The Best eReader for PDF Viewing

PDF

One of the most common questions I get asked is which is the best ebook reader for viewing PDF files, the Kindle, Sony, Nook, which one?

The sad truth of the matter is that no 6-inch ereader is really all that great for displaying PDF files. What it comes down to is the 6-inch screen is just too small.

Sure, the Kindle, the Sony Readers, and PocketBook ereaders all do a serviceable job with PDF files, but if you really want a hard-core PDF reader, then there’s only one option: a tablet, either the Apple iPad or any number of Android tablets will do, the bigger the screen the better.

Yes, it’s true. The iPad and Android Tablets, especially 10″ tablets like the Motorola XOOM and ASUS Transformer, are by far the best PDF ereaders currently on the market. The size of the screen, color, zoom, hyperlinks, notes, highlighting—and there are a number of quality PDF apps for both platforms.

But what if you don’t want to spend that kind of money or don’t want to have a backlit screen? What’s the best e ink ebook reader for PDF files?

Mainly do to a lack of options, the Kindle DX with its large 9.7″ screen is one of the better E Ink ebook reader for viewing PDF files. The Kindle DX does a really good job of displaying PDFs, but it lacks hyperlink support, dictionary and note-taking support, and other interacting features, which doesn’t make any sense because the Kindle 3 has all those features.

There are other large-screen E Ink ebook readers too that offer more features than the Kindle DX. PocketBook has a couple of 9.7″ models. The software grants the user a lot of options, but PocketBook is still using older Vizplex screens instead of newer Pearl screens with higher contrast.

Onyx Boox also has some 9.7″ ereaders with much more advanced software than the Kindle DX, and they even use Pearl screens. They are also sold under the brand Icarus Excel.

These are all good PDF ereaders, but they aren’t for everyone. The price of 9.7″ ereaders is as high as some really nice 10″ tablets that are much more versatile and capable. In most cases you’re better off getting a tablet instead, unless you are working with PDFs everyday and have trouble with eyestrain when using LCD displays.

As far as small ereaders go, the Kindle, Sony Readers, and PocketBook ereaders are the best for viewing PDF files, along with a rooted Nook Touch. All have various levels of zoom, landscape mode, notes, etc. The Kindle is the only one that doesn’t have reflow, but you can have Amazon convert PDFs to AZW for free and that is essentially reflow.

It’s a tough call between those because each has different positives and minuses. The Kindle doesn’t have as many features as the others do, but it is serviceable and it has a text darken feature that works fantastic for PDFs with light-colored text.

The Sony Readers have a custom zoom dial and plenty of different PDF viewing options, the touchscreen makes it easy, and they have on-screen markup.

So what it comes down to is this: if you want really, really good PDF support go with the iPad or an Android tablet. If you want something that is serviceable, something that can display PDF files decent enough now and then, but not solely for PDFs, then go with a Sony Reader, Kindle, rooted Nook, or PocketBook ereader. If you really want a large E Ink PDF reader, the best advice would be to go with the Onyx Boox M92/Icarus Excel, the Kindle DX for basic use, or the PocketBook 902/903, but they are going to cost about as much as a decent tablet.

44 Responses to “The Best eReader for PDF Viewing”

  1. You were merciful to not mention NOOK at all after the lede. While a NOOK *will* open a PDF, the usability of the current NOOK PDF handling is pretty sad. A lot of us NOOK owners are hoping that B&N will improve PDF handling in the next software update (whenever that happens).

  2. Hi there. I’ve gone through your review of the DX, especially the part about viewing PDFs as well as the related YouTube video. They were, for the most part, not finding any problems with viewing PDFs on the DX.

    However, in this blog entry, I note that you did not recommend the DX in your concluding paragraph, advising instead, to wait it out. It is *just because* it doesn’t have annotation, dictionary and other interacting features? Assuming that the DX *had* those features or somebody didn’t *need* those features, would the DX be a good choice for viewing (textbook and scientific journal) PDFs? <– Hope to get your opinion on this…

    Also, I just want to remind everyone that the iPad has a measly battery life compared to E-Ink readers; an important factor for people who need all their textbooks and journals with them for immediate reference the entire day.

  3. @Em.chan, your second paragraph nails it. I do recommend the Kindle DX. It is a good PDF reader, but I wish Amazon would give it the same PDF features as the new Kindle 3, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t. It’s probably just a matter of time.

    Currently, unless you track down some Chinese manufacturer, there aren’t any large E Ink ereaders with 9.7″ screens like the DX. But some companies are finally starting to get on-board with the larger screen ereader so we should at least be seeing a few more varieties in the next couple of months.

    Will they be better than the Kindle DX? That’s a hard call. Some probably will have better features, but the odds are they will be more expensive than the DX just because Amazon can afford to sell their devices for a lot less because they sell so many ebooks.

  4. What I would like to see is a large screen E-Ink reader with the option to scribble corrections in a text we first typed on our laptop. Then to be able to move the text with scribbles back to our laptop, still see the scribbles, and be able to correct the text. Then remove the scribbles. Either on our laptop or the e-reader.

    This would be ideal for writing. Scribbling corrections and notes in the text on a light easy to handle device like it was on a paper notepad, instead of having to do all the checking on the much heavier and bigger laptop. Let alone having to always check on a desktop pc.

  5. Someone wrote:
    “There has been talk of bluetooth keyboard support, possibly USB keyboard support. Plus there is a decent onscreen keyboard on existing models; what is needed is a note-taking app/feature–the 903 will have it.”
    http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=97686

    It would be nice to quickly make correction scribbles first and then plug in an external full sizes keyboard and type in the corrections. But no scribbles and only an usb for a keyboard would be OK too. Maybe for the 902?

  6. Hey loved your review thats FANTASTIC ! keep up with the good work, i guess i will wait for the bigger 9.7 inches.
    thanks

  7. You have not mentioned the iriver in your blogg, why not? It has all the above features and is a good options. Maybe you could review it and let us know what you find.

  8. I just got PRS-950 as my first ebook reader over the weekend and I was all excited about how well it handles PDF reflows till I tried this pdf file-

    http://yuba.stanford.edu/~casado/onix-osdi.pdf

    While the reader handles the reflow for odd numbered pages (of original document) perfectly, I find that the reflow for even number pages is broken.

    Nathan, if it is not a problem, when you get a chance, I was wondering if you can confirm if it happens on your PRS-950 to verify it is not specific to my device.

    Another bug I noticed is that if I custom zoom and lock the zoom in the 2-Column Split page mode, the 2-Column split mode gets confused when I go to the next page. It will be great if someone tries this as well.

    Sony says the product has Adobe Reader Mobile embedded in the PRS. Any idea how often generally Sony releases firmware updates?

    • PDF reflow isn’t very reliable for anything other than single column text-based PDFs. The two columns are probably giving it troubles. I don’t have the 950 anymore but the same odd-numbered page thing happens on the 350. However, 2-column mode works fine on it. Make sure you don’t have reflow on when using 2 column mode. As for updates, Sony rarely issues updates for their ereaders.

  9. Thanks for trying.

    Looks like for disabling reflow, I should keep the font size the original -
    http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=106871

    But can I use the zoom feature (and not use the increase font feature) and keep reflow disabled? i.e, will zooming also turn on reflow?

  10. OK in that case reflow *was* disabled when I tried this.

    So basically the bug is that if I have zoomed in the 2-Column Split page mode, when I go to the next page the zoom and the 2-Column mode are lost. To avoid losing the zoom, if I lock it then the 2-Column mode gets lost when I go to the next page.

    Ideally the zoom *and* the 2-Column mode should be retained when I go to the next page, right?

    • I don’t know if I follow. Zoom and 2 column can’t be activated at the same time since 2 column is zoom. But yes the 2 column zoom should stay the same when turning pages—that’s how it works with the 350 using that PDF.

  11. Oh OK. In the 950 you have two different options – first button is called zoom and second is the “page mode”. I will post a picture once I get home.

  12. I guess kewlemer never made it home…send out a search party!

  13. Sorry I did make it home, but I had just given up trying to use the PRS-950 for PDFs. Here is how zoom and 2 column mode can both be activated -
    http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/823/img3718nw.jpg/
    http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/843/img3719n.jpg/
    http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/18/img3720z.jpg/

    But like I said the settings are lost when turned to the next page..

  14. Hi, would you say that this post is still current? Or are there any new devices we should know of?

    • Funny that you would ask that because I was recently thinking about updating this post but it is pretty much still entirely valid. The only thing I would add now is that Android tablets are just as good if not better than the iPad. ezPDF Reader is a really good PDF app for Android. Now that you’ve brought it up, I’ll go ahead and update this post :).

  15. Awesome, thanks! :)

  16. Hi Nathan,

    Nice review on eReaders and PFD. Might be buying an eReader for this purpose. What’s your opion on the Onyx Boox M90? Seems to be a nice new kid on the block.

    Regards,
    Erik

  17. I am looking for the perfect “relatively cheap” e-reader to read PDF without graphs, formulas or images (I would read mainly plain text pdf, journals articles above all).

    I’ve found the following readers that should work well with PDF (and are not as expensive as the 9 inches ones):

    Kindle Touch
    Kindle 3
    Iriver Story HD
    Bebook Club
    Pocketbook Pro 602
    Sony PRS-650
    Bebook Neo / Onyx Boox 60

    Is there any other, more appropriate, reader?
    Which one would you buy if you were in my position?

    Thank you in advance!

    • I’d add the PRS-T1 to the list and remove the Story HD and BeBooks. It just comes down to preference from there. The Kindles don’t reflow natively, which is usually best for plain txt pdfs, but you can have Amazon convert them to AZW and that is essentially the same as reflow. The others offer reflow natively. A Sony would probably be the best option.

  18. Thank you very much.
    I’ll have to wait the end of the month and then it’ll be mine ;)

  19. I am doing research on the best e-reader for PDF and I am sick of seeing recommendations for tablets such as Ipad. These are backlit devices that tire your eyes out very soon. They should not be considered e-readers. I can read PDF papers off my backlit computer screen – but I almost get a nausea from reading for too long.

  20. “I am sick of seeing recommendations for tablets such as Ipad.”

    I am sick of people thinking a 6 inch device will ever be adequate for reading pdfs with complex layouts. We need a 10 inch e-ink device running android that runs an app similar to EZ-PDF.

  21. I wasn’t in any way suggesting that a 6 inch display screen is sufficient for pdf viewing. And if there is a 10 inch e-ink device of the sort you described, then that would be very good! I agree with you on that! Right now I am inclined to buy a Kindle DX.

    I was just pointing out that backlit tablets are not good e-readers!

  22. Kindle DX? Old technology for too much money. Even the soon to be released in the U.S. Pocketbook 912 would be better since it has a touch screen and apparently better zoom controls.

    I would stick with a Android tablet for now. I have a Arnova 10″ that I paid $199 for that purpose.

  23. Just the last couple of days, Amazon dropped the price of Kindle DX to $259! I am so glad I didn’t place my order earlier!

  24. Hey

    I am thinking about buying a prs-t1 or something similiar because i need to take handwritten notes in pdfs like this http://www.math.uni-frankfurt.de/~numerik/lehre/Vorlesungen/NAD_2011/Uebungen/sheet5.pdf or even longer ones; up to 200+ pages!

    Nice wishes

    JH

  25. But my point is up to a few hours or even more reading on a LCD is a little bit too much isn’t it.

    JH

  26. Hi,

    Do any of the e-ink ereaders allow for notes/highlights/scribbles on PDF’s to transfer back to a laptop and saved as a permanent part of that document outside of the ereader software?

    I hope that makes sense.

    • In order to do that the ereader would need to actually edit the PDF file. Unfortunately that’s probably not going to happen any time soon because there’s no money for companies to make off of it. Ereaders are sustained by selling ebooks.

  27. The problem is Sony and other manufacturers won’t make a big display e-ink reader because it won’t sell enough, and Amazon won’t improve the Kindle DX because they want people to buy mobi books.

  28. Hi!
    Thanks for your great reviews!
    I was wondering which is the date of the last actualization of this post. I’m looking for this exact information but as market evolves so quick, dates are crucial.
    Greetings…

    • The last time I updated this post was probably about 6 months ago. I just re-read it and everything still applies. The only thing is Amazon has stopped making the Kindle DX, so it’s mostly only available used now.

  29. Hi folks,
    Ive been hearing about the ONYX Boox M92 being the best PDF reader around now. Any comments on this one or on any other new ones?

  30. Actually there’s something quite wrong with the post!

    Don’t ever choose a 10 inch screen to read PDF – ever !! I know because I’ve made that mistake!

    proportions are not right and a A4 PDF page cannot be confortably read on the screen due to resizing !

    • If you can’t manage with a 10-inch Retina tablet then I’m afraid there’s no help for you in the ereader and tablet world whatsoever, because that’s as good as it gets currently.

      • I think there is a clue to Sam’s problem in his comment. He says “proportions are not right”. We would need to know from Sam, but it would be a good guess that the 10″ tablet he is using is a 16:9 aspect ratio. Effectively reducing (significantly) the size for viewing an A4 (4.25:3) pdf. Or if it stretches to display full screen, it will be significantly distorted. This is a significant problem for most andriod tablets as PDF reading devices. I bet Nathan is correct provided the device with the Retina display is an iPAD (4:3 aspect ratio). If a user wants to attempt to read PDFs as graphics on a tablet, they should look for one with approximately the same aspect ratio as most paper sizes … 4:3.

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