Here’s a problem I didn’t think I’d be dealing with as the year 2023 draws nigh. What’s the best way to read pdfs?
To explain: I read a lot of digital texts, from emails and social media updates to ebooks, web-native ebooks, and game content. But pdfs remain awkward for me, at least in the ways I work. I like to read them closely or skim texts. I want to see images in great clarity. I need to annotate the copy. And I insist on being able to copy the source material plus my annotations to other applications.
Which is apparently a tall order. For one, many pdf files are hard to read on mobile devices, especially phones. Some pdfs have formatting which might have been very nice in print or on a big screen, such as several columns and neatly integrated visuals, but which force readers on smaller screens to pan left to right and back, zig zagging across the file like a little kid trying to read under a blanket with a tiny flashlight. This drives me to schedule pdf reading for when I can be in my office, happily glaring at my yard-wide desktop screen.
Others lock down text so it can’t be shaped into more pleasing forms. Compare with the Kindle, for example, whose .mobi files are “flowable” – capable of being easily resized – and single column. Yet the Kindle gargles on pdfs.
Then there’s the annotation problem. Some of us grew up writing notes on print texts (books, journals, xeroxes) (and remind me to tell you about my first concussion and the problem of notes on Pynchon) and value that interaction highly. Yet many pdf writers and/or files block this function, or provide embarrassingly bad tools for it. (The Kindle’s annotation function is better than it was, and the social side of it can be fascinating, but it’s still awkward to use and awkward to export).
As for organizing pdfs – given the difficulties in moving across devices, I barely do this. I do take care to rename each file in a recognizable way (author then title, maybe a little more, depending). Each of my laptops and desktops has a “texts” folder, and that’s about it. I don’t have a tagging or search system, and probably should.
So what is the best way to read a pdf in late 2022?
I had some ideas, then got more by polling friends and colleagues. Here’s a list.
iPad Many friends, especially the Macisti, pointed me here. They liked the screen (although it depends on model, with one advocating for the biggest) and recommended the post-Jobs Pencil for annotation.
I have issues with iPads. One is cost, as they are more expensive than alternatives. The other is having to wade further into the Apple walled garden world. (Right now I have an Apple desktop, which serves me well. Otherwise I have Windows, Androids, Xboxen, Kindle, etc.) A third is that the digital keyboard doesn’t work for me. Fine, I’ll get a physical keyboard connected by Bluetooth… and then I’ve reinvented the laptop, just more awkwardly and expensively.
Android tablets These tend to be cheaper than iPads. They seem to have fewer applications developed for them, and run into the keyboard issue I mentioned.
Remarkable This looks like something in between a tablet and an e-ink reader. I haven’t used one, but it seems built on stylus-driven annotation.
Does it do anything else? Is Remarkable worth the price?
Use software to beat pdfs into shape There are a lot of programs out there for reading and wrangling pdfs. Here are some which friends praised:
- Calibre. In addition to a viewer there’s a file management system. It also seems to have the ability to convert file formats.
- Moon. An ereader app for the Android ecosystem.
- Zotero. I know and admire this tool for citation wrangling, but didn’t know it had pdf affordances.
Just stick to the big desktop monitor This gives maximum viewability and a wealth of annotation and sharing tools. It also means I have to be in my office, which is a problem, given how much I travel.
Print ’em on paper and go old school I see people doing this whenever I travel. Which is a sign that digital alternatives have not triumphed.
What do you think of these solutions to my grumpy problem? What’s the best way forward? Any other tools I’ve missed? Are my requirements just too picky? The comments box stands open for your… annotations.
(Thanks to all of my friends who weighed in on Facebook and elsewhere!
pdf image by Adobe SystemsCMetalCore – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73470452; iPad photo by the great cogdog)