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PDF Power Pack : Read (free), Write (free), Annotate (nearly free)

Pdfpowerpack I have slogged along using either Acrobat Reader (now just Adobe Reader) or Acrobat Professional for years. For years, I have endured ever increasing bloat, performance-degrading, teeth-grinding frustration, all for the ability to either read or print-to a PDF. Having moved my system to Windows Vista and Office 2007 means I cannot even use all of the features because Adobe has dropped the ball and will not provide support until sometime in the first half of 2007. Furthermore, if you are an Acrobat 7 user and are considering Office 2007 – forget about it; you will never be supported and are expected to fork over your upgrade tax.

For me, the days of using Adobe Reader and/ or shelling out hundreds of dollars to create a simple PDF are over. I now want to pass along the options I have chosen that enable me to read, write and annotate for free, free and nearly free.

My needs for PDF software are simple:

  1. I want to print-to a PDF from any program using a virtual printer in the same way Adobe Acrobat Professional (now Elements, Standard, Pro etc.).  Check.
  2. I want to read PDF files without issue. Check.
  3. As a Tablet PC user, I would love to be able to mark up PDFs, sign documents and generally work with PDFs using my Tablet PC input device. Check.
  4. I do not want my system loaded with hidden Macrovision processes, startup processes, leaked processes that stay open, startup processes and general bloat that degrades my system and OS. I simply want the software to work without polluting my machine with what feels like a cross between malware and system security. Check.
  5. Finally, I would prefer to not pay a reasonable price (preferably less than Adobe Acrobat Standard – since Essentials is not yet available) which costs $299 new or $99 upgrade. Check.

I am going to get to the meat of this and state I was able to meet every requirement on the list. If you are not a Tablet PC owner and simply want to create and read PDFs, your grand total for money spent will be $0, as in totally free. If you are a Tablet PC user and want to annotate with a great product, then you will add $49.95. Best of all, each of the three pieces of software are small, fast and do exactly what you would expect from them. Furthermore, they work with the usual Windows products including Windows Vista.Lets cut to the chase regarding bullet 4 and my desire to not have a ton of processes running and the instability it causes… Do a search for Adobe Acrobat performance complaints and read such comments as:

Acrobat Reader is a bloated piece of dung I gave up on a long time ago. I don’t want a PDF reader that tries to install toolbars, crashes my browser, and takes up 30+ MB of ram to read a 250kb file.

In total the read and writing software will weigh in at 4.4 MB total download (1.66 MB for the reader and 2.58 for the writer), while Adobe Reader alone is 20.8 MB! Come on!? What can they be putting into Reader that requires over 12 times the size? Frankly, of all the PDF software out there this requirement was easy given the insanity that is Acrobat and Adobe Reader when it comes to size.Now onto the software:

  1. Foxit PDF Reader: Foxit PDF Reader is free, small and extremely fast. Furthermore, if you Foxitreader are like me and want to attempt to keep your system fairly clean, you can download an installer-less executable. Simply download, unzip and you are ready to go. They also provide a traditional install if that is your desire. Moreover, the Foxit software has the capability to use add-ons that extend the already great capabilities… Some are free, some are not.

    Visit the site to learn more, but in short – if you want a fast, free and small PDF viewer, Foxit will fit your needs. The interface is familiar to any user of Reader and when you close the software it closes (no lingering or resource hogging).  The software is listed as compatible with Windows 98/Me/2000/XP/2003 but I have been using it without issue on Vista.

  2. doPDF 5.0 : doPDF is a free PDF creator/ converter. Like Acrobat Elements/ Standard/ Dopdf Professional, doPDF installs a virtual printer driver that enables you to simply “print” any document to a PDF file. The files created have searchable text and has a whole host of options (change dpi, page layout etc.). In my experience, the software installed quickly and without issue. It is listed as compatible with 2000/XP/2003/ Vista. Again, like Foxit, doPDF worked without error on Vista. When compared to the nightmare that is Acrobat on Vista, this is a no brainer… not to mention the reducing of size, resource use and ease of use. doPDF also has a related professional product called novaPDF with even more features but I have not tried this since doPDF fits all of my needs.

    Bonus: CutePDF is another free alternative which also has a professional level that includes writing capabilities plus more (the pro version costs $49.95). I personally found doPDF easier to install (no additional Ghostscript software needed), but I certainly do not want to bash Cute PDF… you really can’t go wrong with this either (although I have read conflicting statements about its Vista compatibility). At the end of the day, it seems both CutePDF and doPDF are winners and regardless, you are talking about free vs. free.

  3. PDF Annotator: PDF Annotator enables users to open any PDF file and add annotations Pdfannotatorsm with a mouse or Tablet PC pen. I cannot imagine the former being very useful, but for Tablet PC owners this is a great piece of software. I use it to sign documents, mark-up PDFs with feedback and note-taking. PDF Annotator is compatible with Windows 2000/XP/Vista. Unlike Foxit PDF Reader and doPDF, PDF Annotator is not free and costs $49.95 but has been well worth it for me. On a sidenote – I have also had the pleasure (yes, I mean that) of requesting support about an issue (ended up being a Vista setting) and must tell you that the response was fast and excellent. In this day and age I found that to be refreshing. To top it off, it feels good to support small companies being driven by real people.

After being a user of Acrobat Pro for many years, I cannot tell you how happy I am that I made the switch. I would have gladly paid a reasonable amount to meet my requirements and was frankly surprised that for free I could have the functionality that I had been paying Adobe for, plus have it perform better! Granted, I am not an Acrobat power user, but for a total investment of $0 I have all of the reading and creating functionality that I previously paid hundreds of dollars for (and with less headache).

Finally, to the point of disclosure, I get absolutely nothing in return for writing about the software above (are you kidding – two out of three are free!). Please remember though (as a fellow person in the software arena) while these products are free for personal use – real people do produce them. If your company or commercial entity needs this sort of functionality, please support these small companies and license appropriately.

I hope these alternatives will save you time, headache and money.


Benjamin Bach
techThoughts ::
Thoughts, ideas, code, speculation and news
about all things technology.

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