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Caption by: Charles McLellan
Last year, PDF specialist Nitro PDF released a free reader app, Nitro PDF Reader, for public beta testing. This has now emerged from that process as version 2.0, and it's still free — you can download 32-bit or 64-bit Windows versions from www.nitroreader.com.
There are plenty of free PDF readers around, including Adobe's own, so you might well ask why you should consider Nitro PDF's offering. The answer, in a nutshell, is that it offers considerably more functionality with few of the drawbacks often associated with free products — intrusive advertising, for example, or repeated encouragements to register.
Like the beta, Reader 2.0 is simple to install — the only decisions you need to make are whether to contribute usage data and whether you wish the 'Do more with Pro' upgrade button to appear in the Office-like ribbon UI ('Pro' is the fully-featured $99.99 [£63] Nitro PDF Professional).
By default, Nitro PDF Reader's interface is an Office-style ribbon with File, Home and Help tabs presenting most of the program's functionality in a straightforward way. Above these tabs is a customisable Quick-Access Toolbar (QAT); if you find the ribbon intrusive, you can minimise it and put your favourite commands on the QAT, freeing up more document space. Navigation panes automatically appear to the left of the document if the relevant features are present in the PDF you've opened — these panes include Pages, Bookmarks, Signatures, Attachments and Output (the latter details any output errors). As in the beta, Nitro PDF Reader 2.0 supports tabbed PDF viewing.
Nitro PDF Reader uses an Microsoft Office-like ribbon interface (which you can hide if necessary); tabs access various vertical panes on the left, while the Comments pane runs across the bottom
Comments, if present, are also accessible via a tab to the bottom left of the document pane — you can add sticky notes, markup text (highlight, crossout and underline) and type new text freely onto the PDF, with threaded discussions possible when a document has multiple reviewers. The comment pane runs horizontally across the foot of the document pane, and we miss the ability to place it to the right in a vertical orientation (as Adobe Reader does); on widescreen monitors, in particular, this makes for more efficient use of screen space.
The key feature that Nitro PDF Reader delivers over Adobe's free reader is PDF creation. There are three ways to create a PDF: drag and drop a file onto the Nitro PDF Reader desktop icon or document pane; print to Nitro PDF Creator 2 (Reader) from the original application; and select Create from File in the Create and Convert section of the ribbon UI's Home tab. Whichever method you choose, conversion is brisk and accurate, thanks to Nitro's new PDF creation engine. Three quality settings are available: Web-ready, Office-ready and Print-ready; file sizes for a simple single-page test document comprising text and a photo were 57KB, 130KB and 768KB respectively. One setting eluded us, though: we couldn't find a way to create anything other than the lowest-quality (Web-ready) PDF using the drag-and-drop method.
PDF viewing via Nitro PDF Reader's Chrome plugin: the 'n' button opens the PDF in the desktop application
Other new features include web browser integration, allowing you to view PDFs from within Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer. A Nitro toolbar provides controls for zooming, printing, emailing and opening the file in Nitro PDF Reader. If you're running the 32-bit version of Windows Vista or 7, a new thumbnail handler delivers enhanced previews of PDFs in Windows Explorer. Support for Optional Content Group (OCG) Layers allows you to select and de-select content layers (parts of a technical drawing, for example) via the OCG Layers pane.
One of the most useful aspects of Nitro PDF Reader 2.0 is its ability to fill in and sign PDF forms — few office tasks these days are more tedious than printing, signing and faxing an electronic form because you don't have the means to process it in a paper-free manner. New in Nitro Reader 2.0 is support for XFA (XML Forms Architecture), which manifests itself as a dialogue beneath the ribbon with a 'Highlight form fields' check box; click this and fillable form fields are coloured in, making it easy to navigate your way through the form. Signing is elegantly handled too: once you've scanned and imported your signature, it's given a transparent background and anti-aliased, and can easily be called up via the QuickSign ribbon button, sized and placed on the form. You can password-protect your signature if necessary.
Importing (top), and placing (middle) a signature on a PDF form: note the colour-highlighted fillable fields and the Signatures pane identifying where a signature needs to be entered
For a free product, Nitro PDF Reader 2.0 delivers a lot of functionality, and for the most part delivers it very well. Apart from the odd interface niggle and its restriction to the Windows platform, we have no hesitation in recommending it.
Caption by: Charles McLellan