PDF Tools Roundup: Pros & Cons of Five Popular Choices for PCs

by Reads (24,389)

When you come across PDF files on the Web (as all of us do), you need to use Adobe Acrobat Reader or some other PDF viewer software to actually read those documents. Yet there are other types of tools out there that let you do even more with PDFs, whether that’s to speak PDF documents aloud, convert a PDF doc to a Microsoft Word file, or produce a searchable PDF doc from scratch. In this roundup, we’ll examine five popular products in the category of PDF creation and conversion tools, ranging in price from free to several hundred dollars.

Originally introduced by Adobe way back in 1991, Portable Document Format (PDF) has more than withstood the test of time as a method of letting users view docs that look identical regardless of which operating systems and application software are installed on the devices.

In fact, PDF is now more prevalent than ever. The presence of PDF reading software eliminates the need to install multiple programs on a Windows or Mac PC in order to see a doc as it was originallly written on someone else’s system, complete with the same fonts and placement of photos and graphics.

This, in turn, can spare you the expense of buying lots of different software programs, the hassle of plugging an external CD/DVD-ROM drive into an ultrabook or netbook for installing all that software, and any worries over exceeding the data cap on your wireless plan for all of those downloads.

Although PDF readers are widely available as standalone tools, PDF reading capabilities are also built into some application software. PDF creation and conversion tools, however, offer even more capabilities. They can come in particularly handy if you want to share documents between your PC and other devices — such as iPhones, iPads, and Android OS smartphones and tablets — owned by you or your friends or co-workers.

Although feature sets vary among specific products, here’s a quick checklist of some of the things that these utilities might allow you to do.

  • Convert a document to and/or from another file format.
  • Save a PDF doc in either standard (uneditable) PDF format, editable format, or searchable format
  • Produce PDF docs with fillable fields (for use as a conference registration form on your company’s Web site, for instance)
  • Secure a PDF doc from prying eyes through the use of digital signatures and/or passwords
  • “Redact” a PDF document (in other words, block out certain sections so that they can’t be read)
  • “Speak” a PDF doc out loud
  • With scanner hardware attached, scan a paper document directly into PDF

Some PDF tools also give you annotation capabilities for marking up documents with highlighting, scanned-in handwritten signatures, and your own comments, for example.

Beyond price and feature sets, though, PDF creators also differ in performance levels. How many formats can a PDF doc be exported to, for instance? How well are document formats preserved when converting to and from PDF? How many types of compression are supported (MRC, JPEG, JBIG, FLATTING)?

Unfortunately, due to space limitations here, we can’t cover every aspect of capabilities and performance for each product in this category. What  follows, though, are brief reviews of five popular product choices.

Adobe Acrobat X Professional

It’s no surprise that Adobe Acrobat, now in version X, is the standard bearer in PDF creation utilities. Acrobat X Professional, at $449, is the most expensive tool we tested. It also reflects Adobe’s approach in targeting its PDF software primarily to large businesses. The product can perform all of the kinds of tasks on our checklist above, and more. Yet it could act as overkill for home users and SMBs.

Also, as powerful as it is, we found the product considerably more awkward to use than any of the other utilities examined here. Some of this awkwardness is a function of how Acrobat is designed. Adobe anticipates that Acrobat X will be integrated into business workflow and document handling.

This, in turn, leads to a somewhat more modular design. Acrobat Professional actually has three functional (though not discrete) modules: Acrobat itself, LifeCycle Designer, and Distiller. The central Acrobat core does the lion’s share of the work, creating and converting PDFs, scanning and editing documents, and the like.

LifeCycle Designer, on the other hand, is used to create, manage, and edit forms. The LifeCycle Server lets you put a limit on how long a document remains accessible — sort of like the “Use Before” labels that you find on food.

Distiller is something that the average user will probably never have a reason to use. Before Adobe invented the PDF format, it developed the Postscript printer language. Even today, Postscript is used extensively in big businesses. Distiller converts Postscript documents to PDF, at which point you can use Acrobat’s other capabilities to perform operations on the document just as you would with any PDF file.

The less expensive ($299) Standard edition of Acrobat X Professional drops some of features including the LifeCycle Designer. SMBs opting to go with Adobe might want this less expensive version. For most home office and personal use, one of the other, less costly PDF utilities that we’re reviewing here could be a better choice.

Foxit PhantomPDF Standard

Foxit Software offers several versions of its PhantomPDF application. The least expensive, the $29 PhantomPDF Express, allows you to create PDF files but not to export PDFs into other file formats. At the top of the line is the $149 Phantom Business.

We tested the mid-level PhantomPDF Standard, priced at $95, a product which provides many of the functions that a home or small business user would need. You can create PDFs, edit them, and make fillable forms. PhantomPDF Standard is easy to use, and it includes some security functions, such as digital signatures.

The product uses OCR (optical character recognition) to support file conversion in both directions. You can create PDF files from Word and other office documents, and you can also export PDF documents to other applications. In our testing, the OCR worked well for the most part. However, one of the problems with any application which uses OCR is that occasionally the OCR engine stumbles when it hits complex tables or really fancy formatting. This problem is not unique to PhantomPDF Standard. It’s just an artifact of the current state of OCR technology.

PhantomPDF Standard edition does not perform Bates Numbering, which is critical in most law firms, nor does it perform redaction. However, both of these features are present in the more expensive Business edition of Foxit PhantomPDF.

The Business edition can also read text out loud, a feature which is also found in the more expensive Adobe Acrobat X, although there are standalone utilities which can carry out this function, too.

If you want features more advanced than those present in PhantomPDF Standard, but you don’t want to pay the heftier pricetag on Phantom Business or Acrobat Pro, you might want to take a close look at Nuance Converter Professional 7 or Nitro Pro 7.

Nitro Pro 7

At $119, Nitro Pro 7 isn’t the least expensive utility available to handle PDFs. Yet given what it can do, it’s a good value.

As with many tools of this type, Nitro Pro 7 can install itself both as a standalone on your desktop and as an addition to the tabs on the top of the ribbon bar in a Microsoft Office 2010 application. This makes it convenient to take the Word or Excel file that you’re working on and save it directly into PDF format. There are a variety of settings available, but we would have preferred the Advanced settings be shown as extensions of the ribbon, rather than having a separate icon that opened an additional option box. 

The options in this Advanced options box include necessary choices such as file size optimization, although this is presented just as “Web,” “Office,” and “Print Ready,” rather than by compression type.

Also, a user who is not familiar with the ins-and-outs of PDF is going to be confused with some of the choices available on the ribbon bar. These include a checkbox for compliance with PDF/A-1b, which is an archiving standard that insures compatibility with future releases of the PDF standard.

While creating PDF files is most often going to be done from within an application, for greater flexibility, the standalone application provides all of the features we listed in the checkbox. At any time, help is available through use of the F1 function key or by clicking on the Help icon.

Nitro Pro 7 also has good security features. You can set a password so that the generated PDF can’t be opened with it, and digitally sign the document to allow the person receiving it to authenticate its origin.

If a scanner is attached, you can scan directly into a PDF, although we had to go to the Help page to find out how to do this.

Nuance PDF Converter Professional 7

Nuance is better known to most people for other products — including Dragon Dictate, PaperPort, and OmniPage OCR — than for its PDF Converter line-up. Nuance also had a big hand in the Siri voice search assistant found in Apple’s iPhone 4s. Yet PDF Converter, now in version 7, has been around for a number of years.

PDF Converter is available in the $99 Professional version as well as an Enterprise version. Alternatively, if all you need to do is read PDFs, Nuance offers a free PDF Reader on its Web site that’s similar in functionality to Adobe Reader.

Nuance offers pretty much the same feature set as Acrobat X for $200 less, and it’s the most famous company other than Adobe in this roundup. Since Nuance is a multi-billion dollar firm, you don’t have to be afraid that it won’t be there if you need support somewhere down the road.

Like Nitro, for example, Nuance Converter Pro 7 installs itself as both a standalone utility and an addition to the menu selections in Microsoft Office. You can also preview a PDF file in your Web browser, a feature that’s fairly unique. These previews are available for the Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome browsers.

The product is very easy to use. Nuance exploits its own OCR technology well, so exporting a PDF document into another format, such as a Word or Excel file, is relatively precise (although as with all utilities of this kind, even Acrobat X, occasionally the formatting doesn’t quite follow the text when going from PDF to another document type). Converting into PDF is both fast and very accurate, either from the added icons in a Microsoft Office application, or by manipulating the file in the standalone application.

Pdf995

It doesn’t get any less expensive than free, which is what Pdf995 will cost you if you are willing to put up with its sponsor ad splash screen. We didn’t find the splash screen intrusive, but if you do, you can pay $9.95 to get a key that disables the ad.

Actually, Pdf995 is actually only one of a trio of PDF applications that make up the PdfSuite. When you download and install it, you’ll be reminded that you also need a PDF Converter application, which you can then download and install as well.

Yet downloading PDF Converter still gives you limited PDF capability. Basically, all it does is to add a PDF printer driver to your printer list. So when you have a document of any printable form, you use the print menu in that application. If you choose the PDF driver instead of a physical printer, Pdf995 will then create a PDF for you.

Essentially, then, in and of themselves, Pdf995 and its Converter component don’t do more than make PDF files. But that’s not bad for free.

If you want more, there are two more utilities that you can download: PdfEdit and Signature995. Each of these is also free if you’re willing to put up with the advertising opening splash screen, or $9.95 if you’re not.

As you might guess from their names, PdfEdit gives you a great deal of editing capability on your PDF documents as well as the ability to export them in different formats. Signature995 lets you secure the PDF docs with digital signatures and passwords.

Pdf995 itself is simple to use. It really doesn’t offer much in the way of options, but it does a decent job producing PDF files, even those with some rather intricate formatting. The utility doesn’t include a PDF viewer, however, so you’ll need to use another vendor’s offering for that, or the PdfEdit application.

But even free stuff comes with a price. Despite the wide functionality of the PdfSuite, we found using it for anything other than simply generating PDFs from document files to be a rather clumsy process.

Conclusion

So there you have it. PDF has become so prevalent these days that it’s almost a “must” to use other PDF tools beyond the PDF viewer that’s probably installed on your PC already.

Your choice of tools, though, should be based on what types of capabilities and performance you want and need, together with how much you’re willing and able to pay. 

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