Freeware for PDF creation and management

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The best freeware PDF software

The PDF file format has become pervasive and a global de-facto standard for digital documents.Apart from downloading, reading and printing PDF:s provided by others, you also want to be able to create your own PDFs: For publishing documents on the web, sharing with others via email or for storing web page copies, digital invoices and receipts, online newspaper articles and so on.After trying out different alternatives during the past years, I have found a set of freeware PDF utilities that I thing work really well:

Bullzip PDF Printer for creating PDFs

Regardless of whether you use commercial products from Adobe or any of the freeware utilities available, the procedure of creating a PDF is always the same: The document, web page, email or other that you want to turn into a PDF is printed – just as if you were trying to get it on paper – by a ‘virtual printer’ or ‘software printer’. It lets you set preferences and properties just like you do for a hardware printer. However, instead of putting ink on paper, the PDF Printer will create a PDF-file, ask you for a name for it, and a location to save it to.

One very popular freeware PDF printer is Cute PDF Writer, which I have been using for a few years. It is not bad – however, it has the great disadvantage of not letting you control the values of the PDF meta data fields: PDF-files have four meta-data fields called Title, Author, Subject and Keywords. Like most other PDF printer software, Cute PDF Writer picks up the Windows user account name and automatically puts that in the Author fields. For Title, it will use the full file name including file extension of the file you are converting to a PDF. Cute PDF Writer will not let you edit the values, not even remove them. Having the meta data fields populated automatically like that can be even worse than empty fields, since the creators local username is exposed, as well as the file name and sometime full local search path of the original word document or similar. The original file name might not have been meant for public display, and even less so the full local search path of the document, which will also reveal directory names. Whenever a PDF is published on the Internet, Google will without exception use the content of the Title field in its listing, unless that field is empty. Consider a letter to a client, in PDF format, sent with the following information in the Title field:

“C:\Documents and Settings\[Your Name]\My Documents\Client\[Client name] (pain in the ass)\Letter_March29.docx”

On the other hand, Bullzip PDF Printer, a freeware PDF printer that I recently discovered and now recommend over CutePDF, will let you fill in the Author, Title, Subject, Keywords fields when creating the PDF. It diplays these fields with proposed content as part of the steps to create the PDF. Great stuff.

PDF-XChange Viewer for a fast-startup PDF viewer

And for viewing PDFs, a fast and non-bloated option such as PDF-XChange Viewer saves you time compared to Abobe “go fetch coffee and come back” Reader. There are other minimalistic PDF readers that claim to have startup speed as a big advantage, but in my experience, PDF-XChange Viewer is as fast as you need, while still offering a rich set of PDF-file editing features. For example, PDF-XChange Viewer will actually let you edit those meta tags…

PDF Properties Changer for editing PDF meta data

Regardless of which PDF printing software you use, there is a fantastic little utility that installs as a context-menu (right-click menu) option in Windows and lets you view and edit the Author, Title, Subject and Keywords fields. By selecting several PDFs, you can update all of them with the same information at once.

PDFTK Builder to split, collate, rotate and water stamp PDFs

PDFTK Builder is a GUI version of the command line product PDFTK. It lets you split or collate existing PDFs, rotate the pages of your choice in a PDF, or add a background or water stamp in a PDF. You can also add password protection to any PDF, with separate passwords for owner and user, and control over allowed actions on protected PDFs.

A-PDF Number for inserting page numbers with optional prefix

On particular occasions, this tool can be very handy: It lets you insert page numbers with an optional prefix on all the pages in a PDF file. This is very useful if you have printed a long html or plain text article to a PDF for example. You can put the page number left, middle or right (bottom), and numbers can be arabic (i.e. regular numbers) or roman.

So, here follows my most recommended set of zero dollars PDF tools:

For creating PDFs:
Bullzip PDF Printer
which requires the latest version of
GhostScript (select the i386 package for Windows)
Note! Some previous version of GhostScript will not show under Add/Remove Programs, but will still block proper installation of the latest version. Solve this by deleting the folder under program files called “GPLGS” before installing the latest version.

For viewing PDFs (in a viewer that starts up a lot faster than Adobe Reader)

PDF-XChange Viewer from Tracker Software Products
Or, if you have a requirement for a portable PDF Reader, use Foxit PDF Reader:

For editing PDF document properties / meta data fields:
PDF Properties Changer

For splitting, collating, rotating, water-stamping or protecting PDFs:
PDFTK Builder by Angus Johnson
For information on running as portable software, check

For inserting page numbers at the bottom of each page of a PDF:
A-PDF Number

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