The 3 Best PDF Reader Apps for Court, on iPad
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
When it comes to using paper, law is #1 (for those of you born after 2000, that's NUMBER one, not "hashtag" one).
Of all of the professions, there can be little doubt that lawyers have been the least willing to give the trees a break and join the 21st Century by switching from ink to pixels. In many ways, paper is another example of something that went out of fashion years ago for everyone else, but lawyers still cling to out of habit and/or inertia.
However, even lawyers can't resist change forever, and lately there have been an increasing number of barristers standing up in court beside colleagues with trolleys full of lever arch files and bulky textbooks, holding nothing but a shiny tablet and a stylus. It seems that with the advent of tablets, that long dream of a paperless practice for barristers/advocates is becoming ever closer. Plus, with paperless trials becoming increasingly common in large cases with oodles of documents, having the ability to manage electronic documents is becoming an important skill in an advocate's toolbox.
So after a few months of mulling over the decision, I recently bit the $1,500+ bullet and ordered a new 2018 model iPad Pro 12.9". However, as beautiful as the iPad is, it alone is not enough to carry an advocate through a court hearing. For that, I needed a good PDF reader app. After all, nothing but PDFs are capable of replacing the binders and binders of documents that lawyers are accustomed to trolleying around to court appearances.
In order to find the perfect PDF Reader for court, I looked at as many blogs and reviews as I could, and then downloaded what seemed to be the highest rated apps and fiddled around with them for a while. The last time I trialled a number of apps and reviewed them, it was quite well received. So I figured that I could do the same thing again for my handfuls upon handfuls of readers.
Before I get into the review proper, I should set out the parameters of what I'm testing for. As I see it, there are three things that I need a good PDF reader to do:
1. Easily and intuitively store and manage documents
Put simply: I need to be able to index and organise my PDFs so that out of a bundle of thousands of documents, it takes no more than one or two gestures to find anything that I want to find, and those gestures are straightforward enough that I can use them without thinking when put on the spot in a stressful situation.
This is by far the most important criterion for a good courtroom PDF reader. It's also a challenge for app developers, due to the inherent limitations of tablets.
You see, tablets are are two-dimensional tools. On the other hand, the competition (paper) exists in three dimensions. This means that, with paper, you can do things like physically place different documents in different places, or mark different pages with brightly coloured sticky notes.
And it doesn't stop there. You can look at multiple documents at once. You can use your finger to hold your place at the front of the folder while you flick to something at the back. You can even take something from the back and move it to the front. Truly, the possibilities are endless.
This may all sound a bit trivial, but it is what tablets are competing with, and most PDF readers fail spectacularly as competitors. By and large they do little more than allow you to scroll forwards and backwards through one document at one time. Compared to paper, this is extremely limiting. It also leads to a lot of moments in court along the lines of:
HER HONOUR: "But Mr Meyerowitz-Katz, that's not what the previous letter said, was it?"
ME: "... Uhhhhh...."
"If your Honour could please bear with me for one moment while I find that letter."
HER HONOUR: *Extremely unimpressed look*
See that? That's the scenario that I want to avoid. The PDF reader needs to help me do that, by making storing and navigating documents as easy as possible.
2. Intuitively highlight/annotate documents
The next most important criterion is ease of annotation and highlighting of documents.
This again is something that paper does brilliantly, and tablets tend to struggle with. For example, I have never in my life tried to turn a physical page, only to find that I was still on the "highlight" setting and ended up leaving bright yellow marks on the corner instead—but that's exactly the type of thing that happens when using a tablet.
It's also extremely easy when using paper to switch between physical writing implements. All you need to do is put one down and pick another one up. Again, while this may sound facile, it is the technology that the iPad is competing with. I need my PDF app to do the same thing just as easily.
Whilst I can complain about the absurd price tag, the $200 Apple Pencil that I was forced to buy with my iPad is a very useful piece of technology. My PDF editor should allow the stylus to be used to the best of its potential—that is, it should detect when I am using the Apple Pencil to annotate or highlight, versus when I am using my finger to swipe. It also needs to make it easy to switch between different writing implements.
3. Easily sync across multiple cloud services
These days, documents are all stored in the cloud. I use Dropbox as my primary cloud service, but I also use Adobe Document Cloud, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive, depending on the preference of whoever I'm sharing with. I try to avoid iCloud because, well, Apple—but even that may come up every now and then.
So my PDF reader app needs to be able to sync with all of these services, and doing so needs to be easy. That is, I need to be able to quickly retrieve a document from the relevant service, make notes on it, and then save it so that my notes sync back to the service.
Anyway, those are the criteria. On to the apps.
#6-4 (aka hashtag 6 to hashtag 4)
Of the apps that I was looking at, there were three that really stood out, and another three that were very good, but didn't quite get there. I thought about reviewing all six, but if I did that then this post would be much too long, and my readers would never make it to the end. So very briefly, here are the ones that almost but didn't quite make the cut.
This app had reasonable functionality, but it was let down by its slightly antiquated and unintuitive design. Most of the things I wanted to do were there, but they just weren't that easy to find. I talk about this more below.
This app had a very nice and clean design, but was let down by a few of its features. Apparently it was intended as a note-taking app rather than a PDF reader in its own right, and the note taking functions were pretty good; but as I explain below, LiquidText took note taking to a whole different level.
This app had a lot going for it in terms of design and features. The reason it isn't in the top 3 is not because of anything wrong with it per se, it's just that it felt too much like PDF Expert without being quite as good. I will say that it was a very close call. In many ways, this app is more versatile than Acrobat Pro, and I would probably have chosen it weren't for the synergies with the desktop version of Acrobat. Which feels a little unfair, but such is life. I also note that while this is the cheapest of the apps I reviewed, it's $5.25 per month for "Deluxe" of $7 per month for "Document 365" subscriptions.
Anyway, those were the runners-up. Now, on to the winners.
And the third best PDF reader app for lawyers is...
#3 Adobe Acrobat Pro DC: $22 per month (subscription includes the desktop app and Adobe Creative Cloud)
For a couple of reasons, Acrobat Pro seemed to be an obvious place for me to start my exploration of PDF readers on iPad. For one, I already have a subscription to Acrobat Pro, and it is probably my most used desktop app for work purposes after Microsoft Word and Outlook. And Adobe did, after all, invent the PDF—so it makes sense that they would make the best software to work with their own product.
Sadly, the Acrobat Pro iPad app turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.
It didn't start too badly. Turns out I can sync to Dropbox at least. And navigating through my Dropbox account was pretty straightforward (note that most of the screenshots in this post are heavily redacted, because I was doing actual work whilst I was testing these programs):
However, once I've gone through and opened up a file, it's a different story.
For one thing, the viewing screen is very limited. A strange rectangular icon thing gives three viewing options: "Continuous", "Single Page", and "Reading Mode".
The Reading Mode makes me feel like I'm using the Kindle app, and I won't bother describing it. Suffice it to say I will not be using that option again in a hurry.
The Continuous and Single Page viewing modes are classic Adobe Acrobat. There's even the funny little flag thing showing you the number of the page you are on (see the "9" at the top right of the above screenshot).
Continuing with our navigation of the app, there's the little camera icon, which just opens the Adobe Scan app. Then there's the Bookmarks icon, which does this:
You can then jump from bookmark to bookmark. Within the document. But there is no way to add or edit the bookmarks. I'll get to that again later.
Jumping down to the bottom of the screen and there's a little blue pencil. Press it and you get this menu:
The different options then do the basics of what anyone familiar with Acrobat Pro would expect. "Comment" allows you to add comments, highlights, text, and various shapes. "Fill & Sign" is Adobe's excellent function for filling out forms. "Edit PDF" allows you to move stuff around or delete stuff. And "Organise Pages" zooms out to thumbnails of the pages and allows you to move stuff around.
So why did I say the app was disappointing? Well, here is a screenshot from the desktop version:
See? Look at all the options! Look at how well set out! Look at all the things you can do!
Why does the iPad version not have the little pane on the left that allows you to go between thumbnails, bookmarks, and attachments? Why can the iPad version only use bookmarks and not add them or edit them?
If I only had those features, I could really see myself using Acrobat Pro. As it stands, I think I'll have to find another iPad app, sadly. On to the next!
#2 PDF Expert (by Readdle): $14.99 (or an additional $14.99 for all features)
While lacking the Adobe pedigree, PDF Expert is a much better thought out tablet app than the Acrobat Pro app. The reason why it made second place is that it is basically the best parts of the other apps I have mentioned all merged into one—that is, if you want a traditional PDF reader app, PDF Expert does everything that the other apps do and it is the best at doing them.
Below is the basic PDF viewing screen:
Notice that I am looking at two pages at once, and also that there are multiple pdfs open in web browser-like tabs. Of the other apps I looked at, only GoodReader also had these options. This is an example of PDF Expert having all of the best features of the other apps.
Here are the viewing options that PDF Expert gives you:
The Sepia option is slightly easier on the eyes, and again was not present in most of the other apps.
Also, look at the thumbnails view:
Now, all of the apps had a thumbnails view, but do you see the little toolbar at the top, allowing you to move pages around, or extract sections of the document and email them? Again, these are features that the other apps just did not have or which, if they did have them, were just not as intuitive or easy to use.
But the pièce de résistance, the thing that sets PDF Expert aside from all of the competition, is this:
See that? YOU CAN ADD AND EDIT BOOKMARKS AND OUTLINES.
It's nothing short of revolutionary!
Yup, unlike all of the other apps I looked at, PDF Expert can edit both "bookmarks" and "outlines".
For the uninitiated (and I was uninitiated until I started writing this post), PDF files have two types of bookmark: traditional "bookmarks" just mark a particular page, whereas "outlines" can be labelled, meaning that, when combined, they form a sort of table of contents.
So, for example, if I bookmark page 23 as a "bookmark", it just means that when I pull up my list of bookmarks I will see that there is a bookmark on page 23. On the other hand, if I bookmark it as an "outline", I can call it something like "FY14 Financial Statements"—which obviously will be much more useful to me if I want to find the FY14 Financial Statements in a hurry, rather than just go straight to whatever is on page 23.
I want to reiterate that PDF Expert is the only app that allowed me to edit bookmarks and outlines. Some others, such as PDF Reader Pro and GoodNotes allowed editing of bookmarks but not outlines. Adobe, who invented bookmarks and outlines, have not allowed you to edit them in its iPad app.
This should be an embarrassment to all of the developers here other than Readdle. This functionality has been a feature of PDF files for decades. There is no excuse for not building it into your apps. Readdle managed to do it with PDF Expert. You should do it too.
Finally, I want to mention PDF Expert's annotations tools. These pop up on the right hand side when you press the "Annotate" icon at the top:
Just for comparison, here is the equivalent screen in GoodReader:
It's a subtle difference, sure, but just look at how much cleaner PDF Expert looks. And look at how much more intuitive is the design of the icons that tell you what tool you're using.
To see what I mean, go back to both screens and find which icon is the highlighter. It's not that you can't figure it out in GoodReader, it's just that you have to think about it for a couple of seconds. And good design means you don't have to think, you just see it.
So that's second place. I hope you're all excited for numero uno.
#1 LiquidText Pro: $46.99
LiquidText with the pro features is the most expensive app that I reviewed. For this reason, I was reluctant to review it at first.
However, I am glad that I did—it is head and shoulders above its competition. There is no app that I would rather take to court with me, and I can see myself using it to easily navigate all of the pleadings, submissions, evidence, transcripts, other exhibits, and aides memoir needed for a large trial.
What makes LiquidText so good is the approach that its developers have taken—whilst all of the other apps I looked at felt like they were just trying to play catchup to physical paper, LiquidText feels like something designed for a touchscreen.
Here's the basic layout. See if you can notice the revolutionary parts on first glance:
Now, LiquidText is not the only app I looked at with note taking functionality or with a "notepad" feature. As I have said, GoodNotes is a pretty solid note taking app.
However, what is unique about LiquidText is that the notepad section sits across the different PDF documents. And that's not just across pages within one document, which itself would have made LiquidText unique—it's across documents.
That is, see where I have written "Finance Reports" and then "Aug"? (I apologise for my terrible handwriting—although the slippery tablet glass does my writing no favours.) See the little dots next to "Aug"? Those link to different pages of different documents. Eg if I press one dot I go to page 231 of "Lay Bundle", and if I press another dot I go to page 452 of "Expert Bundle". Now that is something you could only do on a computer. Take that, paper! You're nothing but dead trees anyway.
While not displayed in the screenshot, there is also an "excerpts" function in LiquidText, which allows you to drag an excerpt from the document you are looking at over to the notepad, and then whenever you touch the excerpt in the notepad, it takes you back to the page of the document that has been excerpted. Pretty useful hey?
The other great thing about the app is the little thumbnail menu on the left. Those aren't pages of one document, those are different documents.
See, the app allows you to import multiple PDFs and webpages into a single file. There are then some very powerful things you can do with them, like link between files, or view multiple files at once.
Oh yeah, I haven't mentioned that last one yet. I guess I had better give you a screenshot:
See that? I am viewing and annotating three documents at the same time.
Three different PDFs. At once.
I know, this shouldn't be mind blowing, but try doing that on any of the other apps I looked at. The best I could achieve is to quickly flick through multiple documents. No one except LiquidText had the option of actually reviewing multiple documents at once.
And again, this is a feature of paper that tablets otherwise lack—you can put paper documents side-by-side. With a tablet, unless you have LiquidText, you can't do anything of the sort.
However, there is an issue with the way this works: because LiquidText relies on importing files from PDF into its own format, once you have done that the document is in your LiquidText ecosystem and no longer syncs with your other platforms (or it tries to, but it keeps crashing). As LiquidText is iPad only, this means you can't view all your annotations etc from your desktop—which is a little bit annoying.
It also means that you can't add bookmarks externally once you have started editing documents in LiquidText. Which wouldn't be an issue, except that...
You guessed it...
You can't edit bookmarks in LiquidText.
This is what looking at bookmarks from LiquidText looks like (with a few redactions, obviously):
So they have that nifty graphic that shows you where in the document the bookmark is located using alternating light and dark grey shapes, but there is no way to edit the bookmarks.
I emailed LiquidText to ask about the lack of this feature, and received the following response:
Now, I should say, they have a point there. As I have said, the excerpts function does allow you to take excerpts from the document and put it in the side bar. The excerpt does then function as a "bookmark" of sorts, in that it takes you back to the place in the document that has been excerpted.
But that's still not good enough. Using the excerpts as bookmarks makes the notepad unnecessarily cluttered. I want the notepad for notes, not for bookmarks. Bookmarks are supposed to go somewhere else.
Plus, I don't want my bookmark to be a little picture of a part of a page. I want it to say "FY14 Financial Statements". That's how I know where the FY14 Financial Statements are.
In short, the lack of bookmark editing is the one major blight on an otherwise great piece of software.
There's are a couple of final things that I need to mention before I finish my review.
The first are the little arrows in the top left of the screen next to the "home" icon. These allow you to flick back and fourth through places. So if you go from page 256 of "Lay Bundle" to page 62 of "Expert Bundle", press the "<" arrow and you're back at page 256 of "Lay Bundle". Then press the ">" arrow and you're back at page 62 of "Expert Bundle". Again, pretty simple but pretty handy.
The second is this great "Highlight View" tool:
What the tool does is to bring all of your highlights together, so that you can scroll through only the highlighted portions of a document while jumping straight over irrelevant portions. This is an extremely useful function, and is another thing that paper can't quite replicate.
So there you have it. For a traditional PDF reader, I recommend PDF Expert. For something a bit more innovative, I recommend LiquidText.
I hope this review has been useful to you. If you liked it, please share it on all of your social medias (or even on email if you still roll like that).