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Making the most of PDF

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PDFs — they sometimes feel like dinosaur technology, yet they can be tricky to work with. I’ve covered the basics of PDF files here before. At that time, it was mostly about what the file format is, and how to access it with widely available readers. But PDFs are far more useful than just providing a vehicle for reading documents, and in some cases, fill in forms created by someone else.

With the right software you can create your own forms, record digital signatures, lock and protect documents from alteration or even access by unauthorized users, and so much more. But be forewarned — these capabilities by-and-large don’t come for free. If you want to see how interactive forms work in a document, download a W-9 from the IRS web site. The fill-in fields are highlighted in color.

Over the past several months I’ve been testing three of the more popular PDF systems. All of these go far beyond the simple ability to read PDFs and fill in predefined fields. While not the only vendors providing advanced PDF systems, the three I’ve been using are Foxit Software’s Phantom Business Edition, Nuance Software’s Power PDF Advanced, and Adobe Systems’ Adobe

PDF (Portable Document Format) documents have been around since Adobe released the format in 1993, and later turned it over to the ISO (International Standards Organization) to maintain and disseminate. It’s a compact way of providing a document, and depending on how the PDF was created, it may be searchable, have fields that can be filled it, or offer redaction and Bates Stamping capabilities. Many of today’s multi-function printers can create a searchable PDF from a scan.

There are some major differences between the free reader versions of PDF software and more advanced PDF applications which vendors do charge a fee for. Fees can vary from about $130 for Foxit Software’s FoxitPhantom Standard and Nuance Power PDF, to $179 for Power PDF Advanced (with monthly subscription plans available if you prefer), and $13 or $16 a month for a subscription to Adobe’s Acrobat Standard DC or Acrobat Pro CD application. All of these are similar in many respects, with Acrobat being Cloud-based and Cloud-connections available for the applications from the other vendors.

What do you get when you pay for a PDF application rather than just use a free reader? If you look online, you’ll see a long list of features for all of these applications, and even the standard versions of the software. In a nutshell, however, the things I use the most are the ability to actually create a PDF from other file formats, such as Microsoft Office applications, to make MS Office format documents from PDFs, to make fill-in-the-field forms, to create digitally-signed documents, and very occasionally, to perform redaction on a document. Many of you won’t really need to do redaction often enough (or in enough detail) to justify the cost of a version of PDF software that supports this feature. A quick and dirty redaction method is to just erase the redacted text in a document and replace it with a black-filled box. Or, you can just create a black-filled box on top of the redacted text and lock the document so it can’t be edited. These approaches are okay for very occasional use, but if, for example, you have a number of highly sensitive clients and you do a fair amount of redaction, it’s worth spending a bit of money to be more productive in this area.

To be honest, I have no particular favorite among the three vendors’ applications. In my personal use, I tend to go for a single-purchase approach rather than a subscription such as what Adobe and Foxit offer, though Foxit Software’s PhantomPDF is available for a single purchase as well rather than for an ongoing monthly subscription.

Adobe was kind enough to provide a year’s subscription to Acrobat Pro DC for review, and I liked it a lot, but probably won’t continue the subscription after it runs out. My needs simply don’t change that frequently that I need ongoing updates and new versions. And I have Foxit’s PhantomPDF Business 9 on my desktop production PC, and Nuance’s Power PDF Advanced on my production laptop, and am very satisfied with both. I’ve used software from both of these vendors for years, and been lucky enough to not have a problem with either.

Given my experience with these three vendors, I imagine you’d be pretty satisfied with any of them. And while I’ve actually used these vendors’ applications, PDF software is available from other vendors as well. If you use stand-alone scanners, they often include PDF software in the accompanying software suite as do some office-oriented MFPs. In many cases, if these are available, they might satisfy your needs adequately.

And if you still need a just a PDF reader, several good ones are still free. Foxit Software has a good free reader, as does Adobe. Nuance no longer offers its free reader, but as noted above, sells the Power PDF Advanced software for users who need the ability to create and further manipulate PDFs.

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