How to Get the Most from Preview in OS X: Annotating

Preview on the Mac. Elegant, powerful, unpretentious, highly useful, free.

Preview is an application that comes pre-installed on every Mac. Technically, it's a browser/viewer for images and PDF files. However, Preview can do quite a bit more than simply let you view pictures and documents.

Here on TMO, Melissa Holt and Jim Tanous have covered several features available in Preview, such as "Filling out PDF Forms with Preview", "How to Combine Multiple PDFs Using Preview", and "How to Take Mac OS X Screenshots With Preview." As we'll see, there is certainly more to say about this gem.

I am one of those learners who benefits the most from annotating my reading material. You know – underlining, highlighting, drawing arrows, surrounding important passages with ovals and squares, the occasional marginal notes, and even attaching sticky notes. All of the aforementioned in different colors and thicknesses, too. True, it's highly unlikely that I will ever go back and refer to my annotations, but the act alone of highlighting, underlining, note-taking, yes... even doodling, actually helps me understand and retain the material being read.

So, let's talk about a feature in Preview that I wager many readers are not aware exists: annotating PDF documents. This is my most favorite feature in Preview.

There are several excellent third-party apps – both for OS X and iOS – that can do all that Preview can do, and then some. Annotating PDFs is no exception. However, before investing in software, you should take a good look at Preview because you may just find that it does exactly what you need without having to spend a cent. As I've pointed out in past articles, Apple has this habit of quietly including lots of useful software with tons of features in OS X. The only thing, is that you have to know where to find it so you can go explore.

The universal red

Say "No!" to Adobe Acrobat Reader. Say "Yes!" to Preview.

First, it's important to understand that, by default, a Mac running OS X will load a PDF file into Preview when you double click on the file. Many people believe – or are led to believe – that Adobe Acrobat Reader is needed to view PDFs. No. With a couple of minor exceptions, there is nothing that Acrobat Reader can do that Preview can't. Actually, Preview does more! And, when using Acrobat Reader, technical and security issues abound, as well as the many inevitable updates. I tossed out Acrobat Reader several years ago. I don't miss it. Do yourself a favor: if you have Adobe Acrobat Reader, consider deleting it from your Mac and using Preview instead for your PDF viewing – and editing – pleasure.

Open a PDF document in Preview. If you need to get to the application itself, it is located in your Applications folder. You can also make a spot for it on your Dock. For illustration, I have opened the iPad user manual (FYI, Apple manuals in PDF format are available at Take a look at Preview's toolbar at the top of any open document.

The default toolbar in Preview, highlighting two buttons: Markup and Edit.

This is the default configuration for Preview's toolbar. Notice two buttons: Markup and Edit.

Referring to the illustration below, I would like to highlight (a.k.a. Markup) some text on this page; here's what I do:

First, I select the text first, e.g.; the text, "Using apps". Next, I choose the type of markup from the Markup pop-up menu which appears when clicking on the Markup Button. Notice that I can choose to Strikethrough or Underline the selected text. However, to Highlight the text, I choose a desired color from the pop-up menu. This activates the highlighter tool.

The markup selection pop-up menu appears when clicking on the Markup Tool in Preview's toolbar.

From the Markup Tool pop-up menu you can choose to markup your text by highlighting with a choice of colors, strikethrough or underline.

You can see that when I made my markup selection, the little icon displays the tool in use (highlight, strikethrough or underline). If the icon is blue (as opposed to dark gray), this indicates that the tool is in Active Mode. This is very handy because once the tool is active, all you need do is go through the document, select the text you want to markup, and the markup is immediately applied. This mimics traditional marking up text on paper with a highlighter or writing implement. To deactivate the Markup tool, just click on its button. The icon goes back to its gray, inactive state.

There's more to annotation besides text markup. In Preview, other kinds of annotation are available by activating the Edit Toolbar. You can do this either via the View menu or by clicking on the Edit Button on the standard toolbar.

Clicking on the Edit button in the toolbar, or via the View menu, will activate the Edit Toolbar which provides a number of additional annotation tools.

Several additional annotation tools are available in the Edit Toolbar, which is activated by clicking on the Edit button.

Look at all the annotation tools available to you.

On your PDF, you can draw rectangles, ovals, lines, and arrows and each in different colors and line attributes. Think of the possibilities. You also have tools to add text in boxes, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and even sticky notes in a panoply of colors. It's a beautiful thing!

Remember to File > Save (or Duplicate/Save As) your PDF when done with your annotating. Next time you open the file, ta-da... there are your wonderfully crafted and colorful annotations. And, you can edit, move or delete your old annotations.

Preview will also keep track of all your annotations in an index. This facilitates finding specific annotations later when you need to go back for a review of the document. Perusing through your list of annotations is done via the Annotations Inspector. The Inspector panel is summoned via View > Show Inspector or the keyboard shortcut, Command-I.

The Annotations Inspector panel lists all your annotations and allows you to navigate to them quickly.

The Annotations Inspector panel lists all your annotations and allows you to navigate to them quickly.

Before concluding, there are a few other considerations regarding Preview. All the annotation features we've looked at are also available via Preview's Tools menu. Oh, and for you keyboard shortcut mavens, you will certainly not be disappointed.

Additionally, it's important to note that your annotated PDF files are generally compatible with other PDF apps on both OS X and iOS. Your annotations are even editable in other PDF utilities. I read and edit my annotated PDFs interchangeably between my devices. (I used GoodReader on my iPad).

As you can see, annotations in Preview is powerful and easy-to-use. All of Preview's features definitely make this application a glad-that-we-have-it productivity tool in your software arsenal. What's more, there are improvements to Preview with each major OS X update, and all this at no additional cost!