted by trig at 4:08 AM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Android ereaders do a similar thing to k2pdfopt, only they call it “reflow” and it only works like half the time. The rest of the time you need to use a different method (like going into landscape mode, cropping the margins, reading one column at a time, or pinch/zoom).

Also, I forgot to say, if the light and internet of the iPad doesn’t bother you, the iOS app LiquidText is one of the most sublime PDF reading apps ever. It allows you to pull out citations and create a whole separate note document with just the drag of a finger.

And finally, I forgot to say there actually is a 13.3 inch Android e-ink tablet which will render PDFs at full-size without the limitations of a Sony, the Onyx Boox Max 2 Pro.. The one I saw was HUGE — like, torso sized — and skinny/fragile looking — but obviously great for PDFs and, like the Sony, is capable of doing a split screen thing in landscape mode so you can look at / annotate two documents at once.
posted by hungrytiger at 4:26 AM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wow, you guys have been really helpful.

Reading your advice and all the supplemental info helped me figure out what I really needed versus what I thought I needed.

I like the simplicity and delicate design of e-ink readers but the slower reaction times could become annoying when switching back and forth between several documents which is something I need to be able to do. I have read the reviews/ forum you guys linked to, and they were helpful.

So after all, I think I am going to go with an Android tablet - the choice of which is probably going to be my next question.

I am grateful for how in-depth all your responses have been. I would have probably made a completely different choice had I not asked this question - thank you!
posted by M. at 8:12 AM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Unless you're super attached to Android or ideologically opposed to Apple/iOS, I'd seriously consider an iPad over an Android tablet for PDF consumption. The Android tablet market has been largely dormant for a few years, with only Samsung/Huawei making devices with decent performance (which still don't perform competitively with similarly-priced iPads) and Google relatively quiet in terms of updates/support for the ecosystem. I have a feeling that Google's long-term Android tablet play is a shift towards ChromeOS (which continues to be awkward to use in tablet mode for the time being).

Additionally, the majority of Android tablets are marketed towards video consumption, featuring 16:9 screens and modest-to-potato CPUs, since video decoding is accelerated via dedicated GPU hardware these days. Unfortunately, that makes them less suited towards PDF rendering and web browsing; 16:9 is an awkward aspect ratio for using in portrait mode and the CPUs are a little too under-powered to deliver a responsive user experience when doing the types of tasks required to render PDFs.

Every current iPad model currently enjoys a commanding performance lead over similarly priced Android tablets; I think if you look at this list of benchmarks for devices that I've handled for work and sort by score, you can see what I'm talking about. The CPU in the Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e, a $400 mid-tier 2019 model Android tablet, benchmarks roughly equivalent to the iPad Air 2 from 2014. The current Samsung flagship tablet, the Galaxy Tab S4, sells for ~$500 and benchmarks roughly equivalent to the current base-model 6th gen iPad, which is often available new for $250. There are currently no Android tablets on the market with performance comparable to the higher-end iPads that utilize the A12(X) CPUs.
posted by strangecargo at 7:02 PM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks strangecargo. You are probably right about the iPad. I kinda have mixed feelings about Apple products in general - I find them annoying to use after years spent using Windows / Android devices. Like, where is the stupid exit button? I get that they are popular for a reason but if I have to use it daily I would like it to spark joy if you know what I mean.
Hope other people reading this heed your advice though 😊
posted by M. at 11:01 AM on May 28, 2019

@mundo - nope, no Linux or command line needed. Installing KOreader is as simple as copying some files over.

The install page on the wiki explains it all and o can't emphasize enough how much better your PDF experience will be using it over an iPad.
posted by turkeyphant at 7:53 PM on May 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sorry for the confusion. I was reading the directions to compile the source code on the linked GitHub page.

Looking at the wiki, it appears KOreader is easier to install on the Koboreader. For kindle ereaders it seems like a lengthy jailbreak process is required.
posted by mundo at 8:44 PM on May 29, 2019

« Older Help solve a family argument   |   Are the health benefits of curcumin supplements... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments