Google Books PDF Smackdown: NookColor Vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab Vs. iPad

NOTE (May 14, 2011): This is just about the most popular post here. People are very interested in this topic. Go look at this post too and the backlinks at the bottom of it for more on the subject.

NOTE (May 18, 2011): Google Books PDF On HTC Flyer


Google Books is a special interest of mine. Primarily because there’s a lot of them I want to read. And I’m not exaggerating: I have about 2,000 PDFs of them downloaded (so far).

So tablet hardware has to be able to handle these PDFs to be of any real use to me.

Today I got to test Google Books PDFs on a NookColor, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and an Apple iPad running iOS 4.2.1.

Which one could handle the job?

I’m going to skip details of what each device is like. Everyone knows what the iPad is like and most people understand an Android tablet — at least in the case of the Samsung Galaxy Tab — is just a larger version of an Android phone. I’ll save details about the NookColor for a separate post.

There’s one book I use as a test every time. It’s called Success: A Novel. [UPDATE: Some people outside the U.S. have stated they can’t download this PDF. It’s public domain so I don’t know why Google Books is disallowing it. Here is a link to it on Google Docs.] It’s not onerous to download using WiFi and the size of the PDF shouldn’t be a problem for any device asking for people’s money to be able to handle.

Aside from iPad screensnaps, all photos have been resized and rescaled to VGA. Each image can be clicked to enlarge.

That’s the book in Google Books. [Update: It was, prior to December 6, 2010 and the launch of Google eBookstore. The UI of Google Books has now changed.]

I downloaded the PDF to the NookColor. Tapping on the listing in My Downloads automagically opens it to read:

And that was the first sign of trouble. What is that placeholder in the upper left corner? That’s where the Google logo JPEG is supposed to be!

I’m going to show two enlargements of that so people can verify it’s the usual spam Google slaps in the front of their files:

There. That’s settled.

But it didn’t get better as I went on:

Uh, WTF? Where’s the book? It didn’t get better at all. All pages more or less looked like that or like this:

The PDF was worthless. And that puzzled the hell out of me. Because other people had downloaded test PDFs to the NookColor and I tried those (but didn’t snap pictures). They worked just fine.

Curious, I decided to download the ePub version of the file because I wanted to see what would happen with that:

OK, that’s good. We have a cover. Next!

And we have Google’s spam notice in text. Then:

Houston, we have an image! So WTF? That’s the same JPEG image that should have appeared in the PDF. As I pointed out in this post, Google is very lax (to put it mildly) in creating its ePubs, making them a bizarre mixture of badly OCRed typos-from-Hell text and JPEGs that are also in the PDF version.

I have to hand it to the NookColor, though. Page turns through those images was zippy. There was no delay moving from full-page image to full-page image in the ePub (something that many eInk devices really struggle to do).

Anyway, as far as the PDF goes, I was stumped. The Barnes & Noble rep was stumped.

Then I decided to try something crazy. I would try to download that PDF onto an eInk Nook and see if that could read it. This Nook was running the latest version of the OS, 1.4, but it gave me this complaint:

So, no can do.

As far as the NookColor goes, forget it if you’re interested in reading Google Books PDFs.

Next up was the shiny new Samsung Galaxy Tab with the Screw You pricing of $599 out of contract.

After the PDF was downloaded, I had to find it. It was somewhere in a Notification Bar. Clicking on it brought me to ThinkFree Office, which I got to de-virginize as no one before me had ever used it. After tapping the button to Activate it …

Uh-oh. We have that placeholder instead of the Google logo again!


Let’s see that $599-device not handling that PDF in some pinch-out zoom action:

So, yeah. Despite the fact the Samsung Galaxy Tab costs twice as much as a NookColor, it craps out on Google Books PDFs too!

I blame all this on Google. You would think their own damned OS would be able to handle their own damned PDFs, right?

Now let’s go to the iPad. I was especially interested in trying it on a 4.2.1 iPad. I’d tried a Google Books PDF (not this test one) on an iPhone 4 several weeks ago and the experience was pretty gory. Truthfully, I didn’t think the iPad would be any better. But I hoped!

Here is Google Books:

I want you to enlarge that and see the flanking arrows I’ve highlighted because they’re important.

Those arrows do not work properly in Opera 11 beta, which I’ve switched to. On the NookColor and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the arrows work but the scrolling of the thumbnails is sluggish and only increment by one or two instead of showing an entirely new “shelf” of them.

On the iPad, the arrows work properly!

For those of you at home who want to play along, here’s the Google Books screen with the book we are using:

And here it is in Google Books:

Downloading it:

Now I have to tell you that file selector at the upper right — asking me if I wanted to open it in iBooks — worried me. I’d expected to be given a choice between iBooks and Pages. But I wasn’t. This was also the case with that earlier test PDF I tried on the iPhone 4. Really, I was not looking forward to going through the iBooks gore again. But, what the hell, I did it:

There’s the Google spam page. But, uh-oh! Where is that nasty Google logo?

Next page:

A blank page!!! My heart sank. Is there no tablet that can handle the Google Books PDF Monster?! What hath Google wrought? What are these things that only desktops can handle them?

But wait! There’s more!!

Tapping on the center of the PDF brings up thumbnails. And I could see that the iPad was processing the PDF. Was there still hope?

OMG! Yes! Yes! Yes!! The Google Books PDF can be read on the iPad!!

So, here is what happens. When the PDF is opened, the iPad must chew on the damned thing first. How long this will take, I don’t know. I have some Google Books PDFs that are over 350MBs in size. I didn’t feel suicidal enough today to try one of those. Maybe I will want to slit my wrists that way at a later date — or one of you reading this at home can go do it and report in a Comment — should you survive!

Not everything is smooth sailing, however. I don’t know what’s going on technically, but iBooks is only able to show clear PDF images of three pages at a time. When you hit page four, you get blur, like this:

The blur doesn’t resolve into a clear image for up to five seconds.

So reading a Google Books PDF would be like this: page 1 clear, page 2 clear, page 3 clear, page 4 blur wait several seconds.

Not perfect. If this is a matter of RAM or coding, I hope it’s something Apple has been working on its labs.

I know that I’m probably on the edge of use wanting to read Google Books PDFs on a tablet, but dammit, that’s what a tablet should be able to do: handle Google Books PDFs for easy reading. Who wants to sit at a desktop? I’ve done that; it’s not relaxing!

For those who will defend the iPad in this by blaming Google: talk to the hand. Personally, I’m pleased the iPad can do these, even though the experience is not yet optimal. Who knows if the iPad 2 coming next year will alleviate all this with a faster CPU or more RAM? It probably will.

But for now, anyone who wants a tablet device to read Google Books PDFs, there is clearly only one choice: the iPad.

Update: I’ve neglected to link to an update post: Google Books PDF On Rooted NookColor


Filed under Android, Digital Book, Google, Google Books PDFs, iOS, Other Hardware

46 responses to “Google Books PDF Smackdown: NookColor Vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab Vs. iPad

  1. joelmartin

    We desperately need an app on iPad the reads Google books smoothy – without having to download the PDF. I can’t believe Google or someone hasn’t done this yet. Listen to me Google!

    • mikecane

      Oh god no. Not an app. I want the PDF images. That’s the real book. Google ePubs are a frikkin disaster (see link that the post) and I don’t want them coming up with something else that will make it all worse!

      • D.N. Stoddart

        But the PDF images are so bad because of the awful quality of the OCR scans. The user just wants to read a nicely formatted book on the Web, not download the PDF, right?

      • mikecane

        No, the PDF images are more or less fine. The OCR text only comes into play when selecting image text for copying. Then the OCR text is used for copying, not the image. And there’s nothing wrong with that (although I didn’t try selecting text for copying on the iPad today).

    • Tom

      Blio downloads the books from Google Books and converts them to whatever its native format is. I use it on my Asus T91MT. (Google it or see my other comment)

  2. laura

    Interesting and disappointing that the Nook and Galaxy don’t handle these PDFs. I’m curious; are all Google Books PDF files simply a series of images of the pages, or do some of them contain text elements for searching or copy/paste while you are reading?

    • mikecane

      There is the OCRed text embedded in them. So when you select text on the image and do Copy, it’s copying the embedded text that corresponds to the image.

      • Tobias Bray

        The Google eReader app for Android reproduces pdfs on the Galaxy just fine. I also use the Nook reader application. The technology is immature – look for more improvements and disappointments in the future.

  3. Hugo

    If you have another chance and the inkling to try the Galaxy Tab again (or another Android device) you should try with the official Adobe Reader app (in Market)… it’s a thousand times better/faster/more robust than ThinkFree Office for viewing PDFs.

    • mikecane

      Not sure if I could get away with installing an app on a demo model. Was surprised I was able to download the PDF. I tried it on a Dell Streak a week or two ago and the connection got severed.

      • s

        I can confirm that Google Book PDFs display perfectly using the Android Adobe Reader app on my Nexus One.

      • mikecane

        Any delays in the page image being sharp or moving from page to page? And does it open quickly?

      • will

        I can also confirm your book works perfectly on adobes android app. loads plenty speedily on my nexus, loads in native quality with very little delay, no initial blurring. should be great on the tab. also the arrows on google books work fine for me.

      • The latest version is much faster and for most PDF documents, there is no delay in rendering pages, or moving between them.

  4. claire m

    If you download Good Reader, go to “Web Downloads” -> “Browse the Web”, THEN browse to, and perform the same actions you did in safari, it will download and you can begin reading it immediately, this is what I do. I use my iPad mostly for reading.

  5. D.N. Stoddart

    It seems to me that as long as the OCR scans are bad, there isn’t much a third party developer can do to fix the problem. Thoughts?

  6. Chase

    Just tried the same PDF on my Kindle 3 and it displays fine. Page turning is a little sluggish because the pages are images but it still much faster than 5 seconds.

    • I just tried this on Kindle 3 as well. Like most PDFs the text is a little small in portrait mode, but is quite readable and actually one of the better PDFs I’ve tried. You could put it in landscape mode, but I find that a little annoying because you end up losing your place in the text when you ‘page down’ to the bottom section of the page. Zoom is pointless because the levels of zoom start at 150% which chops off half the words on each line. But it is sharp enough to read in portrait mode just as long as your eyes can handle small text.

      Although Chase is quite correct about the sluggish page load, this is only a problem if you are rapidly turning the pages. The Kindle appears to pre-load the next page, so in most reading situations it is going to display the page faster than I can turn a page in a paper book.

      Incidentally, I had to grab the copy from Google Docs because it was only available in ‘snippet view’ as you mentioned above. Now I’m wondering how many other public domain books aren’t available to me from Britain.

      • mikecane

        Well, if you come across any PD books you want, let me know. Thanks for testing. It’s looking like I really need a NookColor for the PDFs — until I can afford an iPad. Even the NookColor is iffy, thanks to the kittens.

  7. Devin Coldewey

    None of these things seem to support JPEG2000, which is how Google Books encodes images larger than some threshold x. There are a couple apps that add it in, but most PDF readers rely on built-in stuff in iOS or Android.

    I read PDFs off Google Books all the time in GoodReader, it’s quick and works well. If you need the images, as I do, you can resave the PDF using Preview if you’re on a Mac, it’ll get like 8 times bigger but the images will show.

  8. Ed

    I just tried that same book in GoodReader on the iPad. There were some blank pages up front, with what looked like what was some ink blotting on them, but once I got to the title page, it and every page after (I checked the page numbers) showed perfectly.

    It’s faster than iBooks, too. You won’t notice much of a difference, though there is a slight one, if you quickly scroll through the book, but if you are reading it then forward page turns will be instant, because it processes the next page while you read. You can also copy the link for the PDF download and have the app save the PDF without using iTunes, so it’s comparable in convenience to iBooks.

  9. sbuboo

    I like testing like this, but apart from the nook, you’re really just testing apps. As some other commenters have suggested, you should expand your test to other options on both ipad and android. Specifically the official adobe reader on android, since android doesn’t actually have a first party reader like iOS does. That would be a much more interesting comparison.

    • mikecane

      I have to leave that up to readers. I don’t own and am unlikely to buy a Galaxy Tab. I’ve wanted people to do such posts about Android and Google Books PDF, but it seems no one using Android tablets has been interested in doing so.

  10. Trying

    Good to see a review dissecting PDF support. Poor PDF rendering has been holding back e-readers for a while.

    Now onto my question, how were you able to download the PDF of this particular book (Success: A Novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams) ?

    I am not very familiar with Google Books, but when I follow the link provided in the review above, all I get is 38 pages (out of 533) and a link to “Where is the rest of the book?”.

    I tried Advanced Search in Google Books and got a few more hits, but all were either snippet preview or limited preview.

    Is Google Books country specific? (I am in Europe).

  11. Sam Hill

    As mentioned. Adobe Reader displays the pdf just fine and very quickly on the Galaxy Tab. The Epub version displays perfectly using Aldiko Reader on the Galaxy.

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  13. Thanks for this post. I have an iPad but have been curious about the other two devices. As others have mentioned, I had good results opening the PDF in GoodReader.

    Regarding your update pasted below:

    “UPDATE: Some people outside the U.S. have stated they can’t download this PDF. It’s public domain so I don’t know why Google Books is disallowing it.”

    Public domain is country specific. From Google guidelines: “Whether a book is in the public domain may vary country to country.”

    If Google books is disallowing the download, I would strongly suspect it is not in the public domain in those countries.

  14. Tom

    How about this one, Asus T91MT? It does everything Windows can do, including read this PDF in your choice of applications. I am pretty fond of Blio Reader which downloads the book from within the app and then converts it to its own format and displays beautifully and then stays out of your way so you can read the book.

    Amazon’s Kindle for Windows app works fairly well too. I guess it probably compares to the Kindle anyway.

  15. kabir

    This is true.
    One suggestion
    When viewing PDF’s on the ipad in iBooks then first let it process the file then when page 1 turns up you go to the last page and wait for it to become clear. Then when you go back to page 1′ it will be clear through the whole book.
    That is what happened to me anyway!

  16. Steven Troughton-Smith

    Just for reference; if you open a PDF in iBooks on the iPad and switch to the page thumbnail view and let it cache all the thumbnails, then you shouldn’t have the huge delay when flipping through pages later.

    Ymmv :-)

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  18. Hassan Gardezi

    I’ve been using tablets for more than five years now – first Acer, now Toshiba protege – primarily for reading, annotating, highlighting and OCR-text proofing PDFs. I’m hooked to the ease of reading before hitting the bed. And that’s about the only use I use it for. But the weight coupled with start-up delay of the tablet is becoming an issue for me, so I’m wondering if the iPad, or the Galaxy is a suitable alternative. Mind you, I don’t just need to read; but highlight, annotate, and scribbling-in some notes (using a pen perhaps or the keyboard). Any ideas?

  19. Mike have you repeated the pdf test with the iPad2? I have to get home this evening to try myself. Just wondering if your findings are different with the iPad 2.


  20. I just purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 and have found Think Office, which the Tab comes with, to be an excellent PDF reader. I have used it for books and articles and they are very readable. I will not be downloading any other app.

  21. tablet reviews

    well the tablet wars continue. This years versions seem to handle things better.

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