Reading PDF in inverted colors/night mode

Inverted colors, dark mode or even night mode. If the name changes from app to app, the feature is the same: changing the page light background color into something dark, and changing its black text into something light. It’s great when reading PDFs in a low light environment and t’s essential when you suffer from some sort of extreme light sensibility, or have a terrible eyesight that makes it so you can’t read dark text on a light background on a screen.

Of all the apps I have tested, those three support some sort of inverted colors, at least partially for the last one.

Here is our reference PDF, for comparison. It is a scan of an old book: a simple black-and-white image, the text in it is not editable/selectable, with some handwritten annotation in red ink.

Xodo PDF Reader

Xodo uses a Modern/Fluid user interface, including a dark mode. It’s also clutter free: all menus are hidden behind a gesture or a right-click on the screen. It comes with a great inverted color mode. And has many (all?) editing capabilities you can wish: add annotations (handwritten or typed), highlights, underline. Plus, you can add, remove and reorder pages in the PDF (reordering pages is a dedicated menu that could be simpler to use, though). It’s really packed full. And it’s free, as in “free beer”.

To activate its inverted mode, right-click anywhere on the PDF and click the Page icon in the menu that appeared in the top right corner of the app:

There, you can decide how to display pages, and what colors to use. Next to the default (light) mode, you have a Night mode (the moon crescent) and a Sepia mode (the yellowish button next to it). You can also use your own colors (the “…” button), which can be very useful. Once the setting is set, the app will use it for every new PDF you open.

Drawboard PDF

Drawboard is not a free app, but it’s well worth its price ($12 but you’ll often see it on sale at 50% on the Microsoft Store, though: it is, right now). They also offer a more expensive subscription-based Pro version that you don’t need in order to access any of the basic features, including annotating your PDF and the use of inverted colors.

(A couple years back, if you purchased a Surface device, you’d get the app for free but I can’t find anywhere if this offer is still valid nowadays. An easy way to check: launch the Microsoft Store and search For Drawboard PDF. If you can purchase it, it means you don’t already own it. If not, you’ll only have the option to install it 😉)

Back to the app itself.

As Xodo, Drawboard uses a Modern/Fluid UI that plays nicely with Windows. Its editing capabilities are not as complete as far as I can tell, but they cover most needs: annotations, highlight and underline. Rotate, add or remove pages. It’s also almost as clutter free as Xodo: the only items you see in the next screenshot are the one I wanted to see. You can hide most.

All essential menus are always accessible through the round green little thingy you can see near in the top right of my screenshot. Click or touch it to deploy its content.

It’s great to access your most used tools and settings, especially with touch/pen.  Too bad it stays blindingly white with black text (and while we’re at it, please let us make the text in this neat wheel menu bigger). You  can also define some tools as favorites, and have them accessible in the right most menu bar which, unlike the wheel menu, fully supports dark mode making it much more usable for me.

I think Drawboard’s view settings are not as easy to find as Xodo’s, but once you know where they are, it’s quick. Open a PDF and click the Hamburger menu on the top left. There, click the Tabs menu. Then click the View & Layout menu to open a new panel. There, click Night Mode. It looks grayed out? Yep, mine too. That must be a design oversight, as it only means the setting is off by default not that you can’t use it.

Done. Alas, every time you open a new PDF you you’ll have to reactivate Night Mode. And, nope, the Set as default option at the bottom of our menu does not work with Night Mode. With a dark-friendly wheel menu, that’s something I’d really like to see in an update.

Adobe Reader DC

This is the free reader from Adobe (not their paid pro app, which as far as I know doesn’t offer anything more in regards of inverted colors mode). It’s the fastest app of the three to open big PDF files. But:

  • Its inverted mode is the poorest, when it works at all.
  • It’s really too well hidden in the settings.
  • The interface is too cluttered (worse than what the next screenshot lets you see, that’s its ‘decluttered’ reading mode).
  • It doesn’t support Microsoft’s Modern/Fluid components and none of its accessibility features, it feels dated and, well, not great at all to use when you have a poor eyesight.
  • Its editing capabilities are also the poorest: You can add annotations, highlights and underlines.

To activate Adobe’s inverted mode, go to Edit->Preferences. There, click Accessibility and check the Replace Document colors option (one will appreciate how the accessibility preferences doesn’t have a dark mode). Then, check Custom Color and change its default to black for page background and white for text, or use any other colors you need. The setting is now default for any new PDF you open, which is great.

Alas, and it’s a big drawback, this will only works with some type of PDF: those where the text is true text (where you can select it) and the original text better be black. I can’t make it work with image PDF (like many book scans are), or even in PDF where the text is not dark enough. Here what my old Maspero looks like using Adobe’s inverted colors:

So why do I keep on using Adobe, then? I barely do and only because it’s fast and… because its the only app I know that adds thumbnails preview support to the Windows File Explorer—Yeah, 2020 and Windows still can’t preview/display PDF thumbnails right out of the box.

Recommended app?

I use both Xodo and Drawboard as they let me do everything I need to do with PDF files. They both work well with Windows 10 Modern/Fluid accessibility features and its dark mode. They both let me easily use inverted colors with my PDFs.

But why do I use two apps? Because I like them both and, more importantly, because they don’t always render the inverted colors the same way. Depending the PDF I’m working on and how poor is my eyesight at that time, it  can make a huge difference in readability. Here is another old book scan, with its yellowed pages:

Xodo’s inverted mode:

And Drawboard’s:

One is not better than the other. But what I appreciate is to have the choice.

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