PDF has become one of the most common file types, one that’s popular among businesses attempting to go "green" or "paperless", as well as popular for sharing documents on web sites. Part of their popularity is that they, in theory, cost nothing to produce and assure that documents will appear the same to anyone, anytime; anywhere. PDFs can also be interactive or contain forms, if desired; and they can be partially or completely edited by peers. As more people switch to using PDFs, the desire or need to easily create and edit them also grows; thus, having access to the best PDF editors and readers is as crucial as having a printer used to be.
From creating PDF files, to editing PDF files, to filling in PDF forms, there are many options. While Abobe's professional products have long been the gold standard, they can be expensive. Below we list some free alternatives to using Adobe's products.
Print to file
To convert another document format into a PDF, note that many programs and operating systems now support printing to a file, and allow PDF as a file type in doing so. This is an easy way to create PDF files from other document formats like Word Documents, web pages, even image files. If your operating system (or an application you already have) supports this, it is a good, free way to create a PDF document without any additional software.
Export to PDF
Some applications might have an export option that will allow exporting the document as a PDF directly. This can also be a free, easy way to create a PDF document without any additional software.
There are several good applications you can download and run on your machine to edit PDF documents. Some of these are:
- AbleWord (http://www.ableword.net/) is one of the only free PDF editors available that will import a PDF and make it completely editable. It works best with PDF files created in Microsoft Word, but will attempt to work on any PDF file. The end result may not look identical to the original, but it will be close, and you can edit the content. This is invaluable when you lost the original source document, and all you have is a PDF copy of it. It is only available for Windows.
- PDF-XChange (https://www.tracker-software.com/product/pdf-xchange-editor) is a "freemium" program (free, with paid versions and paid options). It lets you retype, delete, and reformat text, and adapts well if the document uses a font that isn’t installed on your PC. You can also add geometric shapes, attach comments, split PDFs, and extract pages. It can use OCR to recognize text in scanned documents. Some of the features visible in the menus and toolbars are only available in the premium version of the software – hover your mouse pointer over an icon to see if it’s included for free or not. The freemium options are available for free, but if you use a premium option without paying your document will be watermarked. It only runs on Windows.
- Inkscape (https://inkscape.org/en/). While not really a PDF editor, it happens to function nicely as a PDF editor. It is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.
- LibreOffice (https://www.libreoffice.org/). Again, while not really a PDF editor, it happens to function to some extend as a PDF editor. It can load PDFs and it can cope with very large documents with hundreds of pages. However, each line of text is a separate text box, which makes it awkward to edit large amounts of text. It will run on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
- PDFsam Basic (http://www.pdfsam.org/) is a simple application for splitting and merging PDF documents (PDFsam comes from PDF Split and Merge). It offers a free trial of the premium version (which includes full editing, signing and OCR) but once that expires you will be back to the simple but easy to use tool for splitting, merging and rotating documents, along with some other simple operations. It runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
- Preview is a tool that comes with Mac OS X for viewing and editing images and PDF files. While it is convenient for Mac OS X users and we do recommend using it for many functions, note that it doesn't follow the ISO PDF standard, and might change certain ISO compliant aspects of the PDF file without warning when saving your changes.
Free Online Tools
There are many free, online PDF tools available now. Please note that these are web (cloud) based systems, and you don't know what might happen to any data you submit to them, so be sure not to upload any sensitive information to these sites. However, they are convenient as they run on any system that has a supported web browser and an internet connection. Some of these are:
- PDFescape (https://www.pdfescape.com/account/unregistered/) is a web application accessible through most web browsers. Once you open a PDF document within the web interface, you can easily add text, white out content, add images, digitally sign documents, and rotate documents. It also provides a capable form designer, along with various annotation tools and the ability to auto fill forms. Note that while you can add text to a document, you can not edit existing text.
- FormSwift PDF Editor (https://formswift.com/edit-pdf) allows you to edit text by deleting and replacing it, add images or signatures. It's relatively basic, but it's free and requires only a web browser.
Written by Eric Rostetter, Senior System Administrator
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