Almost all 'knowledge workers' encounter PDF (Portable Document Format) files in the office — be it on a casual or episodic basis, or as part of a structured and regular workflow. Introduced in 1993, PDF has only been an open standard since July 2008, so it's not surprising that its creator Adobe still dominates the PDF market with its free Reader and Acrobat Standard (£275 ex. VAT), Pro (£445) and Pro Extended (£649) creation/management products.
If you haven't winced at the price of Acrobat, you're either a (very) committed Adobe customer or cost is no object to your business. However, most small and medium-sized enterprises, and an increasing number of large ones, are watching their budgets very carefully these days. This hasn't gone unnoticed by third-party developers of more affordable Acrobat alternatives. Prominent among the latter is Nitro PDF Software, whose Nitro PDF Professional 6 aims to provide most of the functionality of Acrobat 9 Standard for just $99 (￡61) — roughly a quarter of the price. Let's see how well it manages.
Installation & interface
Like its predecessors, Nitro PDF Professional 6 is a Windows-only application, but it supports all the desktop (2000, XP, Vista, 7) and server (2000, 2003, 2008) versions — including 64-bit versions — you're likely to require. For the desktop install, which went without a hitch on our test PC, you'll need 300MB of free space of your hard disk and at least 512MB of RAM (we can take the minimum CPU requirement, a Pentium III, as read).
When you start up Nitro PDF Professional 6, you'll immediately notice the new Ribbon interface, round 'n' button and Quick Access Toolbar, all of which bear a remarkable and deliberate resemblance to Microsoft's Office 2007 user interface. The left-hand Ribbon component, Tools, keeps the regularly used tools (Hand, Zoom, Find, Copy Text and Edit) visible, while a series of tabs — Create and Convert, Insert and Edit, Review, Forms, Secure and Sign, View and Help — bring up the appropriate toolsets to join it.
Nitro PDF Professional's user interface combines elements from MS Office 2007 and Adobe's Acrobat.
A navigation pane on the left-hand side of the workspace lets you view bookmarks, pages and digital signatures in almost exactly the same way as Acrobat does. Also very Acrobat-like is the Comments list at the foot of the workspace. If you've used Office 2007 and Acrobat, you'll find plenty of familiar elements in Nitro PDF Professional 6, and it shouldn't take you long to find your way around.
The core of Nitro PDF Professional 6's functionality is converting files to and from PDF. The conversion engine in version 6 has been overhauled to deliver 50 percent better performance, according to the company. Support for PDF/A files (a subset of the PDF standard suitable for archiving purposes) is added in the new version, along with what's claimed to be the 'world's best, most accurate' PDF-to-Word conversion.
You can create PDFs in several ways: dragging and dropping a supported file type (whose parent application is installed on your system) onto Nitro PDF (desktop icon or open window); by right-clicking in Windows Explorer; or from within Microsoft Office (2003, 2007) applications. Naturally you can convert files from within Nitro PDF's Create and Convert tab, and also by printing to Nitro PDF from any program that can print.
Mirroring Acrobat 9, Nitro PDF lets you combine PDFs, either from within the application or by right-clicking in Windows Explorer and selecting 'Combine files in Nitro PDF'. Once assembled, the pages of your combined PDF can be rearranged and enhanced in various ways via the Pages toolset (under the Insert and Edit tab) and the left-hand Pages thumbnail pane. There's no equivalent to Acrobat 9's Portfolio feature, however, where you can drag and drop content into a PDF bundle and display it in a variety of ways (including a Cover-Flow-style display).
The other side of the coin — turning PDFs into editable documents — is also catered for. The main conversion option is from PDF to Word, with various layout preservation-versus-editability settings. You can also convert to RTF, plain text or simply extract all of the images in the PDF (as BMP, JPG, PNG or TIF). If you want to sample Nitro PDF's PDF-to-Word conversion prowess before buying or trialling the desktop product, the company has recently launched a free online service.
You can edit not only the text in a PDF, but also any images it contains — something that’s not possible in Acrobat. The image adjustment, arrangement and sizing tools are basic, but welcome.
Nitro PDF Professional lets you edit images within PDFs — a feature that Acrobat currently lacks.
Other functions on the Insert and Edit tab let you add headers and footers, images and watermarks, manipulate pages, attach files and add bookmarks and links.
For many businesses with more structured workflows, the ability to annotate PDFs as they’re under construction or review is paramount. Nitro PDF Professional does a good job of replicating Acrobat’s features in this department — and arguably makes it easier to access via the Ribbon interface than Adobe’s more traditional UI. Comments (from multiple users) can be shown or hidden in a pane at the foot of the workspace, summarised in a separate PDF or exported.
Nitro PDF has a full set of annotation and reviewing tools.
Security features are a must for corporate, legal or governmental workflows, where sensitive documents simply must not be read, printed or edited by the wrong people. Like Acrobat, Nitro PDF offers both password-based and certificate-based security.
Our test PDF was a 1MB file with a complex 28-page layout including multi-column text, images and tables. After about 12 seconds of processing, Nitro PDF Professional converted this to a 15.6MB Word 2007 file using the default 'Highly editable (with layout)' setting. We were very impressed with the converted file, which showed excellent layout preservation with properly flowing text columns, well-formatted tables and images in the right place.
Nitro PDF excels at converting complex PDFs to Word files: compare the original file (top) to the conversions by Nitro PDF (middle) and Acrobat 9 (bottom).
By comparison, although Acrobat 9 produced a much smaller (1.43MB) Word file, the layout preservation was noticeably inferior in all departments.
Adobe's Acrobat is a polished product with several features not offered by Nitro PDF Professional (including the ability to create and display collections of related PDF content in Portfolios, redaction tools to conceal sensitive material within PDFs, and multimedia and 3D support). But Nitro PDF matches most of Acrobat 9 Standard's functionality, exceeds it in places, and is less than a quarter of the price. It also performs well, particularly at PDF-to-Word conversion. Although it's not the only Acrobat-alternative available, any business that handles PDFs regularly should give Nitro PDF Professional a try.