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, taking into consideration the better “e-Ink tablets” allowing to read a PDF, but also to annotate it with a stylus, and to take written notes.
Note: article also available in spanish.
A few words about screen size:
Not all e-book readers and e-Ink tablets 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; but 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 (Amazon – Ebay) 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 (Amazon – Ebay) 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.
What about Pocketbook eReaders?
The PocketBook 740/TEA Inkpad 3 (Amazon – Ebay) 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 (Amazon – Ebay) 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.
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 (Amazon – Ebay), or its big sister, the Kindle Oasis (Amazon – Ebay), 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 (Amazon – Ebay ] 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.
E-Ink tablets – Read and annotate PDFs, take notes…
If some ereaders can be nice PDF readers – like the 10 inch PocketBook Inkpad X or the 8 inch Kobo Forma with Koreader – some devices come with a stylus and are more versatile. They make it possible to read PDFs, but also to annotate those, or to take notes, and in some cases to install apps and to do various things, just like on a tablet, but with an e-Ink screen. These are more expensive than e-readers, and are overkill for those looking for an e-reader to read ePubs and occasionally PDFs but they can be interesting if your goal is to work on PDF files, or if you also want to use your device to take notes, using a stylus. These devices can be seen as a digital notepad, and could totally replace paper for some use case. They vary a lot: some are running minimalist Linux based OSes, while others are running Android. Some come from small companies and are using custom-made code on simple hardware, while other rely heavily on Android an have the horsepower of high end tablets…
Onyx Boox: Android e-reader with good value for money.
The Onyx Boox devices run on Android (sometimes Android 6, but the latest models come with Android 9, and the next ones will run on Android 10), so you can install a lot of different applications, which makes them very good all-purpose e-readers. However, not all current models have backlighting yet, which is an interesting option for reading at night. The Boox Note 2 (10.3-inch Mobius e-reader – available on eBay and Amazon) and its little brother the 7.8-inch Onyx Boox Nova 2 both have an adaptive lighting and are of good quality.
It should be noted that these Android e-readers make it possible to use the PlayStore: it is thus possible to install most Android applications, and in particular the applications from most ebook sellers (Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc.) and thus to read the books purchased from them. The PDF support is really good with the default reading application. Moreover, a 10.3-inch screen like the one of the Boox Note 2 and Boox Note Air, is big enough to read most books, once the margins are cropped out, which makes it nice devices to read public domain scanned books from archive.org, for example.
These e-Ink tablets come with a stylus, a game changer compared to most eInk devices on the e-reader market: it is possible to annotate your PDFs and to then export the notes. That said, finger highlighting works very well with e-readers without a stylus; if the goal is only to mark certain passages, there is no need for a stylus. But if you want to write and use specific annotations like you’d be able to on a physical book, the stylus makes that possible.
One problem to take into account though: the older e-readers of this brand are provided with Android 6. Will Boox provide updates for all its devices, while adding very regularly new devices to the market? It seems unsure as their older devices from few years ago didn’t receive any updates for years. How will an e-reader age on an older version of Android? What about security updates if the device is used to send emails or browse the Internet? In the long run, in the absence of updates you won’t be able to rely too much on the play store, which is not necessarily a problem, as long as the e-reader is stable and the basic applications are of good quality, as is the case here, but this might have some security consequences. Hence the interest of favoring models under Android 9 (such as the Boox Note 2 or the 13.3 inch Boox Max 3) or Android 10 (Boox Note Air and Boox Max Lumi) compared to older models whose update is not certain. That being said, even with the latest device from Boox, you cannot be sure that the device will be upgrades in several years. This makes more minimalist devices (which we will mention below) attracting, despite of their limited feature set.
Onyx Boox e-Ink tablets come with very powerful hardware and are very well built. They offer a good value for the money, but in my opinion an Android e-reader is interesting on the higher end of the spectrum: in 7.8 inch, the PocketBook Inkpad 3 works quite well for 100 euros less than a Boox Nova 2, and with the certainty of being able to benefit from updates on the long term. An Android e-reader with a stylus allows nevertheless some uses unimaginable on a more minimalist e-reader… For those who would be tempted by a powerful e-reader, running a modern Android but would like to limit the investment as much as possible, it may be interesting to have a look at the Boox Poke 2, the last born of the manufacturer, in 6 inches.
The Boox Note Lumi (in 13.3 inches) – already available on Amazon – and 10 inch Boox Note Air have just been released and bring some improvements over the Boox Max 3 and Boox Note 2, including adaptive lighting, an improved two side-by-side application operation and an Android 10 base allowing to run and install the latest PlayStore applications.
Boyue / LikeBook: eReader made in China.
All (or most) e-readers are made in China. But unlike most e-readers, Boyue / LikeBook e-readers are also design in China. This is not a problem in itself, in the audio world for example, the Chinese have shown that they can produce high quality Hi-Fi equipment at an unbeatable price. Couldn’t we find the same situation in the world of electronic ink e-readers?
Boyue LikeBook e-readers are similar in hardware to older Onyx Boox e-readers. On the software side, we’re on an Android 6 base. That said, how does LikeBook devices compare to Boox ones?
The LikeBook Ares is cheaper than a Boox Nova Pro and offers similar performance, but the interface is slower: the Boox Nova Pro is more pleasant to use. However, both can be very well suited if the goal is to read PDFs and the LikeBook Ares is unbeatable in price! In 10.3 inches, the LikeBook Alita is a device to consider as it’s versatile and can be found at a really fair price. Moreover, it should be updated in the long run (will it really be? That remains to be seen!). Indeed, for now, a black spot with many of these cheap Android-based e-readers, in addition to the higher power consumption of an Android e-reader compared to a device using a Linux core-based firmware (and therefore less battery life) is their use of Android 6, an outdated version, which is not ideal from a security point of view, especially for those who want to use their e-reader to go on the Internet!
Anyway, at the moment we can say that at the software level, Boox e-readers are more pleasant to use than Boyue LikeBook e-readers; the backlighting management is also finer and easier.
10.3 inches e-Ink tablets: Sony DPT-CP1 vs reMarkable (1&2) vs Boox Note Air
Sony now offers a professional 10.3-inch PDF-oriented e-reader, the DPT-CP1 (Amazon link). The e-reader is of very good quality, well-finished and suitable for reading PDF, even if it is not as easy to put a document on it as on a conventional e-reader. The ability to annotate PDFs is a plus, the stylus is quite precise, and the annotations are added as annotations: it is possible to see them as such once the document is exported to your computer, and thus to move or modify these annotations afterwards. However, it is difficult to get it in Europe. The reMarkable is well finished, and more open (you can easily add documents to it, and modify your e-reader), it is a powerful device to read PDFs, and annotate them. On the other hand, there is no support for bookmarks and there are some limitations to take into account that we detail in our article about the reMarkable 2.
The PDF annotation experience is very comfortable and allows you to keep your habits related to paper annotations, but exporting annotations saves them as another image layer on the PDF, leaving no possibility to easily extract them afterwards. Both devices are nevertheless more like digital notebooks than e-readers, and on the pure digital notebook aspect, the reMarkable does much better. On PDF reading, the Sony is a bit better and, being Android-based, it is possible (but it’s not easy) for those who want to install complementary applications on it.
The reMarkable is more open by default: you can easily access it as root and make (minor) changes to adapt it to your work habits. Note that, if Sony requires a specific application by default connected to the network, it is possible to do without it thanks to a small open source software. Both devices are well finished, since reMarkable regularly updates its software, it is not impossible that its PDF e-reader will be improved in the coming months. It is nevertheless easy to add some features to it by installing “hacks” that can be found on GitHub. An interest of the reMarkable is its price: if it was initially sold at 600 euros, it can be found at less than 300 euros on eBay if you decide to order the gen 1, which probably makes it the best 10-inch quality/price ratio. Equipped with a Mobius screen, it should also be very durable, and since the modifications made on generation 2 are only minor, the purchase of a second-hand reMarkable 1 may prove to be a very wise choice.
The Boox Note AIr and Boox Note 3 are interesting contenders in the 10 inch category: running Android 10 they can run most apps of the playstore and deserve more the name “tablet” than the reMarkable as they can run anything. They do come with some drawbacks: Onyx Boox adds a lot of devices to the market, and seem to forget its older devices and to be having a hard time respecting the GPL and publishing the source code that would be needed for the community to take care of updates in the long run. That being said, their devices are well designed and the software works really nicely, even though the writing feeling isn’t on par with what reMarkable offers.
A4 e-readers (13.3 inches): Sony DPT-RP1 vs Onyx Boox Max 3 and Boox Max Lumi
If we go up in size (and in price) we find the Sony DPT-RP1, the Onyx Boox Max 3 and the Boox Max Lumi. The Boox Max 3 (just like the Boox Max Lumi, similar but with a quality adaptive lighting) can open any kind of documents; the Sony DPT-RP1 is limited to PDF format, which is a shame for a machine of this price! With a screen of more than 13 inches, one can in both cases read A4 documents in native format. Both document e-readers are designed for note-taking: you can write with a stylus. They are not e-readers but real “digital ink tablets”! Their price, which may seem high for simple PDF e-readers, seems to be the price to be paid at the moment for fine and well-designed e-readers, with a very wide screen that allows reading A4 without cutting the margins or having to shrink the text, and with the possibility to take notes, as on text.
If the Sony DPT-RP1 (amazon – ebay) exudes quality, being lightweight and made from high-grade materials you can’t connect it to a computer like a USB key nor paste any PDF file: for rights reasons, file transfer to the device is complicated, even if it can be simplified, as explained above. Moreover, its internal software is quite limited and it is not produced anymore, so it is hard to find, except on eBay. For the price, we could hope for more features, or if not, an opening allowing to easily add them!
Both the Onyx Boox Max 3 and its more recent version the Boox Max Lumi (Amazon) have a 13.3-inch eInk screen and run on Android 9 (Max 3) or Android 10 (Max Lumi) are well built and versatile. You can install any type of application to read as many files as possible. It is also possible to use it to answer your e-mails, for example, or to open two documents side by side; or even to use it as a secondary screen connected in hdmi. If the Sony DPT-RP1 is the high-end A4 e-reader for those who want to read only PDF, in terms of versatility, the Onyx Boox Max 3 (Amazon – eBay) or its upgraded version the Boox Max Lumi (Amazon) are a very good choice for those who are looking for a high-end eInk tablet with a large screen, able to open PDF documents as well as ePub eBooks, web pages, Microsoft Office or Libre Office documents…
With the devices of this range, equipped with a 13-inch screen and the ability to take notes, we leave the category of literature-oriented e-readers, and move towards work tools for those who assiduously frequent certain texts and wish to be able to annotate them. The PDF document thus modified could be transferred or lent to a computer, for example, making it a good working tool for teacher-researchers, doctoral students or engineers, wishing to read and write on A4 documents in full format …
Conclusion: Which eReader is the best for reading PDFs?
We can’t make this decision for you; however, if you are in the EU and have the ability to grab one at the fair price, 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 who can’t grab one, or those would would like the 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. Another high end option is the more versatile Onyx Boox Max 3 (available on Amazon) running on Android 9.0 and the ability to take notes. The new Boox Max Lumi (Amazon link) is similar but with improved battery life and adaptative front-light and is running Android 10. For those who prefer a 10-inch screen – or a cheaper device – an Onyx Boox Note 2 (Amazon – available almost worldwide) seems to be a very balanced choice. Indeed, this e-reader seems to be durable, with its Mobius screen more resistant to shocks than a Carta screen – hence more durable -, and, running on Android 9 and equipped with a powerful processor, it should prove to be a good performer for years to come.
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!