How-to Use an iPad to browse an external PDF Library

Summary :

How to use the iPad as a reading tool for a large library of files.

The use of two specific apps is suggested :

  • FileExplorer Pro does almost all what is needed.
  • And Files complements FileExplorer Pro very well for the missing parts.

Which easily handles the suggested use of a :

  • A ( simple in-expensive ) personal Network Server ( SMB or WEBdav ).

The Challenge :

iOS does not directly allow an old iPad to access external storage, like an USB storage of some kind. Not even in version 13 ( see paragraph below ).

So what to do when you want to browse your library of 30GB of PDF files and HTML files. Thousands of files ..

2021 update : The above is not quite true. iOS does allow you to connect an USB drive to an iPad PRO even with a lightning connector. You will then need a Lightning-to-USB dongle, a simple power isolating USB hub, an Y-splitter USB cable, a USB drive and a power-source for the drive. It will work but it is far from elegant and takes away the freedom to use the iPad without wires attached.

Why bother :

The 9.7″ iPad has a superior display. It is bright, high resolution and it has the right display proportions, 4:3 ( 2048×1536 ). So in portrait orientation it resembles reading a book. And it is lightweight. It doesn’t get ( much ) better than that.

What not to do :

Have a little horror/fun reading this procedure how to transfer PDF files to an iPad :

The Solution – Preamble :

I have tinkered to find the proper solution for years. The primary problem is that I don’t like the way Apple wants me to do things.

What I describe next is what really works for me. Maybe others will benefit from reading about my setup.

Apple wants me to copy any file I want to read into the storage space allocated for the file reader, say iBooks. That cumbersome procedure would be OK if I knew which file I wanted to read, in advance. But often I don’t know that or I jump from one reading one file to reading another. Just browsing.   

Apple also wants me to put all files into one big container. No separation of related files into sub folder. Apple prefers to have you tag the files and sort files according to their tags. This concept has worked in iTunes for decades, so it does work. But not for books though as there is no standard concept of tagging books.

But I won’t rely on embedded tagging. I am basically a Windows guy. I want file separation in folders and sub folders. And I want to see files arranged according to their names in folders named according to subject.

One option would be to copy all of the files to the storage space for the preferred file reader. The space is there. But you will soon figure out that you have problems :

  • Can you cluster your files into folders of related content. Not all file readers support that.
  • Can you see a nice organized listing of the files. And not just a mess of file icons and a silly shortened version of the file name. Again not always.
  • Can you re-organize the files if you rename a file or want to put it into another folder. Again not always.

Any seasoned iPad user will recognize these problems and will know that an iPad isn’t the space and isn’t the tool, where you want to keep the files you want to manage.

Searching files :

I should mention that Windows and Linux allows the use of a program called DocFetcher. It is kind of a local Google Search Engine and will index the files content on a drive or a folder. It is brilliant. Except it doesn’t exist for iOS.

The Solution – The Network part :

The White Knight To The Rescue is the concept of Cloud space, or in broader terms (personal-) Network space.

Some put the files and folders onto a Cloud space. It could be Dropbox, iCloud or OneDrive and more. I don’t quite like that solution because it means that you will need access to public WWAN or LAN and you will need to download files from the Cloud. Which may be slow and may cost you. Among other limitations.

I prefer the personal Network space solution. This solution means that you establish your own mobile personal Server and your own private speedy WLAN and access the files using the iPad when you need a file. And you can just manage the files to your liking using your normal computer. No need to sync to any iPad or Cloud.

In order for the personal Network space solution to work you need an app on the iPad that :

  • can connect to the server without fuzz, that is having a proper UI,
  • present the content in an organized way,
  • transfer the file you want to read to the iPad without fuzz,
  • open the file for reading and finally when done reading,
  • delete the file copy on the iPad.    

When you look at it then you realize that the iPad concept is really not designed for this kind of use. You need an app that is both a competent network connector, a competent file browser and a competent file reader. Competent in the way I understand it. Which may be different from what other understands as competent.

Quite surprisingly these apps exist and at least one of them is just right for this purpose.

The Solution – The Devices part :

In order to select the right app then you have to figure out what kind of network protocol you want to use. I see two protocol candidates :

  • SMB and
  • WEBdav

SMB is the protocol a NAS uses. You don’t want to tug around a real NAS but there are some smaller one’s ( with less features ).

WEBdav is a protocol WEB designers use to manage files. It is a protocol for file exchange, but for some reason not popular and mostly not properly supported by apps even if they claim to support it.

A mobile SMB server could be this one ( hard to get, seems deprecated in 2021 ) :

The Verbatim MediaShare Wireless. The size is like a 2.5″ hard disk. It is not heavy.

The thing includes a decent battery lasting hours, but includes no internal storage. So you insert a full size SD card and/or attach an USB SSD disk/stick. It supports ExFAT and NTFS but not HFS.

It generates its own network ( ) and it supports pass-through to another LAN and the Internet. And pass-through really works as claimed which is a major feat.

It actually supports bridging between its own network and computers on the home network. Quite impressive.

It is not a media server like most NAS’s. No Twonky server or anything.

The best thing is that it is surprisingly cheap ( in 2020 ). 25$ or so. 

A mobile SMB server could also be this one :

The Verbatim MediaShare Wireless Mini. The size is like a slightly oversize USB Dongle. It is not heavy.

This unit hides a rubber covered SDXC micro adapter in one end, supporting up to 128GB. It has no external USB disk interface but has an USB connector in the other end for charging and direct USB connection.

It includes a battery for some hours operation. Attached to a USB power source it runs forever.

Its WI-FI capability is mostly like the Verbatim unit shown above, except this one also includes a un-fancy media server. And its bridging mode supports two ways access. You can access it using its SSID name as expected. But you can also access it using its IP address from the bridged-to WLAN. Very flexible. And it works.

Connected directly to USB it will store data with a rate of over 25 MBytes/sec to an in-expensive 128GB Sandisk Ultra A1 card ( ~25$ ). Impressive.

And with the low prices for SD cards this unit actually offers limitless storage capacity.

A mobile WEBdav server could be this one ( hard to get, seems deprecated in 2021 ) :

The SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick. The size can be judged by the copper cover for the USB connector. So it is small.

The thing includes a tiny battery ( for a few hours ) and internal storage in selected sizes. It is formatted in ExFAT. So you just connect it to the computer to manage the files to your liking. The storage is speedy as a good SD storage, but not SSD speedy.

It generates its own network ( ) when not connected to USB and it should support pass-through to another LAN and the Internet. Pass-through usually fails so don’t count on that feature.

The drive functionality is very robust and if a file gets locked the app software can fix that. I have not lost any files or have had any file system corruption which is quite nice for a hot-plug device.

The thing is also surprisingly cheap ( in 2020 ). 25$ or so for 64GB.

The Solution – The App(s) part :

So now remains to find the iPad apps that will support these servers and have the desired PDF file reading characteristics :

  • Built-in file manager that supports the desired servers.
  • Connects to the server without fuzz. And remembers the selected setup.
  • Immediate start of file transfer when clicking on a file without unnecessary questions, like where to copy to and similar ( and worse ) annoyances.
  • Does not create a local copy just for reading a remote file.
  • Includes file name phrase search which is useful when locating a file among thousands.
  • File selection lists are multi line so long titles can be read in full length.
  • Supports chapter index ( aka Content Index ) lookup.
  • Supports go-to desired page or at least search for page number.
  • Supports phrase search in the file.
  • Both landscape and portrait view supported.
  • Supports expand-to-width view.
  • Optional : Supports viewing 2 pages at the same time.

These devices typically also is delivered with their own app supporting file operations and configuration. The usefulness of such apps is limited. Only the configuration may be useful except even that is typically manageable using the built-in web admin page. The mini mentioned above is accessed by

I have -only- found this general app :

FileExplorer Pro

  • Supports both SMB and WEBdav.
  • Supports all the desired features except for the 2 page viewing mode.

The mentioned servers also comes with their own app including a file browser and a file reader ( for both HTML and PDF ). But the problem is that the included file readers are bare bones as available in the development kits for iOS. No search, No page scroll. Not usable for reading anything except pamphlets and such.

Android version :

Although not the subject of this posting ( no need for such ) then a similar FE version for Android is worth looking at. It contains a nice file browser including network access and it opens documents using the Android preferred reader for whatever file type.

The Solution – The less useful App(s) part :

There are more apps that will read from one or both of the servers. A listing of other reputed and (well-known) candidates could be :


  • Simple browsing.
  • Does not generate a local file copy.
  • No distinctive PDF reading features except page view.

Documents 5

  • Cannot connect to anything even if it thinks it does.
  • Pity because it is a nice PDF reader.


  • Very unfriendly file browser and a very clumsy file selection procedure.
  • Pity because it a superior PDF reader and PDF editor.

There aren’t that many apps that are candidates. Which makes sense when you think of all the disciplines a good app must master.

The Solution – Summary :

This concludes my exploration into having a nice PDF reading setup :

  • It works reliable.
  • It is affordable.
  • It is easy to maintain.
  • It is easy to carry around.
  • It works as long as you need if you bring along a little Powerbox. 

I have stated that the setup is intended to be used in a scenario to conveniently select a file from thousands such.

Actually I would use the same setup to manage just 10 files.

The Solution – Integrating with Files :

The newer versions of iOS includes a very useful app called Files. It is an app that let other apps expose their files to the Files app. Files can then do something with those files.

FileExplorer Pro supports Files. So when selecting FileExplorer Pro as the server in Files then Files can browse the content. Files show file names abbreviated ( shows start and end but cuts the middle part ) which is quite annoying but still usable.

The reason to bother using Files at all is that it has a few browsing tricks :

  • It allows you to simply jump from file to file within a folder while Quick View a small part of the file. Just like browsing through a mail listing in Outlook. The app jumps from file to file when swiping left-right. Swiping up-down selects page.
  • It has a chapter index pull-down like viewing option while viewing a file. Except that it shows a listing of the files within the folder instead. So one can easily jump one selected file to another.
  • There is no file name search nor text search for phrases within a file.
  • It has built-in basic viewers of various file types. Fine for browsing.

Files complements FileExplorer Pro very well for the missing parts.

Using Files as quick browser for the documents made accessible by FileExplorer Pro is a combo that must be tried in real life before the usefulness can be fully appreciated. A game changer in my opinion.

And now for something different :

There is an iOS app that offers an alternative route to transfer PDF files.

PDF Reader PRO

This app opens its local space for a browser located on your computer. You can then see what is located on the apps local iPad space and upload additional content from the computer. It is a unusual way of doing things and could be quite usable. And the PDF reader/editor is very competent.

File handling in the app is a mess however. No proper folder concept. The uploaded files cannot be downloaded by the same browser mechanism. It has been so for years. So the browser concept is obviously deprecated. The app also connects to a WEBdav server. Except it doesn’t work.

Pocket Drive

This app supports the same browser concept as PDF Reader Pro. The UI is a mess however. I guess it targets multimedia use.

Link to a 2020 review of 15 PDF apps which focus on general PDF use :