Acrobat and its alternatives: 4 ways to edit PDFs

Which are the best, and cheapest, ways to edit your PDF documents?

There is certainly no lack of tools -- ones that are good and free -- to help you create PDF documents. But what if you have a job where you need to make new PDFs and your sources are already-created PDF documents? Or if you need to update your company's finished PDFs? The choice of applications that actually allow you to change a PDF after it was created is more limited.

The best-known tool is, of course, Adobe Acrobat, and no wonder: Adobe Systems created the PDF standard. However, Acrobat is not inexpensive; prices begin at $299 for the Standard version.

For this roundup, I compared Adobe Acrobat X Standard (the latest version of the application, which will be released within the next few weeks) to these three competing applications: Foxit PDF Editor 2.2, Nitro PDF Professional 6 and Nuance PDF Converter Professional 7. All of the competitors cost $99.99, considerably less than Acrobat. I tested them on two Dell laptops: one equipped with a 1.86-GHz Pentium M processor, 4GB of RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); the other with a 2.2-GHz Pentium Dual-Core processor, 2GB of RAM and Windows Vista Business (32-bit).

For the sake of the test, I used a PDF version of an IRS document (specifically, the W-9 form), so that I could work with something that used fill-in fields as well as explanatory text. (I hasten to add that any changes made to the documents were immediately discarded.)

All of these applications let you load a PDF document into them so you can make changes to its content. I looked them over with an emphasis on ease of use when it comes to editing the text and manipulating the graphics, relative to the value of their price.

Adobe Acrobat X Standard

As this roundup was being researched, Adobe announced the imminent release in mid-November of the next version of Acrobat. The company gave me access to a review copy of Acrobat X (in other words, Version 10).

Acrobat X Standard ($299) is the basic version of Acrobat. It's the lowest-price option among the three versions of Acrobat that allow you to change around words and graphics in PDF documents (the free Adobe Acrobat Reader only lets you view PDFs, not edit them).

The new version offers several features not available in Acrobat 9 Standard, including a Reading Mode that hides everything except the document itself and the menu bar, the ability to more easily convert Microsoft Office documents to PDFs, and a streamlined interface. It also removes "hidden" information in the document that could create privacy or security problems.

Adobe also sells two other versions: Acrobat X Pro ($449), which adds features for high-end print production; and Acrobat X Suite $1,199) which adds multimedia features such as Photoshop image editing and video encoding.

Acrobat
Adobe Acrobat X is the best-known tool for editing PDF documents. Click to view larger image.

User interface: Documents loaded into Acrobat take up a main viewing area. A sidebar along the left side of your document has icons that let you open side or bottom panels to display thumbnails of the document's pages, its bookmarks, digital signatures that have been signed to it, comments provided by people and any files attached to it.

Working with PDFs: Using the Edit Document Text tool, you position the cursor at the point in the document where you want to insert new text, and type. The backspace and delete keys work like they normally do in a typical text editor, and you can use the mouse to highlight words, letters and other characters.

You can manipulate the size of a body of text. When you select the Edit Object tool and click on a row of text, the application surrounds it with a rectangle, marked with four anchor points at the corners. Clicking, holding and dragging any of these corners inward will shrink the text font size, and dragging outward will increase it.

Click anywhere within the rectangular boundary, hold the left mouse button, and you can drag the row of text to place it in another part of the document.

(One thing to keep in mind when you edit text in a PDF document: The lines of text don't automatically "wrap." If you add more words, the row will extend toward the right. If you remove text, the row's length will shorten. But in either case, the row below it will not automatically link to the end of the row you edited, and the flow of the rest of the text in the paragraph will not automatically be reformatted.)

What works well: With Acrobat, you get a stable, solid product that you can use to create PDF documents from scratch. Since it comes from the company that created the PDF format, it's safe to assume you're guaranteed compatibility with creating and editing documents that abide by the PDF standard.

What needs fixing: The Edit Object tool wouldn't always select an entire row of text in some of the PDF documents that I used for the tests. For example, words that were underlined would be recognized by the application as a separate object, apart from the other words in the row, and had to be resized and dragged on their own.

Acrobat offers ways to get around this. For example, I could hold down the Shift key when selecting more than one body of text or multiple rows of text. I could also click and hold the left mouse button to drag a rectangle frame around all the text I wanted to merge together into a single graphical element that I could then resize and move.

Bottom line: For many, $300 may feel like too much to spend to change words and graphics in PDF documents. It all boils down to paying more for an application that comes from the creator of the PDF format, so you know the company that sells the application will be around to support the software and update it with new versions in the coming years. If you need some of the additional features that come with the product and/or have a business operation that handles a lot of PDF documents, then you might be interested in paying for the Adobe name and service.

On the other hand, if all you want to do is edit text and graphics in PDF documents, you may want to look at one of the less expensive alternatives covered in this roundup.

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