GoodReader for iPad review

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I sometimes jokingly tell people to ask my iPad when they ask me if I’m free on any given day as that’s his (or is it a her? Great, now I’ll never look at that docking port the same way again) area of expertise. My somewhat casual approach to being organized often results in me trying to find articles I’ve written in order to link to them, just to discover that I somehow forgot to write those articles. GoodReader is an unfortunately an app that has fallen victim to this character flaw of mine, and that’s just not acceptable as it’s one of the most powerful apps I’ve ever used on the iPad. It’s not just a document reader, it’s the document reader. Read on for a review.

GoodReader replaced iBooks as the final step in my system of apps that lets me stay away from paper completely with the exception of…err moving on. I use exclusively use my iPad for school, meaning that it’s the only thing I use for school. I don’t have any books this year, they’re all digital. Handouts, compendiums, notes – all digital. There are multiple steps to this process that includes scanning documents on the fly using a digital camera and Scanner Pro, annotating them in apps like GoodNotes, converting documents and webpages to PDF using Save2PDF and a bunch of other things that you can read all about in my iPad Education Guide.

Regardless of where the documents come from though, they all end up in the same place; GoodReader. GoodReader is primarily a PDF reader (though supports other formats), and the kind of things it can do with a PDF file really removes any doubt anyone might have that the iPad can be so much more than a toy.

File management

To start off with the basics, GoodReader has a file manager that’s so advanced that some people use it just for that. In fact, I feel it’s necessary to link to the user manual for file management just to be sure I have at least a reference back to all the features. Files can be put in folders and sorted by different attributes, and since iOS 5 there’s a folder for the iCloud document feature as well (which isn’t the same as app data backup since any document saved in this folder is accessible from the web through Apple). You can password protect, encrypt, rename, copy, open in other apps, delete, email, zip, unzip, and email files. You can Extract PDFPortfolio files, which is a Adobe feature that lets you have multiple PDF files in one single file. You can copy internal links to files, which means that the app gives you a URL that you can e.g. add to your calendar that opens a specific file when clicked. There’s also a feature to create a public version of a file and create a weblink to it. If you have Appigo Todo installed, there’s even a feature to create todo events that are linked to specific files. “Remember to read this for class”, for instance.

As for how you get files into GoodReader, you’re not exactly limited with options there either. Transferring files using the iTunes file transfer system when connected to any PC with iTunes (this doesn’t force a sync) is perhaps the most basic one. Opening files from other apps into GoodReader is naturally supported, which means you can import files from anything from Dropbox and Carbonite to email, AirStash, basically any other app that you can open files in. There’s also a download feature for downloading from the web, useful for large files that might not be the best idea to open directly in Safari. You can also connect to servers, or make the app be a server on its own so you can transfer files using the network drive functionality of a PC on the same network, or just a browser on that PC. GoodReader even has something as immensely rare as a dedicated PC app that can circumvent iTunes and transfer files via USB directly. In other words, getting files into the app is no problem.

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PDF compatibility

A lot of people think that a PDF is a PDF. It isn’t. PDF can have a lot of hidden things under the surface, from password protection and DRM to hidden layers of text to make scanned pages searchable. I mentioned PDFPortfolio above, which GoodReader can extract (but not read directly). A lot of apps, like iBooks, might be able to open complex PDF files, but using all the features is a whole other store.

Take the article compendium I have for one of the classes. Originally, the lecturer wanted us to copy articles ourself from the master copy in the library. I offered to scan the entire thing, about 3-400 pages total (didn’t take long with industrial scanners at the school). That left me with a lot of single files (one for each article) which were simple images of articles. I ran them through NitroPDF to combine them into a single file and ran image-to-text (OCR) scans on them to add a hidden layer of text to the files. When you read the file you still see images of pages – sometimes crooked, with shadows etc – but you can search the text, copy it etc as if it was normal text. It’s actually kinda funny to be able to highlight crooked text, but it also takes up a lot of space since I assume it needs some advanced positioning data to match the text with parts of the image. I have PDF files that are 600MB thanks to these hidden layers, and that actually crashes some PDF readers on computers. All the single articles were also combined into one file, with different formats and orientations for different articles and an automatically created index that lets you skip to specific articles.

All of the above is what I did to create the file, and doesn’t have anything to do with GoodReader. What does have to do with it however, is how it handles such a ridiculously complex file. The answer is, as you might have guessed; just fine. It has no problems opening those massive files, it’s as fast with 400 pages full of images with hidden text layers as it is on single page text files. It’s able to search the text layers just fine, and highlights the words based on the information in the file. It reads the indexes just fines and gives you a menu called “outlines” where you can skip between file-embedded bookmarks like that. It lets you view the hidden text layers on their own if you prefer to read like that, in which it very much resembles an ebook reader app. You can flip single pages or all at once, and there’s even a crop feature if you have a lot of dead space that forces you to zoom to see anything.


GoodReader isn’t just a reading app, it also has advanced features for working with the files. When I specified “file-embeded bookmarks” above that’s because those are completely separate from bookmarks that you add as you read. In other words you won’t ruin your index if you add some bookmarks. To add a bookmark, you simply hold on the page until a toolbar appears. One of many options will be to add a bookmark. You can also add arrows, boxes etc as well as draw free-hand, but more in a occasional sense (like to sign a document or free-hand circle something) than what GoodNotes does with full toolbars and features made just for handwriting.You can highlight text in various colors (and edit the highlights afterwards) and anything you highlight will be added in a list that is again separate from normal bookmarks and file-embedded bookmarks (maybe we should call those “chapters”). If you make a lot of annotations these will list by page number, show you a small excerpt of what you highlighted, when you did it, and with what colors.

You can strike through text, underline text etc, and even add pop-up note boxes with additional info. This is very useful if you’re marking papers or proofing something as you can use all the space you want to add notes internally in the text. If you choose to export any files with such annotations and notes, you can choose to flatten them – meaning that the app will automatically create additional pages with references to the text that works sort of like an appendix. This way you can proof read a 300 page book manuscript if you want to and send it back on paper with all your notes flattened to work in any reader or on paper. GoodReader can even unflatten flattened documents so that GoodReader users can share documents this way. The screenshot below shows a annotated document that GoodReader has flattened – the left part being the extra page it added as an “appendix”, all automated.

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GoodReader is such a complex app that I cannot begin to cover everything. The settings menus alone require half a day to get through, and that’s a good thing. As I said before, it’s one of those apps that really show the usefulness of a tablet, and that mobile software doesn’t have to be less powerful than desktop software. It is after all important to remember that GoodReader’s functionality is further enhanced by the fact that it’s running on an iPad, a 600 gram device that can be help like a book and go for 10 hours on a single charge. Having these tools for reading a document on a computer is one thing, having them in a form factor that makes so much more sense for reading documents is something entirely different.

Perhaps the best thing with GoodReader is the price. $5 in the App Store for the iPad version. Compared to what you’re getting, I would call that an extremely reasonable price. Not everyone needs an app like this, of course, but since the iPad is even being bought by companies and governments to replace paper, the need for an app like this is definitely there. One thing’s for sure, it has made a world of difference for me when it comes to keeping track of documents and being able to work with them in a constructive manner.



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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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