View Full Version : Does one have to get a big expensive eReader to read PDFs decently?

01-03-2010, 11:02 AM
After a lot of thinking, I'm finally considering buying an e-ink based e-reader. The problem is, most of the documents I want to read are in PDF format. I tried an iLiad and the experience was abysmal. With the iLiad you can zoom PDFs but the process is painful and depending on the original font size even when you zoom a document and read it horizontally, the print is too small.

I don't think I want to buy a large size e-reader since all the ones I know of are REALLY too expensive. The question is, is there any trick, application, method that works to read PDFs in an e-ink e-reader without having a totally unpleasant experience? I tried converting my PDFs to ePub or Mobi formats using Calibre but the results were very poor for non-fiction books.

Many of the documents I want to read are academic papers with special characters, formulas, graphics and tables so you can imagine what happens when you convert the original pdf to one of these other formats. Formatting disappears in many cases, characters are misinterpreted and changed, superscripts and subscripts are converted to regular size characters, etc.

So this attempt to obtain reflowable text to improve readability failed miserably. Is there any way to reflow the text in a PDF to increase the size of the font without losing the important information conveyed by special characters and formatting such as italics, superscripts, etc?

Any help you people can offer will be very welcome. If I don't have any other choice, I guess I will wind up buying a large size ereader. Although a little while ago I had the opportunity to read a document with a Kindle DX and I can't say the experience was soo much better: the print continued to be too small for my sight to bear.


01-03-2010, 11:23 AM
... Many of the documents I want to read are academic papers with special characters, formulas, graphics and tables so you can imagine what happens when you convert the original pdf to one of these other formats. Formatting disappears in many cases, characters are misinterpreted and changed, superscripts and subscripts are converted to regular size characters, etc...

I've also been struggling with worse and worser vision for a few years now. My eyes seem to work best on my Sony with landscape mode and large sans serif fonts.

However, PDF sucks when zoomed on my 505. It is best for me to read them on my computer. How important is reader size to you? Do you need to read PDF's on reader, or can you manage them on a laptop?

01-03-2010, 11:31 AM
Wait to see what the Plastic Logic Que has to offer this month at CES or get a netbook.

01-03-2010, 11:44 AM
I'm an academic like you and I read technical PDFs on my Sony PRS-505. My favorite way of dealing with them is to use soPDF ( (or PDFLRF ( if they're scanned, PaperCrop ( if they're multi-column) to remove the whitespace margins, and cut the text blocks into reader-sized chunks.

I find I can read just about anything that way.

Converting to another format does not work well with technical material. Either keep it in PDF format, and tweak the PDF to make it easier to read on your screen, or convert the PDF pages to images, and tweak the images to fit your screen size.

01-04-2010, 07:18 AM
Thanks a lot to everybody that responded!

Frabjous suggestions look interesting. If these programs work well, I might not need an expensive big screen e-reader to read the hundreds of PDFs I have accumulated. I wonder if DixieGal has tried them to render her PDFs for her 505. She says her pdf reading experience is not good with a 505.

Unfortunately I don't own a 505 myself to give it a try. I can get a hold of an old iLiad, though. So I'll see if transforming pdfs using these tools renders them readable on an iLiad and that might give me an idea of whether I can save some money buying a smaller screen ereader.

Using a netbook is not an option. I already have a pretty light laptop and I don't find the reading experience much better than with my desktop. My sight is pretty screwed up and I spend already way too much time in front of a computer screen. I have a 21 inch LCD screen on my desktop and that has made things better for me in comparison with my previous CRT screen. But I need something better for my eyes. Besides, my eyes are not my only problem. My back is also screwed up from sitting too many hours in front of a computer and I need to be able to lay down for a while and continue reading so an e-ink reader seems like the best choice for me. I've tried with a laptop and they are not designed as book readers: they are best used "on your lap". Besides, they are usually TERRIBLE to read outdoors. I can't see a thing. If someone knows of some good light laptop computer whose screen contents are visible outdoors, let me know because I would like to get a hold of one, too.

The suggestion from Daffy4u to wait and see what the deal is with the hoopla about Que from Plastic Logic is also a good one. I have been following the news about this product with great interest as it looks like the kind of ereader I am looking for. My fear is, though, that it will be yet another hugely expensive product that will fail precisely because of its price. There is already another ereader with big screen intended for the "professional" market, the iRex Digital Reader 1000S. At more than 600, though, I don't think I'm going to go for it. Even if it hurts me, I will have to continue to print pdfs on (recycled) paper before spending this amount of money. If the price for the Plastic Logic product is considerably lower, I might consider it but, as I said, I don't have high hopes that they are going to be smart and have this product sold at a competitive price.

I hear that Sony is going to come up with with another large screen ereader. Maybe they will be smart and sell it at an affordable price.

For me the ideal situation would be to have a good ereader with a large screen and have a laptop with the same pdf loaded at the same time. This way you get the best of both worlds: doing most of the reading on the ereader and use the laptop when you have to search the pdf or ad some annotation or take some notes. In the future, a killer product would be one that has e-ink on one side and LCD on the other side. Something similar to the Nook but implemented differently. You could do most of the reading on the e-ink side and you could turn on the LCD side to navigate through the document faster, do searches, etc. I haven't patented the idea so I hope some company can pick it up and implement it :-)

01-04-2010, 07:47 AM
You could always check out the sony prs-900, as people have been saying that it renders pdfs really well in landscape mode, it doesn't show the page all at once, rather you scroll through bit by bit and you can cut the margins out.

I have the sony 505 and I too use sopdf to read pdfs that don't reflow well on my reader. Most pdfs of journal articles and pdf books (academic) reflow very well, actually, so I don't have to use sopdf all that often. However, the articles I read are not graph-heavy, so that makes a difference.

You also might want to check out the Entourage Edge, which has a double screen. It opens up like a book, one screen is e-ink and the other is lcd, it sounds like it would be a good fit for you. I've linked the wiki page below.

01-04-2010, 09:19 AM
I read *.pdf on my Dell Axim x50 PDA in landscape mode using PocketXpdf reader and find it works great. My eyes aren't the best but find it okay.

01-04-2010, 01:11 PM
Thanks a lot to everybody that responded!

Unfortunately I don't own a 505 myself to give it a try. I can get a hold of an old iLiad, though. So I'll see if transforming pdfs using these tools renders them readable on an iLiad and that might give me an idea of whether I can save some money buying a smaller screen ereader.

If there are any PDFs which you'd like to see how they look on a 505, and can legally post them here, do so, and I'll load them onto my 505 and take a photo and post it here. Not perfect, but it'll give you a general sense.

01-05-2010, 06:26 AM
Thanks again for the responses. Frabjous, I'll take you up on your offer. I'm curious to see what a Sony 505 experience reading the kind of documents I read is like. I'm attaching a zip file with some samples. I haven't included any with big graphics as I suppose that might be a problem. I would be happy if I could read well pages like the ones I sent you.

Thanks for the info on the Entourage Edge. I'll certainly look into it as the combination between e-ink and normal screens has a lot of potential. I've read some information on the specs of the device and I find it a little too heavy. On the other hand it has a lot of interesting possibilities a simple e-ink reader doesn't have.

As for reading on a PDA, I'm sorry, I've been there, I've done that and I cannot take it any more. I still use my PDA for casual reading of newspaper articles and even some fiction. As I said, I want to get away from LCD screens and even further away from small LCD screens.


01-05-2010, 01:28 PM
I'll try to get to this tonight after my kids are bed-- at work now. (Of course, I have my reader with me, but not my camera!)

Looking briefly at the samples, I expect decent results on #1 after processing with sopdf. Doc #2 doesn't look like professionally published material but rather like a student paper or something like that. Those can be tricky, since the line lengths are longer. It's better if you are able to get your hands on the source file. Doc #3 would get similar results as #1, except for whatever genius put the little squares in the corner. Yeah, I know these are common on page proofs, but they'll likely spoil any attempts to auto-remove the margins. (Though it could be done manually.) It also looks like it's made with LaTeX--again, if you could only get your hands on the source file!

01-06-2010, 03:03 PM
All right, sorry it took me so long. I guess my wife needed to take our camera today, so I had to borrow an old one from a friend. Probably good enough for this, but I apologize for the glare.

It's hard to decide between insufficient lighting and glare on the reader screen--in person, it's much easier to read than you can tell from this, but this will give you an idea of the size. (Bearing in mind that the screen is 9cm x 12cm.)

I'm dividing the pictures up by document so it's not too overwhelming.

I'm including just one picture here (of page 3) of what it looks like if you just load it on the reader and view it in portrait -- that is not recommended.

The reader itself provides two options for increasing the readability of a PDF.

Putting the reader in landscape mode, which splits the page in two. This usually works better than the other option, which is...
Using the "reflow" option -- works OK for boring paragraphs of just text, but when there are displays and charts, as in yours, it doesn't work so well.

Landscape mode by itself works OK with document 1. It may be hard to tell from the photos, but it is readable.

Reflow works great for the paragraphy part of the text, but it completely screws up the chart, since reflow seems to evaporate vector-based graphics altogether. The chart on page 2 is reduced to an unintelligible list of variables! Yikes. (You can of course zoom back out to see the chart.)

Lastly, and the best method, is to pre-process the file with sopdf. This works very well for this document. It's a lot like landscape mode, except it also removes the whitespace margins, making a very comfortable read.

Hopefully the file names speak for themselves.

01-06-2010, 03:12 PM
Document 2 is probably the hardest to get into a readable state. As I mentioned, the wide lines of text like this -- which you would never find for already-published material -- can be a problem.

I don't find it very readable if loaded on the device and modified, even in landscape mode.

Reflow makes the font big enough to read, to produces some other formatting oddities. The graphics in this file are raster graphics, not vector graphics. These don't evaporate like vector graphics, but often they don't fit where they were supposed to go and get moved to another screen, which can be a bit odd -- you'll see this in the attached photos with the numbered charts.

SoPDF produces something which is readable if you've got decent eyes, but the font size is not quite comfortably large. It would do for me in a pinch, though.

Sorry, some of these really got a lot of glare. If I were less lazy, I'd retake them. (But I'm not.) They are much less blurry than you can tell from these photos.

01-06-2010, 03:22 PM
And on to document 3.

Document 3 is readable just if loaded onto the device and put in landscape mode, but it is not ideal.

Reflow works OK for the text part of it -- and indeed, it gets very readable -- but the formatting of the numbered displays gets changed, and it isn't always as clear as it should be.

As I predicted, sopdf was thrown off in its ability to remove margins by the boxes in the corners. The odd thing, however, is that this was a problem only on the lower half of the page. The upper half of the page looks great.

Finally, I did a manual crop of the margins myself and then sopdfed and the result was very attractice and easy to read. A manual crop like this could be time-consuming however. It would be worth it if you were going to read an entire book, but for a short journal article, it might be more trouble than it's worth.

Anyway, I hope that helps.

(P.S. as a logic teacher, some of these were fun to look at for me too...)

01-06-2010, 05:21 PM
Thanks a lot, Frabjous. You know? linguists love Lewis Carroll. The Jabberwocky, for instance, is a a little jewel to demonstrate how language works and I use it for some of my classes.

Anyway, your pictures give me an idea of what can be accomplished with a little screen and some nice utilities like sopdf. The problem, I guess, is that you have to have a Sony reader if you want to use sopdf, am I right?

How does sopdf work? Does it simply convert formats or does it create an image of the PDF page? I tried a similar utility called pdfread with an iLiad reader and the results were not so great. The characters appeared jagged and that made reading a little less pleasant. As I said, I also tried to convert pdfs to the mobi format using calibre and the graphics and special characters were all messed up. I'm surprised sopdf does so well with the conversion. From your pictures it looks like it preserves everything pretty much like in the original.


01-06-2010, 06:58 PM
sopdf just converts one PDF into a differently formatted PDF. All it does is trim the edges and cut the page into two chunks.

It has nothing to do with Sony, though it is designed for that size screen. I think it would work fine with other readers, though I've only ever used my Sony.

One nice feature sopdf has over PDFread (or another I use: PDFLRF) in that it doesn't convert it from text to images: it leaves it as text. It's probably the conversion to an image and the resulting pixelation/rasterization that you noticed.

01-06-2010, 07:46 PM
Does anyone know if the Skiff will support native PDFs? It looks like a really nice size screen.

Jack Tingle
01-06-2010, 09:00 PM
Does one have to get a big expensive eReader to read PDFs decently?

Eyup. Pretty much.

Jack Tingle

01-07-2010, 04:24 AM
OK, thanks again Frabjous. It looks like sopdf is what I might need. Now there's a problem. I downloaded it to try it out myself with other documents but I happen to be also a Linux user. I thought this would run under wine but for some reason Wine doesn't let me install it. Do you run sopdf under Wine?


01-07-2010, 03:06 PM
Wine is not necessary. There's a linux port of sopdf (by Emit) on page 2 of the sopdf thread. If you can't find it, let me know.

01-07-2010, 03:36 PM
OK, got it. Thanks!


01-08-2010, 07:23 AM
The best option is an Irex Reader 1000S but it's more expensive than the Sony. No way around - perhaps a Kindle DX will also work.

The Zooming of PDF files aren't that satisfying.

01-08-2010, 12:29 PM
The best option is an Irex Reader 1000S but it's more expensive than the Sony. No way around - perhaps a Kindle DX will also work.

The Zooming of PDF files aren't that satisfying.

I'm sort of coming to this conclusion. I'm going to wait and see what happens after this eventful CES. As more companies come up with big screen e-readers the only reasonable development is that prices for big screens have to come down and come down considerably. What I know is that I'm not paying more than 400 for an e-reader. If that means I have to zoom my pdfs and have a less than satisfactory experience, so be it. I'm hoping that Sony will come up with a big screen e-reader and that the price will be more reasonable than the price of Irex readers. Irex makes really good products but they are not being smart with their pricing. They will have to lower their prices or disappear.

After this very useful discussion what I have decided is that I will wait a couple of months to see if prices come down. If they don't, I'll buy a Sony 505 or similar product and zoom my pdfs with sopdf or whatever. Companies making big screen ereaders will have to wait a few more years (or whatever it takes for my ereader to get broken) to get my money.


01-10-2010, 12:35 AM
You may be interested in the GUI for sopdf that Nathan Campos has made, and I've just recompiled for linux:

01-10-2010, 06:05 AM
Hi Frabjous,

I was indeed interested since I've been testing sopdf and I love it. I've been following the developments at CES and when I saw that all the new big screen readers are going to be very expensive and are not going to be available for a few months, I decided I cannot wait and I will most likely go for a less expensive product even if the screen is smaller. Then sopdf becomes essential.

Anyway, I was going to try the GUI since that would make things a bit more comfortable with sopdf but I ran into problems. On the command line sopdf works perfectly but when I tried to execute the binary file you compiled for Linux (% ./soPDF_Frontend) I get the following error message: "bash: ./soPDF_Frontend: cannot execute binary file


01-10-2010, 04:21 PM
I would post about it in the other thread. Nathan would know a lot more about the problem than me. You might need to compile your own... not sure.

01-11-2010, 05:58 AM
OK, Thanks Frabjous. I think I know what's going on. I did '%file soPDF_Frontend' and I saw that it had been compiled for a 64 bit processor. I still have a 32 bit processor. I'll recompile the source.

01-11-2010, 08:56 AM
Yeah, I should have mentioned that in the other thread. I will do so.