Portable Document Format (PDF) is one of the most popular file formats in use today. If you have an iPad, you definitely need software that will let you read all of those PDF files you come across on the Web. You might also want apps that let you convert PDFs into other file formats, or add your comments to docs sent to you by co-workers. In this roundup, we’ll take an updated, hands-on look at PDF apps for the iPad, honing in on nine of them.
First, though, here’s a little bit of background on PDF. Adobe produced the PDF file format in 1993 specifically for the creation of complex documents. PDF has always allowed a user to incorporate numerous document elements, such as graphics, photos, and other layout elements. Early on, Adobe released a desktop application for developing a document — or for converting a document or image from another file format — and then outputting it as a PDF file. This application, Adobe Acrobat, is now in its 11th edition, and many third-party PDF applications have followed.
You can perform similar layout functions in other file formats. For example, on the desktop, Microsoft Word lets you do multiple column layouts and include tables, graphics, and images. But the resulting files — usually in RTF (Rich Tex Format), DOC, or DOCX — tend to be huge. Also, if you want to share these files, it often makes sense to convert them into a more compact format, and one that can be readily read — or even edited — without any need for the application which was used to create the file.
PDF apps for the iPad are increasing in terms of both numbers and capabilities. Today, there are three main types of apps: readers, conversion software (which allows you to turn various file formats into PDFs or convert PDFs to different formats), and annotation software (which allows you to make edits, insert notes, and perform other alterations to a PDF file).
I tested iPad applications in each of these areas. Some of the apps reviewed below are free, some aren’t, and several are offered in both free and paid versions, with the paid version offering additional features. All are available through iTunes or the App Store. All of my testing was performed with an iPad Air running iOS 7.0.6.
One thing to keep in mind is that while these applications permit you to manipulate PDF files in one way or another, actually getting files onto the iPad — and into a particular application — isn’t always the easiest thing to do. For most of my testing, I used a folder in Dropbox, loaded up with PDFs, DOC and TXT files and a few JPEGs. Some of the applications below allow you to directly connect to Dropbox and other cloud services — including iCloud — to perform file sharing. If you have a desktop or laptop running Windows or Mac OS, you can also transfer files using iTunes, since applications on the iPad should recognize applicable file types loaded into iTunes.
The most popular PDF app is the simple PDF reader. So many of the documents available on the Web and emailed to you are in PDF format that you really must have a reader capable of opening and letting you scroll through a PDF.
If you don’t need to do anything with PDF docs other than to read them, Adobe Reader and QuickSearch are two apps that you might consider.
If anyone knows PDF, it’s Adobe. Adobe invented the format and is primarily responsible for its ongoing evolution.
As part of the original Adobe Acrobat application for the Macintosh and Windows, Adobe also developed a stand-alone reader application called Acrobat Reader, available now for years.
The Adobe Acrobat desktop application itself, which does include the Reader, is not free, and it has capabilities that include creation, annotation, and digital signature functions.
Adobe Reader for iOS is designed for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. While Adobe says that the app is optimized for the iPhone, it was very simple to use on the iPad Air.
In reading the description in the iTunes Preview,it’s easy to get a very mistaken impression of what the app can do. Most of the functions mentioned in the Preview require a subscription to the somewhat pricy Adobe PDF Pack service (see beklw). For free, you get a reader. That’s it. (For expanded views of the screenshots at right, please click on the images.)
Granted, the reader lets you open and browse pretty much any PDF format file, including PDF portfolios, password protected PDFs (assuming you have the password for them), fillable forms, and PDFs that are managed with Adobe’s LifeCycle software.
Yet most of the utilities in this roundup will give you the same capabilities, and they generally provide other features, in addition.
Adobe Reader is free, though, so other than the space it takes up on your iPad, there’s not really a down side (unless you have an original iPad, that is. Adobe Reader requires iOS 6, and the original iPad can’t be upgraded past iOS 5.)
At the same time, there really isn’t that much of an up side, either!
Pretty much all PDF apps capable of reading a PDF file have a search box. This doesn’t mean that they all do the search rapidly, or even effectively.
QuickSearch was designed to provide the functionality of a PDF reader, but with enhanced search speed, flexibility, and capability.
As a reader, QuickSearch works much the same as other apps intended to perform this task. You get documents into QuickSearch the same way as would in any other iPad application — either through iTunes on a Windows or Mac OS machine, or from other apps that support the “Open in” function.
QuickSearch also supports opening PDF files from most cloud-based file storage/sharing applications such as iCloud and Dropbox.
Once your documents are recognized by QuickSearch, a thumbnail of the first page of each doc is shown in the Collection view. Switching to the Document view shows you the contents of a specific PDF. Tapping the center of the screen shows and hides the toolbars.
Where QuickSearch earns its keep is when performing a search. If you are in Document mode with a specific file open, typing a word (or phrase within quotes) will highlight all occurrences of the word or phrase. This happens very fast even in long documents.
You can also turn on the “Spotlight.” This puts a lighter shade circle around the hit, which is itself highlighted in yellow.
What I really like about QuickSearch is that when you perform a search in Collection mode, the app searches across all the documents in the collection. You might not need this capability very often, but the first time you do, you’ll be glad you spent $2.99 for the app.
Reading PDFs is easy. Actually creating a PDF is a different story. For the most part, apps that let you produce and convert PDF docs will be paid apps and a bit more complex. Here are four for your consideration.
Up until recently, Adobe offered Adobe Create for iOS in the App Store. If you’re looking for it, it’s no longer there. Instead, if you want to work with PDFs using Adobe’s software, you are going to have to pay for this on an ongoing basis.
It appears that Adobe will continue to supply Reader in various formats as a free utility. But you’ll need to subscribe to Adobe PDF Pack in order to actually work with PDFs, either converting Word and other file formats to a PDF or performing the reverse function, moving from PDF to text.
If you want to go month-to-month, you can, but it will cost you 10 bucks each month on the anniversary of your sign-up. You can get away a bit cheaper–$7.50 a month, but only if you let Adobe bill you a year in advance.
I signed up through the App Store, and the monthly fee was billed through my iTunes account. The only good thing I could find with this arrangement is that it’s easy to cancel automatic monthly billing, in which case your access to the PDF Pack runs out at the end of the month in which you cancel.
While using the Adobe Reader actually takes place on your iPad, using the Adobe PDF Pack takes place in the cloud, and you need to access the service through acrobat.com. When I tested the service, it would not let me access the PDF Pack using the Chrome browser. I had to use Safari.
Once you are subscribed and signed in, you can do at least some of the same tasks as those available in the desktop version of Adobe Acrobat. You can create and export PDF files from Word and other files including Excel and PowerPoint, incorporate multiple file types into a single PDF and merge multiple PDFs into a single file.
But it’s difficult to see why you might instead choose to pay $7.50 a month or more every month, given that there are numerous apps that actually run on the iPad and do the same tasks — and even more — and are available for a modest one-time fee (or even for free).
Save2PDF will do the job if you’re looking for an inexpensive app that can take your MS Word files, iWork files, documents created by Pages, Keynotes, and other apps and create PDFs.
It allows you to convert single files and to merge files in different formats, including other PDF files, into a single document.
You can import files from any application shown in the “Open in” list. Save2PDF also provides access to your files stored in the cloud in most of the major services including iCloud, Dropbox, Box, and GoogleDocs.
You can also open a document from another application and print to most Wi-Fi printers on your network without needing optional software.
The launch window gives you a list of files that you’ve downloaded from a cloud service or opened before from other apps on your iPad. Tapping on a file name opens it in the viewing window.
There’s a toolbar on the top of the screen that lets change the file view, search for a file, add another file (append), print, or convert to PDF. Touch the “PDF” icon, and a window opens asking for the desired paper size, orientation, and margins, and whether you want to email, preview, or just save the PDF file.
Save2PDF isn’t fancy, but that’s a plus. It gives you a simple way to take a file in and churn a PDF out.
Priced at $1.00 less than Save2PDF, PDF Smart Convert takes a file and changes it into a PDF. It doesn’t play show tunes while it works. It just does what it’s supposed to, and ut can do this with a claimed 200-plus file formats.
Kdan doesn’t list them, and I don’t have files in more than a few formats, but it worked with the various graphics files I have on my PC, as well as DOC, DOCX, RTF, and TXT files.
Beyond that, PDF Smart Convert does a bit more than just convert files. It can also use the iPad’s camera to snap a picture of a document and convert that into a PDF. In addition, you can import from the Clipboard and turn that captured clip into a PDF.
Documents can be imported via Wi-Fi and iTunes, and from cloud services.
I do have one major gripe. PDF Smart Convert isn’t difficult to use, but there’s virtually no help, documentation, or even support on the vendor’s web site. I fumbled through it using trial and error, but there might have been features that I misused or even missed entirely.
Photo to PDF is available in two versions. The original, Photo to PDF, is for iOS 5 and iOS 6. The version I tested, Photo to PDF 2, requires iOS 7. The two appear to have similar functionality but somewhat different user interfaces.
Photo to PDF 2 is another simple app. You can import photo images from you photo libraries or by using the onboard camera in your iPhone or iPad.
Once captured and in the app’s image library, you can move each onto a viewing windows where it can be cropped, bordered, rotated, or made larger or smaller. A switch on the editing windows allows you to constrain the image to a specific size.
Multiple images can be placed on the work area, and the order can be changed by dragging and dropping images. Once you’re satisfied with the order, you select ‘Send’ from the small toolbar at the bottom of the window.
Another screen appears asking you to create a file name, select the image quality (low, medium, or high) and send the image to email or another app.
If you select “Other App,” you’lll see a list of available apps that can open the file. Tap the app you want the PDF opened in, and the application opens with your image now in PDF format.
Photo to PDF 2 is pretty much a one-trick pony. Other applications can convert a image into a PDF, so whether the app is worth $5.99 is a decision you’ll have to make.
A free version available in the App Store which puts a disruptive watermark on the image. It is good, however, for giving you an idea of what the paid app does and how it operates.
Reading and conveting PDF files are great capabilities. But sometimes, you might be using these files collaboratively Annotator apps let you mark up the document, keeping the PDF file format but adding your highlights, comments, or other changes. Here are three for your consideration.
Branchfires iAnnotate is the most expensive of all of the apps here. But ten bucks is pocket change compared to what you’d pay for the PDF programs that are available for desktop or laptop use.
iAnnotate is a very targeted application. If you’re just looking to turn various files into PDFs, other applications will do that. What iAnnotate does that’s different is making it easy to mark up an existing PDF file.
I found iAnnotate a breeze to use. There?s a four-page interactive “Quick Ref” guide contained in the app, along with a fairly comprehensive set of short articles that address the main topics in using the app. Rather than continuously browsing over to the web site, it might make sense to print all of these and staple them together to produce your own mini-manual.
It’s pretty simple to import documents, especially from cloud-based services like iCloud. One thing to know up front is that if you want to work with MS Word and a number of other file types, you first need to set up a Branchfire account. This is free, and you can perform the setup within the app.
In the Document view, which is where you’ll spend most of your time, toolbars are located vertically along the right side of the screen. There is a library of different annotation icons and actions that can be performed. I found it easy to customize the toolbar by adding icons for actions that weren’t on the standard toolbar– like a stamp with the current date– and deleting ones — like the document lock — that I wouldn?t use much.
If you intend to really make use of PDF files, none of the utilities reviewed here is going to be the one single perfect app to have. iAnnotate isn’t good for doing simple PDF conversions, nor is not even the best PDF reader. But chances are that if you collaborate with other users, you’ll need the ability to mark up documents, adding comments and highlights. iAnnotate is definitely worth the ten bucks.
“PDF Reader Premium” is somewhat of a misnomer. Yes, this is a PDF reader, but it is more than that, too.
As a PDF reader, there’s not much to say. The app opens PDF files and lets you browse through them and perform simple searches. You can do that with Adobe’s free Reader or Apple’s iBooks. an ereader app which also lets you read PDF apps.
What you can’t do with either of those other applications is snap an image with the iPad’s camera, access your image library, and export these into multipage PDFs. PDF Reader Premium isn’t a full function PDF converter, but it does have capabilities in these areas.
Yet where Kdan’s app goes above and beyond is in its form-filling and annotation capabilities. You can fill in PDF forms and make annotations such as highlights, boxes, freehand drawings, and stamps.
PDF Reader Premium is not a substitute for the other Kdan app reviewed in this roundup, PDF Smart Convert. PDF Reader will do a conversion to PDF, but only of a scanned (or photographed) image file, not a document. Think of them as more complementary than competitive.
That brings me to the down side. I have the same criticism of PDF Reader Premium that I had of the other Kdan app: no real help or documentation. Most developers like to think of their apps as so easy to use that they require no explanation. This seems ot be particularly true of iPad app developers. Perhaps they should examine what kind of support is available for desktop applications that perform similar functions.
NoteSuite isn’t primarily a PDF creator or even an annotator, although it has very good functionality in both ways. Rather, NoteSuite is — as you might surmise from its name — a tool for taking notes, organizing them, and marking them up. It also has a second capability: making it easy to create and use to-do lists.
When NoteSuite is launched, you are brought into a blank screen with the current date on the top and lots of room to start taking notes or listing to-do items. There are very few controls at the top of the screen.
Swiping down lets you enter calendar-based events, and an arrow group at the right bottom of the note screen lets you navigate through the previously entered notes and to-dos. Text and pencil icons on the top of the screen allow you to choose the tool needed to enter, edit, or annotate the document or note.
A second vertical window can be opened on the left side of the screen to manage the documents you create or download.
NoteSuite makes it pretty easy to get documents into the app. You can set it up to work with email, cloud-based services like iCloud and Dropbox, and even with Safari’s ability to capture a web page. When you use Safari in this manner, and then start NoteSuite, the app asks if you want to insert the capture into a document.
NoteSuite can work with most file types, including MS Word and iWork. Using the Send to icon, you can convert anything you are working with on the Note/Document screen into a PDF.
For the money, NoteSuite provides a very useful utility, even when you’re not using it to make PDFs. As an added bonus, it will work with the original iPad, which can’t be upgraded beyond iOS 5.
On the down side, as with a number of the apps reviewed here, it’s not particularly intuitive. I had to visit the company’s support site several times. Rather than a single downloadable manual in PDF, there’s a bunch of subsections that address various topics. Some users will find this approach easier, but I would prefer a more formal manual with an index.
Lots of Functionality, Not Much Money
While many of us bought our iPads with the idea of it being primarily an entertainment device for streaming video and music, more and more these terrific tablets are being used for productivity applications.
With PDF now being one of the primary file formats used in transferring documents, it’s time for users to find it as easy to read and create PDFs on the iPad as it’s become on the desktop.
The nine apps reviewed here all address that need in one way or another. The desktop PDF applications available for Windows and OS X are generally more robust than those reviewed here, but they are also an order of magnitude more expensive.
Other than the single subscription application, the most expensive PDF app here costs just under $10. That buys a lot of functionality on your iPad — functionality that would cost you a great deal more to obtain on your desktop or laptop.