Sente vs. Papers: What is the best PDF management system? (part 2)

Sente vs Papers (part 2)This article is the second part of the big showdown between Sente and Papers. With a price tag of around $100 for the complete package (Mac and iPad app) and a similar (but not identical!) set of features, the decision of what system is the best fit for your PDF management needs is not easy. And it is more than money that is at stake, as you will spend a considerable amount of time building your library once you have taken the plunge.

The first part of this showdown between Sente and Papers has discussed the differences in their respective ecosystems, how references are organized, and what annotation features are offered. If you haven’t done so, it is probably a good idea to read the first part now, as these are the biggest differences between Sente and Papers. I will wait until you are back…

App Store links: Sente ($20), Papers ($15). Mac / Windows links: Sente ($90) and Papers ($80).

Okay, now that you are in the know about the major differences between both ecosystems, what else do you need to know? Two other areas in which there are noticeable differences between Sente and Papers have to do with the design philosophy of both apps. Papers uses a very Mac-like, playful approach, and it shows in the user interface and how easy it is to add citations to your write-ups (via Magic Manuscript). Sente, on the other hand, offers solid and sometime more advanced features, but the packaging is not as welcoming as it is with Papers.


User Interface

Let face it: your research is difficult enough, so why making things harder with a confusing interface? If you are a fan of the polished, candy-like look-and-feel of iconic Mac apps (yeah, okay, I’ll say it: iTunes), then Papers is your friend.

Its beautiful and simple design has earned Papers the title of being the "iTunes for PDFs"

Its beautiful and simple design has earned Papers the title of being the “iTunes for PDFs”. The great strengths of Papers is its flat learning curve and its convincing Magic Manuscript workflow through which you can cite papers without touching the mouse.

Papers is simply much “easier to get” for two reasons: First, its organization routine resembles more what you are used to from when you started out in grad school. Whenever this was, I bet it probably involved sorting papers into digital or real folders, and Papers lets you simple re-create this folder structure. Second, the user interface of Papers is playful and clean.

Sente, on the other hand, has a steeper learning curve and its user interface is more cluttered – both on the Mac and the iPad. It got a lot better on the Mac in the version 6.5 release, but don’t expect that you will master it right from the start. However, if you are willing to invest the time, you will be rewarded with Sente’s greater functionality in terms of organizing and annotating papers.

Sente's user interface is a little cluttered, but full with useful information once you got used to it. One of the biggest strengths of Sente is its focus on tagging as a way to organize your library. However, this is also one of the main reasons why Sente has a steeper learning curve than other apps..

Sente’s user interface is a little cluttered, but full with useful information once you got used to it. One of the biggest strengths of Sente is its focus on tagging as a way to organize your library. However, this is also one of the main reasons why Sente has a steeper learning curve than other apps.


Citing references

Sente and Papers follow different approaches of how references are cited in-text. Both work fine across a broad range of word processors, so it comes down to your personal preference which one is the best match for you.

Papers Magic Manuscript

Papers’ Magic Manuscript allows you to insert references into your writing projects without using your mouse. You can search for the paper you want to cite by its author, name, or keyword.

Papers came up with a neat, graphical way of citing references via “Magic Manuscript”. The general idea behind Magic Manuscript is that you open up a dialogue via a keystroke, locate the paper you want to cite, and insert the paper into your document. The great thing about Papers’ Magic Manuscript is that it finds the paper you have in mind even if you can hardly remember it: title, author, no idea? All you know is that it was about “anti-consumption” and published in the “CMC” journal? Bang – Papers found it!

Sente comes with much less bells and whistles. Once you have located the papers you want to cite in Sente’s database, you can add a citation key from within Sente. A better way to cite is, however, to insert the citation key manually into the document. Manually adding citation keys will speed up adding citations and minimize interruptions in your writing flow, but only for papers you know well and don’t have to look up first. Sente does a pretty good job in recognizing what paper you are trying to cite (e.g., using the first author and year of publication as an ad-hoc citation key works most of the time), and you can even define your own citation keys (e.g., “S11” instead of “Scholz 2011”) . The drawback is obviously that with Sente you are more on your own to find the papers you want to cite.

It might depend on your writing style and your discipline what approach will suit you best. If you cite a broad range of papers that are not always crucial to your argument, Papers might be better at locating papers that slipped your mind. On the other hand, if you are very sparse with citations and only reference the most crucial papers, chances are that these papers are on top of your mind already. In that case, Sente’s way of citing would be less intrusive for you.

Other features, such as how references are added to your library and how much you have to pay for the apps, are pretty similar. So if you are in a hurry, you can probably skim through the next three sections until you hit the conclusion that comes back to the point of which ecosystem is the best match for your individual PDF management needs.


Adding references to your library

The best way to add references to your library is over the Mac. Both Sente and Papers perform well at this task, and the differences are really minor. Both let you access the web from within the app for searching and adding papers to your personal library.

I like Sente’s Target Browsing mode, which makes adding books and other non-journal references a little easier. On the other hand, Sente lacks a decent drag-and-drop mechanism to add PDFs that you already have on your computer: While Sente expects you to drop a file into the library view of the main window, Papers is okay with just dropping the file on its icon in the dock.

But essentially, there is little difference between both ecosystems when it comes to adding references to your library.




Sente and Papers are offered at a very similar price point; so similar that you can’t really speak of a difference here. Sure, the full Sente ecosystem (Mac $90, iPad $20) costs $16 more than the Papers ecosystem (Mac $79, iPad/iPhone $15), but this is negligible given that PDF management is the daily bread for academics.

Both systems come with different pricing options for students, which makes your life a little less expensive if you are one. (Note: Sente’s undergraduate student version is limited to 250 references.)


Other Stuff

If you are still on the fence between Papers and Sente, maybe Papers can win you over with its social networking function called “Livfe”. It is similar to what Mendeley offers, with the obvious caveat that Papers is not free and has therefore a smaller user base. When I looked up my field, I didn’t find too much going on in Livfe, and so I lost interest. However, your field might be different, and if the social networking approach to discovering papers is something you believe in, then Papers might be the right choice for you.

Another feature that I haven’t talked about yet are Supplements. Papers lets you add extra files to references in an easy way (just drag the file into the Supplements plane in the Inspector). I like the way how Papers implemented this feature, but want to point out that you can also add any file to a reference in the Sente library. So beyond the way of implementation, there is little difference between Papers and Sente in terms of supplementing files.


Sente vs Papers: Who is your winner?

As this review shows, it really comes down to your own needs and preferences of whether Papers or Sente is the better PDF management system. Both are decent ecosystems with room for improvements, and I am sure that especially the annotation workflows will be further improved along the way.

Picking which ecosystem is the best for you is a long-term decision, not only because of the money involved, but much more because of the time you will spend building up your library. After all, your reading history is one of your greatest assets as an academic.

To make the right decision, it is helpful to think about the core questions outlined in part 1 of this article What will your ecosystem look like? What demands do you have for syncing devices? What is your style of organizing and annotating papers?

If you need more details, you can read the individual reviews of the Mac and iPad apps here:


What I am using

I personally was on the fence for a long time which ecosystem I should adopt as my primary PDF management system. Papers is really good at being first at things: it brought highlighting to the iPad early on, and it was quick to support the Retina Display of the new iPad. Also, I am applauding the developers of Papers to venture into the Windows world; this move makes a lot of business sense!

However, I am drawn to Sente to manage and read my PDFs, because I value syncing over the cloud and Sente’s more advanced annotation functions (i.e., quotes and overview plane for comments, quotes, and notes). Also, I am a strong believer that tagging is a great way to organize information, and since Sente is built around tagging, it seems to be a better fit for me. I often wish it was easier to use, but hopefully the developer will sort out all remaining quirks and clean up the interface over time.

But that is just me, and there are plenty of reasons for why Papers might be a better fit for you: Windows support and ease of use are only two of them.

As a last word, I suggest that the functions and feel of the Mac apps should drive your decision. You will probably do most PDF management tasks on the Mac, and use the iPad companion app mainly for reading and annotating. The Mac apps have free trial versions, so be sure to test both first hand.

This is the moment of truth… App Store links: Sente ($20), Papers ($15). Mac / Windows links: Sente ($90) and Papers ($80).

Has this article been useful in making up your mind? If the answer is yes, please leave your thoughts in the comment section below! For example: What ecosystem are you going for, and why?

Disclaimer: All images by academiPad, except Magic Manuscript image (by mekentosj). Please consider sharing this article if you found it useful.

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  1. Kristian Jørgensen says:

    Great article! I am being offered Endnote at my university for free and I see that it also has PDF annotation though apparently not as powerful. Does anyone know if these two options are as powerful reference libraries as Endnote. Any advice is appreciated!

  2. Matthew says:

    I’ve owned both Sente and Papers for years. While Sente is my main reference tool, I’ve always liked the look and feel of Papers. I rely heavily on Sentes annotation features, it really helps as a way to quickly bookmark and navigate to key points in a paper.

    The heirarchical tagging in Sente works hand in hand with its robust Cloud sync service. If you instead organize your papers by their folder location, you create chaos when syncing multiple devices. I routinely access my libraries on work and home workstations, a laptop and iPad: all over the internet via Sente’s Cloud servers. Its pretty seamless. I’m glad I don’t need to mess with 3rd party shared folders and sync headaches.

  3. John Laudun says:

    A great write-up. I was pretty convinced to go with Sente, if only for its more robust annotation workflow — I have been looking for an app that respects the difference between quotes and notes for quite some time! — but I assumed that sync was handled through DropBox. It’s not. Or not any longer. Worse, if you want to have a library with anything over 100 items in it, then you have to pay for that privilege as well: $30 for academic users, $50 for everyone else. Ouch!

    • Jo says:

      John, this is actually a pretty reasonable price tag. Less than the previous licenses. And don’t forget that this is a powerful tool that lies at the core of every academic workflow. If you also throw in the fact that it doesn’t use up the space on your free dropbox (so you will less likely run out of space, and dropbox upgrades are more expensive over time than a Sente full licence), I cannot complain at all about this price. And I don’t work for them.

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