PDF Annotator and others vs Windows Journal

In a seminar in Nottingham in June this year, Birgit Loch demonstrated her approach to using tablet PC’s and recording classes. It was very interesting to see some alternative approaches, and I can see that both OneNote and PDF Annotator could be very useful.

[Note added October 29 2011: In fact I usually use Bluebeam PDF Revu these days. This has all the advantages of PDF Annotator but, at least in my opinion, produces superior inking when you view the final product.]

In view of the problems I have had (well-recorded in this blog!) importing PDF files into Windows Journal and obtaining reasonable on-screen results, I am now trying out (the trial version of) PDF Annotator. The immediate and big advantage is that you can work with the PDF file produced by pdflatex immediately, without having to first “improve it” using Acrobat (or equivalent) and then exporting to a Windows Journal document (and even then with imperfect results).

PDF Annotator looks to be very user-friendly, and can do most of the things that I would want. There are a few features missing, or that I have not yet found a slick way to do. For example, I don’t think that you can change the default new page/appended page from blank paper to lined/squared paper. However, you can pre-prepare lined /squared paper in a document, and insert/append that instead.

There does not appear to be the equivalent of Journal’s “Add/Remove space” tool, but selecting all the objects to move should be adequate.

I have not yet managed to make “pressure-sensitivity” work for the pen. I am probably doing something wrong, because it is supposed to work!

I don’t think that there is an equivalent of the “chisel” pens that I like to use in Journal. But you can specify exactly your preferred thickness of pen nib, and that is very handy.

I will report further as I find out more! (See comments below)



23 responses to “PDF Annotator and others vs Windows Journal

  1. Have you ever looked at Xournal? http://xournal.sourceforge.net/

    It’s the best solution under Linux (imho) but runs well on Windows as well (though you have to install GTK for it to run; but everything works). It does have good pdf-annotation and non-blank paper. It might not have as many features as Journal and Annotator, but it’s free and uses open standards (which I find better for sharing notes).

    I you have the time, maybe you could compare it to Journal and Annotator? That would be interesting.


    • I will definitely have to look at this.
      Can you use Camtasia on windows to record the screen + webcam etc. while you are using GTK and Xournal?


      • (Un)fortunately, I don’t use Windows anymore. As GTK is only a set of background libraries (from a Windows point of view) I don’t see why it should interfere.
        Actually, it seems that the current version does not need any workarounds anymore, so you can just try the binaries from the homepage.


      • I am trying it out: seems good. However the web page describes the Windows binaries as follows:

        New: Win32 binaries of version 0.4.5 are now available (experimental – use at your own risk!) (updated Nov 25, 2009)

        So do I dare rely on this software for my teaching?


    • I do agree xournal is fantastic and multiplatform.


  2. I see that the Jarnal documentation at http://jarnal.wikispaces.com/ describes PDF Annotator in rather scathing terms.
    Well, PDF annotator seems pretty good to me, so now I shall have to try Jarnal out too!



    • This will obviously need more time! It looks as if Jarnal can do a lot of things. But so far I don’t find it as user-friendly as PDF Annotator.
      What do others think?


  3. Hi Joel! I am using Xournal regularly on Windows and it works like a charm. Being open source, it comes without warranty of course, but I have found it to be much more stable and performant than, e.g., Microsoft OneNote.

    You do not need to install GTK separately, the appropriate version of GTK for Windows comes bundled with the Nov 2009 release of Xournal. Pen support under GTK for Windows has one pitfall, though: On my tablet pc I have to install the tablet drivers from the Wacom website. The drivers that come with my tablet pc do not suffice, as GTK (apparently) uses the Wacom driver directly to deliver pen data and does not use the pen API integrated in Windows. After the Wacom drivers are installed, pressure sensitivity, etc. work perfectly in Xournal when you select “Use XInput” in the Options menu.


    • Seconded. This is still true on the M750’s (Toshiba model). I noticed the very poor quality writing in Xournal upon testing… but then did as you suggested and now the handwriting quality (thanks presumably to it working in proper “pen” mode with sensitivity and all that jazz) is as good as Journal and PDF Annotator which were both already fine without the driver.

      The driver I got was available at:
      (Wacom Penabled Driver Driver 7.01-8 (RC) for Penabled Tablet PCs, released 9/21/10 — is the version currently up there)

      As usual with drivers, if there’s nothing wrong with your tablet then don’t mess around with them. 🙂 I’m on an XP (Tablet Edition) operating system which is listed on that page as one of the targets of this driver so I was confident all should have gone well — and it did.

      Now the main reason for preferring Journal to Xournal is gone, but the non-customizability of the menus in Xournal is a little annoying, and something that PDF Annotator does seem to offer everywhere.


  4. I got very confused in xournal when I started annotating PDF files, and then added new pages. It seems that each page of the PDF file becomes a background for a xournal page (which you would expect), and then, by default, when you add a new page, the background of the current page is duplicated on the new page. This is NOT really what you want when you are using a PDF skeleton. However, you can change the background of the current page (or all pages) either by loading a new background, or using one of the standard available styles (lined, squared ,…). But this is an unwanted additional step.
    Windows Journal has default stationery which is used when you insert a new page, and that seems more sensible (at least for my purposes) when annotating a PDF file in a lecture.
    Of course, you can always insert the blank pages in advance to avoid fiddling during lectures.
    It may be that I should read the manual before jumping to conclusions, though.


  5. As far as I can see, PDF Annotator is unique (among the ones I am trying) in that it saves the annotated PDF file as a PDF file whose annotations can still be edited by PDF Annotator (though you can choose to “melt” the annotations to make them permanent). That is a neat trick!
    The others save the file in their own format, but of course the results can be exported to PDF.
    What I am really missing so far are the vertical space tool and the default stationery for new pages. For my purposes, I do usually prefer PDF annotator’s insertion of blank pages to the duplication of the PDF background on the current page. (Of course this duplication works well if your PDF background is lined/squared paper.)
    PDF Annotator version 3 is now out. It will be interesting to see what is new there.


  6. I guess the few differences mean that I have no reason to switch either 🙂

    But thank you for comparing the applications!


    • What is the quickest way in xournal to append a new lined/squared page? This is something I want to be able do in lectures without too much fuss.
      Do I need to go through the multiple steps of appending a new page (which will probably have the wrong background) and then going to a menu and changing the background (carefully!)?


  7. OK, we have now purchased six licenses for PDF Annotator here in maths at Nottingham.
    I have also found the way to add the buttons for inserting /appending both blank pages and documents to the top toolbar:
    commands tab,
    and then you can drag and drop the command you want
    (Document Edit -> …)
    to the toolbar you want.
    This enables me to insert new squared pages quickly.
    I did hit one problem here: I started to get the error “Documents could not be merged”. I think that I now know why. At one stage I opened my squared paper template with PDF Annotator, added some extra pages, and saved it, accidentally overwriting the template. I then deleted the unwanted extra pages using Adobe Acrobat. Superficially I now had my original squared paper template back again. But this document could not be merged with other PDF Annotator documents. My guess is that there was additional stuff in the file, possibly left there by PDF Annotator, which was interfering with the main document,
    I recreated the squared paper template using (Windows Journal and PDF printing!) and the problem went away.
    I have also discovered that “appending” the squared paper pdf file adds the new squared page at the very end of the document, not immediately after the current page. So “insert document” is the way to add new squared paper in the middle of the document. This inserts the new document just before the current page, so you have to move past the point you want the new documernt before inserting.
    If you are happy to insert/append blank pages then these do go directly before/after the current page.

    Now if only the pan (hand) tool had a slightly BIGGER hand, so that I could point on-screen more effectively …

    October 1 2010


  8. I like the fact that PDF Annotator has some drawing tools (rectangles/squares and ellipses/circles, straight lines).
    I haven’t yet mastered drawing concentric circles though! (It would be nice to be able to specify circle by centre and radius.)
    One apparent issue is that of changing your mind about colour afterwards. In Windows Journal, you can select any object or objects and change the colour after writing/drawing. My limited knowledge of PDF Annotator does not yet reveal a way to do this. You can select an object/objects and move them around. But I don’t know whether it is possible to change the colour.

    I do like the new PDF annotator arrows. I may well use these during lectures as pointers (followed by undoing the arrow afterwards.)


  9. I am not completely happy with the quality of the PDF annotations resulting from PDF annotator. I suspect that Windows Journal manages to include more vector information somehow. At standard screen resolution, the results are not so different. but if you view at (say) 400%, the PDF handwriting that comes from Windows Journal looks much better than the writing I am getting from PDF Annotator.
    Is there a way to get better results with PDF Annotator? Of course, I am now back to working with the default 150 dpi option in PDF Annotator. But if vector information was preserved, this would surely not be an issue?


  10. You write: “I have not yet managed to make “pressure-sensitivity” work for the pen. I am probably doing something wrong, because it is supposed to work!”
    What makes you think that it will work? An application, even one running under Windows Vista or Windows 7, needs to be programmed in a way that makes it “pen enabled”, i.e. that makes it work, not with a mouse trace but with input from the pen (which is quite different from a programmer’s point of view).
    If PDF annotator were pen aware, one would hardly have to do any fancy footwork in order to make it show pressure sensitivity (and higher resolution than the screen that real pen input usually delivers to pen-aware applications). This is because a pen-enabled application can be used easily with a mere mouse without having to do any additional programming. So if PDF annotator really were pen-enabled, it would hardly require any fiddling with configuration settings in order to make it really work with the pen (instead of using only a simulated mouse-trace that the operating system delivers to applications that are not pen-enabled).
    I have repeatedly encountered people who claim that their program works with a tablet pc, even though they should know that it doesn’t (in the sense of not being pen-enabled). For example, none of the server based shared whiteboards that I have tested (like DimDim and WizIQ) are pen-enabled (because, it seems, they are implemented with Java or Flash).
    In my experience it is very difficult to get around the obfuscation that marketing people tend to produce whenever their product does not deliver what the customer really wants. Even with Wacom, the maker of many digitizers that tablet pcs use, was not particularly forthcoming when it came to answering the question of whether their high-end interactive displays really are compatible with the pen-input system of Vista and Windows 7 (and, hence, with that of a tablet pc). If they are, then one could attach an interactive display to a desktop machine and have full tablet pc functionality but with more processing power and a larger screen. – I have first asked this question in November 2007 and have not received a clear answer from Wacom support to this day.


    • Hi Christian,
      The version of PDF annotator I am using now (3 point something, I think) allows you (in theory) to turn pressure sensitivity on or off for your pen at the press of an on-screen button.
      This does have s0me effect, but it doesn’t feel the same as pressure sensitivity in Windows Journal.


  11. The way you describe it seems to indicate that they do NOT use the native ink input system of Windows (the tablet pc / Vista / Windows 7). For if they did, they would have no need to distinguish mouse input from pen input: the operating system would handle this problem for them.
    Of course, they claim Windows 7 compatibility, nevertheless. This really is a kind of “dejĂ  vu” experience for me, since Wacom, too, claims “compatibility” of its high end interactive displays with Vista and Windows 7. But, apparently, that does not require them to be compatible with the native ink input system…

    So if PDF annotator does something that looks like “pressure”, it is either purely simulated (i.e. by some calculation along the stroke) or they have to get pressure information directly from the Wacom driver, thus shorting the native ink-input system. Since, to me, the latter alternative seems rather unpleasant to implement my guess would be that they do some simulated pressure-like thing (make the width smaller at the beginning and end of an ink stroke, and perhaps greater when curvature is high as well – or something along these lines).
    I suppose they have too much legacy code from the XP-days so that they cannot recode the whole thing to make it pen-enabled.


  12. On the issue of saving PDF files into Journal format and losing resolution/fonts… something which you may or may not have already discovered is that you can go into the properties of the default “Journal Note Writer” (a pdf-printer) then into the Advanced Tab and choose to “Print as an image” rather than “Use standard printing”. This seems to give a nicer looking result. It’s not perfect but miles better than standard conversion for my very first PDF file I just tried to convert (it’s a pdflatex pdf file).

    If the annotation program you open it in would like to “know” the page has words on and isn’t just one big picture then I suspect this method may not work.


  13. Hi David.
    From an earlier discussion I take it that Joel already knows about these two modes of printing to Windows Journal. Unfortunately, both methods have their downsides. If you print your PDF as an image, out get what you asked for, which is a raster image. This *may* look nice on screen (depending on how closely you look at it), but it will look not nearly as pretty when printed out in paper.
    If you use “standard printing”, what you see on screen may not look as nice, but it prints really well, I’d even say: the printout looks about perfect (because it is still a vector drawing, a vector drawing that is just not well rendered on screen).
    So, I think, “print as an image” is great only if you look at that image on screen in its original size and do not print it out…


  14. I have now moved on to Bluebeam PDF revu. This deserves a post of its own, so I’ll just say a few words about it for now. It has a host of impressive features. In fact it can probably do almost too much!
    From my point of view, it has all the best features of PDF Annotator and none of the disadvantages. The only thing giving me a little trouble is that the pan (hand) tool also works as a select tool. This is rather odd, and means I have to be very careful when using the hand tool to push pages up and down. If I hit an object, the object will move instead of the page!


  15. I mostly use PDFfiller to annotate my PDFs. Its not the same thing, but maybe someone needs it. It also allows you to fill, edit or, erase in a pdf, esign, efax, add logos and pics to pdfs. Its pretty easy to use and its pretty cheap. I think you can get a free week if you and a friend both register. Here is a link to the site’s functionality http://goo.gl/GjzGBj.


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