We slogged through seventeen different PDF apps to try and find the one PDF app that would change your life — well, at least change your iPad usage. And the best PDF app for managing, editing, and reading PDFs on your iPad is PDF Expert 5 by Readdle. PDF Expert is delightful and easy to use, it offers the fastest PDF reading experience, it works with many syncing services, and it has the most robust toolset available on the iPad.
Editor’s Note (January 30th, 2015): We’ve updated this article with information about PDFpen 2 for iOS from Smile Software. PDF Expert 5 is still our favorite, but PDFpen 2 is a solid app. While PDFpen 2 addressed some of our issues in the original review, PDF Expert still offers drastically better organization options.
For almost any contract-based business, PDFs are a way of life. In real estate and legal professions, you can spend all day inside of a PDF. PDFs also happen to be one of the best and most universal ways to send a document to another person. Almost any computing device can view them and they will almost always display as needed with formatting and layout intact across all manner of platforms and devices.
This is a boon for design-minded people who want to make sure invoices, contracts, proposals, and brochures come across looking perfect regardless of what device they are viewed on. PDFs are the most reliable way to do this, and are an important part of any serious iPad user’s workflow.
While writing this round-up, we talked to iPad users that rely heavily on PDFs about what makes the iPad a good — or bad — tool for this.
Of the iPad users that I queried about their experiences with PDFs, the sentiments were all similar and fell into one of two groups:
- Those using an app they love (by far PDF Expert and PDFpen) found using PDFs to be a freeing and mostly good experience on the iPad. As in the quotes below, quite a few think it is the best way to work with PDFs.
- Those who have yet to find a good PDF app and thus find the experience of working with PDFs on their iPad frustrating.
Michael Jacobs, a group one user:
The iPad is great for working with PDFs. In many ways, it is simpler. For example, when annotating, using pinch to zoom and other gestures allows for great precision at great speeds. My favorite thing about annotating PDFs on the iPad is signing documents. It’s so natural and efficient for me to sign documents with a stylus.
John Kivus, attorney in group one:
I prefer working with PDFs on the iPad to working with PDFs on my computer. The ability to directly annotate PDFs using the iPad’s touchscreen makes things much easier than trying to manipulate the annotation tools available in PDF applications for the Mac.
Derek Lunde, creative director at a design firm, fits squarely in the second group saying:
PDFs are “meh” on the iPad. Typically, I only use the iPad to view PDFs through the Mail, Dropbox, or Safari apps’ native viewer. Inevitably, I end up wanting to comment on something, propose a markup, or highlight content in it to send along to another person. But I don’t, because I can’t. Well I can’t very easily. And then I think about opening the PDF in Goodreader or some other fancy PDF viewer app and all the steps I just took and still have to take just to put a straight(ish) yellow highlighter mark and a Comic Sans black with yellow background sticky-note on the dang PDF. Then my blood pressure escalates and I stop working.
We think we have found a way to help Derek and those stuck in PDF purgatory on their iPads.
But first, here’s how we tested.
Which apps we tested, and how we tested them
For our testing, we elected both paid and free apps that were popular or recommended to us. The apps we tested include: PDF Expert, PDFpen, iAnnotate PDF, Adobe Reader, GoodReader, Documents, FileApp, CloudReaders, iBooks, GoodNotes, PDF Reader, PDFReader Pro, PDF PROvider, PDF Master Pro, PerfectReader, PDF Box, and PDF Pro.
Our testing for each app involved working with three PDF files: a rental application PDF form, one annotated PDF, and one 8.2mb 30-page legal-sized scanned lease that had OCR applied to it on scanning.
We imported each document into each app and ran the following tests:
- Import speed
- Speed at rendering pages on swipe
- Compatibility with the different annotations and forms
- Filling out forms
- Redacting, highlighting, adding text, and noting PDFs
- Re-ordering pages
- Merging documents
- Organizing documents
- Syncing PDF documents between devices/services
Only one app, PDF Expert 5, could do all of those tasks. In almost every task, PDF Expert performed faster and/or more reliably than the other apps we tested. There were many apps that could do almost every task, but they often fell short in one or more tests (most notably in the merging and/or form filling tests).
The Best: PDF Expert 5
PDF Expert 5 by Readdle was released as we were testing and researching other apps, and we are glad it was. PDF Expert performed with aplomb in all of our tasks, and even added a new metric to our test criteria because it is the only “full-featured” PDF app that could merge PDF documents together (via a copy and paste mechanism built in for PDF pages in the app).
First things first, the icon (like most of the other PDF apps we tested) leaves a lot to be desired, but does look better than our next closest picks.
In talking with many iPad PDF users, a common theme ran throughout: the most important features of a PDF management app are organization, annotation, and reading.
To that end, PDF Expert offers the best of class in all three of those categories.
Organizing and Managing documents in PDF Expert
The organization offered in PDF Expert is easily the best of any of the other full-featured PDF apps. With PDF Expert you can add favorite files to the sidebar, tag and label your files, view files as a list or as thumbnails, sort by date/size/name, and quickly view recently accessed documents.
Many PDF apps don’t offer this robust set of filing options, yet PDF Expert ups the ante with its folder support, making it an app well-equipped for handling many PDF files while not feeling like overkill for someone with few PDFs. PDF Expert also has a built-in universal search for quickly finding the file you stashed away — a lifesaver when you’re suddenly put on the spot in a meeting.
When you first open PDF Expert, you don’t notice that much of a different organizational view than you get with other apps, and it’s not until you start diving into the app that you start to appreciate its robust options. Many of the other apps we tested hide common user tasks with gestures and tap zones the user must somehow learn and remember. For example, in PDFpen you rename a document by double-tapping the file name, yet (even as a long-time user of the app) I often forget that shortcut every time I want to rename a document.
PDF Expert tries to avoid taps and buttons where it can by clearly labeling things where needed and tailoring the gestures to be intuitive based on the view the user has chosen in the app. For example, in list view, swiping on a document will reveal icons to delete or rename the file — a standard iOS gesture that is easy to remember. In icon view, tapping a file name allows for editing; dragging the icon reveals a deletion drop zone (flashing and clearly labeled) for users to dispose of documents.
PDF Expert makes it easy to tap-hold-and-drag a file to perform actions on it — no need to find the Edit button. Like everything else in PDF Expert, moving files around is extremely quick and easy.
One note here: dragging a PDF file on top of another creates a folder, which is shown via the files changing into a folder icon (nice touch), but we would love to be able to toggle this action into a merging action. Dragging one file on top of another merges the two PDF files together is more simplified — folders can always be created by tapping the new folder icon.
When you do find yourself tapping the Edit button, be prepared to smile if working with PDFs is a large part of your life, as it is for me. As expected, tapping Edit allows you to select multiple files to act on. But it also opens up a new set of options.
Once in Edit view in the file browser, you can perform all the previously listed actions, plus:
- Merge files — just select the files you want to merge and tap Merge. The files will merge in a new document and prompt you for a new name, or it will add a merged tag to the end of the name. The original files are kept in place, which is nice, but we’d like an option for them to be deleted after merging.
- Zip files — want to send a bunch of files to a client? You can zip them up in PDF Expert for sending.
- Stars and Color Tags — just as they sound, you can color-code file names and star documents if that helps you stay organized. Do note that these tags are proprietary to PDF Expert and do not sync back to your Mac with those color tags showing. We wish they did, but that does not work at the time of our testing.
- Upload — in addition to the normal sharing options (email, “open in”), you can also choose to upload a PDF to any of the web services you have setup in PDF expert. This is phenomenal for keeping documents backed up.
Not all of these features are unique to PDF Expert, but it was the only app we tested with all of the features together in one app. The most elusive to others apps are the tagging, zipping, and merging features. Even at that, many other apps simply did not perform these actions as easily as PDF Expert does (not to mention, some of these tasks are even easier in PDF Expert on the iPad than they are in some desktop applications for the Mac).
PDF Expert can also store and edit files stored in iCloud Drive, meaning PDF Expert files can more easily be shared between iOS apps. Support for the new iOS 8 document picker allows you to navigate to PDF Expert and see your PDF files. Of course this also works the other way around, allowing users of PDF Expert to grab their PDFs for other iOS 8 apps which support document picker. This alleviates the annoyance of using “Open in…” in order to transport your files from one app to another.
As mentioned, PDF Expert is the only app of those tested that could merge PDF files together. Though specialized apps do exist for this specific task, we are trying to find a good all-in-one PDF solution.
You can do this in one of two ways:
- As mentioned above, you can tap “Edit” when in the file picker view and select the documents you want to merge. Then you just tap “Merge.”
- There is another method that is less obvious but also gives you more control over exactly what you merge and where it gets merged. Go into a document and enter the thumbnail preview mode for that document, which shows you the pages in the document. From there, select one or more pages, copy them, and then move to the same view in another document and paste those pages in. The benefit to this route is that you are not forced to merge every page, and, in fact, you can merge one document into the middle of another document.
I tried both merging methods sending a 28-page OCR PDF to the end of a two-page PDF document — in both cases, PDF Expert handled the merge quickly and without hiccups. Bravo.
Annotating and editing documents
PDF Expert also has the most feature-rich highlighting engine of those we tested. Offering very opaque coloring and dark colors makes it one of the few apps tested that allow you to easily redact lines of text using a black highlight, but do note that you need to flatten the PDF if you want it to remain redacted when shared. This is something the NSA should probably look into.
Note that annotations are also done very well when moved from platform to platform, but “idea cloud” annotations from the Mac’s Preview app do not render correctly within PDF Expert. (The test is often shown outside the “bubble.”) Luckily, such annotations are rare. The far more common standard PDF comment is handled with aplomb in PDF Expert. Creation of those annotations is also a simple affair.
The biggest trouble we ran into with commenting was related to positioning. The small nature of the note bubble makes for rather tricky placement with a finger. If you are one to obsess about getting positioning just right, you may become frustrated when manipulating the note. On the plus side, the notes text is rendered in Helvetica and not Marker Felt.
PDF Expert also boasts solid signature support, but we wish that we could insert a signature without the tap to hold gesture, which is hard, if not impossible, to do while holding the device with one hand. It is odd that clicking the signature icon is not how you insert a signature, but how you create signatures, and thus a confusing icon to have persistent in the toolbar.
When you tap-and-hold for inserting a signature, you will see there is also support for “customer signatures,” whereby allowing someone else to sign without saving their signature to your device. The tradeoff with PDF Expert’s signature support is that you can only stow one signature. I personally like to stow two: my signature and my initials. That’s not possible with PDF Expert (at least not in a non-hack way, as you could store one as a stamp via snapping an image).
A couple other niceties of PDF Expert:
- It has the fastest page reordering and deleting of the apps we tested, and it does this smoothly and quickly.
- Solid support for forms on par with the likes of Adobe Acrobat, which is something that many other apps we tested sorely lacked.
Overall, PDF Expert presents a powerful editing and markup tool for PDF users.
PDF Expert offers top-notch horizontal page scrolling performance, but vertical page scrolling can be jittery at times. Additionally, vertical page scrolling requires an extra tug to get to the next page, which makes vertical page scrolling a non-starter for most users since it is both annoying and disruptive when reading long documents. Take note of this if you prefer to scroll vertically instead of swiping between pages.
Oddly enough, PDF Expert’s reading mode is a bit strict. When reading with the iPad in portrait orientation, the device displays as you would expect, filling the entire screen with the page (tap on the open document to get fullscreen mode). From there, you can zoom in if needed — whether a letter-sized PDF page or legal, PDF Expert shows the entire page. However, if you switch to landscape orientation, PDF Expert fills the width of your device with the PDF page, which would be fine, except PDF Expert refuses to let you zoom out. So, in landscape you cannot view the entire page or zoom out past the width of the page. That’s very odd.
However, PDF Expert also offers Night/Sepia/Day reading modes that make for a great reading experience in lighting situations (as does the app-specific brightness control), and a nice clutter-free reading interface. Overall, the reading experience is solid, offering one of the fastest renderings of large PDF files (over 23mb files) we tested.
To The Cloud
One of the most important factors when choosing a PDF app is: how do you manage your files. As with just about every other PDF app, you can use the iOS standard “Open in…” command to send PDFs from Safari, Mail, etc. directly to the app. However, PDF Expert also has built-in support for the following services: iCloud (this is only between PDF Expert apps, so iOS-only for now), Dropbox, WebDAV, Google Drive, FTP, SFTP, Windows SMB, SugarSync, Box, Office 365, Sharefile, Skydrive, and Huddle.
In other words, no matter what your office uses, you can probably sync your documents in the app. I tested the service with a Mac-based WebDAV server and was blown away by how fast the integration was. We also tested Dropbox and Skydrive and found them to work as expected.
PDF Expert works very well with Dropbox shared folders. If you have several different people you collaborate with on certain PDFs, you can all share a folder in Dropbox and that folder can be added to your Documents tab in PDF Expert. Then, any changes, updates, or other annotations you make to PDFs are synced to everyone else, just like you’d expect.
If you are worried about this opening up a security hole in your file storage, PDF Expert also allows a user to set an app passcode that will lock immediately. The app also will allow you to turn on iOS data protection, which encrypts the file store on iOS. These are great options as they help keep access to your cloud storage secure, but easily accessible to you.
What some of our trusted friends say about PDF Expert
Federico Viticci, editor-in-chief of MacStories and contributing author to The Sweet Setup:
PDF Expert is one of my must-have iPad apps and I have no problem paying again for a desktop-class PDF reader that I’ve been using every week for the past three years.
It’s the best PDF app for iPad, methinks.
PDF Expert is the best
Of all the apps we tested, PDF expert was better in almost every way because of its modern iOS 7 design, fast PDF support, and the most robust PDF toolset available on the iPad. In many cases, working with PDFs in PDF Expert on the iPad is better than working with them on a Mac.
PDF Expert is $9.99 on the App Store and is the best PDF app for the iPad.
Runner-Up: PDFpen 2
PDFpen on the Mac is the staple app for PDF users on the desktop, so it is only natural that it is also a very well-used iPad application, too. The iCloud syncing between your Mac and iPad alone make it a valuable tool, though one could just as easily use services like Dropbox to achieve a similar solution with PDF Expert. It was also just recently updated to version 2.0 as a paid update.
Smile Software has 2 bundles on the App Store that allow for upgrade pricing for owners of the first version of PDFpen. One bundle is for owners of PDFpen for iPhone, and the other is for owners of PDFpen for iPad. This is the first time I’ve seen bundles used to allow upgrade pricing, so you will want to check both bundles to see which one is cheaper for you. Bundle pricing is dependent on what you paid for the original version (retail price vs. a sale price).
However, in our testing, PDFpen fell short of PDF Expert in the following two areas:
WebDAV support didn’t work in our testing. Using the same server tested on PDF Expert, we were unable to connect to a standard Mac-based WebDAV server. (This will vary from server to server as configurations vary greatly; our server worked with no changes with PDF Expert and other apps, but not PDFpen.)
PDFpen is also missing major features that PDF Expert offers that we see as very important for serious PDF users, including limited organization options since you can only order documents by name or date. While you can create folders, there is no list view, favorites, or recents. This makes PDFpen better suited for smaller collections of PDFs. Additionally, there is no universal search for PDFs, nor is there a tab bar for quickly switching between several different currently-open PDFs in the app.
But don’t get us wrong. Not all is bad with PDFpen — the app offers strong export options and import sources, and our favorite feature is the media library. Whereas most apps use “stamps” to add graphics and imagery to PDFs on the iPad (thus allowing you access to your device camera roll), the media library in PDFpen is robust and full of clip-art-like vector imagery that you can drag-and-drop into your document. There is a standard set of items like those found in other apps: comments, text, arrows, boxes, lines, and camera roll. There is also a massive set of proofing markup icons for proofreading documents. Version 2 also added the ability to set a passcode on a PDF as well.
However, unlike the stamping tools in other apps tested, PDFpen can use iCloud to sync over media from its Mac counterpart. This is a fantastic ability as we used it to sync over signatures stored in our Mac (allowing for both signatures and initials to be saved) and letterhead images, which we can quickly apply to PDF documents created on the iPad to add our own letterhead without needing to mess with templates. The most recent version added a new editing bar for easy access to popular tools.
The media library alone is a solid enough reason to pick PDFpen if your use case necessitates such activities, but PDFpen doesn’t stop there. Smile has also included support for pressure sensitive styluses, giving PDFpen a nice edge for those that would like a more “realistic” annotation interface.
Unlike PDF Expert, PDFpen presents Mac users with the familiar PDF thumbnails on the left edge and page view on the right side view option, mimicking Preview on the Mac. Additionally, PDFpen comes with a library of proofing markup tools that are sure to be a boon to serious reviewers.
PDFpen 2 addressed a major complaint of ours with a new design. While it’s much more inline with current iOS trends, I still think that PDF Expert is much better designed from a UI perspective. Smile Software also added iCloud Drive support in this latest version.
PDFpen is a solid offering, and we have no doubt that with future updates it could knock PDF Expert out of the top spot. It’s also on the App Store for $9.99.
PDF expert is better in almost every way than every other iPad PDF app we tried. It has a modern iOS design, it’s fast, and it has the most robust and easy-to-use toolset available on the iPad. In many cases, working with PDFs in PDF Expert on the iPad is better than working with them on a Mac.
PDF Expert is $9.99 on the App Store and is, without a doubt, the best app for managing PDFs on the iPad.