Wednesday, February 3, 2010

PDF Annotation Software

As a student, I am naturally interested in note taking products. I've looked at and in a sense reviewed a wide variety of products ranging from the built-in word "notebook" view in mac office '08 to skim to circus ponies notebook for mac to skim and just recently I got a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional and I must say I have been blown away by the kinds of things you can do with it, in terms of notetaking.

Now, don't get me wrong I am not particularly an adobe fan, *cough* flash *cough*, but I must say that I tried out adobe acrobat pro and I can see how it can be incredibly useful for students. I shall first describe my journey in the notetaking world.

So first off when I got microsoft office: mac '08 I was pretty excited about the notebook view. "Wow, I can record all my lectures on here" or "Hey it seems really easy to document your notes with their tabs" and the list goes on. But when I actually tried the notebook view it was too late. Note that when office '08 first came out they didn't have a trial so I was unable to test out the software prior to buying it. First of all I tried the audio recorder. Bad quality, every little click on the keyboard could be heard and there was a lot of background noise. In the end if I wanted to record a lecture I would just use garageband, though in my opinion recording lectures from the computer is in itself a horrible idea since as you type it makes sounds on the keyboard, and since the mic is right next to the keyboard (I'm on the early 2008 macbook pro) when I listen to it again I can hear everything going on. Granted, if you're not using your computer when you're recording the lecture then fine (which was what I did last year when recording my microbiology lecture, which I have never listened to after I recorded it).

So back to word notebook view. I found that the features in the notebook view were limited, to say the least, and I couldn't even change the font I wanted in the notebook view, which I was somewhat disappointed about. The page was pretty much set in stone as to what you could and could not do. I went down the path of circus ponies notebook, which did have a lot more features but when I got into university what I realized was that I didn't need an application to take notes, rather I needed an application that could annotate pdf, since all the professors sent out their powerpoint slides in pdf. So I went searching. Yes, I have recently tried the trial of circus ponies notebook again and yes it does have a pdf annotation feature similar to onenote, a software which I am just yearning to have on mac os x without running darwine. I searched through forums and found a software called skim that could annotate pdfs but I've always had a number of issues with it.

First of all, the spell check was always off unless I turned it on. I could not default it as on which I saw as a nuisance (I like making sure that my spelling is correct. Another issue isn't really skim's fault, it's apple's but on some pdfs skim would crash repeatedly. Every time I would open it and a couple of minutes later it would crash, and the error message would come up. I went as far as to talk to the developers of skim about it, and part of the thread can be found here but they notified me in the end that it was not skim's problems and it was apple's. I encountered that problem in 10,6,3 and I am hoping that it will be fixed in 10.6.3. To say the least skim was a stable app, except for that issue. Unfortunately all the problematic pdfs were from one class and I couldn't use skim. When skim was unusable I had to switch to preview, which in my opinion is severely lacking in features when it came to pdf annotation. I tried it out a couple of times and it was pretty hard to use whether I compare it to skim or adobe acrobat pro. I do see it as a "new" feature as apple just included in 10.6 and I hope to see changes down the road for a better user experience.

Also, drawing in skim was limited, as if I tried to draw with my mouse it was not a pleasant experience, even though the feature was included. And there was the problem of interoperability. Skim saved the annotated information in a hidden file in the same directory as the pdf itself, so if the pdf was moved to another drive from what I understand the information would be still on the original drive. I tried to remedy this issue by saving all my pdfs as pdf bundles, so the information would always be there wherever I move it. However, pdf or pdf bundle, the only software that could read the file was skim.

And now the alternative to skim (I think I'm going to default my pdf annotating), adobe acrobat pro. It is by no means perfect but it just includes many features that I found lacking in skim, such as spelling checking options, as well as line spacing options, better drawing features. Also, it saves the changes directly on the pdf itself so other pdf viewers such as preview on mac os x can read it perfectly. And I find that many of skim's features were retained such as the comment list, full screen viewing, comment fonts, sticky notes, and on and on. One thing I think that adobe can do better is the preferences pane. Just as microsoft improved their preferences pane in office '08 to be easier to understand I think that adobe should follow, because at the moment it's hard to browse through all the options in the preferences. At least initially I find adobe acrobat pro to be satisfying from a pdf annotating perspective. Though in terms of pdf editing, I can do the main features just from preview such as combining pdfs, splitting pdfs, deleting pages. Many of those features can be found within preview. Well, I guess all in all what I'm trying to say in this post is that my initial viewpoint of adobe acrobat pro is a superb one. Though as I start using adobe acrobat pro, I will try to point out more pros and cons of the software.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this useful article.

    After weeks of research, I ended up purchasing PDF Studio to annotate and manipulate my PDF documents. This is a pure PDF annotator in the sense that it works directly with the PDF format and saves back to PDF. Annotations are real PDF annotations that are "portable" and viewable on all systems.

    PDF Studio has pretty much all the functions supported by Adobe Acrobat but costs 10 times less.

    The only thing is that the application is not very "sexy". But I guess it's not worse than Acrobat.