PDF may stand for Portable Document Format; but for the longest time, PDF files were more like a portable black-box. While reading PDF files was simple enough, doing anything productive with them – like editing, or even making your own – was a task beyond mere mortals. It was the preserve, instead, of expensive PDF editors. But since Adobe turned the PDF format over to the ISO (the international standards body) that black box has been opened up. Now every tom, dick and harry can have a PDF editor tucked into their software collection.
But PDF editors remain something of a tricky breed to get right; free PDF editors even more so. They can often fail to deliver on functionality, on stability – or on both. So we’ve corralled together the best of the free offerings; cool tools that will let you change – and create – your own PDF files, so bringing them fully into the fold of home and office productivity.
One powerful – if somewhat demanding – free tool for reworking your PDFs is PDFedit, an open software program that works on Linux and Windows. It allows you to apply fine-scale changes to both text and graphics, and to automate those changes too. The big drawback is that it’s a command-line driven tool. There’s little of the point-and-click editing you might expect from a run-of-the-mill editor. That makes PDFedit a tool for the more advanced user – or those prepared to throw themselves into learning the technical side of the PDF format, and PDFedit’s flexible scripting language.
A real veteran of the PDF scene, PDF24 Creator is another open software tool, this one from Germany, that offers a competent PDF-editing solution, even today. The original was built around a PDF creation component, which worked by installing itself as a ‘printer’ under Windows. That is still how it’s done today, so you can choose to ‘print’ to PDF from just about any app you use. While that approach may seem a little odd, it is one of the most convenient ways to get a new PDF document knocked out fast.
But this venerable tool also has some decent editing functionality layered into it. After ‘printing’ your PDF file, an editor is opened up. This allows you to do some basic editing tasks – splitting, merging and inserting new pages, as well as changing the author or title. One very handy feature is the ability to convert a saved screen-print image directly into PDF. There aren’t facilities for detailed content editing of text, or graphics, but those functions PDF24 Creator does have are easy to use, and work well.
*Update : Not available for free anymore*
If PDF24 shows something of an ‘old school’ approach to PDF file editing and conversion, PDF Hammer is firmly in the new millennium. It is more like a ‘cloud service’, uploading your PDF file to its servers, and then using your browser to modify it. The functionality range is, however, pretty similar to PDF24′s. You can load and merge multiple PDF files, delete pages, split files, and alter the so-called meta-data; things like author, date and title.
Once you’ve finished editing, and want to create your shiny new PDF file, a click of the mouse allows you to export it back to your local disk. Not the most advanced tool, but the online mode-of-operation works a treat, meaning it’s an easy-fit on most Windows computers. But if quality of connection to the web is an issue for you, it may be better to look at the next few tools.
Mac OSx Preview
If you’re looking for a PDF editor on the Mac, you may find that Preview, the pre-installed PDF viewer, can actually get you most of what you want. As well as allowing you to view PDF files, you can split pages out, or throw PDF files together. There is a powerful annotation and mark-up tool, and you can use Preview to fill out form fields; add new graphics into your PDF file is also a snap. But actual editing of text or graphics in situ is not possible. Still, the broad functionality that is there is as slick as you’d expect from Apple – and Preview may be all you really need for editing PDFs on the Mac.
If you want to get a whole lot smarter with your editing – especially with the graphics – then a good place to turn is Inkscape. This is not really a PDF editor at all; its main purpose in life is to create and edit quality vector graphics. But it can import and export PDF format files, which means you can unleash its powerful graphical editing functionality – PDF files have graphics that are usually rendered as vectors. So with Inkscape you can edit shapes, draw new ones, or rework the way text flows around them. Or you can get real technical, with its ability to do alpha blending and transforms, and add patterns and gradients.
Editing text is a little more tricky – you’ll need to convert the text in the PDF file from its ‘native’ font to one compatible with Inkscape. That process can throw some of the finer balance of text and graphics in your final edited PDF file. But at least you finally have text editing. A bigger annoyance is that the saving of your reworked PDF file need to be done as one page to one file. So you will want to use Inkscape with a separate PDF splitter-and-merger tool, to recombine all those PDF pages back into one.
Whether you have the newer LibreOffice – or the older OpenOffice version – what you might not realize is that you can easily turn this free office productivity suite into a PDF editor. Both OpenOffice and LibreOffice have always had the ability to create new PDF content, through an export to PDF format function. But there is also a free extension which allows you to import PDF files into the LibreOffice Draw program. This is usually used to create and manipulate graphics.
But with the extension turned on, it brings both the text, and the graphics, of your PDF files into its handy editor. So editing those pesky PDF files is just a matter of importing them into LibreOffice, making the required changes, and exporting them again – as PDFs. There can be issues here, with images shifting when fonts in the PDF file don’t match the fonts you have installed. But the range of editing functionality available through Draw stands heads above most other free PDF editors – making this probably the best free PDF editor in town, as things stand.