Creating or modifying PDF files for free

October 24, 2014

Creating or modifying PDF files for free

PDFs are part and parcel of our digital lives today. It has become an indispensable format when sending electronic documents or contracts online to one another. As compared to Word documents, PDFs at its very core are static: you have to take extra steps in order to edit one, as compared to Word documents where you can simply add or remove a sentence.

That being said, creating and modifying PDF files isn’t as easy as it seems. Once upon a time, you had to rely on Adobe’s proprietary software, Acrobat, which is a paid software, in order to do so. Now, there are quite a few tools we have at our disposal. Let’s explore some of these tools, shall we?

Office suites

If you’re looking to convert a document, presentation or spreadsheet into PDF, the easiest way is to make use of the Office suite that you currently use. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Microsoft Office, as we have discussed earlier. LibreOffice/OpenOffice and WPS Office can do this job for free, as can Google Drive. If you wish to convert an image into PDF, you can easily paste it into a Word document and export it as a PDF.

However, the tradeoff in using Office suites is that it’s not that flexible. There’s often little control you can exert over filesize compression, which could be an issue if you have lots of images to export. LibreOffice/OpenOffice seems to afford you JPEG compression settings, though, which is an edge it has over other leading Office suites when it comes to PDFs. In addition, you can’t really import a PDF file, re-arrange the pages, and then re-export it again with an Office suite. Technically, you could, but the formatting usually gets messed up when editing a PDF in an Office suite.

Online tools

The next easiest way (or perhaps even easier than Office suites!), is to convert files to PDF online. The best I’ve come across so far is SmallPDF, which allows you to convert a variety of formats to PDF and back, as well as to compress, merge, split or unlock PDF files.

Due to its online nature, I would advise against passing through confidential documents to such online converters, despite their claim to security. Anything can happen over the Internet, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when it could concern your job.

PDF printers

PDF printers are basically virtual printers that sit on your computer. You could print anything–a webpage, document, or image–as per normal using the Print dialog in your system, and the ‘printed’ page will be exported into the PDF format instead of actually being printed out.

There are quite a few choices to choose from. For Windows, I use PDFCreator which has quite a number of features, including combining printed documents and custom image compression settings. There are also other software available that I’ve tried before and works well too, such as Bullzip PDF and PrimoPDF. Unfortunately, many of these software may prompt you to install third party software during the installation process, so be careful while navigating the installation instead of simply saying “Yes” to everything.

Since PDF printers are pretty much ubiquitous, you can also find alternatives for OS X and Linux such as PDFwriter for OS X and CUPS PDF for Linux.

But… I can’t rearrange or split my pages!

Unfortunately, the abovementioned software cater mainly to creating PDF documents from scratch, but not to do simple modifications such as rearranging pages or splitting and re-merging them again.

Thankfully, there’s an open source software for that, and even better, it’s a cross-platform program.

Enter PDF Split and Merge (or PDFsam). I have used it on many occasions, mainly to merge multiple PDFs together. It’s a Java based program so you simply just need an operating system that can run Java and has Java installed.

PDFsam won’t create PDF documents from scratch or offer advanced compression settings for you, but it can manipulate your PDFs. For example, if you wish to extract particular pages out of a large PDF, you can easily do so using the Split tool. Additionally, you can merge documents and rotate them as well. In a nutshell, it doesn’t really offer a lot, but it’s great at what it does. It offers what most people require that cannot be done as easily in other programs.

The user interface can get a little confusing for a newbie, so I suggest that you take some five to ten minutes to explore its capabilities and see what it can do using a sample PDF file before actually using it proper.

Since PDFsam won’t create PDF documents from scratch for you, I suggest using PDFsam in conjunction with a PDF printer. The PDF printer will then produce the output for you for any additional post-processing which you can do with PDFsam.

How about editing text and images? Can I do so for free?

The harsh truth is that you probably need a full-featured, paid editor in order to do so. I guess developing a fully-fledged PDF editor is not something that is easily done, and therefore you have to pay for them. I won’t make a recommendation for such editors right here, because it depends on your own preferences. There are free trials available out there, so you should get acquainted with them and ensure it’s something that meets your needs before committing to a purchase.

For rudimentary editing, however, LibreOffice/OpenOffice can do the job for you for free. However, try opening a complex PDF file with it and chances are that the formatting and images will be somewhat off. If you really do need to make some changes, I suggest editing just those affected pages, and then use PDF Split and Merge to extract the modified pages and merge them back with the original document. It’s definitely not a one-step process, but for the price of free, we can’t really complain, can we?

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