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Tuesday
May012012

War of the PDF Apps: Who's the Winner?

Last week my friend and fellow iPhone/iPad addict Jeff Richardson gave a great review of PDF Expert.  He liked it, but not as much as his current favorite PDF annotation tool, PDF Pen.  I thought I would put both of these apps through their paces, along with iAnnotate PDF and Adobe Reader, which has long been the standard for PDF review and annotation on your desktop or laptop.

I decided to use the same document in each case - I chose a simple W-9 form, because it would also give the opportunity to test and show the form-filling and signature features of each app. I'll fill out the form to send to my client for him to sign.  I initially placed the form in the Downloads folder in my Dropbox account on my desktop.  How did the form fare in each app?  Here we go....

PDF Expert ($9.99)

Downloading the form to my iPad was a breeze in PDF Expert; of the three apps, it offers the widest selection of networks from which to download your PDF files.  

PDF Expert offers a lot of options for getting your documents into the app.

I was able to easily navigate to my Downloads folder in Dropbox and download the file to the app.  PDF Expert mirrors your folders in Dropbox, so it's easy to find the documents you want. But you can create your own customized folders as well.

Folder view in PDF Expert.

I was able to fill the form quickly and easily.  Just press in the field you want to fill out, and the keyboard appears so you can enter the appropriate text.

You can move from field to field by pressing the buttons just above the keyboard.

Do you need to annotate your document?  The annotation toolbar just above the document allows you to do a lot of things.

See the table below for annotation features of all apps.

 

If you want to add something to a PDF document in a particular location, just press and hold, and you'll be presented with a number of options:

You have a number of options to insert something wherever you press your finger.

 

Let's say you want to sign the form, or have your client sign it.  Just press Signature, and you'll get a further option:

 

In this case we'll substitute the word "Client" for "Customer."  Once you press that button, you'll get a blank screen that your client can sign.

Blank signature screen.After signing.Press Done in the upper right corner, and you'll be able to move the signature and resize it so it will fit within the signature box.  If your client isn't right in front of you, you'll need to mail the PDF form either to yourself (to print it out) or to your client.  Just press the Open In... button at the top right, and press Send by E-mail.  That's all there is to it.

PDFPen ($9.99) 

PDFPen is a bit more basic in its user interface - you can create folders here, but it's not very intuitive (press Edit, then drag a document on top of another to create the folder).

 

Once you open the form, the user interface is simple as well.  The app supports form filling, much like PDF Expert:

 

Form filling in PDFPen.

All of the annotation tools are tucked away under menus in the top right.  There's one for Markup tools and a window that allows you to insert Objects, pictures, custom items, and proofing marks.  

Markup tools in PDFPen.Proofreading marks you can insert into the document.

That's right - if you're into proofing markup symbols, you have a whole lot to use here. There's also an Information button that allows you to customize whatever annotation tool you happen to be using at the moment.  The annotation tools here are definitely stronger than that of PDF Expert.

Unfortunately, PDFPen does not have an dedicated signature feature - to add a signature, you must either use the Scribble tool, or import an image of your signature.

Once you're done, press the wrench button in the upper right, then Share, then Email Document, to mail the form to yourself or your client.

iAnnotate PDF ($9.99)

I have used iAnnotate PDF for a while, and I think it has the best annotation tools of the bunch. However, it has other weaknesses that make this probably my least favorite tool for filling forms and signing them.  

iAnnotate does not connect to very many services, but it does connect to Dropbox, so I was able to download the file. 

The Library view is very confusing to me, especially everything on the left - I think that it is probably a terrific tool for searching through PDF files, but the user interface is too busy.  Fortunately for us, my document is right there in the middle of the screen, so we can start using it.

iAnnotate's Library View is VERY confusing to me.

The first thing you'll notice is that iAnnotate does not have a form filling feature.  Instead, you'll have to use the Typewriter tool and the maneuver the text into place once you're done typing.

The Typewriter tool can be found on the annotation bar to the right.

There's also no feature for adding a signature - you can use the freeform draw tool, but it's just not as satisfying as the other apps.

Where iAnnotate really shines is in its annotation tools - it blows all the competition away.  Just look at this page - and we're just looking at the specific annotation tools!  There are other tools for Navigation, View, Document, and Utility.  It's very powerful in this regard.

Get a load of all these options!

To send the form to your client, you'll have to go back to the Library, press on the file until this toolbar pops up, then press E-Mail.

Adobe Reader (Free)

Adobe Reader's features just don't match up to either PDF Expert or PDF Pen, as the chart below clearly shows.  I'm tempted to give it some slack; after all, the app is free.  But wait a minute - this is Adobe we're talking about, right? The desktop version of Acrobat has some of the best annotation and collaboration tools around - is it too much to ask for just a few more of them in the iPad app?

Unfortunately, Adobe Reader does not connect to any service, so to get our form into it we must go the other direction.  I uploaded the form into GoodReader, then opened the form with Adobe Reader.  Like PDFPen, Adobe Reader does not support folders; you'll just see a list of documents.

Adobe Reader's documents list.

 

And when you get to the annotation screen, the commenting tools are also pretty meager, with really the only customization being the ability to adjust the opacity of the annotation:

 

To fill out the form, just press the field and start typing.  Like all of the other apps there are buttons at the top of the keyboard from moving from field to field.

To sign the form, tap the fountain pen icon  at the upper right.  You'll be prompted to tap where you want to sign.  

Adobe Reader's signature page.

You can then customize the signature further when it's place in its correct place.

If you want to get a secure signature, you can send the signature out using Adobe's great EchoSign service.  This is one area where Adobe Reader shines - EchoSign is really a terrific tool for client and other signatures, and its integration into Reader is terrific.

So who wins?  Again, it depends on what you're looking for in a PDF annotation/signature app.  Based on the chart below, I'd say that PDF Expert wins on breadth of features, PDFPen and iAnnotate win on breadth of annotation tools, and Adobe Reader wins on signature security.

 

 

What do you think?  Let me know your favorite PDF annotation tool in the comments.

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Reader Comments (21)

Tom, I just now comparing annotation apps against GoodReader and Notability, for the basic task of marking up documents that I'm editing. A key feature for me is a good eraser, which for some reason most reviewers don't seem to mention -- not an undo feature, but something that really acts like an eraser, and ideally is configurable. I find PDF Expert's to be superior to PDF Pen's, and GoodReader doesn't even have one. Any thoughts?

Robin Meadow

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Meadow

That's an interesting point - I don't really think about an eraser in a PDF annotation tool. That's probably because for me, erasing doesn't need to be as precise when I'm annotating, vs. when I'm writing in Notability or Noteshelf; I'm satisfied with the Undo feature in most cases. For me, the eraser comes in REALLY handy in a notetaking app - my handwriting is terrible, and being able to erase a part of something I wrote is really nice.

That said, only PDF Expert has an eraser, which is somewhat configurable - where did you find an eraser in PDFPen? I looked all over and couldn't find it. Even iAnnotate, which is packed to the gills with annotation features, does not have an eraser. Odd.

May 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterTom Mighell

I'm sorry to have sent you on a wild goose chase -- I don't think find PDF Pen has an eraser. I must have been moving too quickly among programs. What happened, I think, is that as soon as I realized there was no eraser I just moved on.

My primary use of PDF annotation software may be a little idiosyncratic -- handwritten notes on a draft. (I'm an appellate lawyer, so editing other people's drafts is a lot of what I do.) My handwriting is atrocious, and on top of that I often change my mind about what to say. So, just as when working with paper, a good eraser is indispensable. (Actually, I use the iPad for this purpose only when I'm away from the office -- there's just no way to work as fast on the iPad as you can on paper -- but I still need it to work a certain way.)

iAnnotate, which I spent a lot of time with last night, actually does have an eraser -- it shows up in the pen toolbar. But it has an odd quirk: Once you close that toolbar, you can no longer use the eraser to change it. I asked the company, and they state: "If you tap those annotations, you can then tap 'delete' (the trashcan icon) in the ribbon at the top to remove it completely. At this time, unfortunately, the app does not have the ability to partially adjust or erase finished annotations." (That technique also lets you resize the annotation and change its color, among other things.)

Noteshelf is a great program for freehand note-taking, although of course you can't annotate PDFs. Notability is really much better technically, but Noteshelf is just so handsome and intuitive that I love to use it (although its ink is really poor, at last in the retina display).

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Meadow

I use a combination of iAnnotate and Note Take HD for my mark ups. iAnnotate is terrific for reviewing pdf transcripts and marking them up (I haven't tried any of the transcript programs yet). If I am doing typed comments on a brief, I also think iAnnotate works great. I find the pen tool on iAnnotate to be too clunky if I am doing handwritten revisions. I think that the zoom features on Note Taker HD allow me to make very precise handwritten edits on briefs, so I use that product. I also use Note Taker HD for taking handwritten notes. Funny thing is, I know I am only using a very small percentage of the capabilities of both programs. They seem very deep, but somewhat confusing. A better interface would make both really spectacular.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Johnston

I think that Note Taker HD suffers from too many features - I would probably use that as my primary note-taking app, but it's just too confusing to maneuver around. That's why I ultimately prefer Noteshelf - it's easy to use, with just the right features. I agree with Robin, though - I wish they would release a version that is more retina-display friendly.

May 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterTom Mighell

Im surprised you didn't review Goodreader. How does it compare to these two?

In other words, which app is the best?

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

I didn't review GoodReader here because it is not strictly a "PDF app" - it's a lot more than that. I like GoodReader a lot, and actually prefer it to annotate PDF files - but it certainly can't do a lot of the things that the apps above do. I recommend that everybody, at a minimum, keep GoodReader and at least one of the above PDF apps on their iPads.

July 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterTom Mighell

Hi,
I tried all of these apps but wanted something different, writePdf is good and competes with PDF expert - particularly like the inline editing option.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEllieGG

"I didn't review GoodReader here because it is not strictly a "PDF app" - it's a lot more than that. I like GoodReader a lot, and actually prefer it to annotate PDF files - but it certainly can't do a lot of the things that the apps above do. I recommend that everybody, at a minimum, keep GoodReader and at least one of the above PDF apps on their iPads."

Thanks for the reply, Tom. Keep up the good work.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

When I open PDFs from adobe reader in Dropbox the annotations are not included. Does this happen in the other apps as well?

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllie

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your review. It is very helpful.

Firstly, some background.

I work in the financial investment field, so I don't need to do much annotation, but I do take quite a bit of notes. For that, I decided that typing is faster than writing, and I just stick with the basic Apple Notepad (which integrates with my Gmail Notes folder or label).

But I do deal with lots of PDF files from company annual reports, stock exchange announcements, and analyst reports from multiple brokerages.

From both your site as well as iMedicalApps.com, it seems that both of you recommend GoodReader and PDF Expert. In my case, I have been using a combination of iBooks / FileApp Pro / Perfect Reader / Gmail to manage my growing library of PDFs.

I also just came across WritePDF. Would that be comparable to PDF Expert and maybe exceed it? It does seem to also include PDF converting and printing functions, which Readdle sells in separate apps.


My main requirements are:
- managing a library of PDFs
- ability to search the text in a PDF. (Sort of like Gmail's or Perfect Reader's search ability which can throw up and jump back and forth between multiple hits, unlike iBook's "single hit" search feature.)
- has pretty thumbnail-driven interface (like iBooks, vs. a line item driven interface)


Thanks and regards,
Stephen
Singapore


P.S. I just bought PDF Expert during its 5th anniversary sale period, so have not fully explored it, and am open to other ideas.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen

Does anyone know the best app that can actually backup all your annotated PDFs? I don't want to loose everything I've done. Thank you.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLea

There's really not an app that does backup for PDFs, or for any other file on your iPad. There are a couple of ways to backup the information on your iPad. The first is through iTunes - when you plug your iPad into your computer, iTunes is creating a backup of everything on your iPad. If you don't want to use iTunes as backup, you can back up to Apple's iCloud service - it will automatically back up your iPad to the cloud every day when it is near a wireless connection - you have 5GB of free backup storage there.

Alternatively, if you're using an app like PDF Expert, GoodReader, or iAnnotate, you can configure the app so you can sync with your Dropbox account - when using Dropbox, you can get a copy of all your annotated PDF files everywhere you have Dropbox installed, and then you can use the backup program on that computer. For example, I use Mozy to backup my home computer, and Mozy is automatically backing up my Dropbox account - which means that it's backup up all the documents I annotate and save on my iPad, then sync back to a Dropbox folder.

Hopefully this helps!

Tom

November 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterTom Mighell

This sounds a little bizarre but quite often, after reviewing a large document, I'd like to print the pages that have my highlighting (to color printer) and notes. I know Goodreader has a summary page but I'd rather print the actual page with highlights. Do any of these programs allow you to do that?

November 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Of the apps mentioned above, both PDF Expert and PDF Pen allow you to print individual pages of a PDF file. However, in order to do that you're going to need to have a printer that can connect to your iPad. That means finding an AirPrint-enabled printer, or hooking a tool called XPrintServer up to your network. Then either app will print those pages for you.

November 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterTom Mighell

Thank you for your help Tom! I will have to start using Dropbox from now on. I know I can backup my iPad through iTunes but I can't seem to find a way to open the PDFs on my Mac.

November 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLea

Unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean by "signature", iAnnotate does have signature capabilities. First, of course, you can simply use any of the pen annotation tools to free-form sign a document; the signature can then be altered for size, thickness, color, etc. (In fact, I confess, I don't see the difference between your description of PDF Expert's custom signature facility and iAnnote's standard pen tools).

But secondly, in iAnnotate you can easily turn your signature into a custom stamp. Just use a pen to write your name, then press and hold to edit your signature. The pop-up menu includes a Stamp option which saves whatever your wrote as a custom stamp. You can then even drag a "Stamp with Image" tool to your toolbar to create a one-touch signature.

I've been using iAnnotate for a year now, and have yet to see anything I like better. However, I admit I've never in my life filled out a PDF form, so I'm not sure what iAnnotate lacks in that area. Also, I either use Dropbox or email to move my files in and out of my iPad, so I don't notice iAnnotate's shortcomings in that area.

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanael

I did say that you can use the freeform drawing tool to create a signature; how iAnnotate differs from PDF Expert is that the latter provides a dedicated area to enter a signature. As in the screenshot above, you can present a completely blank screen to a client to have them sign on the iPad - that way, the signer only has to worry about signing his/her name. My opinion is that for having others sign documents, it's a cleaner and better way to handle the signature experience. But for signing documents yourself, both apps do a fine job of saving signatures that you can add as a stamp.

My advice on using the iPad has always been to choose the app that works best for you, and one person's needs for a particular app or process (annotating PDF files) could vary widely from another's. I have been in seminars where I ask what people use for their PDF files, and get an even split between GoodReader, PDF Expert, and iAnnotate.

December 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterTom Mighell

Tom--

Just catching up with this after Jeff Richardson mentioned it on iPhone JD. I mainly use iAnnotate and (after reading the previous comments) I would like to offer the following:

--You left out the most powerful feature of iAnnotate: tabs. You can have eight documents open at once, which makes research much easier. You can even have the same document in multiple tabs so you can compare different parts of the same document easily.

--Another powerful feature is the ability to highlight in scanned documents where the text is captured as an image. Many of the highlighting tools out there are limited to highlighting text that originated in a typed electronic document. Granted, it's just the "pen" tool with the opacity turned down and the line thickness turned up, but it works.

--There is a special signature mode (the "quill" tool). It gives you a zoomed in window to write your signature, which you can then save as a stamp. It sounds a lot like PDF Expert.

--You don't need to go to the library to send a PDF. Tap on the tab and you'll get a contextual menu. Select "Share" and then "Email".

--iAnnotate easily lets you print (or e-mail) only the annotated pages. There is an on/off switch labeled "Annotated Pages Only" in the relevant dialog boxes.

--Much as I love this program, it's main flaw has always been a lack of shape drawing. You can draw lines, but not circles, squares or arrows (despite what your chart says). You can make a stamp, of course, but that is really not a substitute. If you have figured out how to draw shapes with iAnnotate, could you share that?

--Another flaw (which some might see as a feature) is that when you select a tool (say, the highlighter) all of the annotations you make until you deselect the tool are considered a single annotation. If you deselect and later want to delete one highlight and keep the rest, no dice. As you found, there is no ability to erase part of an annotation.

My recommendation for people who just need to read PDFs and do some light commenting is GoodReader, which has a more straightforward interface. But if you are a serious user of PDFs, iAnnotate is the way to go. iPad apps are so inexpensive, there's no reason not to try a couple of choices and see what fits.

Keep up the good work!

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Jackel

Tom--

Just catching up with this after Jeff Richardson mentioned it on iPhone JD. I mainly use iAnnotate and (after reading the previous comments) I would like to offer the following:

--You left out the most powerful feature of iAnnotate: tabs. You can have eight documents open at once, which makes research much easier. You can even have the same document in multiple tabs so you can compare different parts of the same document easily.

--Another powerful feature is the ability to highlight in scanned documents where the text is captured as an image. Many of the highlighting tools out there are limited to highlighting text that originated in a typed electronic document. Granted, it's just the "pen" tool with the opacity turned down and the line thickness turned up, but it works.

--There is a special signature mode (the "quill" tool). It gives you a zoomed in window to write your signature, which you can then save as a stamp. It sounds a lot like PDF Expert.

--You don't need to go to the library to send a PDF. Tap on the tab and you'll get a contextual menu. Select "Share" and then "Email".

--iAnnotate easily lets you print (or e-mail) only the annotated pages. There is an on/off switch labeled "Annotated Pages Only" in the relevant dialog boxes.

--Much as I love this program, it's main flaw has always been a lack of shape drawing. You can draw lines, but not circles, squares or arrows (despite what your chart says). You can make a stamp, of course, but that is really not a substitute. If you have figured out how to draw shapes with iAnnotate, could you share that?

--Another flaw (which some might see as a feature) is that when you select a tool (say, the highlighter) all of the annotations you make until you deselect the tool are considered a single annotation. If you deselect and later want to delete one highlight and keep the rest, no dice. As you found, there is no ability to erase part of an annotation.

My recommendation for people who just need to read PDFs and do some light commenting is GoodReader, which has a more straightforward interface. But if you are a serious user of PDFs, iAnnotate is the way to go. iPad apps are so inexpensive, there's no reason not to try a couple of choices and see what fits.

Keep up the good work!

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Jackel

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