Annotating PDFs with Sente for iPad (Videos)

This second-last post in the mini-series on PDF management systems gives you an insider’s look into Sente’s companion app for the iPad. Sente for iPad is free for small libraries of 100 papers or less. If you want to have more papers in a library, an academic premium account asks for a one-time fee of $30.

Its getting more complicated when your library attachments need more than 1GB storage on Sente’s servers, at which point you would have to look into storage top-ups that start at $20 a year, but bottom line is this: Sente is free for beginners, and very affordable for most people. Sente says that a premium account with 1GB storage will be good for about a total of 1000 typical journal articles (across all your libraries!), and this is pretty accurate.

However, don’t worry about paying a little extra for the non-free version (if your library has more than 100 papers) and even a yearly top-up (if all your papers take up more than 1Gb of disk space). Sente is absolutely worth its price! Why? Beyond seamlessly integrating with your Mac over the cloud, Sente for iPad also offers you a feature-rich annotation workflow that is unmatched in its functionality

Update: Sente came out with a new version Sente 6 for iPad. The pricing information above already reflects this update, but the vides in this post show the previous version. Luckily, the app is free now, so you can try it out for yourself. Really do this, you will be amazed. The guys at Sente did an outstanding job in polishing the annotation workflow on the iPad!

Before reading on, don’t forget that Sente’s closest competitor is Papers by mekentosj. If you are looking for an app for annotating your PDFs, all of these are worth checking out. You can read academiPad reviews about Papers for iPad, Papers for Mac, and Sente for Mac apps by following these links.

The Sente ecosystem: Annotating PDFs with Mac and iPad

Sente has one application for the Mac, two applications for the iPad, and zero applications for the iPhone. Importing articles into the library, while possible on the iPad app, is best done on the Mac, so I won’t dive into the details of importing articles in this review. But hey, here are three screen shots – better than nothing :-)

The fact that Sente’s iOS version is “iPad only” is not a big deal for me, as I don’t feel any urge of reading and annotating academic papers on my iPhone’s tiny screen.

But why two iPad apps? Besides the full-featured app that is under review here, you can also download a free Sente Viewer app. The free version will sync with your Mac database just fine and you will be able to see annotations you made on the Mac; however, it won’t let you make any highlights or notes on the iPad. For annotating your papers you will need the full version for $20.

Sente for iPad offers a killer workflow for annotating PDFsThat’s a pretty nice move by Sente, as it lets you test-drive their iPad companion app a little bit. However, because the free iPad app does not let you try out Sente’s annotation workflow, it is like test-driving a Volkswagen New Beetle when you are in the market for a Porsche. So don’t judge Sente only based on the free Viewer app, but also check out the videos in this post (especially the last two ones about annotating). They will give you as much first-hand experience of Sente’s annotation workflow on the iPad as you can get for free!

But before diving into the videos, a quick note on syncing with your Mac. Sente syncs over its own servers, so your iPad does not have to be on the same wireless network as your Mac. This makes keeping your library up-to-date a lot easier, and it also makes it possible to share your library with a co-researcher on a completely different university. And since you can sync your library also with the free Sente Viewer iPad app, your co-worker or research assistant does not even have to buy the app to see what your are reading.


Organizing your library

As you are used from the Mac app, you can navigate your library in different ways. You can sort the articles by status, rating, author, journal, a few others, and especially: by QuickTag. As you can read in the Sente for Mac review, organizing your library in Sente is all about tags. Your QuickTags are automatically synced, and you can browse through the different hierarchy-levels in your QuickTags collection.


Adding status, rating, and tags to your articles

The information menu of the overview page lets you change the status of the article (e.g., from To Be Read to Done), lets you rate the article, and lets you assign QickTags and ad-hoc tags to your article. There is also a share button, through which you will be able to send the article to a colleague as an attachment.


Reading and annotating

Sente’s powerful annotation workflow on the Mac is one of the reasons that make Sente stand out among other PDF management systems. And the iPad app does not fall much behind, although it needs a little bit of polish around the edges.

But first a short note on navigating the PDF. Sente does not let you flip through the pages by swiping left or right, as for example Papers does, but insists that you are using the invisible touch areas on the left and right side of the screen. Whether this is good or bad is a matter of personal preference. I kind of like the playfulness of Papers more (we are in university, after all), but I guess the guys at Sente reason that this makes turning pages a little easier.

Talking about turning pages: even on my first generation iPad the pages load very fast for most modern PDFs.

So what about the highlighting? Sente offers you two different workflows for annotating your PDFs.

The first highlighting workflow is a little choppy: You first tap and hold to select a word, and from there you drag the handles to select the entire passage you want to highlight. Once you release the handle, a context menu offers you to highlight the text.

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The second highlighting workflow is much less disruptive and, in fact, almost as good as the one Apple came up with in its new iBooks textbooks. You first activate the Annotation Mode through an icon on the top of the screen, and from there you simply swipe over the text you want to highlight and choose Highlight from the context menu. This saves you from selecting the a single word first and then dragging the handles; however, you still have the options to fine-tune your selection through the handles.

The same Annotation Mode also allows you to draw rectangles around the text, if this is more your kind of thing.

So, Sente offers you two workflows for annotating your papers, isn’t that awesome? Not really, as both have their respective flaws that ruin the fun a little. The first workflow is simply too disruptive. But you cannot really use the second workflow either, as it won’t let you scroll the current page or proceed to the next page.

In addition, Sente for iPad is quite inflexible when it comes to changing the highlighting color. You have to choose the color before selecting the text, because you won’t see a context menu to highlight from after you played around in the color setting. There is also no way to change the color after you have highlighting.

That sounds complicated because it is. The video below gives you a better idea of how you can highlight text in Sente for iPad.


Making notes

Making notes is pretty awesome in Sente. You can add your notes through the same annotation context menu you use to highlight text, which means that again there are two different annotation workflows available.

But more interesting is that Sente has two different kinds of notes. You can either just leave a Comment, or you can Quote the original text together with your comment. In both cases a full-screen notes mode pops up for you to note down your own thoughts.

Quoting or Commenting will highlight the original text automatically, and you can review and edit your notes inside the document by opening them in a quick-view box.

The best things about annotating PDFs in Sente is, however, that all your Comments and Quotes will be listed in the overview page of the article. Hence, you can strategically quote certain elements of the text (e.g., purpose, research question, main findings) and later review the paper without flipping through the pages!


Final thoughts: Annotating done right

Sente on the Mac is one of the best PDF management systems available – thanks to its emphasis on tagging and its killer annotation workflow. Sente’s iPad app is also packed with features, and its price is 100% justified: Sente for iPad syncs your articles, smart-collections, and the QuickTags collection (including the tag hierarchy) via the cloud, and it sports the most feature-rich annotation workflow you can find among PDF management systems.

The only problem is that Sente for iPad does not have the same polished look and feel as Papers Touch for iPad or Sente’s own Mac application have. The way how colors are handled in Sente for iPad screams for improvements, and page navigation (both within one page and between pages) must be added before the second mode of annotating papers becomes useful.

Having seen the improvements Sente has made over the last year in its Mac application, I am quite confident that Sente for iPad will receive some polishing over the next couple of months. Michael, a developer for Sente, told me via email that enhancements of the annotation workflow are coming our way in a larger update – so be sure to include Sente for iPad in your consideration set of PDF management systems.

If you haven’t done yet, check out the videos in this post. They give you a much better understanding of the look and feel of Sente for iPad. Especially the third and fourth video are all about annotating with Sente: from highlights (video 3) to comments and quotes (video 4)

To my knowledge, this is the most in-depth video review of Sente for iPad that is available on the web. So if you know somebody who is annotating a lot and who is wondering whether Sente for iPad is worth the 20 bucks, why not letting this person (or the whole wide world) know about this post? You can use the sharing buttons below.

Be sure to check out the conclusion of the mini-series in Sente vs. Papers: What is the best PDF management system.

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  1. Peter says:

    Thank you for some very interesting reviews on Sente and Papers.
    ‘Works like a charm!’ you say about adding a pdf to sente on iPad. Well, often – I would say, but not always.
    I frequently get the message ‘Error Loading Web Page’ when I try to attach a pdf to a reference. It is especially a problem with papers from sciencedirect for example Cell papers. The pdf opens in the build in browser but it is not connected to a reference and it it not possible to highlight, make notes and so on.
    Have you experienced the same problem? Any solutions??

  2. Greg says:

    Jo, thanks for answering my earlier question. I’m trying out the trial version of Sente on the Mac and liking it a lot. However, I can’t figure out how to see the “overview page” you’re talking about. Is that only available in the iPad version of Sente?

    • Jo says:

      In the Mac app, you can find all the notes in the Notes view (click on the “i” icon, and then on notes on the right). It will show you all your comments and quotes. The Mac app even displays the color… I wish the iPad app did that.

  3. Alessandro Melchiorre says:


    Have you found a way to add a pdf to sente ipad from the web, without syncing to the mac app?


  4. Jo says:

    Hey Greg,

    That’s also one of my favourite features! To my knowledge, this one is a Sente exclusive. I don’t know of any other app that does this.

    I understand your concerns what happens if Sente closes down one day. You can never rule this out. However, it is only the syncing that happens in the cloud, and all your papers and annotations would be still on your devices. So you would have to switch to another solution, but you would still be able to access your old notes in the old system. Not ideal, I know, but enough of a safety line for me not to forego a working system for fear that it will stop working down the road.

    Hope that helps!


  5. Greg says:


    I’m interested in this Sente feature:

    “The best things about annotating PDFs in Sente is, however, that all your Comments and Quotes will be listed in the overview page of the article.”

    Do any of the other annotation solutions do this in a similar way? Sente sounds good, but I’m looking for something that will allow my annotations to show up in any PDF reader. (I’m worried about getting locked into a closed system that goes bellyup and then all my notes are basically lost.)

    What do you suggest?


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