Review: Attack Of The PDF Clones

New versions of inexpensive PDF converters offer credible alternatives to Adobe's Acrobat.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

July 1, 2005

6 Min Read

Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) is one of the true success stories in personal computing. By combining sophisticated security features with flexible collaboration and editing tools, the PDF has emerged as the document format of choice for many businesses and government offices. And with more than 500 million downloads of Adobe's Acrobat Reader, PDFs are popular for public distribution as well.

Although low-cost software for creating PDF files has been available for a few years, the limited functionality of most packages has thus far failed to convince many corporate users to quit spending hundreds of dollars per copy of Adobe Acrobat ($299 for the current Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard, and $449 for Acrobat 7.0 Professional). The latest generation of inexpensive PDF converters seeks to redress that. Leading the charge is ARTS PDF's Nitro PDF Desktop 1.77 and ScanSoft's PDF Converter Professional 3.

Nitro PDF Desktop 1.77

ARTS PDF is best known for its line of specialized Acrobat plug-ins, such as Aerialist, Stamper, and Bookmarker. With Nitro PDF Desktop 1.77, however, the company has opted to directly take on Adobe for a piece of the $1 billion PDF-creation market.

Nitro PDF is available as a 20MB download. You can use the product free of charge for 30 days; at the end of the trial period, you can either purchase an activation key for $99, or continue using it with a "demo" stamp added to every page created or modified with the software.

While it lacks many of Acrobat Professional's higher-end features (including the ability to create color separations and other commercial printing functions), Nitro PDF is on a more equal footing with Acrobat Standard. Like all recent versions of Acrobat, Nitro PDF automatically places buttons in three popular Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) for single-click conversion to PDF, convert to PDF and e-mail, and program-specific settings. It also lets you convert printable files to PDFs by right-clicking on them in My Computer or Windows Explorer.

Despite the "Desktop" in its name, I installed Nitro PDF on a Dell Latitude D810 Series notebook running Windows XP Professional, and it worked without a hitch. Easy to use and intelligently designed, Nitro PDF offers a large workspace for creating and editing PDFs, Windows-style menus, and a movable toolbar with icons for the most commonly-used functions. It also provides a good selection of collaborative and security tools, including sticky notes, markup functions, digital signatures and watermarks, printing controls, and password protection with 40- or 128-bit encryption.

I tested the application by creating and editing PDFs constructed from various combinations of HMTL files, Word documents (with an assortment of TruType and non-TruType fonts, footnotes, and column widths), Excel spreadsheets and charts, and a number of image types (BMP, JPG, PCX, TGA, and TIF). Aside from a noticeable color shift in the conversion of TGA and TIF image files and some dropped Web links in several Excel worksheets, the application capably handled everything I threw at it.

That's not to say there's no room for improvement. For starters, Nitro PDF's anemic onboard help consists of five loosely-packed PDF pages; you must go online to view a more extensive, though still incomplete, help section (which isn't even a downloadable PDF, but written in HMTL). Moreover, the program does not let you convert PDFs to other file formats, although it's relatively easy to cut and paste unformatted text into other applications.

It also lacks Acrobat's ability to automatically convert Web pages to PDFs (although cutting and pasting seemed to work just fine). Lastly, don't expect to find any of ARTS PDF's Acrobat plug-ins in Nitro PDF, although the company expects to add them in later versions. These criticisms aside, most business users should find PDF Desktop 1.77 to be a viable alternative to Adobe Acrobat Standard 7.0. While it's missing a few desirable features, it has the basics well covered. That, and the fact that it sells for a third of the price of its better-established rival, seems likely to enhance its appeal to any organization with an eye on the bottom line.

ScanSoft PDF Converter Professional 3

Nitro PDF, ScanSoft's PDF Converter Professional 3 is positioned to compete with Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard, rather than Acrobat Pro. But while Nitro PDF focuses exclusively on creating and editing PDFs, PDF Converter Professional 3 has a broader range of functions, including the ability to convert from PDF to DOC, WPF, RTF, and XLS formats, and a handy single-click process that lets you fill out any PDF form.

PDF Converter Professional is available for $99 as a download from ScanSoft or in standard retail packaging. Either way, the software must be activated online for uninterrupted usage. In addition to the main application, the setup installs two other modules, PDF Create! Assistant and PDF Converter Assistant. PDF Create! Assistant lets you batch-convert selected files and file types to PDF, while PDF Converter Assistant handles file conversions from PDF, and can be used to tweak file settings prior to converting. Some of these functions can be performed from within the main program as well.

In my tests, PDF Converter Professional matched Nitro PDF's speed and proficiency when it came to creating and modifying PDF files. In fact, the programs offer remarkably similar toolsets, security, and collaboration tools, and even many of the same menu choices.

Of the two, however, PDF Converter Professional has the better overall design. For example, besides placing the expected sets of PDF-conversion buttons in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, PDF Converter Professional adds several convenient commands to the standard Windows menus of those applications. Under the Edit menu, for instance, there's an option for opening a PDF file (selecting it automatically launches PDF Converter Assistant to handle the conversion from PDF). The program's FormTyper function, which lets users fill out PDF forms, works like a charm and can be a true timesaver in any office environment. The application also provides abundant onboard help and a Quick Reference Guide, compared with Nitro PDF's paltry level of assistance.

Interestingly, both programs offer the same useless selection of clip art, and rely on a clip art folder to hold images for insertion into a PDF. (What' s wrong with having a simple Insert/Browse command?) Moreover, while both programs have Crop functions, neither offers a straightforward Cut option. I also found the text-editing in both applications awkward to use: Both edit by the line, rather than by the word (although it is easy to edit individual words within larger selections). Also, the ScanSoft product, like Nitro PDF, does not automatically convert Web pages to PDF.

Still, these are relatively minor annoyances. With its full-strength cross conversion features, comprehensive onboard help, and very useful PDF form-filling capability, ScanSoft PDF Converter Professional 3 is both an able competitor to Adobe Acrobat Standard and the low-cost PDF converter to beat.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights