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 work with all of those PDF files you come across. For example, you might 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 a 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 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 also perform similar layout functions in other file formats, of course. For example 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 so 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). Of course, some of them combine these features.
I tested iPad software in all of these areas. Some of the apps reviewed below are free, some aren’t.
But keep in mind, you might not need to get a third-party application at all: If you don’t need to do anything with PDF docs other than to look at their contents, there is a PDF reader built into iOS that handles this basic task. All that’s necessary is to tap on a file in an email or online and it will open.
Getting a file onto your iPad is easy if it has come in by email or the Web: just use the iOS “Open In” function. Those who have a folder of PDFs on a laptop or PC will have to go through a bit more. 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, you can also transfer files using iTunes, since applications on the iPad should recognize applicable file types loaded into iTunes.
Some PDF applications perform more than one function, and there is even one that does it all: Reader, Converter, and Annotator. Naturally, these are the most useful, so we’ll start with them.
Adobe Acrobat Reader
Requires iOS 8.0 or later
If anyone knows PDF, it’s Adobe. This company 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.
Acrobat Reader for iOS is designed for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. It combines reading and annotating, but cannot edit the text of files.
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. The Adobe Document Cloud makes it easy to upload files from a PC or Mac via a website.
The software allows you to underline text, highlight text, draw in red, add your own text, and strikethrough text. There’s a choice of colors for all these actions, and font sizes. You can also add a signature, though our test signature came out more cramped than it should have.
What this software can’t do is change the original text in the file. This is annotation, not editing.
Adobe Reader is free for those who just need basic annotation. Those who want to save files in other formats, and convert other formats to PDF, should look at Adobe PDF Pack, an add-on for this application that’s reviewed below.
GoodReader – Good.iWare
Requires iOS 6 or Higher
When it first launched right after the original iPad was released, this was just a good PDF reader. In the years since then it has become so much more. It’s really something of a Swiss army knife, containing a tremendous number of features.
Of course, it’s still a good way to read PDFs. Going beyond business use, this software was written to allow users to read eBooks in PDF format, a task that it handles well. It can also display the contents of MS Office and iWork documents, TXT, and HTML.
In addition GoodReader can do annotations, allowing you to add text comments and draw on files. Signatures can be added, and Good.iWare has worked hard to make this a simple process.
Files can be pulled from a wide array of remote servers. Naturally this includes Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud, and other well known cloud storage services, but this application can also pull files of any type off corporate FTP servers. It can auto synchronize files with remote servers as well.
Just about all that Good Reader doesn’t attempt to do is convert files to PDF and back.
If you send a lot of time looking at large numbers of PDFs, then the iOS built in reader might not be for you.
QuickSearch PDF Reader – Olive Toast Software Ltd.
Requires iOS 7.0 or higher
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, 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, applications that let you produce and convert PDF docs will be paid apps and a bit more complex. Here are four for your consideration.
Adobe PDF Pack
Subscription only $9.99/month (or $7.50/month billed annually)
Adobe PDF Pack is a subscription service added to its Acrobat Reader application. 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 convert Word and other file formats to a PDF or performing the reverse function, exporting PDF files to Word or Excel.
If you want to go month-to-month, you can, but it will cost you $9.99 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.
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 do the same tasks — and even more — and are available for a modest one-time fee (or even for free).
Save2PDF – EuroSmartz Ltd.
Requires iOS 5.1.1 or later
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.
Kdan PDF Smart Convert – Kdan Mobile Software Ltd.
Requires iOS 6.0 or higher
Priced at $3.00 more 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 it 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 for this software. I fumbled through it using trial and error, but there might have been features that I misused or even missed entirely.
Photo to PDF – Tipirneni Software LLC
Photo to PDF, $2.99; Photo to PDF 2 $4.99
Requires iOS 5.0 or later for Photo to PDF 1.0.4, iOS 7.0 for Photo to PDF 2
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’ll 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 up to $4.99 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 converting PDF files are great capabilities, but 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.
iAnnotate – Branchfire, Inc.
Requires iOS 7.0 or later
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 software. 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 fairly 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 Markup Ultimate – Kdan Mobile Software Ltd.
Requires iOS 5.0 or better
Kdan’s app goes above and beyond 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 Markup Ultimate is not a substitute for the other Kdan app reviewed in this roundup, PDF Smart Convert. PDF Markup 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.
Support for new iOS 9 features means this app can do split-screen multitasking, with two applications open side by side.
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.
This article was originally published in March 2014 and has been updated by Ed Hardy.