how do you read PDFs?

July 28, 2010 at 8:59 am | | everyday science, help me, literature, open thread, software, stupid technology

I now have a longer commute, with at least 30 minutes of quality reading time. I don’t really want to carry my laptop everyday, so I’m seeking a better way to read journal articles. I’m not going to print them out, so don’t suggest reading them on paper. :)

[poll id=”3″]

Of course, cost is a factor, but I don’t want to go for the cheapest option if I end up never using it! My guess is that the Kindle DX is the best for reading PDFs, but loses on other fronts (e.g. large, expensive, limited, only grayscale). The iPad is a versatile color reader and I can sync with programs such as Papers or Mendeley (soon for the latter), but it is very expensive. Also, the screen isn’t as nice for reading print. The iPhone is way too small to read PDFs.

Man, I need to test-drive these devices for a month!

Other options?


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  1. Is color unimportant for reading your journals? And do you just want to read journals? If yes to both, then sure, get a Kindle. Otherwise, you need the iPad (fun but overkill, IMO), a netbook (e.g., Toshiba mini notebook NB200), or a tablet PC (e.g., Lenovo ThinkPad X200).

    Comment by jordan — July 28, 2010 #

  2. dude, get an ipad. JACS articles look so good i want to read the whole darn article.

    Comment by drsmalls — July 28, 2010 #

  3. Sorry, I have to ask: why not print them out? If it’s a question of saving paper, how many printed pages worth of materials and energy go into a Kindle or iPad?

    Printed articles are compact, easy to carry, and comfortable to hold because they’re so light.

    Comment by Andre — July 28, 2010 #

  4. Andre, I told you not to suggest that. ;)

    It’s not about saving paper. I just want to be able to have access to more papers than I want to carry. I used to print them out a couple years ago when I had a long commute. I’d just end up with multiple folders full of paper. I just think I’ve trained myself to read PDFs … and I’m used to be able to read whatever paper I’m feeling like reading at any particular moment.

    Other than that, I agree that reading an article in its paper form is the easiest (simple to look at the references, easy on the eyes, easy to markup, etc.).

    Comment by sam — July 28, 2010 #

  5. I wouldn’t recommend the netbook suggestion. The small screen and unsympathetic orientation make reading pdfs on mine rather annoying. Esp. when there are figures involved.

    Comment by Kendall — July 28, 2010 #

  6. I have a Kindle and love it… for reading books. My .pdfs are difficult to read on the Kindle because the text size needs to be increased and there is no color. PITA if you ask me. Then again, I have been known to read .pdfs on my Palm in the bathroom… what? It’s handy!

    A quick search tells me there are more options out there now. The Pandigital Novel, full color, seems awesome and can handle .pdfs ( The Gemei also looks cool but is apparently only available in China right now:

    Comment by Katie — July 28, 2010 #

  7. I have a Kindle and ipod touch and love them both, but agree with Katie. The Kindle is great for linear, novel-like books but not so much for reference (except for the search option). The tables are often formatted funny and sidebars can be inserted into strange places.

    Comment by Jason Buell — July 28, 2010 #

  8. I have a kindle and iPad (had the kindle for awhile before the ipad came out, and it was a gift … Don’t make me justify myself…), and I love the kindle for reading books because of the glare free screen, but without color and with the small screen it doesn’t work for me for reading papers. PDFs are what sold me on the ipad though – they really look fantastic. My laptop was a thinkpad convertible tablet and I wanted it to work for reading but it was just too clunky for me and I always ended up printing them out. I haven’t printed anything since I got the ipad though. I use drop box right now to get access to my mendeley stuff, can’t wait til they come out with an app.

    Comment by Mary — July 28, 2010 #

  9. The Kindle DX works well for this *if you have good eyesight*. I use mine for reading PDFs of journal articles.

    The screen is as large as and has better resolution than an iPad, and is much larger than most of the other options you list. However, it’s still a bit smaller than the page size that PDFs were intended for, so it would be hard to read if you had poor eyesight. The pan & zoom functionality works fine for blowing up figures, but it would probably be too clunky to make reading entire articles convenient if your vision wasn’t good.

    Comment by MRW — July 29, 2010 #

  10. I’ve been reading papers on my iPad and I really like it. I agree that I end up reading more of each paper. I like how I can have almost my entire Papers database on there with folders etc. I like browsing through papers. I look at the figures in some, and I read the abstract and intro of others, and I read the entire text of a few. It’s a nice way to read on a commute. I’m also planning to ditch my laptop when I go to conferences and bring the ipad instead. It will project Keynote presentations.

    Comment by LSC — July 29, 2010 #

  11. LSC, what do you mean “almost” your entire Papers database? how many GB of PDFs do you have!?! :)

    Comment by sam — July 29, 2010 #

  12. I have experienced a painful choice between available handheld ways to view PDF, exactly as you are facing now.

    First, e-ink products. I have investigate the e-ink products available on the market. The display ability of e-ink products is only acceptable for viewing pure text file (i.e. *.txt). PDF files require high speed of the device’s CPU with which most handheld e-ink products don’t equiped. So scrolling the PDF files is an painful experience. Furthermore e-ink is only low-bit grayscale (8 or 16) so the colored photos in the original PDF files are always badly converted. So I excluded all e-ink products finally.

    Second, mobile PC. IPad is too big. IPod Touch is good but sending files from PC to all Apple’s products are not convenient enough (or just that I hate iTune). And they are expensive, so I excluded these.

    Third, phones. First, the phones should have a high enough resolution. When displaying a typical journal paper on a screen without the enough resolution, you have to scroll HORIZONTALLY to read EVERY LINE of the text. For this reason your choice should be confined to touch screen products. So, the second factor should be the screen’s quality. Many touch screen phones have been reported easily malfunctioning. The third factor is the phone’s operating system: Android Symbian, Windows Mobile, etc.

    Finally, I bought a Nokia 5530 XpressMusic. It have high enough resolution so that I can read the whole line of text without horizontal scrolling. It’s touch screen is rigor under very frequently pushing and scratching operation. And it’s cheap: Nokia 5530 has the lowest price among products with the same or higher screen resolution. File transfer is easy too — mini-SD card.

    I pay $15 to bought Adobe Reader for mobile phone. I have tried many other free PDF viewers and finally only Adobe Reader have the fastest and best rendering.

    I am very satisfied by my solution for handheld PDF viewing. And I’m sure this is the only best solution currently. I use my phone to read eBook. Now I have time to read the bible of rheology: Dynamics of Polymeric Liquid (2 Volumes) when I’m on trip or in the toilet.

    Comment by Andrew Sun — July 30, 2010 #

  13. I am considering the kindle or iPad devices for the same purposes, and have some additional questions.
    How is the note-taking for either? Can you mark/select text and add some scribbles? Does that work for you? Is it possible to search through your notes across papers afterwards?
    And what about reading outside (garden/beach/swimmingpool :-) ). The kindle is probably more suitable for that without the backlight/reflection, but is the iPad acceptable?

    Comment by Feebs — August 1, 2010 #

  14. I have a Sony e-reader, which can natively render pdf and is easy on the eyes, but the slow speed, small screen, and complete lack of note-taking is a downside. I recently acquired an iPad, installed Papers, and it’s been very very nice!

    Comment by Doug Natelson — August 1, 2010 #

  15. Hey there! I was wondering the same thing… I would like to buy a Kindle, but I’m not sure if journal articles would look good, may be there is a way to convert it. Also, right now I would wait until the new Kindle is released, may be it works better with the pdf support…

    Comment by Maria — August 1, 2010 #

  16. Maria – PDFs look very good on the larger (and more expensive) Kindle DX. I doubt that they’d be very easily readable on the regular Kindle.

    Feebs – Note taking (in PDFs) is nonexistant on the Kindle DX.

    Comment by MRW — August 2, 2010 #

  17. Does any kindle user tried to read papers not in the pdf form but in the html ‘full-text’ form? It’s better or worst?

    Comment by 96well — August 5, 2010 #

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