Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Reviewing papers on an iPad

Following up on my recent post on Mac tools for profs, I wanted to share some early thoughts on the use of the iPad for reading and reviewing papers. (This seems to be 60% of my job these days, and it was the main reason I got an iPad in the first place.) For the last year or so I've gone paperless with paper reviews: I read PDFs on the laptop screen and have a separate text editor window open to type up my review. So the iPad seemed like the perfect way to carry the proverbial stack of papers around with me and write up reviews anytime, anywhere.

I've been testing a bunch of iPad apps for paper reading and annotation. Verdict: The software for this is still immature, but it's clear that the potential is there. In a few months I hope this will be a lot more straightforward.

Good news first: Reading PDFs on the iPad screen is fantastic. Although the screen is a little smaller than a 8.5x11" or A4 page, you can still read the text quite clearly and every reading app lets you zoom in (so you can, for example, eliminate the margins on the page or zoom in on a single column). The multitouch interface makes this easy to do and there's something quite visceral about panning and zooming around a paper with your fingers. (On my wish list: A PDF reading app that literally allows you to "poke holes" in papers as you read them, or crumple them up with a multitouch gesture.)

The PDF readers can handle very large documents and graphics and images are rendered just fine. I recently reviewed a 170+ page grant proposal on the iPad and had no problems with it at all.

Now for the bad news: First, annotating PDF files or taking notes is still somewhat crude, depending on the app. Some of the best reader apps, like GoodReader, don't support annotations at all. (I wouldn't be surprised if they added this feature sometime.) The best annotation support I've seen is iAnnotate, which lets you do pretty much anything (notes, highlights, scribbles, bookmarks), and the annotations can be read by any standard PDF reader. However, the user interface is a bit clunky and syncing PDF files is somewhat of a pain (see below). My favorite app so far, Papers, only supports plain text notes that are kept separate from the PDF file, so you can't just email a marked up paper to someone.

The other piece of bad news: Getting PDFs onto the iPad, or getting your notes off, can be a pain. Unfortunately, the iPad OS does not support a common filesystem across apps, so each app needs to have its own way to sync files to the device. This means that if someone emails you a PDF file, you can't just save it and load it up into one of the apps mentioned above.

The best sync support by far is GoodReader, which can pull from darn near anything: the Web, an FTP or WebDAV server, DropBox, Google Docs, even email attachments (which you configure separately from the Mail app). Unfortunately, there is no way to annotate PDFs and hence no way to get documents off the iPad. I hope they change this since they've clearly done a great job with the connectivity options.

iAnnotate and Papers have their own custom sync methods that require that you run an app on your Mac (or PC in the case of iAnnotate) and do the sync over the wireless LAN. They don't let you sync directly through iTunes, though again, this would be an obvious addition in the future. I already use Papers on the Mac to track my ever-growing list of papers to read, so this was the obvious choice for me. The UI needs a little tweaking: when reading in landscape mode, you have the Library pane taking up part of the display and there's no way to hide it. This would be easy to fix.

What is lacking is an all-in-one solution that lets you sync from anywhere, maintain metadata, and annotate. A Frankenstein of GoodReader, iAnnotate, and Papers is what I really want. Even better would be direct integration with HotCRP and the ability to edit and upload the review form directly. Hmm, maybe I'll have to write this app myself...

31 comments:

  1. Is it any different than reading on a laptop screen? Is it just easier to carry and hold than a laptop, or is it somehow better on the eyes also?

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  2. Mostly the form factor is better for casual reading, e.g., while sitting on the couch or on an airplane. I also find the support for zooming and panning around the page much more natural on the touchscreen than on a laptop screen using a trackpad.

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  3. How does it compare to reading on a Kindle? Does the backlight make your eyes tired, in comparison to the e-ink?

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  4. Have you ever tried a regular tablet (the kind that run Windows and come with styli)? Just wondering how they stack up.

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  5. I don't have a Kindle or a regular Windows tablet, so I can't comment on this. I don't think the Kindle has anywhere near as nice support for PDF import and display.

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  6. Turns out I was wrong about iAnnotate not importing from email: if you have this program installed you can tap on a PDF attachment in a mail message and open it with this app. Once this program allows you to email a PDF file (should be in a future update) it will be really easy to send around PDF files for markup.

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  7. Compared to my old toshiba tablet, the iPad is much better in terms of heat, battery life, and weight. Plus, while the stylus is nice, I eventually found it more cumbersome than the touch screen. I find I like the on screen keyboard better than hand-writing notes, so the use case is better for me as a tablet too.

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  8. I'm evaluating tablet options for the same purpose of reading and reviewing academic papers. I haven't decided yet but so far the Irex DR 800 looks very cool. I wonder how would the iPad compare against it, since it supports annotations, highlighting, bookmarks, etc and it embeds them into the PDF file.

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  9. iAnnotate is horribly annoying for me -- I don't seem to ever be able to get their local server thing to work. It really, really, really needs WebDAV support. Actually, all of these silly iPad file access applications need to support a common WebDAV remote file server that they can all sync to.

    But I concur completely about reading papers. It's going to save me a lot of paper.

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  10. How to get a pdf from GoodReader to iAnnotate: email the pdf to yourself from GoodReader and then choose to open in iAnnotate in Mail. Presto!

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  11. GoodReader doesn't let you email files unless I'm missing something.

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  12. Yes it does, however the file tranfered to iAnnotate with this method can not be indexed and as a result you cannot use the highlighter tool ;-/

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  13. ipad really has the great potential for an excellent teaching tool..it's portable and has a wider screen than an ipod and pretty much works like a computer

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  14. I just don't understand how Papers has existed for so long and never added an annotation feature. I've been using it on the Mac for a few years, and recently on the iPhone for about a year. I have always longed for an annotation feature, even on the Mac. Now with the iPad, it just seems like such a logical step. If they can't figure out how to do what iAnnotate has done, I think I'll abaondon the program all together soon.

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  15. I agree with your reviews, a frankenapp combining the best features of the three would be wonderful. As it is, I've been using iAnnotate but it really is a pain to get documents in. I'd switch to Papers in a second if they added in annotation.

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  16. I just got my Ipad thanks to the info published in the review, however I was looking for internet service to connect on the road to and I wanted to go with Verizon sorry AT&T but Verizon has coverage everywhere, I found a great deal for Verizon and its even called Verizon49, I got my data card and service from http://3gstore.com/lease Here is the kicker 3gstore.com offered me the data service with no contract no credit checks, and on the Verizon Wireless Network for $49.99 that is lower than buying from Verizon itself, It's one of the lowest price out in the market and now I am able to connect, Oh yeah....

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  17. please write the franken app, clearly we all ned it; Only charge 2.99 or so....you will be $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

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  18. yes- I'd buy that franken-app too!

    On my laptop I've had some luck marking up pdfs within papers using skim (http://skim-app.sourceforge.net/). But, I actually can't remember how I had them connected (it's mentioned somewhere in the papers help).

    I'm hoping annotating will be easier on the iPad; somehow scribbling with mouse and keyboard never worked as well as paper for me. I still can't review effectively on screen.

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  19. Hold off on the frank-app guys. I've requested an annotation feature on the mekentosj website, and I quickly received a very friendly reply saying the following: "Although non-trivial to implement, we hope to bring these features in a next version of Papers."
    Please do note the word "a", rather than "the" ;)

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  20. Does anyone know of a blog or website devoted to this issue -- and the use of ipad for academics?

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  21. Also check out Sente on the mac - outstanding ref. manager and they are planning an ipad version soon. I think I will wait for that. Until then I can read files no problem using dropbox and goodreader.

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  22. You can mail files out of iAnnotate and they've made that explict today with an email icon which allows you to email the document with a summary. This looks promising.

    David Sweeney

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  23. Just got my iPad and am looking for the best app to read and annotate PDFs. Has anything improved since the last post on this thread? Which app should I get? I've read mixed reviews about Noterize.

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  24. Since this post, iAnnotate has improved considerably and you can now email your annotated PDFs directly from the app. To get files onto the iPad, I simply email them to myself and open them (from the Mail app) in iAnnotate. Alternately you can use GoodReader which can pull PDF files from an email folder and re-open them in iAnnotate.

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  25. I bought both Noterize and iAnnotate. Both are good, but serve different purposes. If you are looking for a way to quickly read and mark up a journal article then Noterize comes out on top -- it's way easier to get your document in and out of the app as it works with a bunch of different services (Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, etc). If you are looking for strict PDF handling, however, iAnnotate may suit your purposes better.

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  26. In the last week or so Papers for ipad has improved considerably. You can now annotate using highlights in different colours and you can add comments throughout the text. Slowly but surely it is getting there.

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  27. For my money Readdledocs is tops. Import is extremely fast and smooth. I've found that working with pdf's up to 150mg to be very quick. You can exchange and sync docs over wifi or iTunes. And it's only $5.

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  28. I'm a new iannotate user struggling to mark papers. Have done test runs scribbling notes and emailed to myself via hotmail, but when I open the files in good reader, readdle, easypdf I don't see any annotations. Am I doing something wrong?also goodreader keeps full screening and doesn't let me see the app controls no matter what I do, I can only scroll around or have to exit and open again. All help appreciated, could have got out my pencil 2 hours ago but determined to get the paperless exam paper mode working!!!

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  29. You must double-taps on a middle of the screen in goodreader to have app controls

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  30. I believe Mendeley is planning to come out with an iPad app that sounds like it might satisfy your description of a "Frankenstein of GoodReader, iAnnotate, and Papers"

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  31. do any of these allow for VGA output? I want to project from my ipad, while annotating on a pdf. I had a tablet pc and use microsoft onenote and loved it, but our school has converted to macs. This math teacher wants to show examples and then email to missing students.

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