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How to go completely paperless with iOS

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There are some obvious first steps one can take to cut down on the amount of paper used on a day-to-day basis if you’re an iOS user, like switching to electronic bill pay, borrowing eBooks from the library, subscribing to electronic magazines in Newsstand, and using online loyalty programs with iOS Passbook. But choosing up front not to receive or use paper is not the challenge; the question is what do you do when someone hands you paper.

Sometimes you are handed a stack of forms to fill out, receipts to keep track of, business cards to file and other forms of paper that you have to decide what to do with. The following will offer up some options for turning that pile of paper into digital documents as well as some measures you can take to help stop the cycle of passing paper back and forth in your day-to-day digital life.

Document scanners

Document scanners

Scanning apps – The fact that six of the top paid apps in the Business category of the App Store are scanning apps and business card readers says a lot. My personal favorite for quite some time now has been JotNot Pro ($2.99 Universal). I like the way it can manually be adjusted to identify the corners of a document with a magnifying glass and have come to appreciate the fine-tuning capabilities that the app has to offer. Scanner Pro by Readdle ($6.99 Universal) is another document scanning app that I use. It can automatically upload all new scans to a cloud service of your choice. The convenience of automatically saving my scans online may in the end win me over as I have been using Scanner Pro more and more lately.

Traditional scanners – Traditional tabletop scanners still produce better results than scanners that use the built-in camera. Many can also handle multipage documents which can become quite tedious with a camera.  One thing that flatbed scanners don’t have to deal with is bending the photo due to the distortion of the image based on the 3D perspective it was taken. Most scanners now come as part of an all-in-one device, which can be a tad ironic, as the device that prints can also be used to make printing obsolete. Epson iPrintHP All-in-One Printer Remote and the Brother iPrint&Scan apps can all enable your iOS devices to access their products’ network scanners.

Business cards – Tiny index cards with just enough information printed on them to communicate one’s contact information continues to be a very popular custom in business today. The problem is that keeping a stack of business cards around just is not practical. ABBYY’s Business Card Reader ($5.99 iPhone) and InSig’s CamCard HD ($7.99 iPhone) are two apps that specialize in turning images of business cards into contact records in your contacts app. One app that I have used in the past quite often was LinkedIn’s CardMunch. Sadly this service will cease to exist starting July 11, 2014. You will have to transition your information over to an Evernote account.

Forms and annotations

Forms and annotations

Smile on my Mac – One of the companies that have helped me keep my world paper free are the creators of PDFpen ($4.99 iPhone, $14.99 iPad). With the ability to edit and change original PDF documents as well as create and fill out forms, add text and sign documents with your signature, PDFpen has become an indispensable paperless tool on all of my devices. Their auxiliary app, PDFpen Scan+ with OCR ($6.99 Universal) can be used to turn a photo of a document into text. While the scanner built into PDFpen Scan+ is not quite as good as the scanner in JotNot or Scanner Pro, its OCR capabilities are really good.

GoodReader 4 – Another good app that can be used to annotate your documents is GoodReader 4 ($6.99 Universal). Text boxes, notes, highlights, drawings and some rudimentary shapes are all available. The really great feature of GoodReader 4 however is its ability to access a wide variety of online cloud based document services. While not quite as advanced as PDFpen when it comes to editing PDF files, it does have the ability to sync with individual folders of an online service rather than downloading and syncing the entire account. It is a good app to have around and supports the “Open In” feature for several different file formats. It is the closest thing to a “Finder” you will get to on iOS. It even supports zip files.

Selecting a good stylus – Even before there was paper, using a handheld instrument was a natural part of writing. There are several really good note taking apps (reviewed previously) that benefit from using a stylus. The Jot Touch, ($119), Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus ($99) and the Pogo Connect ($79) are all bluetooth stylus that provide additional levels of pressure to your writing experience. Getting use to a good stylus can help minimize the urge to grab paper and pen when you have an idea to jot down. Finding the right note taking app to go with it makes all the difference in the world. Some apps are better at handwriting, while other are better at drawing. Try a few out before giving up on your stylus all together.

Just avoid printing

Just avoid printing

Use markdown editors – The most popular document editors are still based on producing documents that are meant to be printed. Microsoft’s Word and Apple’s own Pages are two such examples. There are other document solutions that focus less on how big a piece of paper is, and more on formatting text for online communications. This new class of editors support what is called Markdown, a plain text formatting syntax. Byword ($4.99 Universal) is one such app. Byword also supports TextExpander ($4.99 Universal) and has a series of keyboard shortcuts to quickly format text. It is one of the apps that I definitely feel is leading the way to defining what the new office suite for mobile apps should be.

Printopia without a printer – It use to be that ecamm’s Printopia ($19.95) was a way to turn your older printer into an AirPrint printer. That was before almost every printer started supporting AirPrint.  Now it is a great utility to “print” files from your iOS devices to your Mac instead. There are many different configurations that are supported. In addition to your Mac’s hard drive, Printopia can be used to save PDF versions of printable content on your iOS device directly to Dropbox or Evernote. This means that any iOS app that can print, can print to Printopia and save its output digitally rather than on paper.

14 Responses to “How to go completely paperless with iOS”

  1. Stephane English

    I’ve used both GoodReader and PDF Expert. PDF Expert is, by far, the better of the two as it has a far more intuitive, user friendly interface. The intelligent snap on the annotation tools makes sketching a breeze. Other features, like the drag and drop file manger, are also excellent. You can test some of that functionality before you buy, by installing Readdle’s free app, ‘Documents’.

  2. Great article! Thanks for mentioning our Scanner Pro! I hope you also saw PDF Expert 5, which is far beyond competition (Yes, I am a little bit biased, but ratings and downloads tell the truth) :)

  3. Making a personal decision to go paperless is simple. Executing your plan is easy. The real problem is getting other people to change their mindset and send things to you electronically. I’ve been paperless at my office since 2010, thank you iPad. After publicly chastising my colleagues for printing and not emailing documents, I was able to start a paperless revolution in my office. There are still some people, even after all these years, who don’t want to change, but they know, if they hand me paper in a meeting, there will by hell to pay.

  4. Geoffrey, brilliant article but

    there’s a big difference between the words “use” and “used”:

    “it used to be the case that going paperless was really difficult”
    “I used OneNote for a while but it was too Microsofty


    “I use Evernote to keep my paperless trail searchable”,

    but NEVER
    “it’s worth getting use”
    “it use to be that”

    Sorry, but that one really gets my goat. Like I said, great article. I’d mention Noteability but… ;)

  5. Have them on paper, on HDD, on second HDD and in a cloud. IRS is one of the problems. It is a great article which should be named “How to lighten up during business trips”

  6. Notability is the best note taking app I’ve used, and also let’s you import any document, which it will convert to a editable PDF file. Great for filling out & signing forms digitally.

  7. I like Prizmo for scanning business cards and documents. Seems to have a very accurate OCR. I tried several other scanner apps and this one works best for me.

    • Stephane English

      I agree, that’s a real issue. Because of this, there’s no way of saving a copy of an email, complete with header, from my iPad.