When looking for an e-book reader to read PDF documents, whether it be scientific / academic articles, scanned books, or anything else, it’s important to understand that not all e-book readers have the same PDF-reading capabilities. Some come with a minimal PDF reader, while others are really good at PDF reading.
Given this, which is currently the best e-book reader for those wanting to read PDF? Below we will look at the different criteria to consider when researching the best possible e-reader, before comparing how the most popular e-readers handle PDF files. We’ll finish up with the best models currently available on the market.
A few words about screen size:
Not all e-book readers have the same screen size. While most have 6-inch screens, some are bigger, reaching 8, 10 or even 13.3 inches.
While a 6-inch e-reader is convenient for reading epub or mobi formatted files, something bigger is generally preferred for reading PDF files. Some software, like Koreader, offers the option to reflow documents. This feature makes it possible to adapt the text to the size of the screen. Despite this feature, it is still usually better, for reading purposes, to keep the document “as is”, to be better-able to read the footnotes and enjoy the design of the original page. However, cutting the edges of the PDF document or reading it in “landscape” mode, makes reading PDFs possible on a 6-inch e-book reader; for most documents (i.e. pdf’s with images or graphics, non-fiction, or full page A4 documents without margins) a bigger format will always be more comfortable.
Then the question arises: Which type of pdf? Knowing this will allow the user to determine whether a big screen format is necessary or not. A follow-up question would then be: Why pdf? For example, if you simply want to keep the original pagination in order to take more-precise notes, you could read a book in epub on your eReader and then refer back to the corresponding PDF on a computer to find the right page number…
We are first going to focus on readers for the general public and their ability (or not!) to read PDF documents, we will then review e-book readers available with bigger screens, some of which are dedicated to PDF reading.
6 to 10 inch: eReaders for the general public and PDF reading
Most readers are well-manufactured and they all use e-ink technology. This is more comfortable for the eyes than reading on a computer screen or a tablet, and more power-efficient: these devices all have an autonomy of several days, or even weeks. Current e-book readers use an e-ink Carta screen, this is the last generation of e-ink screens. The contrast is very good and it works really well with PDF documents. Most eReaders currently available have enough horse power (CPU, RAM…) to open PDF documents.
That being said, an eReader’s internal software is where it differs the most, most-notably on their PDF reader: the software used to render PDF documents appears to be more important than the performance of an e-book reader’s processor or even the size of its screen! The most powerful electronic reading device will be unable to give you a good PDF reading experience without the right piece of software…
Kobo e-ink readers and PDF reading
With its great 8-inch Carta screen, the new Kobo Forma seems born to dethrone the concurrence in this area of pdf reading; however, honestly, the Kobo PDF reader is not a good choice. Any alterations made to correct the document, for example, reducing the image, is lost with each turn of the page, which becomes quickly tiring. It’s possible to install the KOReader alternative-reader, adapted for PDF, but on Kobos, it’s necessary to first launch the KOReader and then use it to navigate your PDF. A user can’t simply launch the PDF directly within KOReader browsing the files from nickel, which is Kobo’s operating system. It’s a shame, because the Kobo Forma, as well as the Kobo H2o v.2, are really good readers in all other respects! Still, we can get used to this, but we need to be willing to tweak the reader a bit: If you’re looking for an easy solution for reading PDFs, then it’s not Kobo you should turn to. For those users willing to get their hands a little dirty to install a good PDF reader, the Kobo Forma offers good value for your money.
Slightly less expensive, the Kobo H2o v.2 is interesting: It’s endowed with a 6.8-inch screen, which is bigger than the 6-inch screen reader and makes reading small PDFs (i.e. pocket formats, for example) comfortable. It also features a good grip and is very easy to transport. On the other hand, the 6.8-inch format is too limiting for big documents, except when reading in landscape mode. With its 8-inch screen, the Kobo Forma is more versatile, despite not being the perfect eReader for PDF files.
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What about Pocketbook eReaders?
The PocketBook 740/TEA Inkpad 3 is a better alternative. It also features a big Carta 7.8-inch screen with a default PDF-reading software that is much nicer to use. It’s even possible to install an alternative reader directly onto its interface, which allows for choosing which software will open a specific format, as with a computer.
This type of software behavior is better, as it really is more practical if you plan to read books in different formats (PDF, epub, mobi…). In terms of screen quality, the Inkpad 2 wasn’t as good as the e-ink Carta screen on the Kobo Aura One, but the PocketBook Inkpad 3 makes the leap and, with the latest generation e-ink Carta screen, it can be a good compromise for the user who is looking for a decent PDF reader at the best value for money. It has an adaptive back-light that limits the blue light and is quite homogeneous, and it’s possible to setup profiles so that the lightning changes automatically during the day. Available for around 200 euros on Amazon, it is the reader currently offering the best value for the money.
Its little sister, the PocketBook Touch HD is a 6-inch reader. It has a slightly-smaller screen but is almost as versatile as an Inkpad 3. This is interesting for anyone who’s looking for either a more compact model or who cannot afford the Inkpad 3.
That being said, the 7.8-inch screen, while perfect for many documents, is limited for A4 documents, though reading them in “landscape” mode is possible. For users who want to read documents in larger formats, a reader with a screen size of at least 10 inches is more adequate. The PocketBook Inkpad X, while not widely distributed and more expensive thank the Inkpad 3 is very interesting in this aspect: with a good quality 10 inch screen and the ability to read PDF files easily, it’s a pretty nice reader to read PDF documents of any size.
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Kindles: Paperwhite 3 or Oasis for PDF documents…
The Kindle’s default PDF reader is not bad; in fact, it’s one of the best. Often on sale for €89, the Kindle Paperwhite, or its big sister, the Kindle Oasis, can be very good choices, as can be seen in our tests. The only decive to come with an adaptative backlight, a feature which adjusts the luminosity towards yellow for more comfort at night is the Oasis 3. The price difference is worth it for those who want to read in the dark. Users are also more or less “locked” in the Amazon universe, unlike with the readers from most other brands, which allow for the easy opening of all or nearly-all formats.
That being said, this is not a real problem. The free software suite Calibre, available on calibre-ebook.com, can quickly convert most files to .mobi or .pub and send them to the eReader with a click.
Additionally, it is possible to “jailbreak” a Kindle device, to be able to install other applications. Similar to what can natively be done with PocketBook readers, users can then launch KOReader directly from the Kindle interface, which can also take reading statistics into account. This requires a willingness to tweak the reader and the need for some technical competences. In addition, if the jailbreak procedure is unsuccessful, it can invalidate the device’s warranty: it is better to have at least a general understanding of what you are doing so as to avoid any mistake. However, for those looking for a cheap option, this should be considered, as once jailbroken, a Kindle PaperWhite will be able to read most PDFs quite well with koreader, despite its 6-inch screen, for an unbeatable value for the money. The “landscape” mode can be used for wide documents, but it isn’t ideal. An interesting model for those looking to lower even more the cost of their purchase is a more basic Kindle Touch, which shares most of the qualities of the Paperwhite: the refurbished version is often on sale on Amazon for around €50. If you are interested in jailbreaking your Kindle, you can check out an updated how-to on MobileRead Wiki. I wish you good luck!
Without any software modification, the Kindle is a really decent device for reading PDFs. With its big screen, the Kindle Oasis rivals the Inkpad 3. But in this price range, the PocketBook Inkpad 3 appears preferable due to its larger screen, its ability to open all types of documents and, most-importantly, the ease with which it is possible to install alternative applications, like KOReader. It should also be taken into consideration that jailbreaking a Kindle is complicated if your e-reader comes with a recent firmware. Once again, the perfect choice depends on what the user is looking for and how much the user is willing to spend.
Amazon’s customer support has a good reputation, thereby making the purchase of a Kindle a good investment in the long term, which can be reassuring. As the Kindles are more reactive and better for reading awz3 books than PocketBook readers, it can be a great choice if you are ready to use the PDF reader it comes with and to convert your books in ePub into azw3 for an optimal reading experience, if you are ready to jailbreak your device so that it fits your needs perfectly, or if you want to be able to buy books on Amazon directly from your device.
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Onyx Boox: Great value for the money, but… with Android 6.
Onyx Boox ereaders are interesting because they come with a stylus and the ability to write on PDF documents, like you could do on a physical book. They run Android, and it’s possible to install several apps. However, most ereaders don’t come with adaptative backlight. The Boox Note Pro (Carta screen, 10.3 inch) and the Boox Nova Pro (7.8 inch) both come with a great backlight and are very well built.
It’s possible to install the apps of most ebook sellers (Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc) and to read books bought there easily, as well as side loaded ebooks in any format.
PDF reading is very easy, the native reader is pretty nice, the CPU is fast enough so that even big files can be read with no trouble. With a 10.3 screen, like the one of the Boox Note Pro, it’s possible to comfortably read any kind of PDF files, even those of dubious quality, like scanned books from the public domain downloaded from archive.org.
The stylus is interesting to take notes on the document itself, notes that can then be saved and exported. This is very different that what can be done with most other eReaders. It’s nice, but is it really needed, given how easy it is to highlight a few sentences using one’s fingers with eReaders that don’t come with the ability to use a stylus?
There’s a drawback with most Boox eReader, that has to be taken into account before deciding to buy one: most units run Android 6. Boyue is supposed to update its Android 6 readers to Android 8, but Boox didn’t say so. Without security updates, how will age those eReaders? Wouldn’t it be better to consider an ereader running a custom linux based firmware for which we have the guarantee of future updates?
These eReaders are interesting as offer a decent value for the money, even though it is possible to consider that an Android eReader makes sense for higher end devices: for an 8 inch e-ink reader, the PocketBook Inkpad 3 works well and costs less than a Boox Nova Pro, and we know for sure that the manufacturer will keep the device updated for years to come… That being said, Onyx also produces higher end devices, like the 13.3 inch Onyx Boox Max 3 (running Android 9!): we will give our opinion on this one below.
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Boyue / LikeBook: eReader made in China.
All (or at least most) eReaders are made in China. But most of them are conceived elsewhere. That’s not the case for Boyue / LikeBook eink readers: these are conceived in China, as well as build there. That’s not a problem: in the audiophile community, many people admit that the chinese produce really high quality gear at a fraction of the cost of western brands. Wouldn’t it be possible to face in the eReader market the same situation as what happened in the Hi-Fi market?
Boyue LikeBook eink readers share a lot of similarity with Onyx Boox eReaders, but they use a slightly less powerful CPU: RK3268 when Onyx uses an RK3388, 30% more powerful. Software wise, most models use Android 6 as well, with plans to upgrade everything to Android 8.
A LikeBook Mars is cheaper than the equivalent Boox Nova Pro and have similar performances (without the possibility to use a stylus), but it feels slower than the Onyx. Both can be great devices if the goal is to read PDF documents, and the LikeBook Mars can be found at a really good price.
With a 10.3 inch screen, the LikeBook Alita is an interesting alternative. It should be able to run Android 8 in a matter of weeks, which would make it viable on the long run. This matters for those who plan to use their eReader to go on the Internet: a device stuck on Android 6, with no security upgrades, doesn’t seem like the best option to browse the web!
However, it is currently possible to say that as far as software is concerned, Onyx Boox eReaders feel better than Boyue’s products. Backlight tuning is easier and more precise. With a website only in chinese, what customer support can we expect? It might be safer to focus on more known brands currently, even though those eReader can offer a great value for the money, as they offer really nice hardware. The Boyue / LikeBook Alita for example appear to be a great eReader for who is on a budget and want to focus on PDF reading.
Big screen: Sony DPT-RP1 vs. Onyx Boox Max 3 vs. reMarkable
At an upgraded range and price, users can find the Sony DPT-RP1, the Onyx Boox Max 3 and the reMarkable. Compared to the Sony DPT-RP1, the reMarkable has a grayer screen background, but it supports ePub natively, while the Sony is limited to the PDF format. With a screen of more than 13 inches and a 1650 x 2200-pixel resolution, the Sony appears to be the Rolls Royce of PDF readers!
These three document readers are not actual readers but true “digital notebooks”. They were designed for taking notes and users can write on them with a stiletto. They may seem a bit pricey for simple PDF readers, but it is the going rate for decent, well-conceived readers, endowed with large screens and the note-taking ability. While the Sony DPT-RP1 (amazon – ebay) exudes quality, being lightweight and made from high-grade materials, for copyright reason, Sony forces the user to connect its reader to an Ethernet port when transferring a file and it can’t read many formats. Its internal software is rather limited, maybe too much, given its price. The reMarkable could appear more interesting, but if it is more of a sketchbook than a reader: isn’t there a viable alternative?
The Onyx Boox Max 3 (Amazon – Ebay) comes with a Carta 13.3 screen, runs Android 9, is well- manufactured and versatile. It is possible to install many apps to read any filetype. It can be used to answer emails, or to open two documents side by side, and even to use it as a secondary screen, connected to a computer (laptop of desktop) using HDMI. If the Sony DPT-RP1 is a great unit for who is willing to read only PDFs, the Onyx Boox Max 3 is a good choice for who want to be able to open PDF documents as well as ePub eBooks, web pages, Microsoft Office or Libre Office documents…
With readers in this range, a 13-inch screen and the ability to take notes, users are not necessarily reading for pleasure, instead, these eReaders are more like work tools for those frequently handling certain texts, and who might want to write on their PDFs. In this case, a high-range reader is the best choice for reading PDF format: the written-on PDF could then be transferred to a computer or loaned, making it a good work tool for writers, academics and students, even though an 8 inch device can be enough to read books in PDF format.
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Conclusion: Which eReader is the best for reading PDFs?
We can’t make this decision for you; however, in our opinion the middle-range PocketBook Inkpad 3 currently offers the best value for the money. Available on Amazon, its screen is of good quality, and it features an adaptive back-light and allows users to read PDFs easily. If needed, it’s really easy to install alternative software (like Koreader) for even better comfort and performance. For those users not focused on PDFs, but rather on integration with the Amazon library, a Kindle Oasis can be a viable alternative to the Inkpad 3.
For those with the budget for an higher-end device, and who plan to read only PDFs, the Sony DPT-RP1 is an ereader to consider. Less versatile than an Inkpad 3, it offers a bigger screen and was conceived around the PDF format. For more versatility, we recommend the Onyx Boox Max 2, a versatile, high-range alternative, endowed with a 13-inch screen and the ability to take notes, or the 10.3 inch Boox Note Pro.
Conversely, for those users on a small budget, a Kindle Paperwhite refurbished can be the right choice. Priced at less than €100, its default PDF reader is highly-capable. For those not needing the backlight, a “basic” Kindle can be great. With both readers, the 6-inch screen may force users to consider occasionally moving to “landscape” mode to read documents where the pages are bigger than those of novels. The Kobo Aura H2O2 (H20 edition 2) also provides a good value for the money, even though a larger screen would be more comfortable for reading non-fiction (philosophy, technical books…).
The best choice depends on each users’ budget, as well as what they wish to do with the reader: do they want to read only PDFs, or mostly ePub and occasionally PDF? Do they want to be able to write on the files they read? It is from the answers to these questions that it will be possible to determine the model the most adapted to each person…
If you found the perfect e-book reader for your use case or have any question regarding an eReader or PDF reading with an eink device, feel free to write a comment below!
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