What’s the best way to work with pdfs in 2022?

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?

PDF_file_iconTo 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.

iPad with Bava_cogdog (Are there cheaper yet effective alternatives to the Pencil? And what’s the best iPad version for pdf reading?)

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.

Remarkable hardware

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)


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22 Responses to What’s the best way to work with pdfs in 2022?

  1. My institution has struggled with this, because at one point many OER texts were only available as PDF files, while many our students would only have a mobile phone as their means to get online. We ended up laboriously converting some of them to EPUB format to get around this.

    Fortunately, Adobe’s reader app now includes “liquid mode”, which transforms a PDF into something easily read on a small screen. (Although that begets the question why use PDFs in the first place….)

  2. Elena OMalley says:

    Agree with your iPad assessment overall, although Goodreader and the Belkin QODE keyboard cover have made it work for me. I’ve heard that keyboard’s not good for thicker-fingered folks, though.

    Let us know where you land with this issue!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Very thick fingers, alas. That’s why I need bigger phones – phablets might be best.

      I’ll follow up – and thank you, Elena.

  3. Tom Haymes says:

    You forget the best one: pdfs that are scanned graphics where OCR has never occurred. Was reading a 1990 article on Researchgate yesterday (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/239055595_A_Pattern_Identification_Approach_to_Cartographic_Visualization) and I couldn’t even select text. No real choice but to print it out. Ironically, it was an (excellent) article on visualization.

    I have binders of printed pdfs. They are truly portable DOCUMENT format. That means they are a document going in and a document going out.

    Of course, as long as we are stuck in the paper paradigm, we will continue to fail to properly leverage information. Pdf has helped share but has not provided good mechanisms for deeper analysis. Maybe we will evolve in that direction…

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oh yeah. I despise that image format without text.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Come on guys — snip it!
      >>>Was reading a 1990 article on Researchgate yesterday
      >>>and I couldn’t even select text. No real choice but to print it out.
      Snipping doesn’t care if it wasn’t OCRd.

  4. Arindam says:

    As you use Apple desktop, the best pdf reader and annotator in my humble opinion is Skim
    Free and open source, with tiny footprint.
    I use it with JabRef (https://www.jabref.org) but if you use with Bibdesk (which I often do, here: https://bibdesk.sourceforge.io

    You have a winning combination of a PDF reader, annotator, and a reference manager all in one in Mac.
    On iPad, my preferred PDF reader is Goodreader, but YMMV.
    On android, the best one is Google Drive PDF reader, and for Windows, I have to go by what my university has allowed me to use, which is well, Adobe …. (my least favourite option).

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Arindam, thank you for this rich response. I appreciate your tour through different ecosystems. And especially approve the open source options.

      Every week I think about committing more to the Appleverse.

  5. Annmarie says:

    Re: working with pdf files
    I like the Windows snipping tool, where you can cut out a section of pdf text, essentially a mini screen shot, save it as a gif, png, or jpeg, and then paste it into a word doc for further annotating. Very very simple.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Yes — I use snipping all the time — then annotate snips that are dropped into an MS Word file. This eliminates the problem with graphic images, which can be snipped and saved separately, and used when needed or resized easily.
      This also works for OCR’d PDFs, because you can drop these text files into the MS Word file in addition to images, and paragraph snips.
      The only problem is that PDF comes with its own snipping tool that gives high-pixel first impressions, but degrades after that. So, then, I go back to the Win-Snipping tool.
      PDF has text-exporting OCR abilities that also work well.

  6. Clint Lalonde says:

    If you use a Kindle and have an Amazon account you may want to look into the free Send to Kindle service Amazon offers. Basically it is a Kindle email address that you email documents to, which then get sent to your Kindle https://www.adobe.com/acrobat/hub/how-to/send-a-pdf-to-a-kindle-device#:~:text=Approve%20your%20personal%20email%20address,PDF%20directly%20to%20your%20Kindle.

  7. Ted says:

    I’ve used Calibre to convert pdfs to epub once or twice, and it does what it says, BUT it doesn’t do so elegantly. The resulting epubs in my experience have needed *a lot* of clean up (e.g., headers, footers, and page numbers converted to body text, so I had to go through and manually remove each header and footer).

  8. Jenn says:

    An even bigger problem is accessibility around PDFs. No easy way to know if the PDF you are creating or reading is accessible.

  9. Martin Lindner says:

    mostly i read PDF on the iPad, Downloadring them into Apple books which hast a good colored-marking feature. If I really am serious about working with the Text I read them on the laptop, using the PDF reading/marking Feature of the microsoft Edge browser which ist brilliant for very quickly browsing through whole PDF libraries because it Shows the first page before really opening the files. finally, if I want top own parts of the text, I just copy them into a text file (like an excerpt) and use a web tool for removing the fixed line changes. Here i also so Slot of commenting between the lines.

  10. Martin Lindner says:

    mostly i read PDF on the iPad, downloading them into Apple Books which hast a good colored-marking feature. If I really am serious about working with the text I read them on the laptop, using the PDF reading/marking feature of the microsoft Edge browser which ist brilliant for very quickly browsing through whole PDF libraries because it Shows the first page before really opening the files. finally, if I want top own parts of the text, I just copy them into a text file (like an excerpt) and use a web tool for removing the fixed line changes. Here i also do a lot of commenting between the lines.

  11. Tom Haymes says:

    You seem to have two different tasks in mind for whatever device you’re using. If you want something to type on, getting a Smart Keyboard for the iPad turns it into a light laptop (I’m using that right now). I like the flexibility it gives me but that came at a price. It’s changed my workflow. I tend to draft on Google Docs using a combination of the iPad and iPhone (voice dictation) and then polish on the MacBook Pro. It’s a luxury but considering how flaky my writing muscle can be, it’s worth it.

    However, if your task is content consumption then you don’t really need the fancy keyboard. I use the iPad almost exclusively as a reader for Kindle and to view videos.

    Also, as a photographer, the screen is really nice to proof photos.

    You just need to figure out the task combination.

  12. Roxann says:

    Thanks for your inquiry- it is a nice nudge provoking me to review my own process and after reviewing some of the suggestions mentioned about, I just found this one called Paperpile quite a few universities seem to use.
    The subscription price doesn’t seem to bad- much better than Adobe $$$$.

    Save references and PDFs to your library with one click. From wherever you are

  13. Fredrik Graver says:

    Yeah, PDFs are problematic. They were a great idea at the time, when we all needed to export documents into a format that would *print* the same no matter what printer people had. That was sometime in the 90s, I believe…

    A lot of my colleagues have recently acquired a Remarkable, and they seem pretty happy with it. The e-ink screen is easy on the eyes and the battery lasts a long time. They can write handwritten notes in a lined e-paper notebook or annotate pdfs. Greyscale only, which is a bit of a drag, and the fact there’s no email or surfing seems like a great feature when reading long documents tending on the dry side… (I have very little self-control in those situations).

    I mostly use an iPad myself, the one with the 12.9’’ screen. Lucky for me, my work pays for it as it’s an expensive piece of tech, but it works really well. There are plenty of styluses as alternatives to the Apple Pencil — Adonit makes some good ones — and a mess of apps to chose from for annotation (or just writing notes). None are perfect, but lots are good.

  14. sibyledu says:

    These are all valuable comments. And they echo some of my own frustrations with one of my favorite annual reference texts, which is available in both PDF and paper-and-ink; I find the PDF almost unusable, though some of my friends love it (and use Adobe annotation tools to make their marginal notes). But I notice that these notes are all from *readers* of PDFs, rather than *producers* of PDFs. And I think that if we as readers are going to make PDFs work for us, we need to understand what producers are trying to do and account for that as well. Since I’m a producer, I’ll start…

    I make PDFs for two reasons. First, I want to make it harder to change my output; I don’t want to see a bootleg version saying we should hate all Blorgons when I actually said we should love all Blorgons. Second, I go to a lot of trouble with the layout and formatting of text and figures to make it look the way I want it to look; I do not want you to hate me because my figures and text have been chewed up to fit a screen. Yes, I am taking the risk that you will hate me because you can’t read my figures and text, but I’d rather have that problem than the other. The analogy, I think, is to visual media like film and comics; David Lean doesn’t want you to watch “Lawrence of Arabia” on a tablet. To be sure, people do watch it on a tablet (or, shudder, a phone), but it’s obvious that they are getting a different experience.

    Now, I do prepare accessible texts, precisely because I do want people with different reading abilities to be able to understand what I’m saying. And I wonder whether that doesn’t provide a template for the solution. If you want to read my pages as pages, with fonts and formats and figures, choose my PDF, but if you just want text, choose my accessible version. When the PDF became a default format, it served to privilege the maker of pages; accessible text privileges the reader of texts.

  15. Sarah says:

    I’m one of the Zotero fans. I’ve done ALL my doctoral coursework, which includes MANY PDFs using Notability and Zotero on the iPad with Apple Pencil and my MacBook Pro.

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