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PDF Tools (PC only)

We come across PDF documents on the internet all the time and read them using Adobe Reader (formerly known as Acrobat Reader). While this would seem to be the end of the story, is it in fact anything but. In this article I’ll be discussing various tools for dealing with PDFs, and some of the ways in which those tools allow us to make much better use of PDF technology. The majority of these tools are free, and where they are not, I will indicate this.


My favourite reader is Foxit Reader. It is similar to Adobe Reader, but much ‘lighter’ and quicker. It has annotation tools to highlight text, write notes and and make various proof-reading comments, which you can save with the document.
TIP:  Foxit Reader has a wonderful ‘typewriter tool’ which allows you to type straight onto the PDF, getting around the annoying problems of forms converted to ‘dumb’ PDFs which would otherwise need to be printed out and filled out by hand.

The Foxit Reader typewriter tool in action. No more printing PDF forms
and filling out by hand!

Alternatives: Sumatra PDF (tiny and simple, but perhaps too basic); Adobe Reader (excellent at reading PDFs, but ridiculously bloated and slow); PDF-Xchange Viewer (larger than Foxit, a huge range of annotation tools).  If you use a reader without a ‘typewriter’ and just want to fill out the odd form, you could try, a website which allows you to upload PDFs and fill them out online (registration is required)

PDF  Makers

A PDF retain the layout and (usually) the fonts used of the original document, so other people can see the document, read it and print it exactly as you do, without having to worry about whether they have the same software, fonts or system configuration as you. It is therefore very useful to be able to create PDFs on your PC.

Microsoft Office 2010 has a built-in PDF-saving function, as does Open Office/Libre Office. You can also download a free add-on for Office 2007 to do the same. Still, if you want to create a PDF from another program (I regularly create PDFs of my confirmations of online purchases, which are displayed on web pages on in my email), then you need a different tool. There are many such tools, and to be honest, most are excellent.

My preferred tool is PDFCreator. It is a very flexible tool and is completely free.

Alternatives: There are plenty! Primo PDF, CutePDF Writer and doPDF  are all excellent PDF makers. Particularly noteworthy is PDFill PDF Tools  (free) which includes both a PDF maker and an editor (see below).

Editing PDFs

The PDF format was not indended for editing. In fact, part of the raison d’etre of PDFs is that they provide a ‘fixed’ version of the document which all recipients can use in the same way. Still, while producing PDFs, it is useful to be able to do some basic ‘page level’ editing, such as removing individual pages, combining multiple PDFs or rotating them.

Without doubt, the most powerful editors without doubt are Adobe Acrobat Standard (£320) and Adobe Acrobat Professional (more expensive yet), but there are a plenty of other tools which are free or low cost. Here are two:

  • PDFill PDF Tools  (free) has a wide range of options, including merging and splitting documents, rotating, cropping, conversion to/from images, page numbering and many more. 
  • PDFTK Builder has a smaller range of options, which can be a good thing if as long as it has the options you need...  If you have never used such a tool, you may be a bit put off by it initially, but once learned, it is very easy to use. 

Converting PDFs “back” to Word or Excel format

I ocassionally get asked if it’s possible to do this. The answer is yes, sort of. The problem is that PDFs are essentially program (yes, software!) which instruct the computer how to draw the pages. They are not, generally speaking, constructed to represent the internal workings of the original document (for example, the text flow inside a PDF is not necessarily identical to the one in the document used to create it). ‘Reverse converters’ of the type discussed here therefore need to ‘look’ at the document, 'read' it and figure out the intention of the writer, a process much like converting scanned text to editable text (OCR). The results are well, variable.

In my experience, commercial products such as ABBYY PDF Transformer 3 and PDF Converter Professional 7 (both cost around £40) produce usable results as long as you do not expect the document to be identical to the PDF!  Free products are in my experience less successful, to such a degree that at present I would not recommend any of them.

Oron Joffe