So you've turned everything into a PDF. What next?

There are far too many PDF apps out there. Pick one, learn it inside and out, and make it work for you. Although I do have my preference. And it’s not Adobe Acrobat. This is in essence a shameless plug for the app that, more than anything else, made my paperless life possible.

OK. Well done. You’ve spent a boring 10 minutes or so turning everything into PDFs. What are you going to use to do anything with them?

This is a tricky one. For Apple users, there are a huge number of options. I’ve only tried a few, and I’m not going to attempt a comparative review. No point. (And I’m sorry – I’ve used PCs all my working life, but mostly corporate locked-down ones, so no experimenting to find apps I like. This is one of those areas where this is gonna get really aggravating for Windows users. Again – apologies.)

Instead, this simply covers three options:

  1. A specialised PDF app;
  2. A dedicated legal bundle-handling app or website; or
  3. Adobe Acrobat Pro.

Me? I go for option 1, and in my case a lovely app called PDF Expert:

  • It does highlighting, annotation, tables of contents and bookmarking really well, which are the core things we need (and it allows you easily to view or extract just your highlights and annotations, which makes it easy to dump them into skeletons etc).
  • It’s child’s play to combine PDFs, mess about with page order, rotate pages, and so on. It works just about identically on Mac and iPad.
  • All the table-stakes PDF stuff like form-filling and signing is pretty much entirely pain-free.
  • And for those of us who keep all our stuff in some form of secure cloud storage, it’s great at syncing it all between offline iPad storage and the cloud.

Seriously – if there’s one app which made it possible for me to go paperless and stay there, it’s this one.

Now, there are loads of others. Just off the top of my head: PDFPen and PDF Element (for both Mac and iOS). iAnnotate and GoodReader for iPad. Even Preview, which comes installed as standard on Macs. Seriously: there are shedloads. And none of them are less than good (well, except Preview – that’s just OK). You won’t go wrong. Just so happens that PDF Expert solves for my pain points and (to my mind) does so better than the alternatives, if sometimes not by much. Particularly on the critical combine-files-together thing, which (on the Mac) you can do by dragging and dropping. Multiple files. All those ones you PDFed and carefully named. In one go. Bliss.

Now, I have to admit there’s one serious fly in the PDF Expert ointment. It doesn’t do OCR – optical character recognition, also known as “turning a scan into something searchable and highlightable”. PDFPen does, for instance. As does Adobe Pro (see below). That’s a big downside. So I have a separate OCR app. Again, there are several – but ReadIris has worked well for me so far.

And then there’s price. PDF Expert isn’t cheap – nor are PDFpen and PDF Element. If price is a real issue, you should definitely look at GoodReader, which (I think) costs about a fiver.

(Update, later in the day: I feel slightly dirty. I’ve just advised a non-geek colleague to go for PDFPen because it does OCR etc all in one. I still think PDF Expert is the better app usability-wise. But there you go: perhaps for people who need OCR, the all-in-one solution wins out…)

So how about option 2? I have to admit I don’t know much about these. I’ve dabbled, no more, in three of them – Casedo, Bundledocs and Hyperlaw – so take my comments with a sizeable pinch of salt. But they’re not for me. Yes, they make bundling a doddle, and in Casedo’s case have some nifty ways of highlighting and linking between parts of different documents. But while Hyperlaw solves one big pain point – you can dump an email full of various attachments into it and it turns them all magically into PDF (yay!) – it’s also browser-based, and despite claims to the contrary, is simply substandard on an iPad. Bundledocs is also browser-only, and only really handles bundle generation, not all the other PDF-handling we need. So that’s a no. And Casedo is app-based – but the app is Mac/PC only. Again, no. I can’t do this without my iPad. Sue me. (Don’t.)

OK. Elephant time. Why not option 3? Why don’t we simply go for Adobe Acrobat Pro? After all, Adobe invented PDFs. Surely they know what they’re doing?

Yes. They do. It’s excellent software. Again, fully cross-platform, and a single subscription covers everything. Including OCR built in.

But there’s part of the rub. That subscription is £15 a month – if you sign up for a whole year. If you want to keep your options open, it’s £25 a month on a month-by-month basis. Ouch. I have to say, I also find its highlighting/bookmarking/annotating simply less good than most of the competition. That may be simply me backing what I’m used to, but it’s still a hard pass.

As with everything, your mileage may vary. What’s critical is you find something that works. Something you feel comfortable with.

And then there’s option 4. The one I didn’t mention. The apps that do it completely differently.

Two in particular stand out: LiquidText (iOS only) and MarginNote (iOS and Mac). Both allow you to take one or more PDFs, drag bits of text or pictures (or whatever) out onto a scratchpad to one side, and connect and arrange those bits in any way you please, adding commentary and comparing different bits of documents side by side. I’ve tried both, and I absolutely love the concept. Just haven’t quite managed to make it work for me. But people for whom it does absolutely swear by it. Give it a go. Might be your idea of perfection.