Adobe dominates the PDF (Portable Document Format) market with its free Reader and Acrobat Standard (£275 ex. VAT), Pro (£445) and Pro Extended (£649) creation/management products. However, Adobe's premium pricing and opening up of the PDF standard in 2008 have helped to created a lively 'Acrobat-alternative' market, which includes ABBYY's PDF Transformer 3.0. At £59.99 (boxed, or £55.95 to download), this is a usable PDF conversion and creation application that gets the job done quickly with minimal effort.
Installation & interface
Running on Windows (Server 2003/2008, XP, Vista) machines with at least 512MB of memory and 1GB of free hard drive space, PDF Transformer's system requirements are typical for this type of application. It's worth remembering that you must have Microsoft Office installed on your computer to be able to work with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Visio files.
You can work with PDF Transformer in several ways. For instance, you can convert documents within the software itself or from Windows Explorer (just right-click on a file), or create PDFs from within Microsoft Office applications and by printing to ABBYY PDF. Unlike Nitro PDF Professional 6, you can't drag and drop files onto PDF Transformer (desktop icon or open window) to initiate the PDF conversion process.
PDF Transformer is quick, but its PDF-to-Word conversion performance isn’t great.
Rather than providing a single user interface, PDF Transformer splits itself up three main components. From the Windows Start Menu you choose whether to combine files into one PDF document, convert a PDF document or create a PDF document. We'd have preferred a single user interface that guides you through each process. Another cause for confusion is that each of three utilities look and act totally different from one another.
PDF Transformer 3.0 uses ABBYY's Adaptive Document Recognition Technology (ADRT) to analyse and processes documents in their entirety rather than as separate pages. This approach attempts to preserve the logical organisation of the document, retaining not only the original text and columns, but also the headers, footers, fonts, styles, footnotes and the numbered captions of tables and pictures. Significant changes have been made to the font recognition module, which now identifies the fonts used in the original document and finds the best matches among those installed on your computer.
Compatible documents can be converted into PDFs simply by right-clicking in Windows Explorer.
You can now save your documents in PDF/A, a commonly used format for long-term document storage in archives and libraries, and full support for Office 2007 means you can convert PDF documents to DOCX and XLSX formats and create PDF documents from DOCX and XLSX files. When saving to PDF, the software uses an improved compression algorithm based on Mixed Raster Content (MRC) technology to produce smaller files without any loss in quality, while a new PDF redaction tool lets you edit out unwanted text fragments or pictures before publishing a PDF document, obscuring them with black rectangles in the output file. PDF Transformer 3.0 can also convert texts in 184 languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Hebrew. Thankfully it no longer requires you to manually select the language for your documents prior to starting OCR.
The software comes with a modest range of features for business users, such as the ability to combine multiple files into one PDF document, as well as the ability to add stamps or Bates stamps (identifying numbers and/or date/time-marks on images and documents). Integration with Microsoft Office lets you convert PDF files directly from within Word or Excel. In Word 2007, for example, Convert/Create PDF links appear under the Add-Ins menu. When converting PDF files, PDF Transformer automatically detects hyperlinks, email addresses, headers and footers and recreates them in output documents.
You can also convert to RTF, plain text (TXT) or HTML and choose to keep the original layout of the document, or change it to text flow. There's even the option to remove pictures, which is useful if you want the extract only the text from a PDF. Unfortunately, the software isn't smart enough to differentiate between an image and a graphic, such as those used in headers and borders. Another disappointment is that you can't extract all of the images in a PDF and save them as a separate file. Nor can you edit the images a PDF contains — something that's possible in Nitro PDF Professional 6.
Your PDF files can be protected from unauthorised access using password protection. You can also select the way you save a PDF depending on how you're planning to use it — send it by email, print it out, or save it to an electronic document archive. ABBYY's Screenshot Reader utility is a welcome bonus, allowing you to capture and send a window or area of the screen to Word, Excel, file, email or clipboard.
PDF Transformer 3.0 boasts a number of enhancements to the PDF conversion process to make the software more accurate than previous versions. But it's still nowhere near perfect. We converted a number of PDFs to Word 2007 files and the software garbled a number of columns and made a mess of page footers — either positioning them wrongly or placing them on separate pages. It also mishandled headers with large graphics and text, presenting them totally differently in Word 2007 than in the original PDF.
As far as text conversion goes, PDF Transformer functions very well, thanks to its integrated FineReader technology. We found the conversion process quick and easy and the results were accurate. Equally impressive was the process of creating PDFs from scratch, although we would prefer the create and conversion functions to be integrated into a central program rather than appearing as two separate applications.
PDF Transformer 3.0 does a decent job of converting, creating and manipulating PDFs. Enhanced language recognition, better protection and improved document identification features are welcome, along with the ability to redact sensitive information, add specific attributes such as stamps and Bates stamps, compress PDFs and save documents to searchable PDF/A format for long-term preservation.
But PDF Transformer 3.0 falls short compared to its competition in the sub-£100 market. Its PDF-to-Word conversion isn't the most accurate, and a lack of functions such as the ability to add headers and footers, images and watermarks, manipulate pages, attach files and add bookmarks and links limit its appeal to advanced users. Businesses with more structured workflows will miss the ability for multiple users to annotate PDFs as they're under construction or review. PDF Transformer 3.0 is fine for individuals with basic PDF-handling requirements, but it's underpowered for all but the most straightforward business tasks.