While all-in-one PDF suites that can do everything exist, they can cost quite a bit. For example, Nitro Pro is $160, PDF Studio is $90, and Adobe Acrobat Pro DC will set you back $15 per month. If you’d rather not pay a single cent, then we have some good and bad news for you.
The good news? Free PDF tools abound and many of them deliver acceptable results. The bad news? You’ll have to collect several different tools and assemble your own “PDF suite” a la carte (if you want the very best results).
In this article, you’ll find Windows and Mac recommendations for the best tool to use for the following specific PDF use-cases: viewing, annotating/editing, signing, merging, and splitting.
For Viewing PDFs
I switched to SumatraPDF years ago and have never looked back, and for one main reason: it’s the fastest and most lightweight PDF viewer I’ve ever used. Even on an ancient laptop that’s breathing its last breaths, SumatraPDF is blazing fast while providing accurate PDF rendering.
But it’s only a PDF viewer. It does not have capabilities for editing, signing, annotating, or otherwise changing PDF documents. In addition to PDF, SumatraPDF can view EPUB, MOBI, XPS, CBR, and several other formats.
Not happy with SumatraPDF? Check out these other lightweight PDF viewers for Windows.
Preview is the PDF viewer of choice for most Mac users, and to be fair, Preview certainly can get the job done — and the fact that you don’t have to install anything to use it is a bonus. But if you want a faster PDF viewer with better usability, consider using Skim.
Skim was originally designed for viewing scientific papers in PDF form, but it has since evolved into a general purpose viewer. It’s extremely fast, lightweight, and easy to navigate (even for huge documents with many pages and images). Note that the site looks outdated, but the app is still being updated.
Don’t like Skim or Preview? Check out these alternative Mac apps for reading PDFs.
For Annotating/Editing PDFs
Windows: PDF-XChange Editor
PDF-XChange Editor is one of the only free tools that allows true editing of text in PDF documents. However, you can only edit text. Editing any other content type (e.g. lines, shapes, images, etc.) is a paid feature.
Indeed, PDF-XChange Editor isn’t completely free. If you utilize any of the paid features, which are marked with an [x] icon in the menus, your PDF will be stamped with a non-revertable watermark as soon as you save! Removing the watermark requires a paid license, which costs $43.50.
Paid features include inserting or deleting pages, replacing pages, editing forms, headers and footers, anything involving bookmarks, and more. However, other notable free features include text box notes, highlighting, sticky notes, and drawing lines and shapes.
Unfortunately, we did not find any reputable free tools that can truly edit PDFs on Mac — only tools that can annotate and fill out documents. The best free tool we found is Mac’s default app, Preview.
Preview’s annotation options include highlighting, text box notes, drawn shapes, and embedded document notes (only viewable when the PDF is opened using Preview). It can also fill out most PDF forms, including text fields and checkboxes. But if it can’t, you can just use a text box note instead.
For Signing PDFs
Windows and Mac: Foxit Reader
Foxit Reader is a free PDF app that offers five ways to protect a PDF document:
- PDF Sign: Hand-drawn signatures to verify authenticity.
- DocuSign: Electronic signatures using DocuSign eSignatures.
- Sign & Certify: Digital text signatures embedded on document pages.
In addition, Foxit Reader also offers a Validation feature (which checks if a PDF document adheres to ISO standards, thus ensuring it will be usable at any point in the future) and a Time Stamp feature (which uses a third-party service to verify that signatures were signed at a particular time).
Foxit Reader is seen as bloated by some, but we recommend keeping it around just for these signature and security features. Still don’t want to use it? Check out these other methods for signing PDF documents.
For Merging PDFs
Windows and Mac: PDFsam
Formerly known as PDF Split and Merge, PDFsam is the best way to merge multiple PDF documents into one. It’s open source and completely free for personal use, and it works on any platform that supports the Java Runtime Environment — that means Windows, Mac, Linux, and more.
You can select any number of input PDFs, and you can designate which pages you want to merge for each PDF. If the PDFs have bookmarks or outlines, you can decide to keep, merge, or discard them. You can also create a Table of Contents for the resulting PDF. It’s all quite easy.
Other nifty features include mixing PDFs (combining documents by alternating pages), rotating PDFs (applied to all pages), extracting PDFs (creating a new document using only certain pages from a source PDF), and splitting PDFs (but we recommend using the method below for this).
For Splitting PDFs
Windows and Mac: Web Browser
These days, you do NOT need a dedicated tool for splitting PDFs. Your web browser, as long as you’re using one of the mainstream ones, is equipped with a simple feature that can handle this for you with full flexibility.
On Windows 10, open any PDF in any web browser:
- Print the PDF document (keyboard shortcut Ctrl + P).
- Change the destination to Microsoft Print to PDF.
- Select which pages you want to keep. Want to split a 10-page document in half? Go with 1-5 or 6-10, for example. Want only certain pages? You might go with 3,6,8. You can also combine them, like 1-3,6-8,10.
- Click Print.
On Mac, open any PDF in any web browser:
- Print the PDF document (keyboard shortcut Command + P).
- Change Pages to Range and input which pages you want to split off.
- In the lower-left corner, click the PDF menu and select Save as PDF.
- Give a name to the resulting PDF and click Save.
Unfortunately, Mac’s print-to-PDF option isn’t as flexible as Windows 10, but it’s good enough for simple splitting. If you need more complex functionality, consider using PDFsam (mentioned above).
A Few More PDF Tips
We’ve covered several other PDF-related tips in the past, including how to extract images from PDFs, all the cool things you can do with PDFs on Google Drive, and ways to convert PDF documents (into images and into Word documents).
If you’re making PDFs of your own, be sure to keep these tips for reader-friendly PDFs in mind. Nothing worse than trying to read a poorly-formatted document!
What are your favorite PDF tools? Are there any we missed? Share them with us in the comments below!