Ranking the PDF Reading Apps

May 6, 2011

PDFs and I have not always gotten along very well. They offer almost universal access of a document, but they are usually the second best method to deliver the content in question. (Not to single anyone out, but I’m thinking about you, restaurant websites, and your PDF menus.)

I like to think of myself as a person that’s open to growth who can change his mind about something. (I’m not sure others think of me that way, but I will hold on tight to my self-delusion, thank you.) When it comes to PDF’s, I’ve had a change of heart. They still are my preferred format for just about nothing, but as a sometimes crazed reader, some content is most readily found in PDF format.

In the past few months, I’ve had a few opportunities to read PDF’s on my iPad, and found that there are some lovely options for PDF readers on the iPad. After trying out some of the most popular, I offer these rankings of the best PDF reading experiences for the iPad.

The rankings below are based on how each of these apps serves as a reader of PDF documents. There are other ways that PDFs can serve useful, but I’m interested in having a good experience reading and highlighting PDFs on my iPad. With that in mind, there are a few criteria that are the most important to me:

  1. Syncing, moving, and the like. I don’t want to drag documents into iTunes, or open them into a self contained system where I now have multiple copies. If I highlight a document, I don’t want to have an original and a revised copy or try to figure out which is the most current. I want sync.
  2. Getting data out. I have a habit that settles in somewhere between intentional and obsessive. I keep a reading journal to capture notes and highlights from every book I read. Amazon makes it easy to capture highlights and I want to be able to do the same from my PDFs. Ideally, I want to capture them all at once, without copy and pasting them one at a time.
  3. Navigating documents. Some PDFs are ebooks formatted for the screen, while some are scans of printed articles or books. It needs to be easy to navigate even those PDFs that don’t match well with the screen ratio of an iPad. I want to be able to slide around and flip pages without getting vertigo.
  4. Highlighting. It should go without saying, but as you’ll see below. I have to say it. The app needs to recognize OCR’d text and be able to highlight it.

Before we jump in, I should say that this is only about reading PDFs with the criteria above in mind. Some of the apps offer far more usability than what I am describing here. So, while this is an evaluation of them for the purpose of reading and highlighting, your experience might be different if you have unique purposes for managing files, filling forms, extended annotations or editing of PDFs.

The screen captures below display each with some of the toolbars in place to show the difference in each. Each of them offers a full screen mode and are almost indistinguishable from each other when everything else is stripped away.

5. iBooks

IbooksFree (iTunes)

I don’t recall if iBooks is actually built in to iOS, but it’s the first reading experience for many since Apple features it’s own app so prominently. It’s the first, and maybe the only, PDF reading experience for many. Expand your horizons, people!

iBooks offers a nice visual experience for accessing your PDF library and reading. But that’s about all it offers. Documents have to live in the private garden of iBooks and can only be added via iTunes, or using “Open With…” from an email attachment or Dropbox.

I guess that doesn’t matter so much since there is no ability to highlight text. That’s plain silly.

4. Readdle Docs

Readdle$4.99 (iTunes)

It seems a shame to have Readdle Docs ranked 4th, because it’s a nice app overall. It offers the ability to sync documents and folders on Dropbox, so any highlights I make can be pushed back for access elsewhere. It offers highlighting of text (but no other annotations). It has the ability to reflow the OCR’d text into unformatted text on the screen. This might be useful for a poorly scanned document, but I’ve not found it useful otherwise.

But Readdle settles in at the fourth spot because there is no means to export my highlights other than copy and pasting them one at a time. And as you’ll see below, there are some much better options to capture highlights and notes from PDFs.

3. iAnnotate PDF

Iannotate pdf$9.99 (iTunes)

iAnnotate PDF is the most feature rich of all of the apps in this list. Unfortunately, all those features lean toward bloat for my purposes, and a very busy display. If you dig around enough, I think you’ll find a button to walk your dog.

It handles almost all of the features I need and the fading page turn is the nicest animation of any of these apps. Highlighting is reversed from the other apps. First you tap the highlight icon, and then you drag over the text you want to highlight. (In other apps, you select the appropriate text, and then tap a pop-up “highlight” button.) A PDF can be emailed with a text summary of all the notes and highlights, so it easy charmingly simple to capture all of your notes. (A feature found in each of the readers mentioned below.)

iAnnotate also suffers from an overly complex document management system, and while it can pull documents from Dropbox, and then push them back, it’s not the same as the sync feature that some of the others offer.

2. Goodreader for iPad

Goodreader$4.99 (iTunes)

Goodreader has gotten some favorable press from people whose opinions I respect (ahem, Merlin, David and Katie). More than a reader, it offers enough other niftiness that David and Katie devoted an entire episode of Mac Power Users to it. It is, um, a good reader, but it’s not the best.

It has every needed feature I described above, and also includes the text reflow feature found in Readdle Docs. It syncs with Dropbox (and other server formats), highlights (and more), and exports summaries. It is also the only app to offer the ability to crop the edges off a PDF to make it easier to navigate on the iPad screen size.

When it comes down to it, though, it suffers from a cluttered file management interface that isn’t so appealing to look at. And call me snobby, but I don’t really want to have that icon on my homescreen, unlike…

1. Expert PDF

$9.99 (iTunes)Expert pdf

Expert PDF found a new home on in the elite high rent district of my homescreen last week. It is made by the makers of Readdle Docs, but more explicitly for the purpose of reading and interacting with PDFs, rather than the emphasis on file management of Readdle Docs.

It matches all of my criteria for reading, highlighting, and creating a text summary of my notes and highlights. If I am zoomed in on a page, it remembers my zoom level between the glide of page turns. It offers, by far, the most clutter free and visually appealing screen for syncing and managing my PDF library on Dropbox.

So while PDF’s and I have moved our relationship to speaking terms, it is PDF Expert that I am now friends with. It deserves most of the credit for bringing us together.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received promotional codes to download some of these apps. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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