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Ask HN: How do you read long PDFs?
82 points by jvilalta 29 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 105 comments
I tend to prefer to read PDF files on a regular monitor, but moving up and down a page is wonky and most readers don't save your place on the document. Also, sometimes the font is too small when you fit to page and fit to width suffers from paging up and down that doesn't take into account the last visible line.

I'd like to hear what you do to read long PDF files, like one of the Springer textbooks. Do you use any readers that support bookmarking and/or note taking and sane pagination? I'm wondering if there is a reader that offers an experience comparable to the experience of reading an ebook on a device like a kindle.

Best I’ve found is to read PDFs on an iPad Pro using an app such as IAnnotate. Instead of scrolling, I display one page at a time in portrait orientation, and then you can swipe to flip the pages. Highlighting, underlining, and short notes are quick andeasy. You can keep all the documents in Dropbox for convenient synchronizing of notes.

A great illustration of how, to read PDFs, you need a letter-size medium (14", usually portrait).

Anyone reading PDFs on a regular monitor should ask themselves why they're putting a portrait peg in a landscape hole.

Anyone reading or creating PDFs to begin with should ask why even bother with such a static and outdated format that was made for when it was common to print out documents on paper to read them.

I'm not sure what the alternative is supposed to be. ePub is reflowable, fine, but it absolutely chokes on placing images. At least with PDF's, I get the book in a form that was designed by a human being to be read by a human being.

> ePub is reflowable, fine, but it absolutely chokes on placing images.

To be honest, ePub is based on HTML5 markup.

So, you could place image in right place in your ePub book in same way as you place images on your website.

> So, you could place image in right place in your ePub book in same way as you place images on your website.

I've never seen an ePub with images where it looked anywhere as good as the PDF version. It's generally a mess.

Agree. Also the code snippets are mess sometimes too.

What particular image placing complexity do you need? And why?

He's talking about it from the perspective of a user of an ebook reading app. He might not know what the problem is. The point is he shouldn't have to know or care what the technical issue is. He's trying to read a paper and when he reads an epub version it usually looks like shit.

This is a usability issue. It might be possible to make properly formatted epubs. However, from his experience most authors aren't making properly formatted epubs, so using epub isn't an option for him.

I've experienced the same quality issue with Epubs. It has been probably 5 years since I've tried reading one, so maybe they have gotten better. Can you give an example of a freely available Epub with proper image placement?

I think part of the issue is that people subconsciously expect ebooks to look like they would expect print books to look. That's not all nostalgia. One of the reasons print books are formatted the way they are is because over centuries of tweaking designs people figured out a near optimal way to present a combination of images and text. You could create print books that mimic the look of the average reflowed EPUB text, but it would look terrible because it doesn't benefit from having an intelligently designed layout.

> Can you give an example of a freely available Epub with proper image placement?

My telepathy isn't so good today, so I'm still not getting the signal on what ‘proper’ means here, and thus the example isn't coming. Maybe tomorrow, I guess, if the chakras clean up or something.

Functional and aesthetically pleasing? It's one of those "you'll know it when you see it" things, but grab any decently typeset book or paper.

The illustrations, diagrams, and tables are the right size and shape to ensure the details are legible, without wasting a ton of space. They are placed at pertinent locations in the text, usually near the first or major mention of related topic. There's a nice boundary between the text and illustration, so you can tell which is which (again, without wasting a ton of space). If there are multiple illustrations, they're laid out in a sensible way so that one or two lines of text don't appear--and get lost--between them.

I was hoping to see an example that is a problem for HTML. What you list, I see on most decent websites—and these features depend on the author and designer's sense, not on the possibilities of PDF. In fact, I encounter more issues when people are trying to be too clever, e.g. by floating images to sides; and no issues when images are kept like paragraphs of text, in the main flow—the one which is reformatted to the screens of different devices.

The most difficult of your criteria is ‘the right size’, mostly because of varying screen dimensions and viewing distances. It's not a problem on desktop, though, and having this issue on a phone is possible only because HTML is reflowable to the screen size in the first place. Moreover, HTML can do things that are verboten and unthinkable in PDF: having an individual image zoomed in and panned without the rest of the page moving away (most sites stop at screen-size ‘lightboxes’ so far, but I'm thinking of slapping together an extension that would instead do the full zoom-around thing on any page).

Overall, it sounds like the same old tradeoff of whether you want to do glamour-magazine-style fancy hijinks with your images, or you want to be able to read the documents on smaller screens and devices. And I know which one I choose.

You're thinking about this too technically.

As an engineer, I am totally willing to believe that the EPub format itself is capable of producing gorgeous, reflowable documents that would knock Edward Tufte's socks off with their design. As a reader though, I've also been disappointed. I don't really care that a book could have been authored better. I want nicely rendered math and I don't want random

line brea


and other ug-li-ness that makes me squint and scroll.

One reliable way to avoid that is to just get a PDF instead. This may be a historical accident. The PDF formatting is probably closer to the print layout, which is most publishers' core competency. Maybe the tools are better, or the layout staff are just better trained on them. Maybe it's the reader, rather than the document. Regardless, I'm going to be reading it on something paper-shaped (and often, sized) so it's barely even a tradeoff.

I'm thinking technically because I want PDF out and HTML/epub in. If authors or publishers have trouble with producing HTML/epub, I'd like to hear about that too. Ironically, when I had surprises with amateur-made epubs of e.g. SICP, alternative releases in actual HTML were better.

(Btw, I'm told that PDFs of Tufte suck and the only way to read him is on paper.)

> I'm going to be reading it on something paper-shaped (and often, sized) so it's barely even a tradeoff

Just as I wrote at the beginning of the thread: “buy a special device to read this format”.

You're clearly either not interested in or not capable of taking part in a conversation where you aren't needlessly condescending so tomorrow you can save yourself the effort.

I read a fuckton of papers and non-fiction literature with images. ePub simply isn't useable in these cases. If I'm reading something with no images or graphs or anything, then fine. I'll use ePub, otherwise, no.

How are those images supposed to be placed? In what way do ePub documents not match this?

Looking for specific complaints, please

Alas this doesn't answer my question in any way.

It does, actually. No ePub I've seen places the images in between text in a satisfying way. PDF's are designed in a certain layout to account for images and keep that design no matter what I'm viewing it on.

They can waste a couple of minutes wondering that. Then they can get on with reading the document in the form in which it’s available or creating a document in the form mandated by the publisher or editor.

Unless you're on a laptop most people have a monitor large enough to put the PDF reader on one half, effectively putting it into portrait mode. I mostly read technical books, so I'll have a terminal or something open on the other half so I can work through the exercises in the book on the same monitor.

When I'm not working at a computer, I do prefer using my Ipad Pro for PDFs.

I usually display 2 pages of a pdf in a non-continuous scrolling mode on one large landscape monitor. I.e. it looks like an open book with a left and right side.

Except for the odd pages being on the left in every reader I know. If you print it out double sided, odd pages are on the right. This is particularly annoying if an author places figures and accompanying text on the same double side.

Foxit on Mac has an option in the ‘View’ menu to have the first page on its own.

Thanks. I've just discovered it in Adobe Acrobat too (View / Page Display / Show Cover Page in Two Page View). I was looking for that in Edit / Settings for all the years :)

If it’s long and dense material, I print it. Especially if I’m taking notes. Double-sided, three-ring hole punch, put in a binder.

If it’s not worth going through that effort, then I either don’t read it or I’m scanning it for information.

I use Polar Bookshelf (getpolarized.io). It has nice, exportable, annotations as well as incremental reading and spaced repetition (via Anki) support. It's still a bit rough around the edges, but it has a very active pace of development and is open source.

It's not perfect yet, but it's the closest thing I've seen that has a chance of getting there.

I was a polar bookshelf user until i discovered emacs pdf-tools mode https://github.com/politza/pdf-tools .

Anyone spending a lot of time on pdf's should definitely checkout emacs pdf-tools mode https://github.com/politza/pdf-tools . In the past i was recommending polar app, but emacs pdf-tools trumps in comparison. Emacs pdf-tools mode has lesser memory footprint is much faster and above all does not have restrict any features.

Unless I happen to use Windows, where emacs is very slow for me to use comfortably.

If you like keyboard centred applications I can't recommend zathura enough, visually it's very minimal with no buttons, definitely not everyone's style.

It supports vim like marks, and powerful movements to manage a lot of pages in a reasonably sane way. My favourite feature is it maintains a jump list so pressing ctrl-o after following a link takes you back to the link.


Last time I checked Zathura did not support annotations. This is too bad. It would be a nice program otherwise for reading. I need annotations though.

Also, it remembers where you were last time you read the document; one of the poster's requirements.

I read and annotate in Emacs mostly, using pdftools + org-noter.

Specifically org-noter can synchronize its buffers with the pdf you’re reading. It’ll also create a skeleton from an outline, if available in the PDF, and even extract highlights and notes in for you. It’s really quite useful tool.

On iOS I read and annotate using PSPDFKit’s PDF viewer, which is incredibly featurefull in the free version, but even more so with subscription (too expensive IMHO).

One nice feature it has, for readers of Hebrew and Arabic, is flipping the edge to right or left. Also editing meta data etc.

In respect to your question, also keeping position in file, bookmarks etc and it uses iOS’s file picker, so you can store your PDFs anywhere accessible (for me on Nextbloud WebDAV share).

Speaking from friends opinions, reMarkable tablet is the way to go for folx often working with PDFs. Great annotation and highlighting. E-ink display. https://remarkable.com/store/remarkable

I wouldn't recommend this. PDF support is horrible, particularly if you have a two column layout file. You cannot correctly zoom in far enough in most cases - in the sense that zoom is possible, just absolutely impractical. Without that, you generally need a magnifying glass to read the text on the display.

Very nice hardware, just awful software.

Aren't most books single column layout though? If I have to read a paper I can use a tool such as k2pdfopt[1] and read it on my Kindle.

[1] https://www.willus.com/k2pdfopt/

I mostly read scientific papers. Quite a good number of them are two column. Haven't come across k2pdfopt before - I'll check it out, thanks!

Are you talking about the new version or the old one?

Version 1. But as I say, the hardware is good. Version 2 will have even better hardware specs, but the operating system I suspect will be the same.

Is there any way to get files onto it, besides their cloud service?

A monitor arm with rotation support helps with this! Useful if you're planning to have a long read session, since there is a bit of setup cost (physically rotating the screen and then updating your OS's display settings).

An iPad and an app like GoodNotes or LiquidText is a great alternative.

You can convert PDFs to epub, which would allow you to use a reader that supports text resizing/reflow and automatic bookmarking. I use the SensusAccess converter,[1] which seems to be free for personal use.

I also use the BeeLine Reader PDF extension for Chrome,[2] which helps make long documents easier to read. But I'm probably biased, since I'm the founder :)

1: https://sensusaccess.com/convert-a-file

2: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/beeline-reader-pdf...

How well does the conversion work for arbitrary pdf files?

I've found the OCR functionality to be pretty good, but YMMV.

As others have mentioned, a vertical monitor helps.

I use one of these[1] as a second monitor, as I was able to get a surplus one from work for ~$30. The stand it comes with has a 90° swivel, allowing you to rotate it from landscape to portrait orientation (the product images on that page show it in that orientation). It's fantastic for keeping up any long-text materials I need to reference (docs, PDFs, email, spreadsheets, etc). I also use Magnet[2] to make it easy to divide the screen into thirds or halves when I don't need any references up and want to use things that work better in a more standard landscape orientation.

If you want to use a monitor that doesn't have standard support for swiveling, you can get an after-market VESA mount such as this[3] one which supports it. The key to look for on product pages is Swivel being listed in the specs, with a Swivel Range of at least 90° being what's needed to turn it from landscape to portrait mode.

[1] https://www.dell.com/hr/business/p/dell-p2217h-monitor/pd

[2] https://magnet.crowdcafe.com/

[3] https://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=5402

Thanks for the idea of an after-market swivel. Am going to try this out.

I haven't used it in a while, but I remember having good experiences with Sumatra.


PDF Expert for Mac and iOS is excellent. Really nice UI, great annotation, good performance on big PDFs.

It doesn’t save your place, but the bookmark interface works well enough for that.

It’s a native app on both OSes.

I find a vertically oriented monitor to be a big improvement. A full page fits nicely without scrolling, and i prefer the narrower width for quick reading. Ill sometimes set my laptop on a table sideways when traveling. I also set the color temperature to ~1300K, about as low as i can stand. When i read physical books i usually just need a single bookmark or finger to help jump between sections quickly. To replicate this i just open two copies at once, and then i can make due with whatever pdf reader is on the machine im using without having my workflow broken. If i need to make editing suggestions, konqueror has always met my needs. For my work, if those tools arent enough to communicate edits, then pdf markup isn't the right medium anyway and the document should be edited directly in LaTeX with version control.

In order: 1. Print 2. Desktop monitor 3. e-ink reader

No other options work for me.

Agreed, print is best when I know I will be referencing the PDF more than once. For me, I think the e-reader will become #2 once I get my hands on a Remarkable 2.


I've been very intrigued by Remarkable for a while. I'll hold a couple of years more, to see if 1) the company will survive, and 2) wait for the product to become more mature. It seems Remarkable 1 was a proof-of-concept, but 2 is becoming more of a very decent experience.

Whoa. I haven't seen this game changer yet. What a cool product, I'm going to dig in and see what folks are saying.

Thanks for sharing!

I have an old iPad 2 (downgraded to iOS8[1]), where I run KyBook 2. KyBook works great for annotations, highlights, and lets me easily download content from my OPDS server. Kybook 3 is much more featured, but I can't run it on my iPad.

Ocassionaly, I try the reflow mode on KOReader on my Kindle, but it is a hit and miss. Works good for single column PDFs, but adding figures, equations and any more complexity trips it up.

[1]: https://captnemo.in/blog/2019/08/11/ipad-downgrade-ios-6-8/

For reading books in PDF, I use a Sony DPT-RP1 reader. Its e-ink display can show an entire letter-size page at once, with the original formatting. You can use a stylus to take notes or make highlights; there is no backlight or web browser.

The software has improved since the early releases: for example, you can navigate using a table of contents, if the document has one. I use the dpt-rp1-py program to transfer files; I’ve never tried Sony’s included Digital Paper App.

I second the Sony Digital Paper system. I’ve had mine for 3 years.

I had been looking for e-ink display for years, before the price came down on the Sony product. Completely satisfied. Also, has 10g memory.

Well. There is one thing I wish they would improve. The stylus lets you mark the page, and a search feature lets you search the document for only two hand-drawn marks—asterisk and star.

I use a set of 9 simple margin marks when reading large documents. Wish I could add custom marks.

I'm a big fan of Documents by Readdle for iOS because of it's annotations.

I read on my iPad, annotations auto sync to google drive, and it generally works great.


My use-case is large (1000+ page) datasheets. Fortunately these pdfs tend to come with chapter bookmarks. I also search for keywords and/or just look at the section I'm interested in at the time. I'll often print out key pages. I have also found using a mouse with an infinite scroll wheel (e.g., Logitech M500) to be invaluable.

I bought a Surface Pro 2 on eBay for ~200 USD a couple of years back. I literally use it only for reading PDFs, and run Xournal on it, so that I can annotate them. I save all PDFs in my Syncthing shared storage, along with their annotations, so that I can share back to a real computer for when I want it.

This way I can comfortably read in a hammock.

I've been using DrawBoard PDF on a Surface Pro for my MBA (lots of readings!). It's not perfect, but it's the smoothest experience I've seen thus far, especially in regards to general zooming and panning. You can also customise your own annotation tools in a shortcut bar - very handy.

I wouldn't use it for actual note taking though. The stylus support isn't as good as OneNote (Windows 10 app version), and I haven't had any experience using it with typed notes. I use a separate OneNote notebook for long-form notes in addition to the annotated PDF itself.

Another caveat, sometimes the "text select / highlight" tool doesn't work properly because the PDF reflow has been broken somehow (i.e. you end up highlighting half a page of text when you only wanted a single line). In these instances I switch to the freehand highlight tool instead.

Depending on the size of the font, relative to page size, I will read them on a 300dpi kindle. Usually most manuals, especially those typewritten in the 1980s on letter-size pages, can be read this way. I will only read PDFs on a kindle in one-page-per-screen format.

When the fonts turn out to be too small to read on the Kindle, I will read them on a monitor using the full height of the monitor to display a single page.

If I want to closely study a few pages, and/or make notations on them, I might print them out on paper but only if there are no more than about 8 pages.

I have been known to use a condensed print-out with 4 pages per A4 sheet of paper, but I dislike doing this because it makes the fonts too tiny to be comfortable.

I optimize PDFs for my e-reader with k2pdfopt [1]. Fascinating piece of cross-platform software with thousands of command line switches. :)

Another solution that I used to use is cropping them with mutool [2], a helper for the MuPDF reader/library. It was really robust and extremely quick compared to k2pdfopt, but less flexible (which is good in a way).

1: https://www.willus.com/k2pdfopt/

2: https://www.mankier.com/1/mutool#Poster

The Onyx Boox line of e-readers are really nice. I use an Onyx Boox Max 2. They come in large screen varieties (close to 13 inches) and have a local WiFi transfer service that makes it easy to transfer files.


This post is just under 2 years old but it has helped me since it had the same problem. The kindle app is very user-friendly and also allows you to store the progress of your reading. There are many other applications that offer the same but for personal reasons I prefer kindle.

I transfer the PDF to Google drive. This is just an easy way to get them onto my multiple Android devices.

I download the PDF onto the SD card of any device in want to read it on.

I use ebookdroid to read the PDF. It remembers exactly where I was. It options to auto crop, dark more etc.

To read on multiple devices I track every PDF I'm reading in a Google spreadsheet. This also has the nice side effects of tracking all the PDF's I'm reading, and being able to track my reading progress over time.

For now I keep using a rather old iPad. This is one of the few use cases it still works well enough for. Reading from my Kobo is definitely easier on the eyes, but annoying otherwise. For that reason, I've been considering a Sony DPT-RP1 or Remarkable 2. Hard to decide between the two. I'm afraid I'll be disappointed with the software and build quality either way...

I wrote a program which splits it in pieces and then later proceeds to send me an email daily with a chunk. this idea has been helpful

If anybody is interested you may message me at dataf5L@gmail.com

On a Mac, I like Skim.app or Preview. Skim is less aggressive about saving changes right away. I crop the pages, then read a two-page spread in full screen. You can also split the view if you want to refer to a non-adjacent page, though unfortunately only horizontal splits seem to work. Everything's legible enough on a non-retina 21" imac.

Current favorite is PDF Expert on an iPad. I read in landscape mode, with 2 pages side-by-side, and hide most of the interface. You can then tap on the right side of the screen to switch to the next page. That makes it pretty close to reading a print book. And you can still highlight text to review later, like any other eBook.

How are they? I'm thinking about getting version 2, but I'm not sure.

There are production delays due to the pandemic, so few people can answer that (for v2). I have one on order, batch 2. Delivery was supposed to be in July, but now they say September.

I love mine. I have a version 1 with a version 2 on order. Happy to field questions if you have them.

What I miss the most when reading a PDF file is the ability to use dark mode. Acrobat Reader's tablet version supports this, and it works fine on my iPad, but the desktop app only allows me to change the colors manually, and the fonts start to look bad.

I use my iPad Pro with Google Books. It's not the reader with most features (this is sarcasm, it has zero features) but if you only want to read it's super easy to upload the pdf to Google Books and it remembers where you left off if you're using multiple devices.

An experience far better than reading an ebook on a device is printing it. Double sided, scaled to 4 pages per side, that scaling works for me. The device is paper, pagination is quite simple, as is taking notes.

For android there is "Xodo" which has a reading mode, so it can adapt to your phone screen. You can also convert your pdf to epub so set the size and font but it not always work as expected.

Technical paper -> print one sided, so I can take notes on the backsides (and I can't get double-sided printing to work on Linux + Brother laser printer anyhow)

Fiction -> convert with Calibre and email to my Kindle

I have a Surface which I found the best tablet as it was bigger than most.

In the end I gave up buying ebooks and went back to regular books. If there is a pdf I have to read I'll do on my workstation.

Drawboard PDF, on windows platform. I found it's experience better compare to other pdf readers. Ease of use of annotation tool is one of highlighting feature.

I display the PDF on my monitor screen and I take notes on an iPad. I usually create a note page for each of the chapter I read. Alternatively, you could take note on a sheet of paper.

This is why I bought a Kindle Fire. That is the only reason I needed a tablet which is why I postponed it for several years. And indeed this is the only thing I use it for.

The Sony Digital Paper and Ratta Supernote series also worth checking out. Remarkable is another option but the UX/HCI is horrible.

Like others, I import mine to Goodnotes on my iPad then use Apple Pencil to annotate / mark-up etc. Can also export in whatever format (inc. PDF) if I want.

Depending on the margins length, reading on a kindle can be pretty good. If there are diagrams and tables that won't be convenient.

PDF Reader by Xodo is the best and fastest reader/annotator I've used on Windows. Excellent with touch screen. Faster than Adobe Reader or Acrobat.

I would either print it or read it on a monitor in upright (portrait) configuration. MuPDF works fine for me. I like the vi-like controls.

I bought a Surface Go and found out Drawboard PDF to comfortably read large books and annotate them with the stylus.

Foxit or ReadEra

With whatever tool I can use. I loved Mac OSX’s preview but that’s not available on other OSes sadly

Edge browser.

Due to the built-in OneNote support, Edge is my go-to for PDFs! It also doesn't suffer from Chrome's limitation for the number of PDFs that can be open at once. Edge enables my questionable habit of depth-first reading :)

I tried new Chromium-based Edge and the new PDF experience is significantly worse imo. I downgraded and will stick with classic Edge as long as I can.

iPad Mini + Apple Pencil + GoodNotes. I got this setup specifically for reading research papers, but I end up using it a lot for personal reading and sheet music.

Nowadays I do copy them to kindle and read there.

ipad pro 12.9" in portrait mode. its the reason I originally bought it. I refer to a LOT of PDFs throughout the day.

i've been pretty happy with foxit mobile pdf on android. on linux evince seems to do just about everything i want.

I prefer to read long PDF on my Kindle

Books on iPad is the best option for me

I don't.

iPad |> GoodReader |> text_to_speech

Also, Microsoft Edge browser has the best built-in text_to_speech feature. And it reads PDFs too.

try two pages side by side

iOS books

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