When you need to dig deep into a PDF file, these tools are your best friends.
By Michael Ansaldo
PCWorldJan 16, 2023 3:30 am PST
Image: Rob Schultz/IDG
In our increasingly multi-device, cross-platform world, the PDF may be even more useful than ever. There are a ton of free PDF readers that will allow you to get by reviewing and commenting on these files, but inevitably, you’ll need the ability to edit a PDF. And that usually requires upgrading to a premium PDF editor.
Adobe Acrobat is the most famous and, historically speaking, the go-to option for most people. While it’s excellent both in features and utility, it’s also one of the most expensive options, putting it out of reach for many individuals and small businesses. As a result, a whole host of alternative services with varying features and costs have sprung up. We’ve tested many of these top PDF editors and curated a list of the very best, with different use cases in mind.
We’ve included picks for the best overall, best budget option, and even recommendation for the best free PDF editor—because sometimes you just need the basics to help get the job done quickly. Check out our recommendations below to find the best PDF editor for you.
1. Adobe Acrobat Pro DC – Best overall
- Easily navigable tabbed interface
- Comprehensive PDF edting features
- Streamlined sharing feature makes it easier to fill documents and get signatures
- Rich feature set can be overwhelming for new users
Best Prices Today:$179.88 at Adobe$179.99 at Best Buy$179.99 at Lenovo
Adobe Acrobat Pro DC remains the industry standard for good reason. Its rich combination of creation, editing, reviewing, and security features are what the best alternative options are built on, but we feel Acrobat still does it best. Its recent interface redesign makes it much easier to navigate its robust toolset than the nested menus of yore, and its cloud subscription option puts its advanced features within reach of more individuals and small businesses. See how it compares to the Adobe Acrobat Standard DC.)
Though many of its features are available in other, cheaper PDF editors, Acrobat is still the editor against which all others are judged.
Read our full Review Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
2. Nitro PDF Pro – Best overall runner-up
- Microsoft Office ribbon-style interface
- Fully integrated with Nitro Cloud for easier collaboration
- Improved document conversion
- No dedicated mobile app
Best Prices Today:$179.99 at Nitro
Nitro PDF Pro’s now full-integration with Nitro Cloud—as part of Nitro Productivity Suite—makes collaborating on documents and securing signatures easier than ever. The ability to perform common editing tasks right in a browser rather than having to toggle over to the desktop program makes document workflows feel simpler and more seamless.
As far as alternatives to Adobe Acrobat go, Nitro PDF Pro sits near the top of the heap. Its recent upgrades have continued to help it narrow the gap at the top. If you’re looking for an Acrobat replacement, you won’t find many better.
Read our full Review Nitro PDF Pro
3. Swifdoo – Best budget option
- Intuitive tabbed interface
- Comprehensive PDF editing features
- Windows only
- No mobile app
Best Prices Today:$69 at Swifdoo
Swifdoo might not have the name recognition of some of the other editors on this list, but it’s more than capable of holding its own in the crowded PDF editor market. Swifdoo provides all of the essential tools for managing PDF files without any of the fancy or hard-to-understand features. It allows users to jump right in to their toolset and get straight to editing with only what they need.
While Swifdoo’s features are great, they are also pretty standard fare among PDF editors. What makes Swifdoo stand out is its affordable price—it’s a great value for those who regularly edit PDFs and don’t want to pay out the nose. Swifdoo also offers a generous trial period so users can take it for a spin to see if it meets their needs before they commit to paying any money.
Read our full Review Swifdoo
4. PDF Candy – Best free option
- Many advanced features
- OCR capability
- Very easy to use
- No Mac support
- Free trial only offers basic features
Best Prices Today:$0 at PDF Candy
PDF Candy is the rare free PDF editor that offers a lot of the features you’d typically have to pay for. We’re talking scanning, multiple file-conversion options, and OCR functionality. All of this combines to make PDF Candy stand out among the multitude of lesser free PDF editors. It does have a bit of a wonky interface, but once you get the hang of it you’re off and running.
Unfortunately, while the free version has access to the expansive toolset of the paid version, you’re limited to one PDF task per hour. If you want unfettered access, you need to shell out $6 per month.
Read our full Review PDF Candy
5. PDF Expert – Best full-featured editor for Apple devices
- Syncs across Mac, iPhone, and iPad
- Comprehensive editing and annotation tools
- Simple, intuitive interface
- Requires annual payment
- Lifetime license enables use on Mac only
Best Prices Today:$79.99 at Readdle
PDF Expert is an excellent editor that fits seamlessly into the Apple ecosystem, making it our pick for Macs, iPads, and iPhone users.
While macOS does include a PDF editor in its Preview app, iOS devices don’t have a native PDF editor and PDF Expert fills that gap nicely. It has a clean and intuitive interface and offers a plethora of easy-to-use editing options such as page management, converting scanned files into editable documents, and conversion to other file formats, among other things. The pricing plan is also considerably cheaper than most of the other top picks, meaning this is a no-brainer for Apple users.
Read our full Review PDF Expert
6. Apple Preview PDF editor – Best free option for Mac users
- Full set of PDF markup tools
- Supports form filling
- PDFs can be protected with passwords, encryption, and permission controls
- Limited native sharing options
- Only available to Mac users
Mac users needn’t look beyond the macOS for their PDF editing needs, since there is a full set of PDF markup tools already available at their disposal in Apple Preview. It has the chops to handle most personal and business PDF editing needs, including encryption, password protection, and permissions for files.
Apple Preview’s PDF features and capabilities are impressive and should be all you need for most common editing tasks. The drawback, of course, is that only Mac users can take advantage of them.
Read our full Review Apple Preview PDF editor
7. pdfFiller – Best web-based editor
- Intuitive web-based interface
- Robust security options
- Lots of business-ready capabilities
- Business features won’t be needed by some users
- Requires annual commitment to get best value
pdfFiller is a browser-based PDF editor that allows you do to just about everything—editing, securing, sharing, and storing PDF files—all from its intuitive and simple web interface. It has a surprisingly deep set of features for both personal and business use.
While incredibly versatile, not all of pdfFiller’s business features will suit everyone. Fortunately, there are three subscription tiers which gives users a way to meet their editing needs without paying extra for unnecessary features.
Read our full Review pdfFiller
A word about online PDF editors
Why spend a chunk of change on a desktop editor when free online PDF editors abound? The simple answer is because you get what you pay for. Generally, free online editors will let you add text and comments, merge and split documents, and convert files to and from PDF. With rare exception, however, they won’t let you edit existing text and many have file-size and page-volume restrictions. And a lot of them will watermark your edited document. For these reasons, web PDF editors are best reserved for simple, fast editing jobs. Call in these big dogs for anything more demanding.
What to look for in a PDF editor
- Create, convert, and export PDFs: The most fundamental function of a PDF editor is to make PDFs, either from scratch, scanned hard copies, or by converting digital documents. A good PDF editor should be able to transform a variety of file types—from Microsoft Office formats to images to HTML—and do so seamlessly, preserving the original formatting. It should also include OCR technology to make the PDF text searchable and editable. Likewise, a good PDF editor must be able to export PDFs into other editable formats such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, HTML, or plain text, maintaining the original files hyperlinks, images, and other elements.
- Content editing: Another bit of magic that PDF editors unlock is the ability to modify text; insert, resize, and move images; and reorganize pages in the PDF. A good one will perform these tasks as easily as in a text document or slide deck, allowing in-line editing, dragging-and dropping graphics, and adding or removing hyperlinks.
- Review and annotate: A good PDF editor should also let you or anyone else using it add comments and other annotations to PDF files during review. It should have tools to mark up both text documents and graphic-heavy files like webpages. Common options include sticky notes, callout boxes, highlighting, freehand drawing tools, and stamps with messages like “approved,” “revised,” and “confidential.”
- Security: All businesses deal with documents containing sensitive data. Look for a PDF editor that includes security features that allow access for authorized eyes only. Good options will usually offer several levels of security, including password protection, permissions setting, and content redaction, which “blacks out” selected text and images. Most PDF editors will also offer one or more ways to electronically sign documents.
- Mobile support: While deep PDF editing is best done on a desktop, it’s nice to be able to review and annotate files when you’re out and about. While PDFs can typically be reviewed in any PDF reader or editor, regardless of which one they were created in, consider looking for an editor that has a dedicated mobile app, is optimized for mobile devices, or allows cloud access to features through a mobile browser.
One of the great things about a PDF is that it can be read and edited in any PDF program regardless of which one it was created in. So beyond the features outlined here, let your personal preferences guide you in making your decision.
What is the difference between a PDF document and a PDF form?
While there are a number of different types of PDF file formats, they all fall under the umbrella term of PDF documents. A PDF form is a type of PDF document that has editable form fields a user can fill out. Typically, parts of the document are static and can’t be changed in a PDF form. These usually include questions and instructions for those who end up filling out the form later on. In a PDF form, the content fields a user fills out are open to editing and can offer a list of possible answer options or can be written in freely.
Are PDF documents and Word files different?
Yes. They are two entirely different document formats. While you can export from one file format to another, they are not the same. Word file formats are usually used for word processing, editing, and making changes to text. PDF documents on the other hand, are most often utilized for viewing, sharing, and printing documents. Additionally, Word files are read and write and contain some version of the “.doc” file format. Whereas PDF files are typically read-only and contain the “.pdf” file format.
Can you protect PDF documents from being edited by other people?
Yes. If you have a PDF document which you do not want anyone else to be able to edit, you can protect the file. You can do this by opening the file in Acrobat, clicking Tools > Protect. Then you have a few options as to whether you want to simply restrict editing with a password, or if you want to encrypt the file for further safety. Once you choose how you want to protect the PDF document, you can set a password and save.