How to Work with Pdfs for Free

By Helen Bradley | Posted October 02, 2014

You don’t need to invest in Adobe Acrobat to create and work with pdf documents. You'll find lots of small business software that you can use to create, complete and sign, and even split and join pdfs that don't require spending big bucks. Depending on what you want to do with your pdfs, you have plenty of options—many of which are free.

Consider How You Use Pdf Files

Before you invest time and money buying pdf software for your small business, ask yourself what you need it to do. For example:

  • Turn documents and reports into pdfs
  • Create pdf forms for other people to complete
  • Merge multiple scans into a single pdf

Each of these tasks lends itself to a different solution. Let's take a look at some examples.

Save Documents as Pdfs

Most office productivity software—including Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Google Docs, OpenOffice.org and others—includes options for saving a file as a pdf. Before you use them, make sure to save the original file in the program's native format because saving as a pdf file is a one-way street. For example, it's nigh on impossible to get the contents back out of a pdf and into an Excel file with formulas intact. Even when you go from pdf to a Word document the results aren't perfect (and often they're downright horrible).

To save as a pdf, look for that as a file format choice. For example in Word, choose File > Save As, and from the Save As Type drop-down list choose Pdf. If you're using Microsoft Office 2007, you need to download the Save as PDF or XPS Add-in.

small business software: Cute PDF Writer

Figure 1: PDF printers, such as Cute PDF Writer, let you print from any program direct to a pdf file.

You can also export to pdf from most desktop publishing programs including Microsoft Publisher, Serif Page Plus and Scribus allowing you to, for example, publish newsletters as pdf files.

How to Print to Pdf

If your software doesn't have a Save as Pdf option, then consider a PDF printer such as Cute PDF Writer. A PDF printer is software that you install on your PC. It then appears as a printer when you opt to print a file. When you print to the pdf printer, it creates the pdf. All you need to do is to specify where you want to save the pdf file.

Split and Merge a Pdf

Sometimes all you want to do is extract individual pages from a pdf, or to assemble multiple pdf documents into one file. A program like PdfSam, which is free and open source, can split apart a pdf into pieces as small as one page per file. It can also rotate pdfs to change the page orientation and it can merge multiple individual pdf files into a single file.

open source software: PdfSam

Figure 2: Using PdfSam you can split a pdf into pages or merge multiple pdfs into a single file.

Complete and Sign a Pdf

While it's possible to create a pdf that contains form fields that people can fill in easily, most pdfs aren't configured this way. If you need to complete and sign a pdf, you need pdf editing software. One of the best free applications is Foxit PDF Reader. Don't be fooled by the application's name; it's far more than a reader application.

Small business software: FoxIt Pdf

Figure 3: Foxit PDF Reader can do more than just display pdfs—it can help you complete and sign them.

With a pdf open in Foxit, you click the Home tab on the ribbon, click the Typewriter tool, and then type anywhere on the page. A PDF Sign tool lets you create a signature that you can then add to any pdf. Foxit also provides options for annotating a pdf and adding hyperlinks. We like Foxit PDF Reader over Adobe Reader, because it's easier to find and access the tools.

Extract Data From a Pdf

Working with pdfs can be frustrating—especially when you need to get information, such as text or images, out of them in a usable format. The degree of ease or difficulty in doing this depends on how the pdf was created. Some pdfs are created from a scanned image, which means that the text is really just a picture—you can't select and copy and paste it into another application. Instead, you need optical character recognition software (OCR) to convert the picture to text.

Small business software: Google

Figure 4: Google Drive has an OCR option available that automatically recognizes text in uploaded pdfs.

If the file contains actual text, you can select it and copy and paste it into other applications. However, you'll lose much of the formatting in the process. A number of online tools can convert an entire pdf to text. We like Zamzar and—bonus—it's free. At Zamzar you upload a pdf, select the file format you want, and wait for the conversion.

You can also open pdf files in Microsoft Word to edit them, and Google Docs has an OCR feature that can convert pdfs to text on import. How successful this process is depends on the complexity of the original pdf—simpler files may convert quite well, more complex ones that include text in columns, will probably yield disappointing results.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com

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