The Best E-Reader for PDF Books

I should have written this a long time ago, but honestly, I thought other people knew. I bought my first e-reader four years ago, and that was only because I was moving to China and wouldn’t be able to take my enormous library with me on the plane, which for me is like a junkie not being able to take his heroin. I was going to get a Kindle because it was the only one I’d even heard of, but then, somehow, I stumbled across the iRiver Story HD. And I’m so glad I did, because it’s been my best friend ever since.

The best thing about the iRiver is the way it handles PDF files. I read a lot of books that have been scanned from actual, physical copies, both they’re free online (such as from Google Books and archive.org) and because I prefer the look of the printed page to the sterile appearance of most e-book fonts and layouts.

Now, the problem with PDFs for most people using some kind of e-ink device is that you’re stuck reading the whole page on a tiny screen, with only a primitive zoom option to help you. Not so with the iRiver Story.

iriver3iRiver’s internal PDF software is made by Adobe and comes with a feature called Text Reflow, which reads the embedded text in a PDF file the same way that other e-readers read the text in an epub, mobi, or Amazon file, fitting it to your screen and allowing you to adjust the font size.

There are two types of PDF files that have embedded text. First are those which are not scanned, but are produced from various word processor programs like Word or Pages. These read very well, basically the same as an epub or mobi file.

Then there are PDFs which are scans of book or magazine pages, and which have been run through an OCR program to recognize the letters on the page and create an embedded text for the document.

A regular OCR program will recognize the text (or not, depending on the quality of the image and how recognizable the letters actually are) and then assign a font to to letters. The result is a text file that is readable, but which looks nothing like the printed page when you turn the Reflow option on.

And unfortunately, most of the free epubs that are available on Google Books and Archive are converted from these shoddy OCR text files, meaning that they are not formatted very well, and are replete with errors.

The best OCR program for scans of books is Adobe’s Clearscan, available as part of Acrobat Pro. Clearscan makes a font from the actual image of the letters as they appear on the page, which means that when you turn on the Reflow, it still looks like the printed page, only bigger, and formatted to your screen. I absolutely love it.

Take a look at this page from Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being, courtesy of our friends over at Archive:

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It’s not the best quality scan – the letters have a lot of fuzzy edges – but it’s readable. I ran the page through Clearscan, and now here it is again with Reflow turned on and the text enlarged:

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You can see that not only is it a lot more readable, but it preserves the character of the printed page – literally and figuratively.

With a high quality scan, the results are even better. Here’s a page from The Portable Thomas Wolfe, also courtesy of Archive:

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And here’s the same page, Clearscanned and with Reflow on:

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As you can see, the results are not perfect. Sometimes the lines end up double-spaced for no reason, and you lose the indentation at the beginning of paragraphs. But nonetheless, for the sheer number of books that this feature makes available to you, and at only the cost of the e-reader and the software – I think it’s more than worth it.

As of this writing, the iRiver Story is still available. At only $99 bucks, it’s a steal, even if you just want it for reading epubs and don’t care about PDFs at all. However, iRiver has not actively promoted this product since 2011, and I suspect that they’re just selling off the remaining stock. Which means that you should get yours NOW, because who knows how much longer they’ll be available.

Personally, I’m going to stockpile a few of them unless and until I hear about a better option for reading PDFs.

(If anyone knows of a similar or better e-reader that can handle Clearscan PDFs as well as other file formats, please let me know in the comments.)

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