The school year's already begun for most American college students, and they are no doubt racked with the same problem that we had as undergrads: carrying around countless handouts, course packets, articles, essays and notes. Depending on the breadth of your study and the wickedness of your professors, you could be faced with a small mountain of paper for each class. (Your author recalls, not so fondly, a class in Russian literature with a 15-pound course packet.)
Luckily, many professors have transitioned from handing out hard copies of documents to employing PDFs, often through BlackBoard or a class listserv. The problem is, most students still print out their PDFs to keep them organized and portable, defeating the purpose of making them digital in the first place. If you happen to own an iPad, however, PDF reading is intuitive and untaxing. We took a look at some of the more popular PDF-reader iPad apps for students to help you cut through the chaff and find the best bets for cracking the digital books.
Apple's native e-book reader is perhaps the worst choice for in-depth PDF reading. Although the app recently gained the ability to include PDFs alongside e-books, its features are still severely limited. The interface is the slowest among all the apps we tried, taking up to two seconds for a single page to be rendered (an instantaneous action on better readers), and you have no way to highlight, annotate or copy any of the text from the PDF. The search function works well, giving you access to Wikipedia and Google for a Net search if needed, but it kicks you out of the 'iBooks' app and into Safari instead of doing the search in-app. We'd only recommend 'iBooks
' for the most casual of PDF readers.
: Skip it.
The baroque 'GoodReader'
interface might frighten off users with little patience, but this economical app still sports a few fantastic features. Besides reading PDFs (which it renders lightning-fast), you can also transfer images, audio and video files supported by iOS, as well as HTML, text files, and MS Word and iWorks documents. 'GoodReader' features an in-app Web browser for downloading files and surfing, and also connects to your PC wirelessly, appearing as an external drive onto which you can simply drop your files. Sadly, 'GoodReader' doesn't currently allow you to highlight, or copy directly from, the PDF file, although its text-reflow feature does convert the PDF to plain text (as do all of our other apps aside from iBooks). It's not the best reader by any stretch, but the $0.99 price tag makes it a good buy for spendthrifts.
: Lacks highlighting and annotation, but sports enough features for poor students.
In addition to PDFs, 'SmileyDocs
' reads a variety of formats, including Word documents, PowerPoint files and plain text. It allows you to highlight passages in your PDF -- although the highlighting is rather crude, almost like painting over the words with your finger. You can make annotations to your documents, but neither they nor your highlights are saved to the file so that you could view them on another device. The menu bar along the bottom is extremely frustrating; you must hold your finger against the iPad for a few seconds before it appears, but you have to make your selection quickly before it disappears again. Unlike 'iBooks,' 'SmileyDocs' allows you to access your iPad from a separate computer to transfer your files via a temporary FTP; alas, we could not get this feature to work. Pages render quickly and zoom well, but the poor interface makes it a questionable buy.
: Good for crude highlighting and notes, but not much else.
'PDF Reader Pro Edition for iPad'
As we said of 'SmileyDocs,' we enjoy the ability to transfer our files across devices with a variety of options, not just syncing through iTunes. 'PDF Reader Pro Edition
' boasts a Web-accessible personal FTP, allowing to instantly move your PDFs from your computer to your 'Pad. Oddly, though, every file we transferred this way ended up as a blank page in the app. Still, 'PDF Reader Pro' offers other transfer options, like an in-app Web browser, through which you can directly download files, as well as the option to open e-mail PDF attachments directly in the software. For reading, the 'PDF Reader Pro' is a little amateur. Pages scroll up and down instead of side to side, unless you use the two small navigation buttons up at the top. And despite the description in the iTunes Store, we were not able to highlight or select text. (Yes, we have the latest version.) As we tried to navigate through the app to find these missing options, 'PDF Reader' kept crashing on us. For the price, you can definitely find something better.
: Overpriced for few features.
'ReaddleDocs for iPad'
Compared to the last few apps, 'ReaddleDocs
' was a revelation. Its interface is organized and familiar, looking not unlike the 'Mail.app' for Mac users. 'Readdle' renders pages quickly, scrolls right-to-left with a finger swipe, and allows the selecting/highlighting/copying of text. Even better, it features an in-app browser for downloading docs and accessing Web pages, as well as connectivity to remote servers (like your laptop) and e-mail attachments. It reads MS Office and iWorks files, gives in-app access to your iPad's photos, and allows you to quickly e-mail attachments from within the software (even compressing to a .zip if you need). Our only beef with 'Readdle' is that the highlighting feature is somewhat frustrating; we tended to highlight the wrong passages on pages with multiple columns, as the app uses the same kind of awkward gesture for highlighting as the iPad and iPhone do for copying and pasting. Still, for only five bucks, it's worth its weight.
: Decent, well-rounded reader.
' is like the PhotoshopCS5 to the other apps' MS Paint. In fact, it may suffer from too many features, with a zillion helpful pop-ups for every page and tool. Thankfully, once you've worked your way through the app's myriad options, you can turn off the help windows, and customize the interface within an inch of its life. It sports dynamic highlighting, a pen tool, notes and bookmarks, all of which can be saved to the file so that they can be read in any PDF reader on any device. If you have a free Dropbox account, you can wirelessly sync files from your computer to iAnnotate (either via Wi-Fi or 3G) -- perhaps the best feature of the app. It features an in-app Web browser, the ability to pull in your e-mail attachments, and other necessary goodies. Conspicuously absent from other PDF readers is the ability to read more than one file at once; iAnnotate thankfully provides you with much-needed tabbed browsing. It may be a stretch for cash-strapped students at $10, but its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink features make it our best bet.
: Best bet for PDF reading, with tabbed browsing and Dropbox support.