Making notes on PDFs without computer or paper

If you’re like me:

  • you have to read plenty of PDFs
  • you long ago gave up printing them all out
  • you also can’t stand reading them on a computer screen (too many distractions, too much like work).

Maybe you’ve tried some kind of tablet and maybe like me you’ve reached for the e-ink. But how to keep those pesky files in sync between tablet and computer and at the same time part of some kind of reference management/citation system?

I want:

  • Ability to mark up / annotate PDFs with real ordinary native PDF annotations, not some layer you can only see in a specific app which is the road most citation manager apps take (ReadCube, Mendley, even Zotero now, sadly) and which means you certainly won’t have those same annotations in 10 years because the app will have disappeared (but not the PDFs)
  • Comfy relaxing and non-distracting set-up, as close as possible to paper
  • The same PDFs are in my citation manager, so that I can cite the papers in Word / Google docs / markdown, and easily hoover up citations and papers from the internet e.g. with a browser plug-in

Is that really so much to ask? Why is this so hard?

I think it might be easier on Apple devices, but I’m not sure if there are solutions with native PDF annotations, and in any case I don’t want to be reading an ipad in the evening, too distracting.

A few years ago I bought an Onyx Boox Note 2 which is great for reading and writing on, and I also use for notes etc. But how to keep stuff in sync?


Even if I get my PDFs in say Google Drive, how can I keep them in sync between the tablet and my main computer? If you use the native PDF-reading app on this gadget, if you make annotations it doesn’t save them back to the same PDF but creates a new one in /Downloads (duh). Even if you use a PDF app like xodo which does save in the same folder, it’s a pain to keep them all in sync. I did use AutoSync by MetaCtrl but that didn’t always work either.

I finally found a setup (we’re talking half a lifetime of searching) which seems to work so here it is for reference:

  • I use Paperpile for my citation manager. It isn’t free, but it’s only $3/month for personal use. It might look clunky but it does the job, it has a good browser plugin for collecting stuff and it syncs your PDFs with google drive.
  • I use SyncThing on Boox and Windows, it’s a peer-to-peer sync tool which doesn’t make use of the fact that the PDFs are actually in Google Drive, I just sync the folder on the computer with the folder on the Boox directly. It works like a charm.

So now I can relax with a nice PDF in the evening. It’s amazing how different it is to read stuff like this, it’s fun, doesn’t seem like work. I can re-read PDFs from decades ago and see my original scribbles. I can make notes on new stuff and know the same notes will be there when I open the PDF on my computer at some later stage.

You wouldn’t believe how many different variants I tried until I found this solution.

Up next Publications I just realised an easy way to put a whole folder of my publications on the web using Google Drive. https://bit.ly/sp99-publications. This page
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