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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.