Let's talk about the PDF editor interface

Hi, all,
Let’s talk about the human interface of the PDF viewer of DEVONthink 3. In my view it is far from optimal and sometimes irritating. – What’s wrong with it? You may ask me, so let me talk about it by comparing to the mainstream PDF viewer, PDF Expert. If i am wrong, please do correct me!


First, about highlighting. Ah, yeah, the very basic functionality of any PDF viewer. In PDF Expert you highlight by these processes:

  1. Select some text by mouse.
  2. Click the Highlight button on the toolbar.

Nice and simple. And in DT3 you can also highlight by exactly the same processes.
However, when you want to edit the color of the highlighting, or removing them, things can be cumbersome. In PDF Expert, you do:

  1. Click the highlight. Then an alternative toolbar containing colors pop up.
  2. Click on the color in the toolbar.

    Two steps, alright.
    In DT3, however, you have to achieve this by three steps:
  3. Right click on the highlight. A menu will pop up.
  4. Go through all the menu items until you find the “Highlight” button.
  5. Go to the submenu of “Highlight” and select the color you want.

You see the difference: There is no direct way to change the color. You have to open the menu and find the “Hightlight” button. This can be definitely frustrating if you do a lot of highlighting a day.

So, my recommendation/feature request: add some color palette directly on the toolbar:

When you want to remove a highlighting, in PDF Expert, it’s simple:

  1. Double click the highlighting.
  2. Press “delete” button on your keyboard.

In DT3, you can also achieve this by two steps, but not that intuitive:

  1. Select part of the highlight.
  2. Press the “highlight” button on the toolbar: tb1

For many cases this is just Okay, but things can still be optimized.

Text notes

I always take notes when reading PDFs. For the most time I use the text notes instead of the pop-up iconized notes. Let’s split this topic into two parts: taking notes and modifying&moving notes.

Taking notes

In PDF Expert this is simply fast:

  1. Click the “Text” button on the toolbar.
  2. Click on where you want to take notes and grind your keyboard.
  3. Press Esc when you are finish. That’s it.

However, in DT3, some irritating things happens:

  1. Click the “Text” button on the toolbar. Okay, simple.
  2. Instead of clicking the place you want to take notes, you have to drag your mouse to create a text box.
  3. After the text box is created an inspector menu pops up. In this moment, you cannot type directly on the keyboard, instead you have to click on the text area of that box to make sure the cursor appears in the text area: curse
  4. Type your note.
  5. Click the red dot to close the pop-up menu.
  6. At this time you are still at “Text Note mode”. You have to go back to the original text select mode by clicking again on the toolbar: tb2

So to make a text note and go back to the original state you have to follow those 6 steps. What a cumbersome process! Can’t things be simplified? Why cannot we write texts directly on the PDF pages instead of typing in the pop-up menu?

Modifying & Moving notes

Okay, if you want to modify your text notes, in PDF Expert, you do:

  1. Double-click the text you’ve written.
  2. Modify as you want.

However, in DT3:

  1. If you are in text-selecting mode, you have to go back to the “Text Note mode” by clicking the toolbar: tb3
  2. Double-click the text you’ve written.
  3. Instead of modifying the text on the pdf page, you again have to meet the pop-up menu! There, you click on the text area to make sure cursor is in it…
  4. And finally, modify your notes. curse3
  5. After you finish, click the red dot to close the pop-up menu.
  6. Go back to the original “Text-selecting mode” by pressing again on the toolbar: tb2

Again, six steps. And when you just want to move the text to another place, instead of simply dragging the note, you have to:

  1. Select the “Text” button … tb3
  2. Drag your note to the place you want …
  3. Go back to the original Text-selecting mode, by pressing again on the toolbar.

Three steps. Why not make things easier?

Pop-up Notes

When I have to write some long notes, I take some pop-up notes. In PDF Expert, you do:

  1. Click the button on the toolbar: tool Then a pop-up note will appear.
  2. Type on your keyboard.
  3. Press esc when you finish.

In DT3, you do as similar steps as in the Text Notes. Well, what I want to talk about in this place is viewing the notes. In PDF Expert, if you want to view the content of that note, you simply click on the icon:

You can achieve this in anytime, whenever you are making highlights, selecting texts, making another notes or simply drinking coffee. But in DT3, things are different.

In DT3, if you are in the default state – The Text-selecting mode, clicking on the note icon does not work.

What you have to is first go to the Note-taking mode, by clicking on the toolbar: tb3
And then you are able to click on the note icon, to see the content:

Why do I have to go in the Note-taking mode first? Why can’t I simply click on the icon when in text-selecting mode?

What makes a good PDF Viewer

A good PDF Viewer is, in my view, made up of three things:

  1. Easy-to-use human interface. PDF Expert is good at this, but DT3 is far from good.
  2. Polished interface. in my view both PDF Expert and DT3 are good.
  3. Rendering and overall speed. DT3 is much more lightweight than PDF Expert so it has faster rendering speed, which I really like.

So please, ease the human interface and make DT3 do better on PDF viewing!


Yea, I pretty much agree. But on the Mac, it doesn’t matter because I just have DT3 open up PDFs in PDF Expert and call it good. And on iOS, the PSPDFKit-powered PDF viewer/editor is almost as good as the new PDF Expert (and arguably better than the previous version of PDF Expert), so we’re good on IOS too.

That said, it would be great if the PDF interface could someday be changed.

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Glad you enjoyed your workflow! My point is, the human interface of the PDF viewer in DT3 is not much improved for a long time, since DT2, and I think they have not discovered the difference yet. So I’d like to point it out, clearly, in this thread, and hopefully they’ll change it in the future.
I don’t own the PDF Expert on Mac because it’s a bit expensive for me, and I’m constantly looking for alternatives. I think DT3 would be good, if they changed the interface logic.
On iOS the PSPDFKit is indeed good (and free!), but the newest PDF Expert (iOS) has screwed up, for they have migrated to the subscription price model which I personally dislike. On iOS you always have alternatives for PDF viewers, even GoodNotes is great for that.

Isn’t DT using PSPDFKit on iOS? Sure looks similar.

I agree though re the PDF handling on the Mac. DT3 is such a vast improvement in UI that this seems to be an unfortunate outlier.

For what I know, the viewer of pdf in DT is based on the Mac OS kit, but pdf expert is a quite highly-priced product whose main competitive advantage is “pdf”. So maybe we need to set our expectation/comparison at par to Mac OS viewer. I’m sure that DT has listened and compared the feature of each of their DT’s elements to other top apps, but they’ll need to prioritize their resources to key competitive elements…

BTW, there is another way to select highlights from the edit bar in DT by click and hold on this icon, just FYI.


Exactly. We’re aware of the shortcomings and there are plans for future releases but on the Mac it’s really easy to view/edit files externally if the internal tools aren’t sufficient.

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Thanks for your advice! This feature is really handy and I didn’t even know that!

I’m so glad that you’ve been aware of this. I can’t wait to see the polished pdf viewer in the future!

The difference surely between DT3 and PDF Expert is that viewing pdfs in DT3 is just one of its many features whereas PDF Expert is a dedicated app.

I don’t use PDF expert - it lacks the features I use for PDF work, also according to a comment on PDF Expert forum apparently the latest version doesn’t allow duplex printing. As CG says, it’s easy to view/edit pdfs externally if the internal tools aren’t sufficient. I’ve linked DT3 to Adobe Acrobat Pro XI for general use and it is easy.

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“Simplicity is complexity resolved.” Brancusi
And then the beauty emerges.

Hi, can I chip in here?
Simple question: how do I change the default pdf editor in DT3? It is set to PDFPenPro (which I used many years ago), although the system wide default on my Mac is set to PDFExpert (which I regularly use).
Many thanks for your help!

Actually the system-wide default editor should be used for each filetype. What does the Finder’s Info panel for a file that is opened with the wrong application show?

The Finder’s Info for the file (opened from within DT3) shows “PDFExpert (Standard)”; however, when I right click the file in DT3, the “Open in…” dialogues shows “PDFPen (Standard)”.
Also, the icon in the tool bar shows (when hovering over it) “Open in PDFPen”.

Both apps are installed in /Applications? What’s the default application for a new PDF document, e.g. a webpage printed to PDF?

Yes, both are installed in /Applications. A newly created PDF has PDFExpert as its default application.

In DEVONthink and/or in the Finder?

Im Finder. Soll ich es in DT3 importieren? Oder soll ich (wie?) ein PDF in DT3 erstellen?

We’ll try to reproduce this.

Thanks! Much appreciated.

I once had a similar problem and I was able to resolve it by setting, in the Finder, the default PDF app to Preview, change all, then restarted my Mac and repeated the process selecting PDF Expert, change all.

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