Kami or Squid for annotating PDFs with stylus on a Chromebook? Mini Review

Recently I got myself a Samsung Chromebook Pro (which comes with a Wacom EMR stylus), and I was looking for apps to annotate PDFs with a stylus. In the end Kami (formerly Notable PDF) and Squid (formerly Papyrus) emerged as top contenders. It’s not entirely a fair comparison, as one is a Chrome extension, the other an Android app, and I used two different PDF files to annotate, but here are my main observations.

Where Kami is better:

  • If you have the Kami Chrome extension enabled as your default PDF reader, you can start annotating as soon as you download a PDF file, as it opens automatically in Kami, with all the annotation tools ready. With Squid it’s a few more steps, as you need to save the PDF first somewhere where Squid can import from (local download folder, Google Drive, Box, or Dropbox), then launch Squid, hit the new note button, choose “Import PDF”, and then navigate to the PDF file to import it.
  • In Kami you can scroll through the entire PDF file during annotating. In Squid, you can only see one page at a time, and you can move forward or back by only one page at a time.
  • As long as you are online, Kami syncs every change instantly to Google Drive, so you have a backup copy, should anything happen to the local device, and can have multiple copies open and synced live on multiple devices (and possibly multiple users, if you’re sharing your PDF file with others). In Squid, there is no sync. Instead, there is a “Cloud backup” option, which only works with Box and Dropbox, and there is only an option to back up every 6 hours or manually. There is also an “Export PDFs” option, which can similarly be set to “every 6 hours” or be triggered manually. In my experience, the Squid backup was not very reliable. Sometimes it failed to upload the backups (blaming it on “network errors,” “I/O errors” and so on), sometimes it only uploaded some of the files, and Box for some mysterious reason failed to sync the files with its Windows client on my laptop. For Chromebook users there are obvious benefits with Kami being so seamlessly integrated into the Chrome browser and Google Drive, and not having to pay for Box or Dropbox. But the instant sync notification in Kami can be a bit distracting during reading and annotating.
  • In Kami you can choose not to use your fingers at all and use the stylus for scrolling and all other actions, if you don’t want to be touching the screen.
  • Kami maintains zoom level as you scroll through the document, while in Squid you need to reset the zoom level each time you navigate to the next page or back.
  • Using Kami to annotate PDFs leaves Squid free for taking additional handwritten notes, and it is easy to switch between Kami and Squid via the shelf. If you’re annotating a PDF in Squid, it is more awkward to switch to another Squid note, as you need to exit each in order to be able to navigate to the other.
  • Kami’s tools (which are in a vertical bar on the left of the screen) are a bit more easily accessible (especially for a left-handed person), and it’s easier to switch between e.g. the pen tool and the highlighter, than in Squid, where the tools are in the top right corner (which right-handed people might still find easier).
  • In Kami it’s possible to scroll the page with a single finger, while in Squid you need to use two, otherwise you end up erasing your annotations. Unfortunately, this can still happen if your two fingers are not entirely in sync, and you accidentally erase stuff in Squid while trying to scroll up or down the page.

Where Kami could improve:

  • While Kami does work offline, the “undo” button is obscured by the offline notification tooltip, so “undo” cannot be accessed in offline mode.
  • When switching between tools, the tooltip labels for the tools (e.g. “Drawing”) persist, intruding into the margin that could be used for annotations, so you need to scroll up or down to be able to annotate on that spot. I don’t see any value in these tooltips persisting (and any need for them at all).
  • Normally when you start annotating a newly opened PDF in Kami, there is a popup asking you if you want to save it to Google Drive for syncing. This is a nice feature when you’re online, but if you happen to get it when you’re offline, the popup persists and is impossible to close, obscuring a part of the PDF, which is pointless and annoying. Even when the internet connection was re-established, I could only get rid of it by refreshing the whole page and reloading the PDF. It looks like a bug.

Where Squid is better:

  • There is no distracting sync notification (but there is no sync either).
  • The exported PDF is properly flattened, meaning that when you open it in another PDF viewer on another operating system, the annotations are fixed, and you can freely copy and paste text from the PDF, without interfering with the annotations, or the annotations interfering with the copying. Kami’s exported PDF on the other hand does not properly flatten the annotations, meaning that they remain floating objects, so if you e.g. want to copy some text from the PDF, you can accidentally start dragging the annotations out of place. Personally I can put up with this (and just use the clean version of the PDF file for any copying), but it could be a problem if someone else might need to read your annotations, and they might unwittingly drag them out of place. Also, Squid’s PDF export was PDF/A-1b standard compliant. But I don’t know if that had something to do with the underlying PDF file and not Squid.
  • Squid (at least on my Samsung CBP) had pressure sensitivity, which meant that annotations could be done in thinner handwriting than in Kami. In general Squid allows for more granularity in stroke thickness etc.
  • While I used different files to annotate for this review, so this information is not directly comparable, it seemed that Squid’s annotations required less overhead in terms of increase to the file size. After annotation, the PDF in Squid increased from 376KB to 791KB in size, while in Kami it increased from 364KB to 6.31MB. For this to be a fair comparison I should have made the exact same annotations to two copies of the same file, but on the whole it suggests that Squid is more economical with its use of data.

Verdict

For now I will probably stick with Kami, as I like the live Google Drive sync, I like the fact that I can scroll through the entire document, and that I don’t risk deleting annotations if I use my finger to scroll up or down. I also like the option of being able to use Kami and Squid together, annotating in the former, and taking additional handwritten notes in the latter. These benefits for me outweigh the negative points about the floating annotations and the big increase in file size.

Update (27 May 2018):

I have also posted this review on the Chrome OS Reddit site, and there was a bit of a discussion.

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In praise of Chrome OS

Generally I like Rui Carmo‘s take on things (at least what concerns computers, that’s all I know about him), but I couldn’t disagree more with this recent comment of his:

And it wouldn’t be a great loss if Chrome OS faded away, really.

I don’t know what he has got against Chrome OS, but for me personally it has been one of the most enjoyable discoveries of recent years. I have been using an HP Chromebook 14 (1st gen.) for the past two years, and I have only just acquired an Asus Chromebook Flip to be my dedicated reading and note-taking device. If anything, I wish that other OS’s would start up and operate as fast as Chrome OS does, and every time I’m in a Windows environment these days, I’m wishing I could be using my Chromebook instead. And I say that as a massive fan of lots of Windows apps (just check out my Favourite Tools list), and someone who has just bought a Windows mobile workstation, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

I also own an Android tablet (a Hudl 2), but if I had to choose between the two platforms, I’d rather have Chrome OS survive as a tablet OS than Android, for the simple reason that you get a full desktop browser with all the extensions that you want. In fact, the Asus Flip is a step in that direction. If Chrome OS and Android ever merge (I hope they don’t), I hope it will be Chrome OS running some Android apps, rather than the other way round.

But putting aside the fact that Chrome OS is an absolute pleasure to use (and since I bought my first Chrome OS device two years ago I have been slowly converting members of my family, young and old, to use Chromebooks, and without exception they love them), why would you wish that in the rarified olygopolistic market of operating systems we would lose one of the players, especially the one that is challenging the established order? I remember the days when Microsoft had 90+% market share. What was so great about that? I don’t see who could benefit from the reduction of diversity in the operating system market other than the duo of Microsoft and Apple–certainly not the consumer. In fact Chrome OS being a Linux-based system, it even works as a ‘gateway-drug’ for curious people to dip their toes into Chrouton and then Linux, thus increasing diversity in the market further.

By the way, the notion that Chromebooks are only for children and grandparents is also completely misplaced. As you can see at the Chrome OS Reddit,there are some very sophisticated users of Chrome OS out there who know far more about computing than I do, such as computer programmers.

So what is so great about a Chromebook? Besides the fact that it boots in a few seconds, it is instantly on when you wake it from sleep, ready for note-taking or blazingly-fast web surfing and work in the cloud. Add to that the minimal maintenance (you don’t even need to know or notice when you are updating the OS), and the lack of viruses, what is there not to love? And if you are worried about your computer spying on you, just log on as an anonymous user. Oh, yeah, and let’s not forget about the 6-12 hours of battery life, depending on the model you own, so you can say good-bye to lugging your charger around. And if we are talking about lugging things around, Chromebooks also tend to be thinner and lighter, thanks to the lightness of the OS. Some of them don’t even have fans, so they are perfectly silent.

But I can understand the initial skepticism of people who have never tried a Chromebook. A computer whose operating system and main interface is effectively a browser indeed does not sound like a terribly exciting proposition. I was one of those doubters myself: here is the evidence. In the case of Chromebooks you really need to try one for a while to fully experience the benefits which otherwise are not that easy to convey, such as how it affects your computing, note-taking and browsing habits when your computer is instantly on, is highly portable (just check the size of the Asus Flip), and when web pages load in an instant. It is a new way of experiencing the web.

OK, Google, you should really send me a complimentary Pixel 2 LS for standing up for you like this! :)

A comprehensive guide to Chromebooks

I mentioned the other day that since January 2014 I’ve been using a Chromebook as my iPad replacement. Originally I was just looking for a low-cost note-taking solution, but it turned out to be a lot more. Not only is my HP Chromebook 14 my go-to machine for note-taking, emailing and web browsing, but it is also my mobile office, thanks to the ability to access my home PC via Chrome Remote Desktop.

Considering that Chromebooks have only been around since mid-2011, it’s not all that easy to come across comprehensive and unbiased comparisons of the various models on the market. One exception is Zipso’s Chromebook specs & performance comparison chart, which also serves as an excellent introduction to the world of Chromebooks and Chrome OS. It is well worth a look, if you are Chrome-curious :)

Notable PDF is getting there

I’m not sure if I mentioned it here before, but last year I got myself a Chromebook (a 1st gen. HP Chromebook 14), to replace my aging and increasingly decrepit (or should I say decrapit) iPad 1 as my main portable note-taking and web-surfing machine. I quickly became a Chromebook convert, especially after I discovered how easy and convenient it is to use Chrome Remote Desktop to access my Windows 7 PC, thus always having my office with me.

The only area where my Chromebook and Chrome OS were lacking and where my iPad 1 (with the GoodReader app, for instance) was still superior was PDF annotation. It was certainly possible to read a PDF on a Chromebook but there was no satisfactory solution to annotate a book-sized PDF, both online and offline, and then be able to export the annotated PDF file or the annotations themselves. Not until Notable PDF appeared on the scene that is. I have been using Notable since its beta days on and off, but until recently I kept running into problems that made me return to annotating on the PC or on my old iPad.

However, in recent weeks I checked back again and I was very pleasantly surprised that Notable have ironed out some of the obstacles that kept me from adopting it permanently. Finally I was able to download my annotated PDF file and open it in PDF XChange Editor on the PC, and I saw all my highlights and annotations in place. It is still not perfect, as the highlights in XChange Editor show up as some kind of colour overlay rather than XChange’s own native highlights, but hey, I can live with that. What is more important is that I am now able to read and manipulate my Notable annotations in XChange Editor.

Moreover, Notable has some tricks up its sleave that give it a distinct advantage over some other PDF annotating options. Notable PDF is a Chrome browser extension, which makes it cross-platform on desktops, as long as you have Chrome installed on your other machines.* It appears to save the annotations in the cloud, which means that it doesn’t matter where you keep your file, and how many copies of your file you have, it will sync the annotations to that file (and its copies) across all the browsers. You can even have two different copies of the same PDF file open in different machines in Chrome, and the annotations will sync live and automatically, in front of your eyes. This feature of course would be very useful for collaborations, as you can see instantly what others are commenting on that file.

To me, this feature means more flexibility. For example, the copy of  the PDF file I’m reading is saved on the hard drive of the Chromebook. When I’m offline, the annotations are saved offline, and then synced when I’m back online. However, I also have a copy of the same file on my Google Drive account in the cloud, and if I’m on another machine, let’s say a PC at work and I do not have my Chromebook with me with the original file, I can just open the copy from Google Drive, and Notable recognises it as a copy of the annotated file and it populates it with the annotations saved on their server. I find this rather clever and very useful.

In any case, I just wanted to say that I’m happy now to include Notable PDF among my favourite apps and recommend it to others, especially Chromebook users. While it’s not entirely perfect for my needs (I wish the yellow highlights could be converted to native highlights in PDF XChange Editor, so they can be extracted from there), it is probably the best option for PDF reading and annotating on Chromebook today. Also, I have been following them for the past year, and development has been on-going, so I am hopeful that Notable will continue to be improving.

Update:

* Having just looked at their website more closely, it turns out now they also have a web app, so in fact you can use their service on any browser, not just Chrome.