Sure, you can edit that PDF—for $299, if you pay Adobe for Acrobat's Standard edition. I don't think so. And the Pro edition costs $449.
Fortunately, there are plenty of less expensive options in the form of both traditional software and cloud-based services. The alternatives we chose would work before for a “light” user—someone who needs more than a PDF reader and who makes regular use of more typical PDF editing functions, including annotations and markup, adding signatures or watermarks to documents, converting documents to and from PDF format, and combining/splitting/rearranging/reorienting PDFs. These users aren’t typically using a PDF editor to create documents from scratch, though these tools could do the job in a pinch.
Nitro Pro 9
Arguably the second-biggest name in PDF editing, Nitro is a venerable and mature editor with plenty to recommend. However, at $140, it’s on the pricey side considering the many sub-$100 products in this field.
All the major PDF features you need are here—even relatively uncommon ones like functions for splitting large documents into smaller chunks, watermarking, metadata redaction, and page numbering—but more importantly, they’re easy to find. With a design that heavily borrows from Microsoft’s ribbon system, everything you need is front and center. If you can’t find it, (admittedly clunky) help is just a website away. Doing markup and basic design work with Nitro is a breeze, and the options are nearly endless.
On the more advanced side, Nitro’s OCR system is impressively fast and accurate, turning a jumble of scanned files into searchable and/or editable text. Another key (and rare) feature is the ability to export PDFs to a variety of Microsoft Office formats, including PowerPoint (a feature that Adobe only makes available on Acrobat Pro). Nitro menus also appear in Office applications after you install, tying the two together fairly seamlessly. An optional cloud system adds basic sharing, workflow, and group markup functions (including e-signatures) to the mix. Prices for the add-on range from free (very restricted) to $20 per month.
A few installation hiccups aside, Nitro Pro 9 is an excellent all-around PDF editor if you need advanced options and don’t mind paying a bit more than the rest of the field.
Qoppa PDF Studio 8 Pro
Like Acrobat, Qoppa PDF Studio comes in two flavors. The cheaper Standard option ($89) covers the basics, including annotations, importing Word documents, watermarking, and merging/splitting files. The pricier Pro version (reviewed here) adds OCR and more advanced content editing and page assembly tools. If you just need markup features, the Standard version will be fine, but more regular content creators will likely do better with Pro.
Qoppa PDF Studio Pro is largely on a par with NitroPDF, giving you in-depth control over presentation and markup of existing documents. Its OCR function, while somewhat slow, was easily the best at preserving documents in their original format while converting characters to searchable (though not editable) text. The toolbar icons are not entirely intuitive—I found the software much easier to use by delving into the standard menus. The software also features helpful hooks to various cloud-based storage systems.
The bottom line: Qoppa PDF Studio is an excellent tool for OCR-based conversions, page manipulation, and markup, but it isn’t as great for editing documents or working with other file types, which you’d expect at this price level. A new version (a free upgrade is included) with more advanced redaction and form creation options is now in beta.
PDF-Xchange Editor 3.0
PDF-Xchange Editor handles the basics with aplomb, but that’s where its feature set stops. While it’s a good-looking app with a ribbon-inspired interface similar to NitroPDF's, it’s not quite as intuitive as that app, nor does it pack in as many options.
The focus here is on a robust markup system, with innumerable options available for commenting on existing documents. Options are more limited when it comes to creating PDFs from scratch. PDF-Xchange Editor can only import image files (and can’t export to any other format), although it does offer a built-in OCR tool that was just as effective as Nitro’s, though slower.
It’s not quite as intuitive or as full-featured as other tools, but the addition of capable OCR and solid commenting options largely make it worth its mere $44 price tag.
CutePDF Professional 3.7
A long-running alternative PDF editor, CutePDF is another very basic option, best suited for users who need markup tools and little more. It’s easy to get around—the icon+text toolbar design is more usable than most—but in part that’s because there’s just not that much you can do overall.
There’s no OCR feature to convert scanned files to searchable text, and working with its basic markup options isn’t always intuitive. There’s no way to import from or export to other file types, either. Otherwise, CutePDF covers most of the other basic features common to this category, including a range of merge/split functions, but some cheaper options are equally capable.
Don’t want to pay anything or install anything on your PC either? You’re in luck: There’s one serious cloud-based contender you can turn to: PDFescape. This service’s free offering lets you upload up to 10 files, each of which must be less than 10MB in size and fewer than 100 pages long. Work fast: Files are deleted after 7 days of inactivity.
Once they’re uploaded, your options for editing are limited. There’s basic annotation support, and you can create very simple pages and forms from scratch, adding text, art, and data entry fields as needed. You can share files directly through the service, but only for viewing (read-only), not collaboration.
Upgrading to the Premium service removes ads, increases your limit to 100 files (each can be up to 20MB and 200 pages), and pushes the deletion deadline out to 30 days of inactivity. For $20 a month, I can’t imagine who would find that to be a worthwhile investment, however, PDFescape’s free option should work for users looking for occasional PDF annotation.