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Freeware PDF solutions

Creating, merging or adding text to PDF documents using freeware only

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Abstract: Few people know that almost everything you'll probably ever want to do involving PDF files can be performed using only two pieces of freeware: PDFCreator and Foxit PDF reader. You can view, create, merge, split, insert pages to, remove pages from, or add text to PDF documents. All for free.

Free PDF software

How to create, merge or add text to PDF documents for free.

Search the net for 'pdf' and you'll find dozens of pages offering shareware to handle PDF documents. Their prices range from a few quid to hundreds of dollars, but they all have one thing in common: there is no reason why you would ever need to buy them. This web site learns you how to create, merge or add text to any PDF document by using only a few pieces of free software.

What is a PDF anyway?

And why would you want to use it?

As you visit this web site you probably have some idea of what PDF documents are, and you may have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed as well to be able to open them. Still there is a lot to be said about what a PDF actually is.

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format for representing documents in a manner independent of the original application software, hardware, and operating system used to create those documents. A PDF file can describe documents containing any combination of text, graphics, and images in a device independent and resolution independent format.

In contrast, markup languages such as HTML defer many display decisions to a rendering device such as a browser, and will not look the same on different computers. PDF is developed by Adobe Systems and is an open standard. Anyone may write applications that can read or write PDFs royalty-free.

Viewing PDF documents

View on-line or off-line PDFs using software or webware.

You can view PDF files using one of the following programs. Most often used is Adobe Acrobat Reader. It is available for a variety of operating systems including ones for mobile devices. Xpdf is a popular viewer for Linux. There is also an alternative PDF Viewer for Mac OS X.

If you want to view a PDF but you can't install software, you may consider using a web PDF viewer such as the one at view.samurajdata.se. If everything else fails and the PDF you want to view is on-line, you can google its URL and choose 'view as HTML', though a lot of the formatting may be distorted.

Over the years Adobe Acrobat Reader has become a larger and larger download. Lots of features were added that are generally not needed by most people and that make the software pretty slow on older hardware. Free alternatives have existed on other operating systems for years, but Windows users had to wait until Foxit PDF reader was released. Apart from being a more modest download at 1.5 MB, it is faster on older hardware and adds a few useful features such as the 'typewriter' function we will talk about below. A evaluation version for Pocket PC is available as well, but it doesn't appear to be performing very well.

If you still prefer to use Acrobat Reader on older hardware, you may be interested to know that there is an excellent tool to speed up Acrobat Reader.

PDFCreator and Foxit PDF reader

The only PDF software you'll ever need.

Apart from being a viewer for PDF files, Foxit PDF reader has a neat feature for adding text to PDF documents. Together with another great tool: PDFCreator, which can be used to make PDF files from scratch, it fullfills all my needs regarding PDF files.

Other people have reported good results as well using similar free software, such as PaperlessPrinter or CutePDF Writer. Both could be used as an alternative to PDFCreator. It should be noted though that PaperlessPrinter is not free for commercial use, whereas both PDFCreator and CutePDF Writer are.

Another free program brought to my attention is Multivalent. I haven't tried it myself yet, but it appears to be quite a potent tool. Among its PDF-specific capabilities its web site names (de)compressing, imposing, decrypting, encrypting, splitting, merging, and repairing. As Multivalent is a Java application, it can be run on several operating systems.

The possibilities of PDFCreator and Foxit PDF reader will be presented in more detail below.

Creating your own PDF files

If you can print it, you can make it into a PDF file.

Before you start creating your own PDFs you should consider whether it is the format most fit for your purposes. It is a fact that PDF is overused. There are however a few categories of documents that can best be represented as PDFs. Toronto journalist Joe Clark has pointed out these categories. Among others these include documents with notes, specifically meant for printing, with a legally restricted format or with digital rights management. If your document doesn't fit these categories and you want to distribute it anyway, then consider a different file format such as HTML.

If you can't install software on the system you're using, there are still ways of creating your own PDF documents. To do so you can use one of the on-line converters such as the one offered by Neevia.

You may have heard that Microsoft Office 2007 will support creating PDF documents. Other popular office suites such as WordPerfect Office and the free OpenOffice.org have been offering such a feature for a few years now. With the new WordPerfect Office X3 you can even edit existing PDFs to a certain extend. On Mac OS X you can create PDFs from almost any application. With PDFCreator you can do the same on Windows.

PDFCreator screenshot

You can think of PDFCreator as being a printer, albeit not one that prints to paper but one that 'prints' to a PDF file. To other Windows programs PDFCreator presents itself as being a printer. This allows you to save any output as a PDF document by printing it with the software of your choice (a drawing program, a game, a word processor, a browser, anything) using PDFCreator as your 'printer'. It's as simple as that. Creating PDF documents this way has its inherent limitations. You won't be able to make clickable hyperlinks for example. If you however, like me, use PDF basically for distributing documents you want to be printed and not much else, then these limitations will be of minor importance. If retaining clickable hyperlinks in your PDFs is important to you, I suggest you either use OpenOffice.org, or if you prefer a more hands-on 'I want to know what goes on under the bonnet' kind of approach, HTMLDoc, which turns any HTML editor into a pretty capable PDF word processor. To fully appreciate this powerful program though, you may want to have a look at its manual.

After you've installed it, you should be able to see PDFCreator added to the list of printers in your Windows Control Panel. If you want to create a PDF document, select PDFCreator as your printer in the software you made your document in and then choose Print. PDFCreator will show you a dialog box asking whether you want to specify any data to go with the PDF such as information about author, date, subject etc., and as you click Save it will ask for a name and location to save your PDF file. After the PDF is saved to disk, your default viewer (e.g. Adobe Acrobat Reader or Foxit) will open showing your newly created PDF document.

At the same time this technique enables you to split PDF files, to remove certain pages from an existing PDF document, or to select certain pages from a PDF to form a new one. Just select the pages you want to have remained in the Print dialog window of the PDF viewer your using and PDFCreator will save them for you to a new PDF. This is just one of the things that make PDFCreator of such practical value. But there is more. PDFCreator has one feature that opens up a whole range of extra possibilities. And that is where the real fun starts.

Merging PDF files

Merge any number of different file types, including (parts of) PDF files, into one PDF.

We have seen above how you can create your own PDF files from almost any application. Wouldn't it be great if you could make a PDF document containing bits of content from more than one application: one page spreadsheet, two pages of word processing and then throwing in a few web pages for good measure? With PDFCreator you can. And by using a PDF viewer as source application you can even make PDFs containing (parts of) other PDFs. Let's have a look at how it can be done.

combining print tasks to one PDF in PDFCreator

When printing anything to PDFCreator you'll be presented with a window allowing you to edit the document title, date, author, subject or keywords. On the bottom of that window you'll find several buttons: Cancel, Waiting, Options, eMail and Save. Most of these buttons don't need further explanation, but the power of one of them may easily be overseen: the marvellous Waiting-button.

Clicking the Waiting-button opens the main window of PDFCreator. It should look something like the screenshot in the previous section. What clicking the Waiting-button basically makes PDFCreator do is ... uhm, ... wait. Hence its name. PDFCreator will wait for you to add another 'print' job, for you to change the order of the existing jobs, or for you - here comes the magic word - to combine existing jobs. As soon as you're ready adding, changing order and combining jobs, click one to select it for 'printing' and choose Print from the Document menu or press Ctrl+P. The old familiar window will reappear, and clicking Save will then bring up a window asking for a name and location to save your new PDF file.

Just think for a moment how powerful this combining tool is. You could use it to insert pages into a PDF file: first print the first half of the PDF, print the page you created yourself, print the rest of the PDF, combine the three into one job and then save it to a new PDF. Combining becomes even more powerful when used together with Foxit PDF reader's 'Type Writer' tool.

Adding text to a PDF

Not print first and fill in later, but fill in first and then print.

Foxit PDF reader is still very much in development. One of the more recent additions is the 'Type Writer' feature. It still has some rough edges here and there, and on test sessions for this article Foxit reader crashed many a time. The Foxit reader has been becoming more stable with every release, so I hope these problems will soon be history. That said, the 'Type Writer' tool does offer some neat opportunities.

When you have opened a PDF file, you can add text to it by selecting Type Writer from the Tools menu. This may be particularly helpful when you need to print and fill in a form provided to you in PDF format. Now you can first fill in the form and then print it, instead of the other way around. And as you now know, you can make anything you can print into a new PDF. So you can save your PDF, or parts of it, together with the texts you added to it, as a new PDF using PDFCreator as described in the earlier sections.

Downloads and other places

An overview of all the links in this article.


Last update: 23rd March 2012.