Searching for a PDF reader

For years, I have been in search of the perfect digital tool to help me organize, read, and annotate PDF articles from education journals. I would love to be able to stop printing articles and reading them in paper form. So far, I have not found a digital reading device that replaces the good ol’ paper article with a staple in the upper left corner, my favorite clipboard, and my trusty mechanical pencil for underlining key quotes and commenting in the margins. The sharp printed text and ease of quickly flipping back and forth between pages to make notes has always trumped the convenience of the digital format.


In past months I researched the various e-readers available that use e-ink, especially the Kindle. When I finally got to look at a friend’s Kindle, I didn’t like the awkward display and limited navigation. These e-readers don’t seem to be a good solution for reading publications other than those that appear on a best seller list. I tend to use my tech toys in ways other than they were intended.

Digital research tools


I need a portable reading device with an excellent display that will interface with the “digital ecosystem” of related tools that I currently use. On my macbook I use Zotero, a free firefox browser add-on to collect, organize, tag, and cite articles retrieved from library research databases like ERIC and Proquest. I use Zotero to download PDFs of the articles along with their citation information. Zotero is a great way to collect the PDFs I need to read, but reading long articles on my macbook is not ideal. (Zotero does not have a mobile version or app for the iPad/iPod/iPhone -yet). I have tried various file sharing apps (Dropbox, Air Sharing) in the past on my iPod touch. These help to kill time while waiting for a bus but so far do not serve as serious reading/annotating tools. In particular, the Air Sharing ($2.99) app does not support USB file sharing and is a pain to share files to via a networked connection. Dropbox (free) is great for sharing and syncing a variety of file types between multiple devices. Neither of these are specific enough to be great PDF tools.

Enter iPad


After about 3 weeks with the iPad I am finding this multimedia “reader” is a pleasure to use. The display is stunning. It is strangely satisfying to navigate content with the touch of a finger (although I have had to clip my fingernails much shorter than I would like in order to make the touch screen work comfortably). And, as an unexpected bonus, the little built in speakers on the iPad produce impressive sound quality!

I spent the first two weeks in play mode, exploring all the ways I might use the iPad for entertainment, news, information, and education. After finding that some of my favorite apps are news and information related, I discovered that I really do enjoy reading text on the iPad. So, I decided it was time to put the iPad to work in service to my research and productivity as a graduate student in art education. Time to stop playing around and get back to work. I went in search of a PDF reader.

What makes a good PDF reader?


This was my criteria:

1) easy file management using USB sync (rather than uploading first to a Web site or tricky networked sharing via wifi)
2) flexible navigation of large PDF files
3) annotation and markup that could be read back on my macbook via Adobe reader
4) search functionality for locating key words

Taking the plunge


I purchased the iAnnotate PDF app. At 9.99, this is by far the most expensive app purchase I have made so I have high hopes. Based on a bit of reading, it looks like it will be a great tool. I can’t wait to see how this PDF app helps me to redirect all of the fun I have been having with my iPad to productivity this summer with research, reading, and writing. In a future post I will report how this is going. Meanwhile, I am interested to hear if others are using their iPad to read PDFs, what tools they find useful, and their workflow.

Update November 9, 2011: I have continued to use iAnnotate PDF and really enjoy reading and annotating all of my PDFs on my iPad. Here is an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education that tells more –

About Mary Elizabeth Meier

Program director of Mercyhurst University Art Education Program.
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6 Responses to Searching for a PDF reader

  1. Leslie says:

    Please write a follow-up post letting us know how this app works. I will take the $10 plunge with your recommendation!

    • Mary Elizabeth Meier says:

      Yes, I will continue to post on this topic and share my process along the way. On a related topic – and a bit of “meta” thinking aloud… I have been thinking about how our work here on this blog can be inquiry. If we were a “user group” I would have waited to post about this PDF reader until after I had already reviewed it and determined its value. I would have made a polished set of recommendations for others. I would be writing a report on my findings. Since we are focused on inquiry, I thought I would post about my “process” in needing, searching, and selecting a PDF reader. Though it seemed pre-mature to publish this post before I fully experimented with the iAnnotate app, I thought it would be a good idea to share my in-process thoughts, make my process visible, and invite others to join in my inquiry. For instance, those interested in collaborating on this sub-topic of inquiry might undertake a similar question. What would a mobile PDF reader do for me? In my experience, this in-process way of working is not typical to technology blogs I read but is related to our desire as educators to explore ways of documenting collaborative inquiry.

      • wow. excellent meta cognitive reflection. you will find my blogs are more mono cognitive. but this should be okay. i enjoy the diversity of our group.

      • Thanks for so clearly articulating what I thinking too – that the messiness of sharing our thinking as we go is truly inquiry. The fun is, we’ve all taken up the task of trying out this own tool – we’ve each chosen our own path – and we all are working together in service of art, music, dance, and theatre teachers. I feel pretty good about what we’ll learn and about how it may inform our decisions to implement iPads with teachers (or not) this fall.


  2. John Pfeiffer says:

    Appreciate this ‘inquiring approach’ because adequate answers always depend on identifying and formulating the right questions. I am especially attentive to the criteria for judging a good PDF reader, and am excited to know that I’m not the only one who is feeling the need to graduate from reams of hard copy to digital ways of gathering, organizing, and ‘filing’ articles, while adding personal annotations. I had no idea how to ‘take the plunge,’ let alone even identify the pool with certainty! Nobody should have to apologize or an ‘inquiring approach’ to these matters, because this is new territory–even for techies who have some of the answers.
    I’m glad to know about the possibilities of ZOTERO and iAnnotate, and will be listening for experiences of other educators. I do high school speech therapy, and am the first among our special education staff to experiment with iPad in interactive therapy. One of the first things I’ll be looking for are ways to match students’ goals with materials stashed in PDF file materials, using key words. Is anyone else frustrated with search mechanisms that can’tseemto? (Google notwithstanding!)

  3. Mary Elizabeth Meier says:

    After using iPad for about 6 months, iAnnotatePDF is my favorite app. I use the aji sync application to sync PDFs from a folder on my mac. It works well. However, at least once when I updated the iPad, all of my files disappeared. I just re synced but that could be a problem if you needed to be sure your annotations were saved. This hasn’t happened to me in the most recent updates but it is something to keep in mind.

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