Become a Pro PDF User With PDF Expert

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Let’s be honest: The iPad screen is almost perfect for PDFs. So why doesn’t the iPad handle them better? It’s not like it’s a terrible experience, but I’ve never once thought to myself that I’d love to sit down on my iPad and just go through some PDFs. I like to read screenplays sometimes, and they’re primarily available in PDF format. Reading them on my iPad, however, leaves something to be desired.

iBooks makes for an okay PDF reader, but it’s got a lot of missing functionality, for example, you can’t fill in a PDF form with iBooks. Recently, I bit the bullet and gave Readdle’s PDF Expert a try. I think it’s the best PDF app available, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Check out my detailed thoughts after the break.

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I’ve Seen You Before

At first glance, PDF Expert looks just like my favourite Readdle app, Documents. They share much of the same design principles. The left side of the app is an easy-to-use file navigation system that Readdle really deserves props for: It’s one of the most beautiful document managers on the App Store. Adding my Dropbox account was really easy, and making sure the app automatically synced Dropbox back and forth is as easy as tapping a button.

This interface looks really familiar.

This interface looks really familiar.

It really does look just like Documents, though. On more than one occasion, I made the mistake of tapping Documents instead of PDF Expert and thought I was in the same app for a couple minutes. The only real design difference is that PDF Expert has a red theme instead of a blue theme. I’m not complaining, though. Every little aspect of PDF Expert looks just right. Despite its robotic theme, the app is warm and welcoming. In that sense, the app reminds me of Tweetbot: obsessive small details, like the curvature in the pointed side of the Back button, make all the difference as far as my initial impression of how well-designed the app is. It simply sings.

That being said, when it comes to PDF reading and annotation, the difference between the apps becomes rather apparent. PDF Expert is a fully-featured tool for annotations, highlights, bookmarks and much more.

PDF Tools Galore

Like Documents, PDF Expert puts tools for reading PDFs front and centre. Readdle has the reading experience down. Pinching to zoom in on a PDF is seamless, like it should be, which is something iBooks consistently lags on for me. Saving bookmarks is convenient, and those bookmarks are saved to Dropbox for easy access later (especially useful if you’re using PDF Reader on more than one iPad of your iPhone — which is a separate $9.99 purchase).

A handy little overview of PDF Expert's newest features.

A handy little overview of PDF Expert’s newest features.

One of my favourite features is Crop Mode, which essentially locks the page at margins the user chooses. Margins are large in screenplays, which makes reading them on, say, an iPad mini, a bit of a chore. If I zoom in to the point where text is legible, I can lock the margins there for every page and not have to worry about zooming in or out as I go.

The app also has a million different ways for users, particularly business users, to interact with PDFs. They can highlight, make notes, fill in forms and even sign on the dotted line where they need to. All of it is done with a simple toolbar at the top of the screen. Users can also add shapes (circles, ovals, squares, etc.) with the tap of a few buttons. You can even change their opacity and colour of the shape to match your needs. Frankly, it’s more than the average user is ever going to need, but business class consumers will love it.

Highlights are obviously an important feature.

Highlights are obviously an important feature.

If you have multiple PDF files open, you can switch between them with tabs, much like an Internet browser. The app’s newest update also allows users to copy and paste annotations from one file to another with ease. The Selection Tool allows you to work with many annotations at once, and the Date Picker uses a custom keyboard to let people pick the date and time in seconds when they’re filling out a form.

Sign here. (Yes, that's my signature. Clearly born to be a rock star.)

Sign here. (Yes, that’s my signature. Clearly born to be a rock star.)

Basically, if your business uses PDFs on a regular basis, this is the app for you. I haven’t seen another app like it, and I’ve never seen a PDF app with such a functional design. It blows GoodReader out of the water. And that’s why Readdle can get away pricing it at $9.99. If you have a need for this and you work with PDFs all the time, it’s money well spent, but that doesn’t mean the app is perfect and it doesn’t mean the app is for everybody who uses PDFs.

Finding Flaws

There are more than a few things in PDF Expert that left me shaking my head a little bit. First, I have to question the design of any app that needs a thirty-one page guide. Six pages are dedicated to annotating documents, which to me indicates a serious design flaw with that part of the app.

Adding notes is easy, once you know which button you're tapping.

Adding notes is easy, once you know which button you’re tapping.

I need to choose my words carefully, because what I’m saying isn’t that the app is a mess. The app is functional, perhaps the most functional PDF app available. And it is the most elegant option available. But that’s a shame, because much of the app is buried beneath unidentifiable menus. Once you know what they are, then they’re easy to use and they’re elegant solutions to complex problems. But until then, you’re either reading a manual or you’re stuck exploring the app and trying to understand what each button does.

A lot of this comes down to a touch interface, and Readdle has done a better job of fixing the problems than anybody else, but they’re still problems with bandaid solutions.

The app also comes with a Night Mode and even Stamps, all accessible from that one cramped, complicated toolbar.

The app also comes with a Night Mode and even Stamps, all accessible from that one cramped, complicated toolbar.

There’s another massive problem that feels like it should be easier to fix though, and that’s simply inter-app communication. Why can’t I see the bookmarks in other apps? Why can’t I open Readdle’s Documents and have access to bookmarks? Every Readdle app with PDF abilities should have access to all of the enhancements I make in PDF Expert. Since Documents is free and even available for iPhone, it would make the perfect companion tool for the app.

Is It For You?

I’d argue that people who are looking to read PDFs on their iPads are best served by Readdle’s Documents app, which has a fantastic (albeit trimmed-down) PDF reader, based on PDF Expert, built right in. But for people who are annotating PDFs and require them as a daily part of their lives — students, businessmen, or even creative freelancers dealing with contracts all the time — you owe it to yourself to check out PDF Expert.

The bottom line is simple: Despite all its flaws, PDF Expert finds solutions to problems that other PDF apps either don’t solve or don’t solve as elegantly (as does every other Readdle app available). It’s the most powerful PDF app on the market, and although I wish it was a better app, it’s also the best at what it does on an iPad. PDF Expert comes recommended.


Summary

PDF Expert suffers from some of the design issues present with most PDF apps on the market, but it solves more problems than any other PDF app and is also the most elegant PDF tool available for iOS.

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