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Caption by: Christian Harris
Adobe's free Reader and Acrobat Standard (£275 ex. VAT), Pro (£445) and Pro Extended (£649) PDF creation/management products dominate the market, which is hardly surprising considering the company developed the portable document exchange format in 1993. Now that PDF is an open ISO standard, anyone can create a program to manipulate PDFs. Nuance (formerly ScanSoft) is pitching its latest PDF solution, PDF Converter Professional 6, squarely at the business market. There are plenty of third-party programs and utilities that let you convert to and from PDFs, but there's a lot of variation in approach and effectiveness. Some of the cheaper products, for instance, make it easy to convert a PDF to a Word or Excel file, but the results often require a lot of editing to make them resemble the structure of the original document.
Installation & interface
Installation was smooth on our Windows Vista test system, although we did have to shut down Office 2007. You're then invited to activate the product, which requires web access and a serial number. If you don't activate it right away you'll be reminded each time you invoke the program — the product can be launched only five times without activation.
Three new programs appear on your system if you opt for the full install: PDF Converter Assistant, PDF Converter Professional and PDF Create! Assistant. Similar to Adobe's Acrobat and ABBYY's PDF Transformer 3.0, PDF Converter Professional offers a choice of three routes for PDF authoring. The quickest and most useful is a general-purpose print driver that can capture output from any application. To create a PDF of a Word document, you simply print the document choosing 'ScanSoft PDF Create!' as your printer. In a matter a seconds the PDF is created and you can save the document as a separate file.
From within the main PDF Converter Professional application you can directly open and convert files in a range of common formats — DOC, JPEG, TIFF and so on. There's also support for PostScript EPS and PS formats and Microsoft's own XPS format, and you can also combine multiple files into a single PDF Package. Finally, for Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook), PDF Converter Professional provides direct macro-based creation, which enables more advanced handling such as the ability to archive selected Outlook items or whole folders.
PDF Converter Professional 6 is powerful, but its interface is unattractive and soon becomes cluttered.
PDF Converter Professional's user interface is unusual given the software's target market. Unlike Nitro PDF Professional 6's slick Office 2007-like UI, PDF Converter Professional looks more like a consumer application with its dark menu bar and large — less than attractive — buttons. On the plus side, the toolbars can be moved around. Not all of the quick-link buttons provide guidance when hovered over, which is frustrating, while page thumbnails aren't displayed in a sidebar by default for easy navigation of multi-page files. However, the ability to view a PDF in full-screen mode is a welcome touch as it eliminates distractions.
PDF Converter Professional 6 delivers everything needed to create, convert and edit PDF files. It can convert or create PDF files to or from Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and XPS or Corel WordPerfect. Other notable features include document splitting and merging, document comparison, file size optimisers, watermarks and stamps, automatic PDF-to-email and conversion to spreadsheet while retaining accounting, currency and other special formatting. Business users will also appreciate the ability to apply security settings using passwords, encryption, certificates and digital signatures.
Annotation tools come into their own for workgroups and include a Callout option as well as the ability to combine comments from multiple reviewers into a single central file. You can also have the computer read out the text in your PDF and save the output as a standalone WAV file. You can add video and sound files, as well as 3D files that can then be rotated, panned, zoomed, spun and measured on-screen.
A notable new feature is the ability to compile a multi-page PDF in Document Assembly mode. You can drag and drop files to reorder pages within a document, or you can use the Insert, Replace, Delete and Extract commands to tailor which pages stay and which go. You can also scan directly to PDF, as well as create searchable PDF files on the fly — the 'auto-detect' feature automatically identifies scanned or 'image-only' PDF files and offers to make the file searchable. You can also choose to drop out the original scanned image, leaving only the text to create an editable PDF document.
Also new is PDF Portfolios, which lets you place multiple files or folders within a single PDF, and the embedding of multiple file types and folders — including PDF and Microsoft Office documents, and even images and videos — into a single PDF file. Business users will also appreciate the enhanced support for Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, which enables you to transfer hyperlinks and comments into your PDF files. In addition, PDF Converter Professional 6 is the only PDF alternative to offer support for XFA forms, which are XML-based dynamic PDF forms.
Nuance also provides robust document security to protect sensitive data, a 256-bit AES encryption algorithm giving you control over who can view, print or modify a document. Nuance has integrated Microsoft SharePoint and enhanced the ECM (Enterprise Content Management) and DMS (Document Management System) connectivity in the Enterprise (£149) version of the product, making content management and document retrieval easier.
PDF Converter Professional performs very well and conversions are fast. Using the standalone PDF Converter Assistant for batch operations is an indispensable feature — far more powerful than the equivalent export capability in Acrobat — for converting PDFs to a range of other formats. PDF Converter Professional recreates the entire layout, accurately for the most part.
PDF to Word conversions are excellent. Compare the original file (left) to the conversion (right).
Images were occasionally shifted during conversion and were superimposed over the following text, but we were impressed with the excellent layout preservation with properly flowing text columns and well-formatted tables. Text conversion was equally impressive (thanks to Nuance's OCR experience with OmniPage), recreating editable files from PDFs in a matter of seconds. The odd glitch led to a weird mix of upper- and lower-case letters and the odd missing character, exacerbated by the fact that without the original fonts installed on your machine the results can only ever be approximate.
At about the third of the cost of Adobe's Acrobat Standard, PDF Converter Professional 6 provides most of the features that businesses need to create, edit, convert and share PDFs. The software's conversion capabilities are excellent and its OCR abilities make it suitable for occasional scans. It can't compete with Acrobat Professional for the high-end design market, but for general office use it provides more than enough power.
On the downside, the user interface is not very customisable. Many useful features are buried in submenus or on toolbars that appear only temporarily when summoned. At a single-seat retail price of £99.99 (other licence options are available), PDF Converter Professional 6 is a cost-effective alternative to Adobe's Acrobat Standard and compares well to other PDF solutions. Small businesses and individuals should also check out Nitro PDF Professional 6, which costs even less at £61 and has a much more attractive interface and workflow.
Caption by: Christian Harris