Reading PDFs on Your Android Tablet or Phone

When I kicked off my “LCD vs eInk vs paper” smackdown, one of our readers emailed me asking about PDFs on the Camangi Webstation. I was slightly ashamed to admit that I hadn’t actually tried them yet! Reading ebooks on it had been such a great experience that I hadn’t branched out to PDFs yet, but that email gave me the impetus to try a few different options.

Unfortunately, the Camangi does not come with access to the official Android Marketplace, so this limited my options slightly. I was able to download Documents to Go and unlock the PDF to Go option on the Camangi, so I have been using that exclusively to read PDFs. I also have the free, opensource program DroidReader that I have used extensively. On my Motorola Droid, I’ve also given Repligo a shot. I actually have had an unusually high number of PDFs to read lately, so between my personal files and a few suggested to me I’ve been able to really test the Android PDF reading experience.

First, Documents to Go. While it is a bit pricey (regularly $19.99, on sale for $9.99 temporarily) to buy a whole office suite just for PDFs, the flexibility to include word documents and excel spreadsheets made it worthwhile for me to just grab D2G for the Camangi. While PDF to Go opened files just fine, it did require some zooming and tweaking to look right. This was worse on PDFs with two columns. With those, the options were to read vertically and suffer small print, but cram both columns on-screen, or read horizontally and more comfortably but scroll up and down to follow the flow of the print. Neither worked great, though the horizontal method was far easier on my eyes. Single column PDFs were not as much of a problem. Unfortunately, all PDFs had some lag time. It appears as though Documents to Go loads just one page at a time, so scrolling to the next page meant getting a blank screen, waiting a few seconds, then getting the actual page. Not as big of a deal for reference documents, but when you’re attempting to read a textbook on it the whole rhythm of studying gets choppy.

On the bright side, PDF to Go had no issues with any files, even large and graphics-heavy ones. I had it try to open a dual column newsletter that ran approximately 75 pages, complete with charts and graphics, and there were no issues. The omnipresent page lag was there, but it was not any worse than with a smaller, text-heavy file. I really wanted Documents to Go to be fantastic since the Camangi is a great size for portable reading, but unfortunately, the software is not quite there for it to be perfect yet.

I also tried DroidReader on the Camangi. This is a free, open source reader, and it is just for PDFs. In my experience, it was iffy at best. One, there was no way to bookmark your place, and there was no option to add notes. It did render PDFs smoothly and quickly, even a large, high color PDF. However, this app was more of a “duck in, get the information you need, duck out” type of reader, because of one HUGE flaw. Every time the device changed orientations (from portrait to landscape or back), it kicked me out of the PDF file. So I had to go back into the file system, select my document, and find my place all over again. Apparently this is because the app has a built-in rotation utility, but unfortunately, this puts the app at odds with the accelerometer, causing the weird bug. DroidReader also had a rather unintuitive page turn system, where you had to hit a small button in the corner instead of swiping left/right or up/down. I found it to be a good idea in theory, but it did not work out as well in practice.

Repligo works very, very well. It has a “reading mode” that basically fits the PDF to your screen. The only downside is that you get the same page load lag that Docs to Go had. But with the tradeoff of significantly improved readability, it is worth it, as long as you adjust your reading speed accordingly. Zoomed mode does NOT have the same lag and renders fairly smoothly. To make zoom easier, the app has a handy “zoom all the way in/all the way out” button in the lower right corner. Temporarily on sale for $1.99, normally $7.99, this is definitely the way to go if you need a dedicated PDF reader and don’t already have an office suite on your device. Unfortunately, Repligo is only available through the Android marketplace, and I had a fruitless exchange with their customer service about being able to buy it directly for use on a tablet. It’s a shame, as the army of Android tablets on their way would be a great audience for this app.

So after all this babbling and comparing, what am I using for my PDF reading? I am sticking with Docs to Go. As I said, it’s a bit pricey and laggy with page turns, but when you get past those issues it is the most full-featured and stable of the bunch. I was able to read a few professional documents, along with a whole chapter of a textbook; not having to carry my heavy textbook was a nice bonus, even if I only used it once in a while. If Repligo were available for tablets it would be a different story. On my Droid I am using Repligo; I grabbed it for $1.99 and it is well worth the price. If you can stand reading an entire PDF on a small screen, Repligo is a better choice. But for now, and for tablets that do not have PDF readers bundled in, Docs to Go is the best of an (unfortunately) small field.

If there are any PDF programs out there that I missed, please let me know in the comments!

(Special thanks to reader Bob Russell for the suggestion to create this article, and for providing some of the test PDFs!)


About the Author

Carly Z
Carly has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to her first PDA (a Palm M100). She quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. She loves writing about ebooks because they combine her two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?