Comparing the 3 best pdf readers in Mac: Skim vs Highlights vs PDF expert

PDF files are the life of the academic. All information come with them. Of the time I spend reading, more than 95% of it goes by Pdf files. For that end, a good pdf reading application would be very important: much more important than any other application I use.

I have been looking for different tools for reading Pdf files.

Every one of them have strengths and weakness:

1. Skim

Skim: designed for the academic community: free and open source.

Strengths:

  • The ranked search is amazing.  of the  3, Skim has the best searching capabilities. PDF  expert comes next.
  • The annotations are more powerful and flexible: the anchored note is specially a wonderful tool. You can literally draft your next book using the anchored note. Reading triggers ideas; ideas breed ideas. Ideas cannot come out of the blue: they emerge during the reading. The best part of the anchored notes that you can give Titles to the notes. You can manipulate them so that the exported note will be much cooler.

I usually put ## on the title of the anchored note so that the title will come out as a true title when I exported the annotation using Markdown format.

  • The keep on top feature is very useful to compare ideas: any of the annotations can be kept on top.
  • Supports scripting
  • Export templates: you can modify these templates to your need. This is extremely useful.

But, there are some weaknesses with this all strength.

  • The non-standard format: if you want to read or see the annotations of the Skim, you have to export it. You cannot just open the pdf and keep on annotating. This is a deal breaker. Really. I am tied up to local system; this is like a prison. I like PDF expert for it adheres to the standard PDF specifications. I think it is the best mac reader with the standard formats next to Adobe’s own products.  Mac OS has this weird system comes by the name **PDFKit**: it gets broken, keep on screwing us all the time. Corporate greed seems the reason why we are suffering. Why doesn’t Apple adhere to the standard Adobe specifications? This same crap Kit also seems the  reason that saving pdf files in Preview and the rest of Mac local applications bulges up the size of the pdf.
  • The separate .SKIM file is a pain in the ass. It gets lost. If you export and import the pdf, all the annotations get duplicated. It is whole mess.

If Skim follows the standard PDF specifications; writing the annotations directly to the PDF itself, I would never look around.

2. Highlights

Strength:

  •  It follows the standard annotation system: annotations made in Highlights can be viewed and edited in other editors (both in the mac and windows)
  • The annotations are powerful. The annotation panel could be wide: therefore,  a long text can be directly inserted. Even if it is not as convenient as the anchored notes in Skim, the panel is generally convenient to drop longish texts.
  • Works great with other applications: like Devonthink, Bookends, and Evernote. This is one of its best features
  • the exported notes are in Markdown format: this can be taken as strength and weakness: depending on your interests.
  • Splitting annotations into distinct notes. This is the most interesting feature, for me, because I can keep single ideas as separate notes. I  have been using Sente annotations for this purpose.

Weaknesses

  • general clunkiness: the app contains a lot of bugs
  • the Splitting feature is not well worked out. I would have bought this app if I were able to assign titles to each of the annotations. The Titles are very useful for summarizing the concepts of each of the singular annotations. This is the most debilitating problem I have with Highlights. The spliced notes have no meaning: not life because they are not customized by titles or tags.

3. PDF expert

PDF expert is very fast and fluid application. I use it everyday. The developers are generally very responsible and fast guys. The code they write is amazing. The programmer talent in Readdle  tend to be very high. I participated in their beta versions for a long time now. I can tell you, their betas are more matured and reliable than the final releases that Apple sends out. There are some small details: specially its speed, which makes this app worth trying. I like it so much. I is the first app I open in the morning. The best part of the app is that it follows the standard Adobe system. The annotations made in PDF expert are visible on any other pdf reader. That is why I use it as my default reader.

Strengths:

  • I also like the new searching tool. It searches all the open files.
  • it automatically detects the true pages numbers of the pdf
  • blazing fast
  • follows the standard Acrobat annotation format
  • The annotation tools are generally ok

Unfortunately, PDF expert is also  the least creative of the 3 apps I am trying. The features it contain are most already in acrobat or other pdf readers.  The export features are very weak: even terrible. I tried to export in the Markdown format. It doesn’t permit me to customize on what types of text I want to export. Generally, the exported text turn out to be  vary bad containing unwanted stuff (like Date, author…).  Even if there is wondrous programming talent,  the direction they are taking are mundane and non-creative.There is barely a new feature in this reader that other readers, like PDFPen, Acrobat etc, do not have.   They don’t understand the areas of need. The annotation tools could  be better. The developers of Highlights have truly understood the needs of the scientific community.  It is only the implementation that is lacking in the latter.

My take:

After trying it on a couple of times, I have given up with highlights.

I am now using Pdf expert and Skim. I use Pdf expert for fast reading. When I have to just scan and take a few points, I open my file with it. I highlight a bit; clip a few lines to Curiota and close it down.

When I have to read a book or an article from the beginning to the end, for intensive reading, no reader offers the comfort that Skim offers. The exports are also much robust. Therefore, for in-depth reading, I am relying on Skim.

By the way, there is an other candidate that could offer a similar comfort for reading: the Marginnote. It seems to have some great annotation tools similar to anchored note: even better, mind mapping within the reader. I tried it for a couple of minutes. But, I dropped the app immediately because the annotations are in proprietary format: they will be a big lock down. While the annotation summary can be exported, the annotation and the annotated pdf are divorced forever. I am skeptic of apps that highly rely with proprietary file system.

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Workflow with Sente, Devonthink, Scrivener using Hazel and Dropbox as glue: part 1

Since I want to follow up informations on the internet on a few applications that I am interested in,  I have setup  google alerts for tracking  blog posts and articles into my email inbox. Under my Devonthink tag, today I get this small visual workflow in a website called Pinterest.

workflow

I have never visited Pinterest before; but the visual illustration looks beautiful.  There is no explanation on how to build the workflow in the visual maps; but the illustration is elegant, something I have been planning to design. Since this is the  workflow  what I am already using it for the last year, it seems good idea to put how I put these different apps to work together to have the “virtually perfect” kind of workflow for my research (phd dissertation, I am starting soon). I have already written short articles in my previous posts on  some of the connections I made between these four majestic apps. In this extended post, I will demonstrate how I developed my workflow using Sente, Devonthink, Scrivener, nvALT, xMind, Sublime Text and ultimately Latex. Hazel, the Automator, Dropbox and Keyboard Maestro are the core glues of the workflow. I will spell out how each app works together with the other applications to great a coherent and elegant workflow.

Now, have a loot at a pictorial overview of the workflow we will have by the end of this series.

research workflow
Click for larger preview

In the next few series, I will try to explain each step of the workflow; how I develop the connections and how the tools chosen talk to each other to build a solid workflow. (I didn’t represent Hazel in this drawing mainly because the tasks of Hazel. The role of Hazel  will be clear by the end of the post)

Let me start from the app I use to gather resources for research: Sente.

# Sente

For me, the most important organization burden is lifted by Sente. Sente has four crucial features which are the life and soul of my workflow: Targeted browsing, File renaming,  QuickTags and Status. I will explain how I use each of these features to download, store, rename and organize my PDF files; then, how I will incorporate the organized PDF into the Devonthink hemisphere using Hazel as a glue.

I am not going to explain how to do all the importing and referencing process in Sente. That is left for the user manual; my task here is to show how to use what I call above the crucial features and getting things done.

Let me start from setting up the Sente library:

## File naming

The library is setup to store PDF attachments inside the Sente bundle. Setting up the library inside the bundle is very important for syncing the library to iPad via the Sente server.

The attachments will also be named as:

[First author Last name] [Year of publication] [Title of publication]

The file naming  is  important because I find some of the PDF files hard to read inside Sente; hence, I have to open them in acrobat. If you have the files properly named based on the author and title, getting the file is just a matter of second, specially if you are using Alfred.

## Targeted browsing

After you setup your library, the next step is to search files and download or import them into your sente library. There are two ways of getting your PDF files into Sente library; both of which support of-the cuff-setting up the reference of the file. The first method is directly downloading from the internet. Sente has this wonderful feature called targeted browsing. The main advantage of the targeted browsing is you have a choice of downloading bibliography information from a plethora of websites; you are not limited to Google Scholar or MedPub (the main weakness of Mendeley, by the way is absence of such a choice; it can download only from Scholar and medPub). Even if Google scholar is one of the greatest data sources on the internet, the data you retrieve from it are usually incomplete. Many people like MedPub. But, for my field, MedPub is irrelevant. Therefore, for articles, I havn’t found any better source than Google Scholar.  To get both the reference and the PDF file from Google scholar to your library, what you do is first import the reference information into your library by clicking the red button in   scholar website; and then, download the related PDF file. I am sure you know how to do this; I don’t need to explain it in depth.

The second approach is to have the PDF file in your disk; and then drag it or import it into your library. Sente will present you a window to add reference information to your PDF file. At this point, what I usually do is: highlight the title of the PDF file and take the title to my favorite search engines. For research articles, there is no better choice than Scholar.

As for books, thanks for their ISBN numbers, there are a lot of choices; WorldCat being one of the most popular. I used to retrieve the data for the books from WorldCat for a while.  But, after some time, I leaned that it sometimes confuses Affiliations metadata with Author. Therefore, I have been looking for alternative sources for retrieving bibliography information for books. Google Books is quite good; but Sente Targeted browsing seems to have some kind of difficulty to retrieve data from google books; takes longer time. Finally, , to my surprise,  I discovered the library of Stanford has the cleanest data; and Sente is very happy about it.

The template you develop to modify your targeted browsing in Sente is called Autolink Templates. Here is how I setup my Autolink Template:

Autolink Templates in Sente

 

## Quicktags

Quicktags: are the tools for organizing your research resources into groups. I have three major classes of Quicktags:

a) the Class: this is the class of quicktags that I assign to the PDF’s inherent classes. I assign these tags to classify the paper into the basic inherent classes of my field: Linguistics. Linguistics has many sub-branches if study; and sub-topics of research. Therefore, whenever I download a PDF paper, I assign these classes into the paper so that I can easily search and look at whenever I am looking at certain sub-topics. I for example use tags like Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics, Phonology, plus sub-topics such as  VPs, PP, RC, DP under Syntax which what they are. I also have hierarchies of tags for the families of languages that I am interested in.

Afro-Asiatic [Semitic[Classical[Arabic, Hebrew]][Modern]] etc

b) the Project: this is a group of tags that I assign to papers on project basis. The projects are usually transient tasks that I plan, finish and move on to the next project. They could be part of the specific Class; they can also run across many classes. I assign these transient tags to the papers I am downloading, or on those which are already in my library. I search down my library, google scholar and may other source to combine all the resources to finish under one project using these Project tags.

c) the third group of tags is what I call meta tags. They are organizational tags. Whenever print a PDF file, I assign a tag xPrint; whenever I am reading the paper in Acrobat reader, I assign a tag called xAcrobat; or, finished reading the PDF and exporting the annotations of the PDF,  mark it xExport.

The Meta tags are supporters while Project tags are brothers of the Statuses, which I will explain in a moment.

## Statuses:

I basically use Statuses are meta-tags and to track the progress of projects. As you can see from the following snapshot, I have about 12 Statuses that I assign to my PDF files:

Statuses in Sente

– To be read nextis for example a status that I assign to a paper that I want to read just immediately after I finish reading the current paper.

  • Must read: is another status for a paper need to be read by hook or crook before I finish my PhD; a paper that I believe can offer a significant and profound insight to my research.
  • Repelling is on the negative side: a paper hard to read; or written in a bad language; the point is: I am dropping that paper; and might delete it from my library completely.

you get the idea