Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #1: Annotating PDF documents with Note Anytime

More and more legal research is being done electronically.  But one aspect has stayed mainly in print--note taking.  Once I find that perfect case, my standard process is to print it out so that I can scribble notes in the margins as I read. Those notes are essential to using the case going forward, whether I'm writing a memo or paper or conducting research for someone else.

The other day, a student commented that she also prints out cases to annotate them, though she wished she had an electronic alternative so that she didn't use as much paper.  At her suggestion, I set out to find an iPad app that would allow us to annotate cases without having to print them out.

I looked at twelve apps: WestlawNext, Bloomberg Law, Lexis Advance, pdf-notes, Mendeley, DocAS Lite, Goodnotes, PDF Max, Note Anytime, TopNotes, and UPAD Lite.  My initial criteria was that the app must allow me to hand write my notes.  This eliminated WestlawNext, Bloomberg Law, and Lexis Advance.  These apps allow you to annotate cases, but only with typed notes.  For the rest of the apps, I downloaded a case as a PDF document and tested the ability to add notes to the PDF.

Note Anytime was my favorite, so I will confine my review to it.

Note Anytime has a clean, simple interface.  I had no problem figuring out how to hand write and type notes, how to erase them, and how to switch between editing modes.  The one task I had difficulty figuring out on my own was highlighting.  Note Anytime does not have a separate highlight function.  Instead, you have to edit one of the pens to work as a highlighter by changing the color, thickness, and opacity of the lines it draws.  Once the pen is configured, it works great as a highlighter.  And while I could not figure out highlighting on my own, I had no trouble going through the pen setup once I read the easy-to-follow instructions in the Get Started guide.

Writing by hand is somewhat clunky, but this is a function of the iPad, not the app.  For my notes to be legible, I had to write fairly large letters, even when using a stylus.  So I had to zoom in considerably to write my notes.  Note Anytime allows you to write on the document in two ways.  You can either write directly on the document as if it were actual paper, or you can use the zoom tool, which gives you a panel to write on and places the text on a specified square in the document.  Because of how far I had to zoom in to have enough space to write, writing on the document was not practical.  I was zoomed in so far that I could not both read the text and take notes, which defeated the purpose of the note taking.  So I used the zoom tool instead.

The zoom tool provides plenty of space to write, and you can still see the text.  The only drawback is that you have to keep moving the square where your writing appears in the document every time you use up the space in the panel, which can happen frequently.  This was annoying at first, as it disrupted the flow of my note taking.  But once I got used to it, I could move the box quickly and without much thought.

When you import a PDF into Note Anytime, it converts the document from a PDF into a Note Anytime document.  This means that you are not tied to the page dimensions of the original PDF.  Note Anytime allows you to re-size the PDF page in relation to the note page.  You can increase the size of the margins by shrinking the text, creating more room for notes.  The text will be smaller, but thanks to the ability to zoom, the smaller text is not a problem.  

Note Anytime also lets you add pages into the PDF, so you can insert a page of just notes if you want.  Unfortunately, the app will not let you view two pages side-by-side, so you cannot use an added page as the equivalent of additional margin, something which disappointed me.  Still, the ability to re-size the page provides enough margin space for most note taking.

One aspect of Note Anytime that takes some getting used to is the two finger scrolling.  While you are in pen mode, you draw using one finger.  So if you are zoomed in on a document and want to scroll to a new place on the page, you must use two fingers on the screen.  I repeatedly forgot to use two fingers and drew many arrant lines on the document as a result.  Expect to use the erasure frequently until you are accustomed to multifinger scrolling.

Once you have finished annotating a document, Note Anytime will convert it back to a PDF or to an image, and you can export the document or image for use in other programs or on other devices. Export options include email, print, send to Facebook, and send to Dropbox.  I use Dropbox to keep track of files across my devices, so I was pleased to see that Note Anytime has Dropbox integration.  The integration is not as complete as I would like.  While you can export a file to Dropbox, you cannot set up Note Anytime to automatically sync files with Dropbox, and you cannot import a file into Note Anytime by loading it into Dropbox.  Note Anytime's developers have said they are looking into improved Dropbox integration, but they have not given any indication of when it will happen.

Overall, Note Anytime offers real potential as a replacement for taking margin notes on paper.  The interface takes a little time to master, and some of its features, such as highlighting and send to dropbox, are not as complete as I would like.  But the features it has make up for anything it is missing.  In particular, the ability to create more margin space sets it apart from any other app I tried.  Most importantly, I was able to pick up the app and start taking useable notes almost immediately.  I was looking for a program that would let me hand write notes without much of a learning curve, and Note Anytime delivered.

I reviewed Note Anytime for iOS.  The app is also available for Android, Kindle, and Windows 8.

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