If you like to review documents on your way to and from work, you probably know that you can use Apple’s free iBooks app to read PDF files on an iOS device running iOS 3.2 or later. With this easy-to-assemble Automator workflow, you can move a PDF directly from Apple’s Preview to an attached iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.

Set it up

Launch Automator (in /Applications/Utilities, or use Launchpad in Lion), and in the template sheet that appears, select Print Plugin and click Choose. In the resulting workflow, add these actions by dragging and dropping in order: Rename Finder Items (you can choose to preserve the originals, if you do you’ll get an additional Copy Finder Items action) and Open Finder Items (both under Files & Folders), and then Update iPod (under Music).

In the Rename Finder Items action (which renamed itself as Add Date or Time to Finder Item Names when you dropped it into the workflow), choose Name Single Item from the first pop-up menu (Add Date or Time), click the Options button, enter ‘untitled’ in the Basename field, and enable the Show This Action When The Workflow Runs option. The name of the action will change to Name Single Item In Finder Item Names.

In the Open Finder Items action, click on the Open With pop-up menu and select iTunes from the list of applications. Save (File > Save) and name your workflow.

Try it out

Now, jack your iOS device into your Mac and launch iTunes. Select the device in iTunes’ Source list and click the Books tab at the top of the window. Make sure that Sync Books is enabled and that the All Books option is also enabled. (If you choose Selected Books, the workflow won’t work.)

Open a PDF file in Preview and choose File > Print. In the Print dialog box that appears, click on the PDF pop-up menu at the bottom of the window. From that menu choose the workflow you just created. A Rename Finder Items window will appear, in which you’ll be prompted for a name for the PDF. After entering a name in the Basename field, click the Continue button. The workflow will launch iTunes if it’s not already open and add the PDF file to iTunes’ Books area. It will then initiate a sync of your attached iOS device and copy the PDF to it. The workflow won’t work if your iOS device isn’t plugged in.

Caveats and cautions

If you delete an ebook or PDF file directly on your iOS device and then sync your iOS device, the Sync Books option within iTunes’ Books tab will change from All Books to Selected Books. When this happens, your workflow will no longer function because the PDF file you’ve ‘sent’ from Preview isn’t among the books you’ve selected in iTunes. For it to start working again, you must enable the All Books option and click the Apply button at the bottom of the iTunes window.

Mac OS X Lion improves Automator with new actions with a focus on creating content for online and iOS distribution. These include actions for converting video and audio into formats that are consumable by iOS devices, the autogeneration of ePub-format ebooks, and displaying and retrieving web content.