The Apple iPad is a Surprisingly Awful PDF Reader

Apple iPad

For years I’ve been telling people that a good tablet makes for a better PDF reader for extensive use than most E Ink ereaders, but after some further testing I’ve found that I need to refine that statement because, quite frankly, the Apple iPad is a pretty terrible PDF reader.

I’m sure there’s a decent paid PDF app for the iPad if you’re willing to blindly shell out $5-$10 for it without any testing, but when it comes to free apps it’s downright pathetic how pitiful the iPad is for PDFs.

Usually I read PDFs on the Onyx Boox M96. It’s one of the best E Ink PDF readers along with the $800 Sony DPT-S1.

But lately I’ve been reading a couple 700-1000 page PDF manuals, and I need to be able to quickly reference things online for clarification and watch YouTube tutorials to better understand certain points, so that leaves out E Ink ereaders.

I figured the iPad Air would be the perfect solution for this. But I was wrong. Really wrong.

Since I always have E Ink ereaders on-hand, I’ve never really used the iPad for any extensive PDF use, just an occasion reference here and there.

I quickly discovered that trying to use the iPad for any kind of hardcore PDF use is a total joke.

First I tried iBooks since it’s the default PDF app on the iPad. It’s mind-blowing just how awful iBooks is for PDFs. An E Ink Kindle has more features than iBooks. Basically all it can do is search and add bookmarks. Hyperlinks only work about 10% of the time, and there’s no back button, no highlights, no notes. Half the time I try to use iBooks it just crashes and boots me out of the app. Apple should be ashamed of such a pitiful effort.

Next I tried the Kindle app since it’s the only other PDF app I had installed. At least it doesn’t crash constantly like iBooks does, but unlike Kindle ebook readers, hyperlinks don’t work and there’s no notes or highlights or dictionary. Another half-assed effort.

The Adobe PDF Reader app used to be somewhat useful before Abode ruined it with updates to make half the features require a paid subscription.

So I went hunting for other iPad PDF apps. Most are like $10, and I’m not willing to pay anywhere near that much just to read a couple PDFs, especially without getting to test the app first to see if it has what I need.

So I tried a few other free PDF apps and that didn’t go so well either. The best one I tried had support for hyperlinks, but after activating the link there’s no back button to take you back to where you were before; you have to bookmark the page before leaving in order to get back to it, and unfortunately adding bookmarks causes the app to crash every time.

At this point I’ve pretty much given up on the iPad being an effective PDF reader.

The iOS PDF app with the best reputation is probably GoodReader, which I forgot about initially because it’s way down the list when you search PDF readers on iTunes. It costs $5, which isn’t too bad, but after all the bad luck I’ve had with other iPad PDF apps I’m not going to pay for it without being able to test it first to see if it can handle a 1000 page image-heavy PDF.

Unless you want to shell out a bunch of cash for random PDF apps to see if they might work well or not, the Apple iPad makes for a surprisingly awful PDF reader. I’m going back to the Boox M96. At least it works without crashing constantly and it offers all the features you need to read and navigate PDFs. Having to use a separate computer for videos is better than dealing with all the half-assed PDF apps on the iPad.

20 Responses to “The Apple iPad is a Surprisingly Awful PDF Reader”

  1. Marvin reader on iOS is all you need. Excellent feature set.

  2. Try the Foxit Mobile PDF app… Really great app (one cavet, no tabs for multiple PDFs), very fast and stable, great rendering, nice annotations pane for review etc. Free as a base app and charges only for syncing option (and PDF printer), iCloud Drive works right out of the box… (I wish they had an app for the Mac)

    • Thanks for the suggestion. So far Foxit is working quite well, and has all the features you’d expect from a competent PDF app. A long time ago Foxit had an E Ink ebook reader called the eSlick but it was short-lived.

      • Great to hear! I just noticed that it also supports tabbed reading now. Maybe you can write something about your impressions in the future, my hope is that when Foxit gains enough traction on iOS they will finally make an app for the Mac as well (as Preview and the internal PDF engine are just terrible for Adobe ClearScan files)…

        • Yeah, I was thinking I should post a review for it because it is quite good, especially for being a free app. I’ve got no complaints so far. I’m surprised this app isn’t more popular.

  3. chinese app named “duokan”(多看) will definitely satisfy you!

  4. If you want a swiss-army knife pdf reader look at Goodreader. Ive been using it for years.

  5. Nook Touch has a great PDF reader. No complaints, especially after the ordeal of a Kobo Touch PDF reader, which should never have been released–unusable!

  6. The main reason I bought my Google Nexus 10 was for reading PDFs. It turns out that is it’s least used function. 🙂

    • Been also using Nexus 10 for 2 years now and mostly for Reading PDF texts Research journals for hours. Since lollipop update I became more in love with it. Been using MuPDF which is much faster. Adobe if I’m editing and putting highlights and Perfect Viewer w/ PDF plugin for wifi storage connections.

  7. As I have a lot of PDF docs and books, PDF readability is an issue for me. I am more concerned with simple text reading, not with looking at pictures or photos on PDFs. My experience is with Nook SimpleTouch, Kindle Fire [old], Nook Color, and Kindle 7[the newest]. The bigger the screen, the better for PDFs.

    As commenter Evelyn Bisset notes, Nook SimpleTouch is overall pretty good for PDFs, as you can change font size for most PDFs. Which you cannot do for my Kindles When you cannot change font size, such as for scanned PDFs, reading the PDF is usually better on a Nook Color or Kindle Fire. because of the bigger screen.

    I have noticed that cropping a PDF makes no difference in viewing on a Nook SimpleTouch, but it does on the 7″ screens of the Kindle Fire and the Nook Color.

    I have a scanned PDF book which is much more visible on the Nook Color than on the Kindle Fire. The Kindle 7 also does a better job than the old Kindle Fire on this book, so Amazon has improved its PDF visibility- but the Nook Color is better than the Kindle for this book. In general, Nook is better than Kindle for PDFs, though The new Kindle 7 does a better job than the old Kindle Fire. Which is a bit of apples to oranges comparison, I admit.

    I am glad to get some feedback on the Kobo.

  8. Hi, I am using PDF Expert from Readdle,
    which looks good for me, you can organize your PDF’s and it can exchange them with a lot of external locations (SMB, FTP, DropBox etc) so you’re not required to use the clunky iTunes.
    You can tap on the open book sign in the right corner und put any page on the list to jump between, it scans the whole book for notes you might have done and you can directly view the table of contents from there, which you can as well use to jump between different points.
    It allows you to annotate and mark / highlight – so that is most what I’d eventually do. Have been using PRS-T1 from Sony – but for PDF it is a pain – epub convertet PDF books do not really work for me – ok during my vacancies I carry the Sony as it’s cheaper and does not need to be charged every day, but otherwise … the Ipad works more fluent – even though the screen is more tiring.

  9. Flinty Mc Qwerty April 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    “Apple should be ashamed of such a pitiful effort.”

    Shame is a name for a dog in Apple’s eyes.

    Bravo Nathan!

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Keep up the honest reviews!

    • Now that I think about Apple has more incentive to offer less features with their apps so that people will buy other paid apps, so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising.

  10. I’m using pdf provider. Not bad…
    It’s often free and so is it today 🙂

  11. I’ve found the Foxit Reader is the best on iOS devices. I scrounged up a link here to their site:

    Give it a shot.

  12. GoodReader is the the best there is and in addition has the capacity of getting edited on the desktop using the free GoodReader USB. You can’t get anything better.

  13. Hmmm..this may be because this article is old, but iPad offers the best pdf experience out there. If you want it free, there’s Documents by Readdle or PDF Viewer Pro by PSPDFKit. But if you want something more powerful, of course you have to spend some money. If you can afford an iPad Pro, surely something as low as $10 won’t be too much. If you must, just do a little research, read some reviews, and/or read the product description to see if it’s for you. It’s not like you’ll be totally at dark in search for your pdf reader. Some powerful pdf readers with annotations and unique features like linking pages that I could suggest are LiquidText and MarginNote3. Notability and GoodNotes5 are really good for annotation. PDF Search is good for instantaneous searching across hundreds of pdfs (so is Notability IIRC). Scanner Pro by Readdle is a superb scanner that no scanner app comes close. You’ll never run out of options when it comes to pdfs in iPad. I wasn’t impressed by Foxit, but it’s decent enough to be better than all Android PDF readers. I haven’t tried GoodReader, but I don’t think I need to as I have all that I need; but I’m sure there are other good pdf readers other there and I assume GoodReader is one of them. One thing I’m sure of is that iPad is NOT an awful PDF