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...
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