Tablet, phonebook or kindle for academic pdfs?
October 9, 2019 10:56 PM   Subscribe

I have 4-8 months of research work which involves reading a huge stack of PDFs, plus scanned pages. I have to go places and move around during the day and I would like a mobile option. I'm not worried about keyboards or annotating, I use a rocketbook for that. What should I get or do I just get used to hauling my laptop everywhere?

I have an old small Samsung 8.5" tablet which is hard to read a full page in tiny text on without a lot of zooming and a macbook Air that I don't want to replace for another year. I use Zotero and Google docs mostly. Cost is a concern.
posted by dorothyisunderwood to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have too many gadgets and as a result have read documents on a lot of form factors. My favorite has been a 12" convertible Chromebook with a high resolution 3:2 screen (Samsung Chromebook Pro). Even though it's larger than a book, it's the closest feel to reading on paper for me, while still being relatively portable. Second to that is a 10" 1536 x 2048 resolution tablet (if you're already happy with the Apple ecosystem, I'd go with the lower end iPads, which still have nice screens).

7" and 8" tablets weren't as easy to read on and the Kindle doesn't have the screen size or resolution to do serious technical reading on.
posted by Candleman at 12:38 AM on October 10, 2019

i got an ipad for this and it's been working great, altho i did end up getting a stylus so i can handwrite marginalia and highlight text with something other than my shaky greasy finger.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:35 AM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't have a device recommendation but are you using Zotfile with Zotero to send your papers to and from your mobile devices/tablet and extract your annotations into notes? It will also bypass attachment storage limits. It's my favourite zotero add on.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 2:47 AM on October 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

If you get a tablet, I can't recommend also getting a stylus enough - it's changed my reading life, how easy it makes highlighting.

I have an iPad Mini, and that's the minimum size I would recommend any PDF reading device be - the smaller ones do weird things when you try and adjust the display to be readable.
posted by Tamanna at 3:26 AM on October 10, 2019

iPad Pro and Notability w/iCloud or Dropbox backup and Apple Pencil, which will ruin you for any other stylus. That workflow has changed my life as a scholar.
posted by spitbull at 4:47 AM on October 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

In your position I'd be going with the cheapest no-name 10" Android tablet I could find on eBay. A 1080p screen in that size should do a fairly competent job of rendering enough text to be useful.
posted by flabdablet at 6:15 AM on October 10, 2019

Physics postdoc here; "reading stacks of academic pdfs" is my life. 12.9" iPad + Apple pencil + Notability + Dropbox (+ Zotero) is *fantastic*. Cannot recommend highly enough. (I have friends who prefer other note-taking apps, but iPad + Apple pencil seems to be the consensus.)

The extra screen real estate is a huge help; I wouldn't want to drop down to a 10". (But then, I've already been using the iPad several hours a day for a year and a half, and I expect to keep doing so for years to come.)
posted by golwengaud at 6:28 AM on October 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yes, specifically the 12.9” iPad Pro, in fact.

I’ve tried every mobile document solution available for 20 years trying to reduce paper and increase the organization and efficiency of my massive, absurdly complex document workflow (teaching and grading, administrative paperwork, research with archival documents, song lyrics and charts for my band, are the big categories). I quite literally manage an active PDF foreground archive of thousands of documents, with many more in deeper storage but available. I’ve written with every stylus on every iPad model since the very first.

The day I switched to a large iPad Pro and Apple Pencil and Notability (with cloud storage) setup, I cheered, and have never gone back (about three years ago, whenever the first big iPad Pro came out). Expensive, but it’s lasted me through six semesters of teaching, five or six dissertations, and countless archival document reviews. Many of my colleagues have come around and are using the same setup.

I carry almost no paper anymore. I lose no documents. My archive manages itself, now that it’s set up in logical ways. If you’re a professional academic, forego the next laptop and spring for a big iPad Pro. You’ll see. The Apple Pencil is like writing with a really good felt tip pen. No lag and remarkable precision and legibility. The retina screen makes reading full-sized PDFs a pleasure for hours at a time.

Worth mentioning that I hate hate hate editing with a keyboard, in MS Word. I need to use a pen-based editing system to think clearly about what I’m saying or correcting. It’s how I learned and what I know and I ain’t changing with five or so years to retirement. Sometimes I have to use word or google docs and a keyboard, and for that the iPad keyboard case is acceptable. But the Apple Pencil is actually close to inspiring to use.
posted by spitbull at 6:43 AM on October 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

To be fair I also have an iPad mini that now works with the Apple Pencil, and use that for band gigs and airplane flights and reading and editing on airplanes and at meetings. That completes the arsenal. My laptop barely gets used except for primary writing and email marathons.

Not to mention the superb camera on the iPad Pro (or the even better one on my new iPad mini) plus a scanner app is amazing for archival work.
posted by spitbull at 6:48 AM on October 10, 2019

Just a very strong anti-recommendation for Kindle (e-readers, like the Paperwhite or Oasis).

I love my Kindle Paperwhite, but it's optimized for reading things like novels or narrative nonfiction which are almost entirely text, are designed to be read from beginning to end with minimal moving around, and for which layout doesn't matter that much (i.e. you can change the text size and paragraphs can flow into the next page with little impact).

It's terrible for reading PDFs -- it's slow, the screen resolution IMO is insufficient for detailed text and image-heavy PDFs and it's just inflexible.
posted by andrewesque at 8:26 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you happen to have/get a Kindle Fire, you can side-load Moon+ reader - download it from their website, and allow installation of apps from unknown locations (aka not the Amazon store). It's my preferred document reader, and the pro (paid) version allows for annotations (I don't have that, and can't speak for its quality - free version doesn't have any obtrusive ads). For reading alone, the 8" model has been good for me.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:57 AM on October 10, 2019

Agree with andrewesque - unless you have a reflowable PDF (rare), you need the real estate of a large screen. Panning and zooming on a typical e-ink reader would be excruciating. Unless you can get your hands on an old Kindle DX - even that would be a touch small (9.7" screen).

Any decent-sized tablet should be fine.
posted by timepiece at 12:01 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Elaborating on my prior comment - the PDFs I've read are not reflowable, but are designed as single page scans, instead of two-page book format scans. Those would definitely need more screen space to read a "two up" format.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:07 PM on October 10, 2019

I looked at a lot of chrome books, tried using my smaller tablet outside, and then bit the bullet and got an ipad 12.9 because it was only a couple of hundred more than the same size for a Chromebook with the same screen, and wth. With the Logitech keyboard and crayon, I went through two textbooks and three research papers over coffee and a bus ride home, syncing smoothly with my Zotero and Dropbox, and just writing notes in Notability and highlighting merrily away. Being able to just scroll through like paper/pen on a giant clear screen makes the tiniest print so pleasant. Now I just need to get a raise and take the bus for six months.... But still worth it. Thanks!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:04 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Well, for anyone else checking this thread, The eBook Reader just did a post about the best ereaders for PDFs, updated for 2019.
posted by timepiece at 11:31 AM on October 31, 2019

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