I use a Hanvon ewise reader. While I'm mostly happy with using it for novels, I have several difficulties with reading scientific texts:

  • Some figures are not displayed
  • Reflowing (displaying 2 column text as one column) does not work where there's formulas or graphics
  • The display is too small to read many pdfs in fulltext, and the zoom function works erratically

The problem is that, before buying the reader, I could not have known of these problems. How do I translate "none of the quirks above" into specs to shop for a new reader?

I want to stick with an e-ink device.
Edit to add: Practically all papers and science textbooks I have are pdf.


It's hard to tell exactly what is going wrong without being able to at least poke around inside the files you're having problems with, unfortunately. Just as not all ebook readers are created equal, not all ebook files are created equal. Images not showing up could be conversion errors as much as they could be problems with your device. It might not be a bad idea to check out the files on other reading systems (there are a myriad of free desktop reading systems, like the Chrome extension Readium, the Firefox EPUBReader add-on, and good old Adobe Digital Editions). If the images don't show up in those systems either, it's probably a problem in the ebook file rather than with your device.

For scientific texts, I would advise that you check to be sure the reading system supports MathML, which will allow properly formatted equations to show up as readable, searchable text. Note that for MathML to work, the manuscript must have been formatted properly, and since not all reading systems support MathML, not all publishers necessarily bother with it. Since this is a chicken/egg problem, I'd advocate picking up a MathML reader and making sure to harass publishers that don't use MathML until they do. You can use the support grid at epubtest.org to find MathML-capable systems, but most of that information is geared toward tablets.

For reflowing not working where there are formulas or graphics—do you mean that the images (and formulas that aren't MathML are frequently just images, to preserve formatting) aren't expanding in size when the font is increased, for example? That's something that you'll see in any ebook reader, I'm afraid. The best you can do there is get something with a good zoom feature, which unfortunately argues against eInk devices.

Display size is probably the easiest single criteria to look into, though it's also fairly subjective—what's fine for you to read my be too cramped for me. As mentioend above, zooming is going to be somewhat problematic on any eInk device, as the refresh rate for eInk is much slower than for a tablet screen. If tablets are absolutely not an option, you might want to look around for eInk readers with large displays; a quick search found me this article.

Best of luck with your search!

EDIT: Here's a good summary of which reading systems support MathML: http://www.mathjax.org/resources/epub-readers/

  • reflowing not working means the page is not reflowed, but only displayed as a normal page. together with the zoom issues this can make it hard to read at all. All my textbooks and science papaers are pdf. Great answer, thanks!
    – mart
    Apr 17 '14 at 19:41
  • I know that a reflowable PDF format exists, but that's about the extent of my familiarity with it--I'm afraid I won't be of much help as far as those not reflowing properly goes. Hope the rest is helpful!
    – Tom
    Apr 17 '14 at 19:47
  • @Tom the link to mathjax.org is out of date -- it was moved to the documentation docs.mathjax.org/en/latest/misc/epub.html Feb 28 '16 at 9:28

I had similar problems since most of the (physics-related) articles I read have two columns of text and lots of equations and figures. I can recommend a free software tool called "k2pdfopt" written by William Menninger. It re-arranges the text flow of PDFs and optimizes them to the size of the e-reader screen. I'm really impressed by the results. Most importantly for me, it renders equations correctly and it automatically detects and reflows text in columns (even from scanned PDFs). It's not a perfect world, though, e.g. it sometimes misinterprets a hyphen that happens to appear at the end of a line for a dash, so when the positions of line breaks change due to text reflow then the two words that should be separated by a hyphen are merged into a single word.

You would run k2pdfopt on your computer and feed it with an article that you want to read. It outputs an optimized version of that article, which you can then transfer to your e-reader. As I use this tool a lot I wrote a browser extension that makes the conversion process a bit easier. It works with Chrome and Firefox and it adds a small button to your browser whenever you're navigating to the download page of a scientific article. If you click this button, the extension downloads the article, runs it through k2pdfopt, and optionally sends it to your e-reader. If you're interested, you may download the extension from my website (since I just know that some people are going to complain about alleged advertisement: please note that I'm not making any money with this browser extension and I'm just offering it to others because I find it useful and I don't see a point in keeping the program for myself. Also, I really think it's relevant to this question. So please, holster your weapons).


In addition to what Tom said, a few suggestions for your consideration. PDFs on e-ink readers gain greatly by being tightly cropped so you don't waste screen space. For that, the free software BRISS works very well as it selects crop areas close to the text, areas that you are free to adjust. As far as reflowing and zooming I can only speak about the Kindle DX. Out of the box the Kindle DX, now a four-year-old device, is low on features, but its large screen and built-in keyboard make it an attractive contender. When I read a PDF that puts too much strain on the standard Amazon software, I read the document in Librerator, which is alternate software for the DX. It has wonderful zooming and shortcuts, but I'm not sure the reflowing will be adequate for your needs. It is a bit tricky to install and will probably void the warranty.

The best would be if you could test a document on various readers already owned by people in your local area.


In my personal opinion, pdf and e-ink do not go together well. The problem is that pdf is not really reflowable, so you must stick with the page format of the paper.

Besides the suggestions already made (try Kindle DX which has a larger screen, crop as much as possible the page so that you won't waste screen estate with blank margins) try and see if it is possible to rotate the screen so that you read in landscape mode half a page at a time. It's a bit of a mess with two-column text, but the higher resolution could help you.

  • The Kindle DX, which I have already recommended, does include an accelerometer to sense when you rotate it, and allows a PDF to be read a half page at a time in landscape mode as you suggest.
    – tcrosley
    Apr 18 '14 at 17:01

The Kindle DX was specifically designed to render PDF files in their native format (including multi-column material, tables and graphics) and was designed to be used in an academic environment. It has a 9.7" e-ink screen, which I believe is the largest of any e-reader (the Kindle Fire HD has a 7" screen). You can also zoom in to 200% of the original text.

It is available through Amazon for $300.

It includes a full keyboard, 3G free "whispernet" connection for downloads, runs up to three weeks on a battery charge with the wireless off, and is one of the thinnest e-readers out there (1/3 inch).

It also includes an accelerometer to sense when you rotate it, to allow a PDF to be read a half page at a time in landscape mode with much larger type.

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