Document management tools – the nerdy, the geeky, and the classic

When it comes to handling heaps of documents on one single screen (or two or three), I just can’t decide which document management program best serves my purpose. So I thought it might be useful to give a short overview of my top three, OneNote, LiquidText, and PDF XChange Editor, with their pros and cons – hoping that this might inspire you, dear readers, to give me some further tips and recommendations.

So here are my top 3:

Microsoft OneNote – the classic

OneNote has been around for ages – at least in Germany some might remember Mark Kreuzer(@kramkr)’s paperless experiment back in 2012, or my blog post from 2014. This is probably the reason why it comes closest to what some of us remember as a paper-only office. It is organised in “notebooks” and sections that look like card files. You can import all sorts of documents (using the “insert/file printout” function) and annotate them using your pen on a touchscreen or typing on the keyboard. It converts your handwriting to text, and you can even insert voice notes/audio files and videos.

I absolutely love the fact that you can give special background colours to different pages. To me, this makes all the difference when I need to find my way around different “piles” of documents in a split second or know in which section I am in the first place. I also appreciate the fact that, when jumping back and forth between documents, they remain “open” on the page I had last viewed, instead of automatically going back to page one.

OneNote is also an excellent playground for the Microsoft snipping tool, which by pressing Windows+shift+S (⇧⌘4 on a Mac) lets you take a snapshot from all or part of your PC screen in no time. Like this you can create a potpourri of essential parts of different documents very conveniently.

One downside that put me off using OneNote recently is that the automatic OCR function that used to be included (and even worked for handwriting!) has somehow disappeared, which makes searching for text and copying words and inserting them into a glossary impossible. I also used to miss a proper bookmarking function but found my way around this by inserting little text boxes saying “page 3 line 23” or simply “xxx” to highlight important paragraphs. Once you have imported, say, a multi-page pdf into OneNote, you cannot jump to a particular page either, so this kind of self-made bookmark may be all the more helpful. So navigation is definitely not the strongest point of this tool (which also makes it the most paper-like option).

All in all, OneNote is intuitive and colourful, which makes it a great companion for a paperless office. Let’s hope that Microsoft decides to integrate OCR again!

LiquidText – the geeky

LiquidText clearly comes from a tablet (i.e. iPad) world – but it works just as fine on a Windows PC with or without a touchscreen. It has marvelous gesture control features, especially the pinch gesture to collapse a document and only see your highlights, or your text search results. If you are more of a keyboard person, you can press Shift and scroll to get the same effect.

LiquidText is all about interconnecting and extracting ideas. You can excerpt parts of the document and paste them into your notes (“workspace”) very easily. Like this you can create a selection of the most important text passages while keeping the link to the source document. It is equally easy to create links between passages of different documents.

If you double-click on a word (or any part of a document you have selected) and choose “auto excerpt”, it will copy the word to your workspace automatically. Once you have extracted a number of words to your workspace, you can copy them very conveniently using the lasso function and paste them, for example, into an excel file to create a glossary.

If, however, you are stuck in a world of “please take a look at page 187 line 9-11 of document XY”, I am glad that LiquidText also has “old world”-inspired features like jumping to a particular page using a shortcut (Ctrl+G in this case). Also because, even after 9 years of using a touchscreen laptop, I am still faster using hotkeys for navigation than swiping my way through a document.

You can easily display three documents next to each other, although I find the DocPane overview of documents has its limitations when handling large quantities of documents. When you open a document, LiquidText asks you if you want to OCR it, which I find very convenient (although I would prefer to OCR all imported documents automatically).

All in all, LiquidText is good-looking and versatile and takes paperless to the next level.

PDF-XChange Editor – the nerdy

Among the many pdf viewing and editing tools on the market, PDF XChange Editor is my favourite (thank you again, Angelika Eberhardt, for mentioning it to me!). It looks a bit stuck in the nineties but has so many useful features that I am still not sure I have discovered them all. What I like most is the way PDF Exchange lets me display different documents next to each other and have different parts of the same document open in split view.

It is also easy to get the full list of documents you have opened, even if they have long file names, by clicking on a little icon. You can open a sidebar showing the page numbers so that you can go to a particular page just by clicking on it. And speaking about sidebars, the other sidebar I really like in this tool is the bookmarks one. You just select an important text passage, press Ctrl+Shift+B, and the bookmark appears in the sidebar giving a preview of the text passage selected for the bookmark (all the bookmarked text can even be exported).

Another thing that makes handling many different kinds of documents easier for me is the fact that (similar to OneNote) PDF XChange Editor lets you change the background colour of a pdf (even if it leaves a watermark when using the demo version). To me this provides an extremely helpful visual orientation, using different colours for different negotiating parties or delegations, for example.

Like the other two programs, PDF XChange Editor works fine both using a smartpen on a touchscreen and a keyboard, for example when adding annotations and highlights in different colours. My glossary technique for the moment is to copy (Ctrl+C) all important terms to the clipboard using CopyQ.

In short, PDF-XChange Editor is well-structured and has loads to offer if you approach it with a mind willing to discover.

For good measure, I also include a table overview (you know there is no such thing as a nice little synoptic spreadsheet overview) checking the different features and functions of the three tools. If I missed something important or got something wrong, please let me know!

There might also be a second review edition soon, covering Nebo, MarginNote, and Zotero – so if anyone has experience with these tools, feel free to contribute!


Liquid Text PDF Xchange Editor OneNote
Operating system Windows, Mac/iOS Windows Windows, Mac/iOS, Android
Price free basic version, license 29.00 $ paid once or 7.99/9.99 $ monthly subscription free Demo version with watermarks for a few functions, 59 € paid once for full license included in Office 365
Easy import yes yes cumbersome (“insert – file printout”)
Supported file formats pdf, docx, Web pages, PPT pdf, docx, xlsx, pptx and others pdf, docx, xlsx, pptx, mp3, videos
Overview of documents/folder/name of currently open document ok – DocPane (a bit inconvenient for large quantities of docs) ok – use short file names (good overview even with long file names by clicking on a small icon) ok – use short file names!
Show several documents next to each other yes (up to 3) great  – “vertical tab groups” by opening a new window
View/open a document on several different pages yes (pinch gesture/highlight view; no “normal” split view) great – “split view” by opening a new window
Document remains open where you had last opened when switching back and forth yes yes yes
Sorting the document list by date or name by name only by name or manually (random order)
Customise colours of backgrounds/folders no yes yes
Highlight text ok ok ok
Interplay pen/keyboard/mouse/touchscreen ok ok ok
Annotate ok ok ok
OCR – optical character recognition
OCR available? yes (has to be started manually) yes (has to be started manually) no (not any more)
multilingual OCR? one language per document yes (also within one document) no (not any more)
Jumping to pages yes (Ctrl+G) yes (Ctrl+Shift+N) no
Bookmarks yes  – tags, great yes (text of bookmarks displayed at the side!) no
GLOSSARY MAKING auto excerpt, then copy & paste export bookmarks; copy & paste using CopyC difficult
no no yes

And by the way, if you haven’t found out by now whether you are more on the geeky or on the nerdy side, you might find these articles very enlightening: On Geek versus Nerd (by burrsettles) and Geeks vs. Nerds by Diego.

About the author

Anja Rütten is a freelance conference interpreter for German (A), Spanish (B), English (C), and French (C) based in Düsseldorf, Germany. She has specialised in knowledge management since the mid-1990s.






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