Stylus PDF Markup Apps for Win 8

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Some members of our iPad faculty have gotten very comfortable with marking up papers using Notability on the iPad. Those teachers who use electronic submission through our LMS and have experienced some success with Notability have been able to take full advantage of electronic submission and feedback– archiving, organization, and timely response to students, and easy organization for themselves. As the non-iPad faculty are now using Surfaces, many are asking for the same capacity within Windows 8. There is no Notability for Windows, but I ran a quick trial of four other PDF markup apps to find a suitable equivalent. I’m focusing solely on the use case of our teachers looking to download PDF papers from Schoology, comment upon them as quickly as possible and get them back to students. This obviously ignores a huge range of PDF markup features and is a limited case, but at this point our need is quite focused.

Drawboard PDF – $9.99 (3 day trial available)

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Drawboard has an interface very similar to the Win 8 version of OneNote. Menu options are presented in a multi-level palette, which can take some getting used to if you’ve not seen it before (in, for example, OneNote). As I’ve been playing with OneNote for a few weeks now, it was totally natural for me to dive in, but I anticipate that it’ll raise an eyebrow or two if I give it to a complete Win 8 neophyte. As with eBooks or Kindle, you swipe horizontally to navigate the pages. It has the most features of any of these apps (recording and attaching sound, for example), thus the more layered interface and higher cost.

Multi-layer palette menu in Drawboard.

Multi-layer palette menu in Drawboard.

Drawboard was also the only tool of these to support using the trigger button on the stylus as an eraser– one of my personal favorite UI touches of the Win 8 stylus.

PDF Touch – 2.99

Far fewer tools in PDF Touch, but everything's immediately accessible. Where's "Erase?"

Far fewer tools in PDF Touch, but everything’s immediately accessible. Where’s “Erase?”

This is a much simpler interface, although much more limited. There’s no nuance to access here– the tools you see in the initial menu are what you get, although you can customize size, color and opacity of pens, for example. Use the navigation arrows on the side of the screen to click through each page.

While this was a 1-minute impression, I could not find an eraser, nor any way to remove previous marks. You can undo your last mark, but you cannot step further back than that. Also, the document autosaved, so when I tried to open it up in my next app, all of the marks were retained. I could have missed something very basic, but the inability to erase marks would be a non-starter for me.

Xodo – Free

Selecting tools in Xodo. You'll do this a lot if you want to use anything besides the pen.

Selecting tools in Xodo. You’ll do this a lot if you want to use anything besides the pen.

Xodo gives you the pen tool by default, and allows other tools to be accessed by the edit menu. The input defaults back to the pen tool after every mark, though, which makes highlighting inefficient. In other words, if you were to highlight two separate words, the tool defaults to the pen when you lift up the stylus– you have to reselect the highlighter to continue using it.

Perfect PDF - 2.99 (2 day trial available)

Markup tools are a couple of levels deep in the interface.

Markup tools are a couple of levels deep in the interface.

This is the only interface with vertical scrolling. I found the interface here a bit non-intuitive for our purposes and desire to get to markup as quickly as possible– pen and markup tools are two layers deep in the menu. While that may make sense for a generic PDF reader, it’s a bit slower for our purposes. Out of the box, the pen and highlighter are set much too thick– they have to be reset to a smaller size under “Show Properties” to be useable for paper markup. The settings do persist to subsequent files, though– once reset, they don’t have to be configured each time. Also, a minor pet peeve– the eraser tool is a graphic-style eraser which erases specific points, not entire lines. In other words, if you circled a word and wanted to erase that circle, you have to retrace the circle with the eraser rather than simply touching some part of the shape.

Paint-style erase if you want to clear your marks.

Paint-style erase if you want to clear your marks.

Conclusions

Unfortunately, of these four apps it’s clear that you get what you pay for– my recommendation to our faculty looking for a quick and efficient paper markup tool would be Drawboard, even at $9.99. Frankly, thinking about the number of papers involved and the frequency with which our Humanities staff would be using this, I have no problem from the program perspective justifying the extra cost (Drawboard does offer volume licensing).

If the cost is too dear, my second choice out of these four would reluctantly be Perfect PDF. While the interface will be a touch slower than PDF Touch, the inability to erase marks in the latter program completely disqualifies it in my mind and I use the highlighter often enough that Xodo’s resetting after each stroke would slow me down more.

There are obviously myriad options for PDF markup in Windows, and this only includes some of the most common apps for Windows 8, not the desktop programs. Are there others that we should consider? What did we miss?

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