A comprehensive PDF annotation app is a useful tool in an increasingly paperless world

By Geri L. Dreiling, Esq. and Enrique Serrano.

PDF Expert Review

Working in a completely paperless office isn’t an easy feat, but going paperless isn’t an option anymore: it is already happening. Ten years ago, law firms wouldn’t have imagined that the stacks of papers and the piles of folders could ever be replaced. And now, the amount of information that we store and receive in digital format just keeps increasing.

In this paperless scenario new challenges arise, and digital clutter threatens to replace the hurdles of keeping printed documents sorted. The advantages of digital information — ease to store, find and share — can quickly vanish if your files go out of control.

You probably have already experienced the situation where key information related to one of your cases is received as a Portable Document File (PDF). Chances are you will need to review that document and share your thoughts with your team. Even when PDFs are a practical way to store and read information in a digital way, your default PDF reader won’t allow you to modify or write on the document. In our early technology adoption stages, we would just write an email or create a new Microsoft Word document, where we would keep all related notes, and we would just send both (the original PDF document and our additional notes) to our colleagues via email. The result? Inefficient duplication of the amount of files you’d need to keep track of, an endless trail of emails, and an impossibility to simultaneously read your notes and comments together with the part of the original file they are referring to.

Fortunately, PDF Expert offers a practical alternative to disjointed notes and to an increased amount of digital clutter.

PDF Expert for iPad

In this review we tested the PDF Expert for iPad app available in the iTunes store for $9.99. There’s also an iPhone version, but the extended screen real estate of the iPad and increased processing power make the iPad version a better candidate for work use.

As other PDF annotation apps, it is surprising how well PDF Expert blends with the daily workflow of legal practice, making it much easier to review documents, while taking advantage of the comfort, flexibility and portability of the iPad tablet. Moreover, we found the complete set of features packed into PDF Expert easy to use, making it a complete and welcome addition for our app toolbox. Read on to find out how it can help improve your productivity at work.

Annotating documents with PDF Expert

The main utility of PDF Expert is its document annotation capabilities. The features available at PDF Expert include highlights, underlines, strokes, pop-up notes, lines, arrows, squares, ellipses, customizable stamps, formatteable text notes, and handwritten pens and markers.

PDF expert annotation tools

It is worth noting that every single annotation added to the document remains editable, so you can adjust its position, color and scale with ease, allowing you to create quick drafts and polishing them before sharing them with your colleagues.

Its smooth interface makes PDF Expert an easy-to-use app. Using the default text-selection procedure in your iPad (tapping and dragging) will make a menu pop-up displaying all the context sensitive actions that you can carry out on the currently selected text. We found that such technique was a precise and intuitive way to work with most documents.

Options for selected text

You can alternatively higlight text with the marker tool by directly drawing, using your stylus or your finger. This freehand text higlight feature comes in handy for those PDF documents where text recognition isn’t available, and where automatically selecting text blocks is impossible.

A drawback present in some annotating apps is that highlighting text using the handwritten marker actually overlaps the text with a colored stroke, rendering the underlying text hard to read. But PDF Expert allows you to adjust not only the color of this highlight: also the transparency of the stroke can be tweaked. So be sure to select a lower transparency level to keep maximum readability in hand-crafted highlights.

Handwritten highlighter marker tool

No matter if you are reviewing a case, correcting a document, studying a book, or planning a course of action with your co-workers: there are more than enough tools available to keep you covered, and chances are you will stick to a limited subset of your favorite ones when annotating your documents.

Quickly finding information in a paperless world

Getting the right information as fast as possible is one of the highly-touted advantages of a paperless office. Truth is that, in practice, navigating a big amount of digital information or a heap of computer files can be a time-consuming task. Fortunately, PDF Expert did a great job providing useful tools to quickly find the right information inside your documents, or the right document inside your tablet.

Using PDF Expert to navigate inside a document

Text search in PDF app

When reviewing the app, we realized that it was extremely easy to get to the right place of the document by:

  • Searching for a specific text inside your document.
  • Going to hand-crafted user-defined bookmarks.
  • Jumping to the next annotation in the list.
  • Navigating the hierarchical tree of the document, structured according to its titles, subtitles and other nested headings.
Document outline and bookmarks Adding new PDF bookmarks

PDF Expert definitely helps you to navigate your annotated PDF documents, getting to the right information as fast as possible.

PDF Expert makes it easy to open and organize your digital files

Experience has taught us how a considerable percentage of time dedicated to working with files is actually spent trying to find the right file, and storing it in a convenient location that would make locating it when needed as easy as possible. The not-so-conventional file system of the iPad didn’t make this process easier for most tablet users as well.

However, we were pleased to find out that it is really easy to organize your documents using PDF Expert. A clean view of your documents, with support for file search, drag-and-drop re-organization, and document storage inside folders, allows you to group related documents and browse all available files at a glance.

Arrange documents in folders

There are even time-saving built-in controls to get you to your most recently used files with a couple of taps.

recent PDF files

Importing our chosen documents into the PDF Expert app was also a painless process. On one hand, email remains being an all time favorite amongst lawyers for managing communications, and tapping and holding any email attachment on your iPad will show you an option to open such attachment using the PDF Expert app.

Opening email attachments

On the other hand, if you have already hopped on the cloud-based storage bandwagon — and you are aware of what the cloud implies —, you’d be delighted to know that PDF Expert is integrated with most cloud storage services, including Dropbox, Google Drive, Box.net and SugarSync.

Syncing with the cloud

Managing PDF pages

PDF Expert also contains PDF page management features that aren’t so common in annotation software apps. It allows you to re-arrange and erase pages from an existing PDF document with a simple drag and drop interface. It is even possible to extract an existing page from a document, exporting a new document out of it, or copying pages of a document and pasting them on a different document. We found these features handy to create PDFs comprised only of the relevant sections of longer documents, useful when you want to keep a specific text as a reference, or to share something with your team, removing unnecessary or distracting parts away.

Manage PDF pages

These page management options also include an option to add new pages. While PDF Expert is designed to write down annotations, and not as a word processor, you can actually create a new document or expand an existing one, writing down new text as you would write longer, text-based notes, and adding this way as many pages as you’d need.

Teamwork made easy

Once you include PDF Expert as part of your workflow, you realize how it significantly simplifies working together with your team. This is mostly a consequence of the very purpose of the app: its document annotation capabilities are a great way to share your views with your co-workers, either defining an action plan based on your source document, or proposing a revised version of the original content.

But annotated files would mean nothing if the actual sharing process were hard. And fortunately, PDF Expert makes exporting, sharing and syncing your annotated files a breeze.

  • If you mostly rely on email to keep in touch with your co-workers, there’s a practical “Send by Email” option directly available in the main menu.
  • You can also take advantage of the benefits of the cloud for information sharing purposes: you can set up 2-way syncing between your cloud storage services for immediate update of changes performed to a document.
Flatten PDF document

It is interesting that the saved files can be stored as editable documents (that your team can also modify) or as flattened, non-editable copies. The latter can come in really handy, for example, when delivering a final file that you don’t want your client to modify. Keeping track of your annotations is easy as well, as you can even export a text-based summary of all the annotations included in a PDF file.

Sign your documents with PDF Expert

In the age of e-filing, digital signatures are a common practice. PDF Expert comes in with a handy feature to add your signature to any PDF document you want, making it easy to save and share a signed version of the document. Also if your contracts or agreements are in PDF format, you can use PDF expert to stamp your signature directly on them, or to let your client directly sign it on your iPad.

Signing PDF documents in iPad

PDF Expert allows you to write down your own signature in the surface of your iPad, and then, store it for future use. A stylus would make this process more precise and comfortable, though you can still use your finger to draw it. Once included in the document, the signature can be re-scaled and moved for perfect appearance and placement.

Working with non-PDF-format documents in PDF Expert

The advanced annotating capabilities of PDF Expert would only work in full inside PDF files. But this app can also work as a document reader for a wide array of formats, including Microsoft Word documents, text files and even image files. It is worth noting that PDF Expert can be paired with other apps — like PDF Converter — capable of transforming any document into a PDF document, and thus, allowing you to annotate any content and then saving it as an annotated PDF file.

Supported document types

Additional features that make PDF Expert a complete toolset

Filling forms

Other functions bundled in the PDF Expert app are PDF form filling capabilities. This makes possible to complete the fields of a PDF form, and then saving it in either an editable way, or a non-editable way (so the pre-filled forms given to your clients aren’t altered once they are prepared for them.)

Password Lock

Documents being reviewed in PDF Expert can also be password protected, as an additional safety measure to protect your confidential work from prying eyes. Though there is never a one hundred percent safe password-based protection, and the best way to keep confidential information safe is always keeping track of your device at all times.

Presentation tools

PDF Expert also comes with presentation features, that you can put to work just by connecting your iPad to an external screen using a standard VGA cable. There are several options about whether the notes will be hidden or not while carrying out your presentation.

However, PDF Expert is by no means a presentation app, and it isn’t the kind of app we would recommend bringing to a critical moment as a trial presentation — you’d be doing better using the highly specific and reliable TrialPad in this scenario, as annotation apps cannot compete with TrialPad for presentation purposes. But in any case, and taking into account the cost difference between TrialPad ($90) and PDF Expert ($10,) its presentation features are still a welcome addition, and they can still be useful for in-house presentations of either your annotated documents or slides supported by your own annotations.

Conclusions about PDF Expert

Having a PDF annotation app as part of your digital toolset is almost essential in a workflow that relies more and more on digital files and paperless alternatives. And even with its almost $10 price tag, PDF Expert is definitely an extremely complete and easy-to-use professional application, whose PDF annotation, file syncing, document signing and presentation functions will come in handy during your work days.

5 Star Rating: Recommended

PDF Expert is a reliable, complete and intuitive annotation app that will come in handy to have at work, as it can improve your productivity in the increasingly paperless offices of today.