Free alternative PDF tools

When you can't (or don't want) to use Adobe's PDF tools

by Daniel P. Dern - PDF, the Portable Document Format created by Adobe Systems (and released as an open standard in 1998) has become one of the more popular ways to create electronic documents that retain their look, feel and content, including text, fonts, images, layouts, and even hyperlinks, regardless of computer, OS, or application.

Most new computers and browsers are likely to include Adobe's free Reader, which lets you open (view) and print PDFs.

But over the past year or so, PDF documents have become a new vector for computer exploits such as JavaScript nasties, and Adobe Reader has been shown to have vulnerabilities that aren't getting patched fast enough.

Fortunately, you've got options -- free options. Here are a few that I've tried, for the specific jobs of reading a PDF file or saving as a PDF file.

Free PDF readers

1. Nuance PDF Reader has bunches of features, some of which involve using Nuance's hosted web service. For a simple, free PDF reader, you can't go wrong here. Plus, you have the option to turn JavaScript off, which disables a few features -- but also means that JavaScript-based attacks in infected PDF files won't be able to do anything.

Warning: You will be nagged to register during boot-up, no big deal.

2. Like the Nuance PDF Reader, Foxit Reader offers a Safe Mode that "enables you to control unauthorized actions and data transmissions, including URL connections, launching external files and running JavaScript functions to efficiently avoid attacks from malicious documents."

One pitfall: Foxit has even more third-party opt-in/out boxes to check than Nuance -- one batch early in the install, and one at the end:

  • It offers to add the Foxit Search Bar, including setting Ask.com as the home page. Don't want this? You have to click DECLINE in this step of the install Wizard.
  • In the last of the install screens, Foxit has a checkbox, "Create desktop, quick launch and start menu icon to eBay." Yuck and fooey.

Once you're past the install, however, Foxit Reader works fine. And, according to the review notes on CNET "the program is actually a limited PDF editor, allowing users to make marks and notes on PDFs and easily share them."

3. Nitro PDF Reader does the job, and has an interesting set of features like Rotate, add note, highlight, stamp signature, and extract text or images.

Creating PDFs

As anyone who's used a web browser's "Save As" option knows, what gets saved often doesn't re-render well enough. In some cases, screen-grab tools may suffice, like Windows 7's Snipping Tool or TechSmith's SnagIt. Or you can "save" them as PDFs using these PDF-creating utilities.

1. Adobe's online Create PDF lets you do up to three documents -- not a lot, but useful to have as a backup plan for when you're on the road.

2. CutePDF Writer is the free version of this company's commercial PDF tool. It's simple; it's free.

At times over the past year, CutePDF's PDFs weren't consistently rendering web pages the way I saw them, but I suspect that was a function of my firewall and sundry browser add-ons blocking things.

3. PDF Download's Web-to-PDF is available as an extension for Firefox, MSIE, Google Chrome, and Safari, and will let you view PDFs within the browser, and convert web pages to PDFs.

And PDF Download's browser add-on gives you the option of having the PDF file emailed to you.

4. Winnovative's HTML to PDF Converter takes a URL or a file path, and converts it to a PDF, as your choice of PDF with selectable text, PDF with embedded images, or image file.

And Winnovative's HTML to PDF Conversion - Live Demo, the online demo of HTML to PDF Converter, is useful to know about in case you can't install a PDF writer on the system -- but note, it will only do up to 20 pages in A4 Portrait format or 40 pages in A4 Landscape format.

And if these don't suit your fancy, as a search of Download.com quickly reveals, there are bunches of other PDF utilities, both free and fee.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

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