I just bought a shiny new iPad air and the very affordable BoxWave Capacitive iPad Stylus to go with it. Since I have a glut of PDF files I’ve been wanting to get through, I’ve been looking for a PDF app with a few requirements:
- Easy to get PDFs into the app, preferably through syncing with DropBox / OneDrive.
- Good PDF library management within the app itself. Folders are great and tagging is even better.
- Easy to mark up PDFs with annotations, and have those annotations be visible when reading the PDF from a different computer.
- Easy to navigate to my annotations. Sometimes I just want to mark up a few passages in a PDF, review them after reading the PDF and then deleting the document.
PDF Expert Pro and iAnnotate both seemed to be mentioned most often for people needing a more ‘power-user’ feature set for handling PDFs on the iPad beyond what iBooks can provide. PDF Pen Pro was another app that I saw mentioned frequently, but I found the other two apps more promising for my uses.
PDF Expert Pro – Pretty, with Some Flaws
The organization features of PDF Expert Pro are outstanding, including folder creation and tagging. The app is undeniably gorgeous:
The cloud storage options are also very good, and they’ve updated the app’s sidebar to only show the services that you’re currently using.
iAnnotate vs. PDF Expert: Collecting Annotations
iAnnotate (as its name suggests) does well collecting the notes you’ve made by showing a persistent sidebar with all your annotations allowing you to easily move among them. Here is how iAnnotate handles listing your annotations:
They stay persistent on screen if you want them to. PDF Pen Pro on the other hand sticks annotations in a submenu (one of three item choices):
PDF Expert also requires you to click onto the thumbnails sub-menu to view thumbnails of each page (i.e. you can’t view a thumbnail roll of all your pages on same screen as the main document). This will elicit a shoulder shrug from some, but a persistent thumbnail view is very useful for some uses (an actor who needs to jump around a script, or a musician practicing difficult parts of sheet music).
iAnnotate does have syncing features for getting PDFs into the app w/o manual intervention (i.e. connecting the iPad to your computer, firing up iTunes and dragging the PDFs into the documents section of the app). When you add a Dropbox folder to the app, it can watch that folder and automatically add any new PDFs it finds. At that point it’s in your local storage, with the only drawback that you now have the same PDF in two places (DropBox and iPad local storage), meaning it will still be in your DropBox even though you ‘delete’ the PDF from within iAnnotate.
IAnnotate is able to sync documents to your local iPad or iOS device storage, but this functionality is most reliable when using 3rd-party storage services like Box and Dropbox. PDF Expert has a setup where you note your iPad’s IP address and then are able to upload PDFs directly to the app via an FTP client: https://helpspot.readdle.com/en/index.php?pg=kb.page&id=25.
iAnnotate’s WebDav implementation is not as robust as there’s no way to upload files directly to the app via a webdav-capable ftp client.
IAnnotate used to make it simple to sync a specific Dropbox folder to your device. But they’ve recently changed some things to make syncing with Dropbox not as seamless.
Unfortunately, Branchfire silently dropped iAnnotate’s ability to download files for offline use and to sync back newly made annotations when reconnecting to the internet. Without this capability, the app is no longer useful to me.
Arno went on to say that he switched to Goodreader. There are some other differences between iAnnotate and Goodreader: iAnnotate has continuous vertical scrolling when reading, while GoodReader scrolls a page at a time. But Goodreader probably has the best syncing capabilities of any of the iOS PDF apps.
Automatic cloud storage syncing is great for keeping all your PDFs on a certain Dropbox folder and having them magically show up on your iPad. This is how to setup automatic syncing on GoodReader:
iAnnotate has a bevy of annotation tools, including allowing users to create and use their own stamps. You can even add image annotations that expand when you click on them. All in all I’d say the interface is fairly well designed with the annotation toolbar off to the right:
Some people have complained that when extracting of annotations, iAnnotate will jumble the text, while GoodReader doesn’t. Macademize mentions that he also saw this on PDF Expert Pro, but I haven’t run into the issue yet.
Final Choice: iAnnotate vs. PDF Expert Pro vs. GoodReader
I don’t think you’ll go wrong with any of these apps and the ultimate choice will likely come down to personal preference. I have been using PDF Expert Pro ever since they updated it to be a universal app and it fits my workflow quite well. My PDF documents are kept on my Windows PC and I have a Samba bookmark for my PDF folder on the PC within PDF Expert Pro’s bookmarks. That means I can browse my PDFs and sync them without using iTunes or iCloud. Readdle, the parent company for PDF Expert Pro, also offers a free PDF reading app for those on a budget.
Other PDF Apps Tested
• PDF Reader looks very nice and is free with one significant limitation: they seem to want you to sync everything through their (paid subscription) Kdan cloud service which means they’ve deliberately omitted syncing functionality that most people would take for granted, especially Dropbox integration.
• Don’t forget iOS’s built-in iBook app. Anytime you sync a PDF or EPUB document using iTunes it will be available in iBooks.
Edit: Revisiting this article in 2017, my workflow has changed a bit:
1. I collect PDFs I want to read into my _PDFs folder in my Dropbox.
2. That Dropbox folder syncs with PDF Expert, as explained here: http://benleetaylor.com/2014/02/pdf-annotation-sync-pdf-expert-5-two-way-sync/.
3. On my iPad, I make annotations to PDFs. When I’m done reading the PDF, I manually email those annotations back to myself. Kind of like http://benleetaylor.com/2015/05/working-with-pdf-annotations-bookends-pdf-expert-evernote/, but he’s using the Mac’s Mail.app to collect his annotation. I’m using CloudHQ to go through my Gmail, find all emails with my PDF-Annotations label and then extract them to a _PDF-Clips folder in my Dropbox.
So I go from collecting PDFs in ~/Dropbox/_PDFs -> annotating them as they get synced to my iPad through PDF Expert -> dumping out the annotations I want to keep in ~/Dropbox/_PDF-Clips. I also like to make audio notes while I’m reading PDFs, so I have an iPad mini with the excellent Dictate App open. That also saves to Dropbox, where Dragon Naturally speaking’s auto transcribe folder agent (running on a PC) watches the folder and transcribes the text.