Creating or reading a PDF is simple enough, but if you want to edit or annotate a PDF without changing it to a different format (or disturbing its layout), you’ll need to have a dedicated PDF editor on hand.
Update, 9/30/21: Checked content for accuracy. Updated PDF Architect 7 to version 8.
PDF is short for Portable Document Format. The file format was created in the early 1990s by Adobe co-founder John Warnock, and was designed with two ends: to provide a standardized document type that could be read on any hardware or operating system, and to create a document type whose layout wouldn’t be changed as it was viewed across these differing systems and hardware. Today, you can open and read PDFs through your browser, or by using a dedicated PDF reader or word processor, but you’ll need separate software if you want to edit or annotate one.
PDF editors are a different beast than PDF readers or word processors. They’re designed to handle one specific format and perform a limited number of tasks within that format. Here are the important features any good PDF editing software should have:
- Editing Abilities: It goes without saying that whichever program you choose should let you crack open a PDF and edit it. Whether you want to modify wording, insert and resize images, or change the order of the pages within a larger document, the best PDF editors should be able to handle whatever you throw at them.
- Annotation Support: The ability to allow single or collaborative annotation and markup is paramount. Good PDF editors should offer helpful annotation tools like highlighting, sticky notes, comment boxes, message stamps (like “approved” or “confidential”), or even freehand notes.
- Security: PDF editors should offer several security options for protecting sensitive data contained within your PDFs. In addition to simple password protection, some programs let you set access permissions, work with redaction tools, and even apply watermarks. These programs should support secure document signing as well.
Since Adobe invented PDFs over 25 years ago, it stands to reason that it should also offer the best option for editing them. Adobe Acrobat Pro DC ($14.99/month) proves why it remains the industry standard for PDF management. The software is available for Windows and macOS systems, as iOS and Android apps, and as a Google Drive add-on.
Adobe makes it easy to create, edit, and sign PDFs (and track their activity) with its modern, intuitive interface. The software lets you compare two versions to spot differences, convert a PDF into several other formats, turn scanned documents into editable and searchable PDFs, and even edit on the fly on your smartphone.
The software can handle more advanced tasks, like adding watermarks, bookmarks, and headers; redacting or removing hidden sensitive information; and adding audio and video. And signing a PDF? No problem. Get real-time status updates when collecting legally binding signatures, and get certificate signatures. Adobe also handles simultaneous live collaboration for editing and annotating, stamps with messages, and comment exporting to Microsoft Word. Overall, if there’s something you need to do to a PDF (and if you want to look right and stay secure), Adobe Acrobat is your best choice.
If you want a PDF editor that looks and works similar to Adobe without the Adobe price tag, check out PDFForge’s PDF Architect 8 (Free, with paid options). With the app, you can open and read any PDF file, view two documents simultaneously for comparison, create PDFs from Microsoft documents or by scanning a document, and reorder, delete, or move pages within your PDF.
If you need more functionality than that, however, you’ll need to upgrade to one of Architect’s paid plans, which start at $69/year. In addition to the features of the free plan, paid plans give you additional functionality, like splitting PDFs into multiple documents, editing and moving text, changing font style and size, inserting page numbers and headers, inserting and editing media, adding watermarks, and converting your PDF to a variety of other formats. The biggest potential downside is that PDF Architect is only available in your browser and doesn’t have companion mobile apps.
Xodo (Free) is a great option for those who need to edit a PDF but don’t have the budget (or the desire to shell out) for a premium PDF editor. Despite being free, Xodo still packs a punch with its robust features and beautiful, modern interface (which is available online, and as iOS and Android apps). Xodo focuses on giving you a simple, clean functionality, instead of burying your document in a complicated and cluttered interface as many other editors do.
Xodo is a great option for signing documents, as it lets you create a signature with a stylus or your finger, and you can save it to use on additional future documents. Filling in forms is also a piece of cake—all you have to do is tap the field and type in your information. Want to annotate a PDF? Xodo’s ample tools let you highlight and strike out passages, add sticky notes, underline for emphasis, and make freehand drawings. It even creates a summary list of annotations, which you can jump to simply by tapping on one.
If you need to have a real-time, collaborative workspace, it supports that as well, letting anyone with access jump into work and even chat. Once you’ve created your document, you can sync it with Dropbox or Google Drive, ensuring you’re always working with the latest version. Easy and beautiful.
iSkySoft PDF Editor (starts at $69/year) is a solid PDF editor for individuals and it offers support for businesses as well. It has competitive pricing options for small businesses, starting at $109 per user per year, which it backs with team management. iSkySoft’s enterprise tier offers custom pricing for groups over 20, and it comes with dedicated tech support, user licensing management, on-demand development, and flexible deployment.
The PDF editor is available to both Windows and macOS users (but not as a mobile app), and it works in nine languages. Its rich interface gives you a Microsoft Word-like experience for easy annotating and editing. It lets you convert PDFs from or to other formats; create forms; edit the layout and text of your PDF; add, remove, and manipulate images; insert, remove, or flip pages within it, and lock them down with passwords, redaction tools, and permissions.
Should you want to annotate a PDF, you can enjoy doing so with drawing features, sticky notes, stamps, and comments at your fingertips, plus iSkySoft supports multi-user collaboration. One of iSkySoft’s most impressive features is its optical character recognition technology, which identifies scanned text from another document and then turns it into an editable and searchable image-based PDF.
For those who will primarily be annotating PDFs rather than creating or otherwise editing them, PDFescape (Free) is a terrific program for doing so. Although its interface is far more dated than the other options, it’s still fairly easy to navigate and it has all of the basic tools you’ll need for annotating and lightly editing/adjusting a PDF. You can add text and images, freehand draw, whiteout or highlight existing text, add sticky notes, and add in links. It also lets you add lines, arrows, circles, rectangles, checkmarks, and strikeout text.
The basic plan gets you free online PDF annotation abilities and basic editing, as well as the ability to create forms and share your PDF documents. If you need more functionality, consider upgrading to the PDF Premium plan, which is fairly inexpensive at $5.99/month (or $2.99/month if you opt for an annual plan). This plan gives you far more editing features, if you need those in addition to annotation tools. If you want to edit existing text, download the desktop version.