PDFpen: A PDF Editing Powerhouse

My favorite iPad apps are the ones that leave me thinking “I can’t believe that I’m doing this on an iPad.” These apps shatter the belief that iPads are only meant for surfing the web and reading ebooks. PDFpen by Smile is one of these groundbreaking apps. With PDFpen it’s not only possible to markup a PDF document but edit the text and images of the original document as well.

PDFpen’s feature set is vast, and it’s important to consider whether or not these features are necessary before making the investment. Let’s dive in.

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Design

Users of Smile’s TextExpander for iPad will feel right at home in PDFpen. Smile sticks with a simple layout consisting of gray tones and simple textured backgrounds. The menu bar is separated into page actions on the left and editing and sharing actions on the right. The small exception is the undo button, which sits somewhat out of place among the page actions.

PDFpen’s editing menu is broken up into three main categories: markup, inspector, and library. Most apps, such as PDF Expert, place the primary drawing tools directly onto the main toolbar. Unfortunately, PDFpen hides all of the most important features in popover menus, which makes it more tedious to find the appropriate tool.

PDFpen's simple menu bar is nice, but important features are buried.

PDFpen's simple menu bar is nice, but important features are buried.

Importing/Exporting

Smile offers plenty of options for getting documents in and out of PDFpen but goes one step further by adding the capability to drill down into subfolders. The app can import and export from:

  • iTunes
  • iDisk
  • WebDav
  • Dropbox
  • Evernote
  • FTP
  • Google Docs
Feeling creative? PDFpen can also create blank documents with plain, lined, or graph backgrounds.

Feeling creative? PDFpen can also create blank documents with plain, lined, or graph backgrounds.

Aside from the options pictured, it is also possible to send documents via mail, AirPrint, or open-in. Emailed PDFs can be flattened or saved with an editable annotation layer. Overall, the importing and exporting features in PDFpen are incredibly thorough.

PDFpen for iPad comes with full iCloud backup and sync support. iCloud syncing is limited to software purchased on the Mac App Store, but Smile offers a $1 sync utility for those who purchased directly from Smile. In short, if you want to purchase the desktop version of PDFpen or PDFpen Pro and iCloud syncing is important, it’s better to buy directly from the Mac App Store.

PDFpen also supports editing of locked PDFs, as long as you have the password of course.

File Management

It’s important to note that PDFpen is not an iPad file manager, unlike competitors such as PDF Expert. There aren’t folder syncing capabilities or even subfolders, and all documents are displayed in “My Documents.”

The app does however provide several useful features for navigating and rearranging the pages of a document. Documents can be merged together or duplicated in the “My Documents” window. The page shelf allows the user to easily scroll through the pages of a longer document.

There’s also a slide grid view that makes it easy to rearrange one or multiple slides at a time. From here the user can also insert a blank page into a document or delete certain slides.

The slide shelf makes it easy to navigate longer documents.

The slide shelf makes it easy to navigate longer documents.

The grid view allows you to rearrange one or multiple pages, delete pages, or insert a blank page.

The grid view allows you to rearrange one or multiple pages, delete pages, or insert a blank page.

Markup and Editing

There are three ways to add text to a PDF document. The user can add a text box, which becomes an embedded part of the document when exported. It’s also possible to add a note or comment. Notes are similar to sticky notes, while comments only appear when clicked.

Both notes and comments are editable in traditional PDF viewers, which makes it easy to create comments on PDFs that can be removed by someone who doesn’t have access to advanced editing tools. Users can also add shapes, arrows, images and customized writing snippets to PDF documents via the library tab.

The library offers a limited number of objects, but all of these can be deeply customized with the inspector.

The library offers a limited number of objects, but all of these can be deeply customized with the inspector.

PDFpen provides a potent pack of markup features:

  • Highlight
  • Strikethrough
  • Underline
  • Squiggle
  • Polygon
  • Scribble

Simply select a text markup option then tap and drag over the desired text. If PDFpen doesn’t recognize the text in a document these markup options turn into freehand drawing tools, so it’s still possible to markup text in scanned documents or images.

Highlight text and quickly switch to underscore using this useful inspector window.

Highlight text and quickly switch to underscore using this useful inspector window.

The polygon tool works by tapping the screen to create edges of the shape. Tap the starting edge to close the shape. PDFpen’s built-in shapes are limited to squares, squares with rounded corners, and circles, so the polygon feature provides the additional versatility required to create something more complicated, like a PDF sailboat perhaps.

The polygon tool is powerful but can't fix poor drawing skills. Is this a funky S or an attempt at the AppStorm logo? I'll never tell.

The polygon tool is powerful but can't fix poor drawing skills. Is this a funky S or an attempt at the AppStorm logo? I'll never tell.

Freehand drawing and signatures are added through the scribble tool. Selecting the scribble tool, or any markup tool for that matter, brings up a drawing window, which gives the user quick access to stroke thickness and color. Selecting “done” converts the scribbles to elements, which can easily be moved and resized.

Elements are time sensitive, so writing a word will create a single object and circling a handful of words or statements will create several objects. This system works well, but taking too long to write a word may result in elements consisting of single letters.

Select your signature and then the "custom" option under the library tab. Now tap the plus button and PDFpen will create a snippet of your signature to use in the future.

Every element in PDFpen has a wide variety of customization options, and the inspector makes it easy to manage settings. The inspector reflects the highlighted element, and users can change everything from the paragraph style justification or opacity of a text box to arrowhead style and page hierarchy. The amount of options may be overwhelming at first but this makes it possible to create and edit documents of almost any style or complexity.

The inspector provides complete control over all document elements.

The inspector provides complete control over all document elements.

Power Editing

PDFpen provides a set of powerful tools to modify PDF content. The app supports fillable PDF forms; simply tap on a text field to fill it in or check a checkbox. Let’s face it, most PDF forms are low quality copies of copies of original forms. It may not be possible to convince the old-school paper pushers among you to adopt digital forms, but PDFpen makes it possible to fill out low quality scans as well. This is done by creating a text box and positioning it over the form area.

Hit the wrench icon to access default font settings and enable TextExpander support.

Fillable forms work like a charm.

Fillable forms work like a charm.

Imagine that your coworker emails an important PDF and asks you to sign and forward it on to your boss. You drop in your digital signature but notice that there is an embarrassing typo in the document title. There’s no time to notify your coworker of the mistake. Simply double tap the text to be corrected, long press to bring up the options menu, and select “correct text.” This converts the PDF text into an editable text block and makes it easy to correct last-minute typos. The text correction tool is a key feature that differentiates PDFpen from its competitors, and the app makes it incredibly simply to edit almost any kind of PDF text.

Unleash the power of PDFpen by editing PDF text or moving PDF images.

Unleash the power of PDFpen by editing PDF text or moving PDF images.

It’s possible to move most images in a PDF file. Simply tap the image and drag to move or resize.

Performance

A few bugs slipped through the gates at Smile, but most are trivial. Deleting drawings or highlighting occasionally leaves line fragments behind, but these are only visual glitches and go away after reloading the document. It’s also difficult to select and delete text boxes. It would be nice to have a dedicated delete button in the element popover menu.

Need Help? PDFpen comes with a thorough help guide, just tap the wrench in the upper right corner and tap “help.”

Drawings and scribbles render smoothly in PDFpen but appear jagged during the writing process. This makes it unpleasant to create long notes or signatures, even though it doesn’t affect the final quality of the rendered writing. It’s more of a nitpick than anything else, but there are countless applications in the App Store that render drawings smoothly as they are being written, and it would be nice to see PDFpen’s writing engine updated to reflect the quality of its iPad competitors.

PDFpen for iPad is new to the App Store but, overall, it feels as if it’s been around for a while. Navigation shelves whoosh in and off screen without a stutter and slides transition smoothly. Little animations here and there add to the fluid experience. It’s clear that the app is meant for creating and editing PDF’s but PDFpen’s scroll and page transition speeds make it a pleasure to read documents inside the app. Despite the minor bugs mentioned above, PDFpen performs solidly, with very few performance issues or crashes.

Conclusion

PDFpen is a powerhouse when it comes to both editing and marking up PDF documents, and it’s hard to believe that this high level of functionality comes from an iPad application. It might be tempting to point out a few lacking features, but it’s important to remember that the app is brand new to the App Store, and these feature gaps will close with time. Smile has shown its commitment to developing great software, and I can say with certainty that PDFpen’s initial release is just the beginning.

Is PDFpen for you? Those wishing to simply annotate PDF documents may find PDFpen’s powerful feature set to be overkill, and at an introductory price of $9.99 it may be worth considering a less expensive alternative. PDFpen is for users who wish to finally leave the fax machine in the last millennium. If PDF forms are a common occurrence, and powerful features like original PDF text correction and image repositioning are vital, then PDFpen may very well be the app that you’ve been waiting for.


Summary

PDFpen is a powerful PDF editor that provides a wide variety of markup and editing features. With PDFpen, it's possible to highlight text, add PDF comments, or even change a pesky typo in the original PDF.

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  • SrTapir

    Would like to have seen a head to head of PDFpen versus PDF Expert cause both of them have the same functionalities.

    Someone has tried them and can comment?

    Good article indeed. Thanks.

    • Endem

      This was my exact question. I use PDF Expert (switched from iAnotate). Are there any features in this app that lack in PDF expert?

  • David

    We have completely different perspectives of PDFpen for the iPad. I find it almost inoperable. It’s very difficult to select text, make highlights, and scrolling from page to page. I cannot remove pages from a PDF document, as Smile advertises that it can do. Notes appear with the name of the non-default email account, which is really annoying. I’ve removed the non-default account, deleted the PDFpen save file, uninstalled the app, reinstalled the app and the non-default name continues to appear.

    This app was released way too early in my opinion.

    • Tarek

      Totally gree to what you’ve said, I’m frustrated from the performance of iPad version.

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