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.
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 PDF reading apps, like Koreader, offer 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 screen will always be more comfortable.
Then the question becomes “which type of pdf?”. Knowing this will allow you to determine whether a big screen is necessary or not.
In this article, we are first going to focus on e-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 – and more complex software -, some of which are dedicated to PDF reading.
6 to 10 inch: eReaders for the general public and PDF reading
What makes e-ink technology interesting it that it’s not based on an LCD screen but on “electronic ink”. 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. It’s even possible to read under the sun. With the latest generations of e-Ink screens, the contrast is very good and it works really well with PDF documents.
Even though most eReaders currently available have enough horse power (CPU, RAM…) to open PDF documents, an eReader’s internal software is where it differs the most: the software used to render PDF documents clearly is more important than the hardware performance of an e-book reader or 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 Kobo Sage (Amazon) seems born to dethrone the concurrence in this area of pdf reading; however, honestly, the reading software from Kobo is not the best one for reading PDFs. 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 Sage, as well as the Kobo Libra 2, are really good readers in all other respects!
It’s possible to 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 Sage offers very good bang for the buck.
Slightly less expensive than the Sage, the Libra 2 is interesting: It’s endowed with a 7-inch screen, which is bigger than the very common 6-inch screen reader and makes reading small PDFs (litterature) comfortable. It also features a good grip and is very easy to transport. On the other hand, the 7 inch screen is too limiting for big documents (academic articles, non-fiction…), except when reading in landscape mode. With its 8-inch screen, the Kobo Sage is more versatile, despite not being the perfect eReader for PDF files.
What about Pocketbook eReaders?
The PocketBook 740/TEA Inkpad 3 is a decent alternative. It 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 IMO, as it really is more practical if you plan to read books in different formats (PDF, epub, mobi…). The Inkpad 3 has an adaptive back-light (that limits the potentially harmful blue LED light) and is quite homogeneous, and it’s possible to setup profiles so that the lightning changes automatically during the day. Available for less than 200 euros on Amazon, it is an eReader that offers a good PDF reading experience for a decent price.
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 a device as cheap as possible.
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 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. That being said, in this screen size and price range, there are better alternatives, as we’ll see below.
Kindles: Paperwhite 3 or Oasis for PDF reading?
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. Between the two, the Oasis 3 is the only one coming with an adaptative backlight. The price difference is worth it for those who want to read in the dark. With both devices, 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.
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. 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.
With its bigger screen, the Kindle Oasis (Amazon product page) rivals the Inkpad 3. But in this price range, the PocketBook Inkpad 3 seems preferable to me 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 application.
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, or if you are ready to jailbreak your device so that it fits your needs perfectly.
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 Sage with Koreader – some devices come with a stylus and are more versatile. They make it possible not only 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, an e-Writer and could totally replace paper for some use cases.
These days, there are a lot of different devices and if they share the same screen technology, the user experience and possibilities they offer 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 rather simple hardware, while other rely heavily on Android and come with the horsepower of high end tablets (which isn’t necessarily better than perfectly tuned software and regular updates on limited hardware!)…
Onyx Boox: Android e-reader with good value for money.
The Onyx Boox devices are the best known and most widely available. They run on Android, so you can install a lot of different applications, which makes them very good all-purpose e-readers. 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, called Neoreader. 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 as well as academic papers 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 real 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. It’s even possible to virtually switch tools, and use an highlighter, various kinds of pencils, etc.
One problem has to be taken into account though: some e-readers of this brand are provided with a rather old Android version. So far, Boox doesn’t provide updates on the long run, as they focus on producing new devices. 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 if you intend to use the device online. Hence the interest of favoring models running 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 unlikely. That being said, even with the latest device from Boox, you cannot be sure that the device will still receive software upgrades in several years. This makes some of the 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. 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 guarantee of long term software updates. An Android e-reader allows nevertheless some uses unimaginable on a more minimalist devices.
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. They are very interesting devices, and are easily available on Amazon.
Boyue / LikeBook: cheap devices that get the job done.
Boyue LikeBook e-readers are similar in hardware to older Onyx Boox e-readers. On the software side, we’re also on an Android base. But 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!).
At the moment we can say that at the software level, Boox e-readers are way more pleasant to use than Boyue LikeBook e-readers; the back-lighting management is also better. But the LikeBooks are the e-Ink devices running on Android that can be found at the best price on the market, and this makes them interesting in my opinion. If you are on a limited budget, they have to be considered, even though they don’t perform as well as what Onyx Boox offers.
Sony DPT-CP1 vs reMarkable (1&2)
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, but it suffers severe drawbacks. First, it is not as easy to put a document on it as on a conventional e-reader. The PDF annotation works really nicely, the stylus is quite precise, and the annotations are added as PDF 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. This is a huge plus. However, it is difficult to get it in most of the world, and the software is dated.
The reMarkable 2 is very nice looking, 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 than pure e-readers, and on the digital notebook aspect, the reMarkable does much better it is also more open by default: you can easily access it as root and make (minor) changes to adapt it to your work habits. The reMarkable 2 is based on a Carta Screen, made of glass, that might break if carried around and would be better if you intend to use it sitting at a desk. The company recently switched to a subscription model, which make the reMarkable a potentially expensive choice on the long run, if you intend to use the functionalities reserved for paying subscribers.
Ratta SuperNote A5 & SuperNote A5X: good stuff!
Ratta is a chinese company that choose to follow a totally different path than the one followed by Onyx Boox and Boyue. They have two kinds of e Ink tablets, the SuperNote A5, a minimalist device based on a stripped-down custom Linux-based OS, and the SuperNote A5X, running a custom made OS based on Android.
In my opinion, the A5 is too limited and not worth it in 2023 in this price-range, but the A5X is a really interesting device, probably the best 10 inch eInk tablet currently available. It is more minimalist than an 10 inch Boox tablet, ans less versatile, but it does a few things and does it really well; and the team seems committed to improving their software on the long run rather than producing (and selling) a new tablet every year. They are active on Reddit and they try to take into account the advice of their customers.
The writing and drawing possibilities aren’t as sophisticated as what can be done with a reMarkable 2, and the OCR isn’t as powerful, but the device can work totally offline (even the OCR, while the OCR of the reMarkable is done on the “cloud” of a French company) which is great for privacy. It is really fast – and easy – to switch between a PDF and a Notebook, and Ratta uses a specific technology the their stylus: the nib last for the life of the device, and provide a great writing experience, similar to the one of a fountain pen.
A4 e-readers: Boox Max Lumi vs Fujitsu Quaderno A4 Gen 2
If we go up in size (and in price) we find the Onyx Boox Max 3 and the Boox Max Lumi. this eInk devices can open any kind of documents; the Fujistu Quaderno 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.
The Quaderno A4 (check price and reviews on Amazon) was initially based on the hardware of the Sony DPT-RP1. The second gen is improved on many points, and Fujistu really did a great job. The device ships with the latest E-ink Carta 1250 screen, with improved contrast and speed. It only reads PDFs, but it does this very well. This is noticeable when PDF files are exported. The highlighted parts show up as PDF highlights in computer software, while it appears only on the graphic part of the PDF exported from a SuperNote or reMarkable. This file can then be processed by Zotfile or similar software.
The Boox Max Lumi (Amazon) also comes with an A4 / 13.3-inch eInk screen and runs a less limited Android version. It is more versatile, but somehow feels less polished. As it is possible to install any type of application you can open virtually any file; it is also possible to use it to answer your e-mails under the sun, or to open two documents side by side. It can even be used as a secondary screen connected in HDMI. It is clearly more versatile than the Quaderno A4, but the device from Fujistu is nonetheless a very interesting device, suitable for academics or researchers looking for a device dedicated for PDF reading and annotating.
With the devices of this range, equipped with a 13-inch screen and the ability to take notes, we clearly the category of literature-oriented e-readers, and move towards specific tools for those who assiduously frequent certain texts and wish to be able to annotate them.
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, the Boox Max Lumi (Amazon link) is an interesting device, as it features an adaptative front-light and is running Android 10. It is possible to install many applications on the device, and the default PDF reader (Neoreader) works quite well.
For those who prefer a 10-inch screen – or a cheaper device – an Onyx Boox Note 2 (Amazon) is a rather balanced choice. Indeed, this e-reader should be durable, with its Mobius screen more resistant to shocks than a Carta one – 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. The SuperNote A5X, more minimalist and not as widely available than the Onyx device is pretty interesting. The hardware isn’t as fresh as the latest offering from Onyx Boox, but it is well built and the Ratta team seems committed to provide software updates on the long run. The user experience is very nice.
Conversely, for those users on a small budget, a Kindle Paperwhite can be the right choice. Often priced at less than €100, its default PDF reader is capable. Its 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 Sage (Amazon) comes with a bigger 8 inch screen and also provides a good value for the money even though it is not as versatile as 10 inch Android based devices.
Tl:dr: The best choice depends on each users’ budget, as well as what they wish to do with their eReader: 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. Android based devices are versatile but more expensive than more basic eReaders, cheaper and enough for individuals looking to read eBooks in ePub or Mobi format and from time to time a book in PDF format.
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!