One app many lawyers have been looking is a good PDF annotation tool. I was surprised to find that there was really only one dedicated annotation tool in the App Store: iAnnotate by Aji (iTunes link).
I’ve been trying out iAnnotate for a few days now. As expected, the iPad is a natural device for reading and marking up PDF files and iAnnotate is a very competent annotation tool. I think it is a must have app for any iPad carrying attorney. That said, there is definitely room for improvement, both in the feature set and in the interface. I’m hoping that another good annotation tool arrives on the scene and the competition drives the development of this critical tool for lawyers.
Getting PDF files into iAnnotate
In The current version, there are three ways that I discovered to get PDF files into iAnnotate for use. The first method is to use the iAnnotate Reader Service. This small application, once installed on your desktop computer, makes PDF files in folders you specify visible to iAnnotate via your local network. PDF files in subfolders of specified folders are also accessible. In my tests, is method worked successfully, though I was frustrated by the extra steps this method takes. While there are ore methods of getting PDF files on the device, this is the only method if you want to take advantage of certain of certain of iAnnotate’s advanced annotation features (more on that later).
I was also able to successfully get docs into iAnnotate via my preferred file manager / reader application GoodReader (iTunes link). Good Reader is one of a number of applications that takes advantage of the Document Sharing features of the iPhone OS. From the manage Files pane of GoodReader, you can select “Open In…” and be presented with a list of installed apps that handle PDF files.
This inter app connectivity is also available in the stock Mail app. Viewing a PDF attachment to an email presents you with an “Open In…” button in the top right corner that, once selected, will allow you to open the file in Annotate.
Because Dropbox is my “files on the go” tool of choice, the GoodReader route works well for me because GoodReader connects to Dropbox. I also prefer this method over the iAnnotate Reader Service as Dropbox doesn’t require me to be connected to my local network.
Importing via iAnnotate Reader Service
That said, in the current version, the iAnnotate Reader Service is necessary is you want to take full advantage of the annotation tools in iAnnotate (like search, text highlight, underline, strike rough), if you want to share your annotations or if you want to transfer them back to the desktop. The reason for this is that the annotations in PDF (not just iAnnotate, but any app, desktop or otherwise) reside in a metadata layer that can ride along with a PDF file. Withoutis metadata layer, pdf files are just images. The iAnnotate Reader Service uses some mojo to make sure this metadata layer is readable by the iAnnotate app.
Nonfunctional “Read” and “Mail” buttons in iAnnotate
iAnnotate says that rendering this metadata is a processor intensive task that is better done on the desktop. iAnnotate claims that this rendering can also be done in app, though I haven’t been able to accomplish it this way yet. I see a “Read” button in the file info viewer in iAnnotate which I expected to do the metadata work in-app. So far, tapping that button is without effect.
iAnnotate also says that the ability to share annotations via email will be included in the next version of the app.
The interface for iAnnotate is unique when considered alongside other iPad apps. Rather than the typical approach of creating contextually appropriate menus from a set of icons at the top of the app, iAnnotate uses customizable button bars along the edges of the viewing area. Tapping on an annotation tool takes you out of navigation mode and into that tool’s annotation mode.
Sample of all annotation tools in iAnnotate
iAnnotate annotation tools include the following, most all of which can be done in whatever color you choose.
- freehand drawing
- sticky note style comments
Note that the highlight, underline, and strikeout annotations are only available in PDF files that have come in through the iAnnotate Reader Service as they require the metadata file described above. Also, while you can view annotations that existed in the original PDF document, those original annotations are not editable. iAnnotate says the ability to edit existing annotations will come in a future update.
Getting Annotated Documents Out of iAnnotate
The main way to get documents out of iAnnotate is again through the iAnnotate Reader Service. Emailing from the app is not yet enabled but is promised in the next version. Exported documents opened properly in Acrobat and Preview. Annotations from iAnnotate appeared properly as well.
iAnnotate offers the ability to customize the content and location of the button bars in the app. You can browse/annotate multiple PDF files at one time using the apps unique tabbed browsing feature. I think this is a is tremendously helpful feature for lawyers who often have multiple sources open at one time. Text within PDF files (having the accompanying metadata file) can be copied and pasted into other apps.
My gripes are mostly small things, some of which are promised to be addressed in the next version. I’m not crazy about the iAnnotate Reader App. I need to be able to pull a PDF out of email or my Dropbox and be able to edit right then. I can’t be tethered to my local network to get the metadata file iAnnotate needs for certain of its tools.
One thing I’m hoping continues to evolve is the interface. Put simply, I don’t particularly care for the interface of iAnnotate – which is to say I think it is ugly (and nonstandard) – even if functional. The app reminds me of what you get when a PC developer makes a Mac app. While I recognize that I’m an admitted interface snob, I initially held off on purchasing the app because of what I could tell about the interface from the App Store.
Simple Note “New”
While an extensive tour of the interface quirks would really detract from an otherwise positive review and solid app, let me mention a couple examples. Have a look at the “New” button in iAnnotate and compare that withthe “New” button in Apple apps like Contacts, Calendar, Notes and in third party apps like Simple Note (iTunes link) (where this review was largely written). I’m unconvinced that the iAnnotate “New” button is more functional than these starker alternatives or worth whatever extra design effort went into making it.
Compare also the button bars of iAnnotate to the sliding toolbar of an app like Docs 2 (iTunes link) (part of Office 2 HD reviewed last week). The sliding toolbar offers more functions in less screen real estate. The iconography is clean and understandable. Perhaps this is an aspect of the app that will evolve over time. Again, I recognize that this may just be a personal preference, which is why my recommendation is otherwise quite positive.
I think iAnnotate is a must have app for any lawyer that uses PDF files. All the critical annotation tools are there and easy to use. The output from iAnnotate integrates seamlessly with your desktop PDF tools. Though the app is still developing in certain areas, it is a very capable first release that I look forward to seeing develop.
iAnnotate is available in the App Store for $6.99 (iTunes link). The price will go up to $9.99 once the first update is released (though no response to my inquiries of Aji as to when this might be).