PDF Showdown: Ranking the Best and Worst eBook Readers for PDF Reading


I frequently get asked questions about which ebook readers are best for reading PDFs, and I’ve already written about what I think are the best ereaders for PDF reading, along with a list of the best PDF Reader apps for Android, but I thought it would be fun to rank some of the more prominent ebook readers in a list of the best and worst PDF readers.

I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of PDFs. In fact I avoid them whenever possible. So feel free to disagree with this list, and provide your own thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

1. Onyx Boox – Onyx gets the top spot with the combination of PDF-friendly software features and large 9.7″ ebook readers like the Onyx M96 and Icaurs Excel (M92). Onyx’s software packs ample zooming options for PDFs, and supports folder navigation, on-screen handwritten notes, text-to-speech, text reflow, and more. And now the Boox M96 even comes with open Android 4.0 and can install apps. I still think a tablet is a better overall value and a more versatile PDF reader, but as far as E Ink ebook readers go, Onyx Boox has an edge over its competition.

2. PocketBook – Pocketbook’s software is very similar to Onyx’s from a PDF standpoint in that it offers a lot of features, and they provide a couple of additional zooming options for multi-column PDFs, but Pocketbook’s hardware is outdated. Their best option for PDFs is their large 9.7″ ebook readers, but they were released way back in 2010. The newer models have smaller screens, which are far from ideal for PDFs.

3. Sony Readers – As far as smaller mainstream ebook readers go, Sony Readers have the most amount of features to offer when it comes to PDF reading. There are plenty of zooming and cropping options, including pinch-zooming, there’s support for on-screen handwritten notes, highlights, contrast adjustment, text reflow, and more. If Sony ever came out with a large-screen ebook reader and tuned PDF performance a little more it would probably be fairly popular with PDF aficionados.

4. Kindle – The Kindle Paperwhite and basic Kindle are surprisingly not horrible when it comes to reading PDFs. The small screen size is the biggest limiting factor, and Amazon stopped making the 9.7″ Kindle DX, although you can still get one. The smaller Kindles at least have a fair amount of features for PDFs compared to ereaders further down on this list, including notes and highlights, dictionary support, translations, Wikipedia look-up, there’s a handy contrast darkening feature, and a fair amount of zooming options.

5. Kobo eReaders – All of Kobo’s ebook readers have a disappointing amount of PDF features, making them among the worst PDF readers on the market. There’s no notes, highlights, dictionary look-up, no reflow, no pinch-zooming, and few zooming settings. You can runs searches and use the table of contents to navigate. There’s a zoom dial and some fit to width and height presets, along with landscape mode, but nothing advanced.

6. Nook – The Nook Touch and GlowLight Nook are the worst PDF readers out of the box. There aren’t any zooming options, no highlights, notes, dictionary, or landscape mode. The only PDF features the Nooks offer is reflow, table of contents, bookmarks, and search. However, Nooks can be hacked to install Android PDF apps, which improves functionality quite a bit, but not enough to jump above Sony in the #3 spot as far as 6-inch readers are concerned.

38 Responses to “PDF Showdown: Ranking the Best and Worst eBook Readers for PDF Reading”

  1. what do you think about Jetbook color 2? how do you rank it if you would compare it with those products in the article?

    • I’ve never used any of JetBook’s products and probably never will. I have zero respect for that company. They misrepresent their products, saying they support formats that they do not, and they use screenshots of the JetBook Color with bright colors that are completely inaccurate of the actual screen quality. I’ve heard nothing but bad things about the JetBook Color 1 and 2, like the software is slow and buggy and incomplete, and color E Ink has very low resolution and the screen background is much grayer and darker than regular E Ink. Perhaps someone who has one will chime in with regards to PDF performance.

  2. I make extensive use of PDF’s as File Print to PDF and that saves LOTS of paper, I wish my kindle software (and DX) made it easy to use PDF’s.
    I love the Amazon kindle software for purchased books, find Calibre VERY difficult to use.

  3. Using a prs-950, only put clear scanned pdfs on it, reading with landscape mode, that will keep the original format and the letters are slightly bigger than on real books. You can only see 1/3 of one page at a time, But it is the closest one can get.

    Hopefully, Sony will bring back 7′ model, plus hd and front-lit then make it at par with what kobo charges for aura.

    Sony do it before the summer arrives!

  4. The Onyx Boox M92 is without a doubt the best PDF eReader on the market. You can buy them from a Onyx dealer based in Georgia (USA) on eBay for around $380. It is a little pricey for an eReader, but the firmware is truly amazing.

  5. I’m a big .pdf fan and have both the Onyx M92 and i62HD. Both readers are amazing in what they do for .pdf. Both e-readers are the only ones that have the capability to merge annotations (highlighting, notes and handwriting) into the .pdf file so it can be read on any .pdf reader. I don’t believe tablets can do this yet and keep the annotations in separate files outside of the .pdf file.

    I also can appreciate Nathan’s comments about using tablets to read .pdfs. The higher resolution screens are amazing, but fall short when you try to read them outside.

  6. Indeed , the Onyx Boox M97 is much better for academic reading (PDF) then my older PB 903. totally free zooming and (margin cuts for odd/even pages, important for some science PDF-Books – it is a special pdf-patch from booxtor from ereader-store.de as well a new multitasking-feature to work e.g. with two opened pdf’s and scribble.app to draw Mind Maps to the pdf-chapters you working on.) There is a new function called Paper-Mode for multi-column reading, in combination with free zooming there is no limit for pdf multi-column-reading.

    • additional, very important for some mathematic-pdf to embolden glyph-feature in Onyx Boox M92 – Level 1 enhances the contrast very strong, which i use a lot.
      In the new PDF-Reader ther is a new contextual-sensitive Toolbar in the statusbar accessable and visual within the PDF – hence you don’t need to go everytime to the menu and notice-section to change the tool from handwriting to text-marking.
      With the Toolsection in the statusbar you got chooseable small icons for e.g. handwriting-, textmarking-icons, the corresponing eraser function etc. i love it, very handy and useful!!! much better than the sony-style Notice-Mode in the 9,7 ” Pocketbook Pro Modells.
      The advantage of Pocketbook Pro-Modells is the Bluetooth-support to enable a Bluetooth-Keyboard to write textual-Notice’s to some highlightet text. it works fine with the english-keyboard-layout – i have to admit.

      • liyu, boston May 2, 2013 at 9:22 am

        sounds M92 had a firmware update since Nathan reviewed?
        Do you have highlight option instead of underline on M92? And can you pop up the dictionary in a pdf file? Is there a text reflow for pdfs?
        These questions I cannot find answer in Nathan’s video.

  7. M92
    -pdf-text highlighting (yes like text-marker pen’s ) underline (with handwriting)
    -pop up dictionary in pdf (yes)
    -pdf reflow (yes)

  8. I think orion viewer is the best for android devices, specially for Nook SPT. because you can read story and scientific ebooks without any problem.

  9. Anyone who has anything to say about the new Bookeen Cybook Odyssey 2013 (http://www.bookeen.com/en/cybook-odyssey-2013-edition) in comparison to the Onyx M92S when speaking of .pdf reading?

    I’m mostly reading scientifical texts at my university (studying engineering) and it would be nice not to carry all those heavy books around everyday.


    • I haven’t heard good things about Cybook’s PDF support but then again I’ve never had my hands on one to confirm. Perhaps someone who has one will chime in.

  10. I use KVP PDF viewer (http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=157047) on my Kindle Keyboard and it is superb – much much better than the PDF viewer supplied by Amazon. In fact, I convert _all_ my e-books to kindle-formatted high quality PDFs and enjoy near-paper-book typographical quality of the result (I use TeX-based process to generate PDFs out of e-books). KPV has every feature I need – from full-screen mode (no margins, no status bars, etc) to reflow (to reformat, say, mutlicolumn PDFs on the fly).

    Now I am waiting eagerly for the latest KPV to be ported to Kobo Aura HD. A few developers are working on Kobo Touch version and I heard Aura HD has similar hardware. Once it is available, I am going to by Aura HD immediately.

  11. A PDF software that i found and totally love is at http://www.foxitsoftware.com/products/ifilter/, it’s seriously the best software out there!

  12. I don’t quite understand why the Nook is below the Kobo, considering that it at least has reflow and search, etc. The Kobo notably has none of it and can’t be hacked as easily to get a better pdf reader either.

    • The main reason I stuck the Nook below the Kobo is because of the fact that there are no zooming options whatsoever on the Nook, which makes it pretty much worthless for anything but text-based PDFs. Reflow does have its benefits at times, but the Kobo’s zoom dial and landscape mode make it more useful for more types of PDFs. The Nook is much better once hacked though, like you mention, especially when using partial refresh. The Kobo does have search as well.

  13. Hi Nathan.

    Nice site. Very informative.
    I am an author with seven completed books.
    I want to go it alone with the surge of ebook reading. Not Amazon, Nook, Kobo etc.
    Would you, in your profound knowledge of ereaders, be able to suggest or advise on the best format to use for customers to download to their ereaders, phones or tablets from my authors website.



    • You need to make just two files types available then anyone can download your ebooks to read on any ereader. Mobi for Kindle users and ePub for most everything else.

  14. Nathan

    Enormously grateful.
    Your advice is worth a million.

    The reason I want to go it alone is because I tried the Amazon Borrow Club, be part of the $600,000 fund, get reviews etc.
    It was laughable. As you probably know the author has the chance to promote their book five times in the 90 days you are obliged to Amazon. (Cannot sell through anything else).
    It was a great idea – the object to get reviews so an author can understand other people’s point of view of one’s writing, and observe criticism.
    By the end of several months 1,500 people had downloaded the book (freebies) and waited six months to get a review.
    Had one!
    And of course the fund $600,000.
    Not one person borrowed!
    Great promotion for Amazon to say they have a million free books, but the author, sadly.
    It made the point in my mind that freebie sites such as Amazon do not make the distinction between a writer of book(s) the plural being the distinction, and those that write a one-off they have been thinking about, working on for years, etc.

    Your view and comment would be appreciated.


  15. I am looking desperately and so far fruitlessly for an alternative reader for hundreds of pdf docs. on a mini SD. My latest Sony TR2 is hopeless for many of them and scrambles all of the pages and information making them impossible to read and extremely time wasting.

  16. has the review actually tested any of the devices?

    It’s a known fact that the paperwhite “crashes” with a “low memory” message box when trying intensive operations such as zooming in.

    • If you use the search box you’ll find reviews for all of these devices, with PDF-specific reviews and videos. The Paperwhite isn’t great; that’s why it’s 4th on the list. Kobo and Nooks are actually worse, IMO. Amazon’s conversion for PDFs works well for text-based PDFs, better than most re-flow options I’ve seen because there’s less odd spacing issues. Also, the low memory issue is common but it’s far from affecting all PDFs.

  17. Perfect! Thank you.

  18. Thanks for the article, majorly helpful!

    I’ll go with Onyx — I’ve been reading a lot of pdfs on my ipad or macbook air, but I’ve started getting headaches from those. So I want to switch to a different screen.

    Since your review Onyx came out with a newer model (different OS – Linux on the 92 and Android on the 96). Do you think this is going to be important if I want the thing mainly for reading (and annotating) academic texts?

    I’d actually LOVE to get the new Digital Paper by Sony – but it is really just a little bit too pricey, especially considering that it apparently is really only for documents.

  19. Jeffrey Lebowski November 11, 2014 at 3:47 am

    What do you think about the Onyx Boox Lynx? It has a smaller screen, but a higher resolution than the M96 you placed first. I’m talking about extreme conditions, like a scanned PDF. Let’s say, for example, some handwritten lesson notes or the scan of a book I own, complete with images, tables, chartes and graphs.

    • The T68 Lynx is a nice device if you can get one that’s not defective. Lots people have had problems with the device getting stuck in boot loops, myself included. For some reason it doesn’t come with the same Neo Reader app for PDFs that the M96 has, and it’s a lot better than the OnyxReader app.

  20. The question is the same. Which is the best pdf reader today in June 2015 – light,good battery life, read a4 size pdf docs

    • Not much has changed. The Onyx Boox M96 is still tops on the list. The only thing that needs to be added is the 13.3-inch Sony DPT-S1. In some respects it’s better than the M96 but it costs more than double and only supports PDF format.

  21. Hello,

    Have you had the opportunity to test the PDF Reflow feature on the Onyx Boox Afterglow 2 (or even Classic)? Does it work correctly when you zoom the pdf? Because I read mostly large format pdfs I have on my computer.

    Thank you for your reply.

    • They do have reflow but I’ve personally never found reflow to be useful because it messes up formatting too much. It might be acceptable with PDFs that are simple text with no columns, headers, or footers, but I never encounter PDFs like that so I never use reflow.

  22. Ok I understand.
    Thanks a lot for you reply.