Of course, printed documents have limitations. First, there’s the simple cost of printing. You then need to organize and store the printed documents somewhere. And invariably, I always need to review my notes on a document when I don’t have it physically with me. For all these reasons, I prefer digital annotations and notes. Fortunately over time, apps that enable users to mark up and annotate digital documents have improved greatly. Then, either within the app, or via a cloud storage service like Box or Dropbox, you can organize your documents in folders that can then be accessed on any device.
My history with digital annotation
Over the years, I’ve tried a range of tools, devices and apps to annotate documents. One of the earlier tools I remember using for this purpose was the Kindle DX. The large format of the device (9.7 inches) and the ability to highlight text and even type notes was promising. Unfortunately, the rather clunky highlighting interface, awkward keyboard, and extreme difficulty in accessing notes later turned me off.
With the release of the iPad, though, the options and capabilities improved drastically. Dozens of apps are available – some for free like Adobe Reader, and others that cost anywhere from $2.99 to $9.99. Of course, each has different features and a unique look and feel. I'm sure I’ve used them all at one point or another. In fact, when I look back through my download history, it looks like I’ve tested about 12 different PDF annotation tools.
When you search for an app, particularly when there are a number of alternatives available, it helps to know what you’re looking for. You might have different needs, but for me, I want:
- a really intuitive interface that makes scrolling through pages easy and fast.
- the ability to make both highlights and handwritten notes.
- an easy way to share annotated files via email.
- connections with cloud services so that I can easily get documents into and out of the app.
- an easy way to see and review the annotations I’ve made and link back to the original text.
The following three apps both meet my criteria and I’ve found work very well. The reviews below are by no means exhaustive, but I hope they’ll help provide at least some guidance as you select one of these or begin to continue your search for the ideal app.
Adobe Acrobat Reader
Acrobat Reader is a simple, but effective free annotation app. The interface makes it easy to read documents and add simple annotations, including highlighting text and adding typed notes. You can also securely sign documents as well. Adobe offers a free Adobe Cloud service to store your documents. A variety of in-app purchases allow users to convert PDF’s to Word or Excel documents, create PDF’s, etc. All in all, while somewhat basic in its free version, Reader is a good app to help you get started annotating PDF’s.
LiquidText is a relatively new entry in the document annotation marketplace. In many ways it’s similar to Acrobat Reader, with a different approach to viewing your notes and highlights. One interesting feature is the ability to take a snapshot image of a portion of a document as a highlight, which is great for more graphic intensive documents. Each of the highlights you make in a document are “popped out” to the margin outside the document itself.
This view provides a great way to review the various notes and annotations you’ve made throughout a document. If you want to view the context for a particular note, just click on the bubble in the margin, and it takes you directly to that portion of the document. It also provides a nifty feature that allows you to “pinch” two portions of a document together to compare different sections. You can also reorder, arrange and even link multiple notes or highlights in the margin to help you to synthesize the content. Honestly, this one app I’m still trying to get my head around, but it’s a really innovative approach that’s unique to this app. To really get a sense for how LiquidText works, I suggest you watch this video overview.
In my review of the iPad Pro, I mentioned how much I enjoyed annotating PDF files on the device using PDF Highlighter. I also really like iAnnotate PDF, a full-featured app that adds some useful additional features. It includes many of the features I mentioned in the first two apps above, plus several others. With iAnnotate, you can annotate not only PDF files, but also Word documents and PowerPoint slides. This comes in really handy for providing feedback on student work. You can modify the color and thickness of your highlighter or pen with a really quick and intuitive interface. You can open and save documents directly from a variety of cloud storage services including Dropbox, Box, Google Drive and OneDrive. One feature I find really useful that is unique to iAnnotate is the ability to email yourself a summary of annotations. All things considered, if you’re serious about using your tablet to annotate documents, the $9.99 price tag for iAnnotate is a real bargain.
What tools do you use to annotate and organize documents?
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