I started college on the margin between offline and online… discovering, as a freshman, the wonder of sending messages by email to the person literally sitting next to you. Now that marvel has been transferred to text messages and protracted Words With Friends or Draw Something sessions (or my newest turn-by-turn addiction: Dice With Buddies), but it was a revolutionary time nonetheless. Ever the early adopter, I enjoyed the rapidly changing technology, and to this day still enjoy the “smell of new plastic” upon unboxing the latest and greatest (even if it’s to install it for someone else!).

One of the coolest gadgets I received as a seminary graduation present a few years ago: the first Palm handheld device with a color screen, the m505. One can still be had for a whole lotta dough on Amazon these days, and though I’m not sure what one would do with it in 2012, it was very forward-thinking for its day, and certainly the device that put me on the happy path to iPhone and iPad enjoyment today. The only downside I saw at the time, however, was that I hadn’t had one sooner, when my stacks of studies warranted such a “personal digital assistant.” But now, with the technology dramatically improved and the toys ever so much cooler, I’ve found a new workflow I wish I’d had in college and seminary. But thankfully it’s available to me now as I pursue my second master’s degree, and if you enjoy the convenience of technology with a touch of “old school,” I think you might just enjoy this workflow as much as I do.

As an online student at Full Sail University, my coursework and readings are all electronically-deliverable, which means I now consume ebooks, not heavy hardcovers. That alone makes the new iPad (with its outstanding retina display) like gold as far as I’m concerned, but my readings are not confined to published textbooks. Since my field of study is Internet Marketing, I pore over numerous blogs and whitepapers too. Safari on the iPad has a beautiful Reader feature, and iBooks is an able PDF reader, but neither will allow me to annotate websites or documents. So I’ve done lots of homework on how best to do… homework. And here are the fruits of my efforts.

Save That Article

Blogs are frequently updated, and even in the age of permalinks, Web addresses can’t always be trusted to last forever. Not so the humble PDF. The electronic version of the stone and chisel, PDF is the best format to archive articles from the Internet, and also is essential for the next step in the workflow… but more on that later. I started my process of “printing” Web pages to PDF directly from my browser, but had very inconsistent results. Some of the worst offenders were ironically the most vocal advocates for consistent use of Web “standards.” Go figure. So I had to find another solution, and, in fact, I found several.

On the Mac:

Several Web-based utilities have sprouted up in an attempt to improve the layout of printed pages (or ones saved to PDF format) and at the same time save paper and ink by excising unnecessary elements, such as navigation items or advertisements. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and some page formats present unusual challenges for these tools, so I switch between them until I find the best results. My three favorites are Print Friendly, Print What You Like, and CleanPrint. Each also offers native browser plug-ins (I use Chrome) or bookmarklets for browsers without plug-in support.

Print Friendly

Print Friendly Screen Shot

Print What You Like

Print What You Like Screen Shot


CleanPrint Screen Shot

On the iPad:

All three of the above utilities also work on iOS by either navigating directly to the sites and entering a target URL, or by making use of the bookmarklet feature, adding it directly to Safari. Then, when a PDF is generated, the “Open in…” feature can be used to send the new file on to the next step in our workflow. Alternatively, I’ve also used native iOS app Web to PDF (also available on Android) by Dar-Soft, which, with a recent update, produces excellent results as well and even allows you add handwritten notes. Hint: when converting with any of these utilities, work from the site’s own “printer friendly” URL first (if one exists), and then convert to clean up any extras. This will give you a great page to study from.

Take It With You

If you’ve created your PDFs on your Mac, you need to get them to your iPad (and back again), and while iTunes sync and email are viable options, the fastest and easiest solution I’ve found is Dropbox (although Google Drive is another contender). Both are outstanding cloud storage solutions natively integrated into a number of document-handling apps, though I suspect Dropbox has more support. Both also have their own iOS apps. If you choose to sign up for Dropbox, make sure to tell them I sent you 🙂

Dropbox          Google Drive

Mark It Up

Remember that annotation feature in Dar-Soft’s Web to PDF that I mentioned? It’s a great feature, especially if your note-taking needs are limited and you want only one app. But by far, my favorite tool for marking up PDFs is Remarks by Readdle. It allows you to type, write by hand, highlight, draw… essentially do just about anything you’d want to do to a PDF, especially as a student. The interface is gorgeous, and the writing is incredibly crisp (especially on the latest Retina iPad). The cloud integration is perfect, and the all-around experience I’ve had with the app is why I recommend it so highly. When I’ve had a stack of articles to read, it’s been a joy to curl up with my iPad and make notes as necessary, rather than being chained to my laptop (which is not nearly as comfortable to “curl up with”). There are other similar apps in the same category as Remarks; some are in the same league, while others pale in comparison. But I’ve found my favorite solution.

Remarks by Readdle

All Your Notes in One Place

After I’ve read and annotated to my heart’s content, I use Dropbox to sync all the PDFs back to my Mac so I can start composing my research papers (sure, I can do that on the iPad too, but I just find it easier on my Mac, especially with lots of windows open). The Mac OS spacebar preview feature is one of my favorites: it allows me to visually scan all the articles, see where I’ve highlighted and added handwritten notes, and is a beautiful final step to a great new workflow. A little “old school”… and a little “new school.” Maybe you’ll find your perfect workflow in some of these tools, too.

P.S. Some apps stand the test of time: I still have at least one app on my iOS devices that I originally bought for my Palm and simply upgraded. Oh, and I really did like writing in Graffiti.

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