Open source alternatives to Adobe Acrobat for PDFs

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Aren't we supposed to be living in a paperless world by now?

I can't be the only person who imagined the office of the future, free from the confines of the eight and a half by eleven sheet (or A4, for my international friends), would have long since arrived. Instead, we've managed to land in an intermediate state of not paperless, but less paper.

It could be worse.

Between a trusty scanner, email and various other communication tools, and getting really good at organizing my digital archives, I'm not totally unhappy with where we are today. And I do occasionally admit to reading a paper book, sending a postcard, or (gasp) printing something off to give to someone else.

Until the world moves a little further from paper, print-ready file formats will continue to permeate our digital landscape as well. And, love it or hate it, PDF, the "portable document format," seems to be the go-to format for creating and sharing print-ready files, as well as archiving files that originated as print.

For years, the only name in the game for working with PDF documents was Adobe Acrobat, whether in the form of their free reader edition or one of their paid editions for PDF creation and editing. But today, there are numerous open source PDF applications which have chipped away at this market dominance. And for Linux users like me, a proprietary application that only runs on Windows or Mac isn't an option anyway.

Since PDF files are used in so many different situations for so many different kinds of purposes, you may need to shop around to find the open source alternative to Adobe Acrobat that meets your exact needs. Here are some tools I enjoy.

Reading PDFs

For reading PDFs, these days many people get by without having to use an external application at all. Both Firefox and Chromium, the open source version of Google's Chrome browser, come bundled with in-browser PDF readers, so an external plugin is no longer necessary for most users.

For downloaded files, users of GNOME-based Linux distributions have Evince (or Atril on the GNOME 2 fork, MATE), a powerful PDF reader that handles most documents quickly and with ease. Evince has a Windows port as well, although Windows users may also want to check out the GPLv3-licensed SumatraPDF as an alternative. KDE's Okular serves as the PDF reader for the Plasma Desktop. All of these have the ability to complete PDF forms, view and make comments, search for text, select text, and so on.

For a generic, simple, and fast PDF reader, try xpdf.

Creating PDFs

Personally, LibreOffice's export functionality ends up being the source of 95% of the PDFs I create that weren't built for me by a web application. Scribus, Inkscape, and GIMP all support native PDF export, too, so no matter what kind of document you need to make -- a complex layout, formatted text, vector or raster image, or some combination -- there's an open source application that meets your needs.

For practically every other application, the CUPS printing system does an excellent job of outputting documents as PDF, because printers and PDFs both rely on PostScript to represent data on page (whether the page is digital or physical).

If you don't need fancy graphical interfaces, you can also generate PDFs through plain text with a few handy terminal commands. Everyone has their favourite, but probably the most popular is Pandoc, which takes nearly any format of document and translates it to nearly any other format. Its ability to translate text formats is staggering, so it's probably all you really need. However, there are several other solutions, including Docbook, Sphinx, and LaTeX.

Editing PDFs

Editing is a loaded term. For some people, editing a PDF means changing a few words or a swapping out an old image for a new one, while for others it means altering metadata such as bookmarks, and for still others it means manipulating page order or adjusting print resolution. The authoritative answer nobody ever wants is: don't edit PDFs, edit the source and then export a new PDF. That's not always possible, though, and luckily there are some great tools to make all manner of edits possible.

LibreOffice Draw does a fantastic job of editing PDF files, giving you full access to the text and images. There are caveats to this, because of the flexibility of the PDF format. If you haven't installed the fonts used in the PDF, then the flow of text could change due to font substitution,. If the PDF was created from a scan, then you'll only have images of text and not editable text.

Inkscape, too, does a good job with opening documents created elsewhere, and may be a more intuitive choice if your document is heavy on graphics. If you don't have a font installed, Inkscape (through the Poppler renderer) can trace characters so that the appearance of text is maintained even without the actual font data. Of course, that loses the text data (you have only the shapes of letters, not the selectable text itself) but it's a nice feature when appearance matters most.

There are standalone tools as well, like the GPLv2 licensed PDFedit, but I've had such good luck with Inkscape and LibreOffice that I haven't had to use a separate editor in recent years.

If your editing tasks are less about the content and more about presentation, you might find the pdftk-java (PDF ToolKit) command useful. It can extract and inject bookmark metadata, rearrange and concatenate pages, combine many PDFs into one, break a PDF apart, and much more. If you're not comfortable in a terminal yet, PDFSam has many similar functions, but includes a graphical interface.

Finally, you can adjust PostScript properties directly with the GhostScript command, gs. GhostScript is an open source interpreter for the PostScript, so you can perform very low-level tasks with it, such as swapping one font for another, or adjusting the resolution of images, or dropping images entirely.

Being terminal-based, these are great tools for automated manipulation, too.


We know these aren't the only choices in town. Do you work with a lot of PDFs? Have a favorite application to help you along the way? Let us know in the comments below what you use and why it works for you.

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Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.

Jason Baker
Former Red Hatter. Now a consultant and aspiring entrepreneur. Map nerd, maker, and enthusiastic installer of open source desktop and self-hosted software.
Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time. He is one of the maintainers of the Slackware-based multimedia production project Slackermedia.

33 Comments

What about digital signing in open source alternatives? Is this available?

I totally agree wit Nino, unfortunately governments around the world has been lobyed to use Adobe Digital Signature in tax declarations, and others, blame our corrupt and incapable politicians who 99% of the time think that the internet can be contained in a black box and a firewall is real wall enveloped with fire.

In reply to by Nino Vranešič

I use open-source alternatives for virtually everything I do with PDF's, EXCEPT document conversion. There are some decent cloud alternatives for pdf-to-other-format conversions; unfortunately, there is no open-source alternative that comes close to Adobe or other Windows-only software packages (OmniPage is my current favorite paid program) when it comes to complex -- or sometimes even moderately complex -- document conversion. BTW, this discussion, like many others, seems to assume that Adobe is the only viable commercial pdf package; not so, IMO, there are other packages that are just as good, if not better. Why not make this discussion about paid vs. unpaid, not OpenSource versus Adobe?

In reply to by Nino Vranešič

I use PDF SAM all the time (http://www.pdfsam.org/). It's an easy utility to use for splitting or merging PDFs. I use it to create an expense report PDF, for example, bringing together invoices and statements from a bunch of different sources. Other than digital signing (which, like @Nino, I haven't found in an open source viewer yet), it's the thing I do most often with PDFs.

Lately I've switched from LIbreOffice to LateX or Markdown. The LaTeX editor ports to PDF directly. My markdown notes I run through Pandoc.

Recently, I have switched to Okular for reading because it allows text highlighting. https://okular.kde.org/

I use Evince most of the time since it's what comes with Ubuntu. One of the very reasons I loved OpenOffice and now LibreOffice is the ability to easily export any document into a PDF. Linux and Unix have very good command line utilities for reading and writing PDF files too.

Master PDF is my go-to program for editing pdf's. By far the most versatile and complete pdf editor I've found that runs on KDE. The only drawback is that you can't select multiple documents when merging files.
Not open source but free to use on linux. They even gave me a key for the 'other os' version when I reported a bug so I dumped adobe completely.

I almost always use Okular to read PDFs. However, I have been using Acrobat to create PDFs from scans.

A while ago I had done a project where I scanned 15 years worth of a company's newspaper (large format; ie, 11x17). I used Acrobat to index all the scans to create a searchable library. Is there an open source solution for something like that?

Inkscape can only open a single page of a PDF

Good point. For me, the one only time I need to make detailed changes to vector-based PDFs are when the subject matter is a landscape or site plan or other map, so exporting just the page that needs editing (if there even are multiple pages) is not much of a problem -- I'm generally editing one page in much detail. But for people with other use cases I could imagine that being a frustration, and a good reason to use Draw instead.

In reply to by Stephen Paul Weber (not verified)

I use Foxit Reader 7 under CrossOver (Wine). Works well and I can edit! There Linux version is a very poor cousin.

You just forget Scribus, the only open source document editor that manages well CMYK document for printing.

Thanks, Scribus is actually mentioned under the "creating" section -- I don't have a need to manage precise print color but that's a good point for anyone who does.

In reply to by Antoine Thomas

You forgot to mention Atril, that's the best Linux PDF reader, much better than Evince.

For reading pdf-files under Linux I use Atril (the Mint "fork" of Evince) most of the time. For splitting or merging of pdf-files I use pdfsam (available for Linux and Windows). For converting scanned images (mostly scientific papers) into searchable pdf-files I use gscan2pdf. It can use either tesseract or cuneiform for doing the ocr - both with mostly very poor results. I have read that tesseract is the "best" ocr-program on Linux but is miles away from "professional" (closed source) solutions like FineReader 10 years back (sorry to say that). I have also tried and used tesseract from the command line with the same poor results (although the scans were of high quality around 600 dpi and without artefacts). Tesseract has massive problems in recognising the page layout (even from pages with only a single cloumn - not to speak of multicolumn pages) and its capability of correctly recognising single characters is bad as well (even if you have chosen the correct language for the text). I have read somewhere, that tesseract has been far better in the past, but that the developers have broken it (not sure, if that is true). Tools like OCR Feeder also offer to save a scanned text image with a text layer - but for me, this does not work (the program completely fails to save a pdf-file at all, searchable or not).
I also sometimes use Master PDF for editing pdfs - mainly for inserting bookmarks for navigation within the document. It looks like, no other open source pdf-editing-solution can do this (Libre/OpenOffice inserts bookmarks from headers when saving a document as pdf, but when you attach additional pages to the pdf-file, you may want to add additional bookmarks).

I use pdflatex to create pdfs. It is a great program and can embed video and insert hyperlinks. My only frustration is that ONLY acrobat can access those links! I believe the issue is support for javascript from the pdf but I am not sure and hope someone will make a Linux alternative eventually.

There is an extension for Firefox called PDFEscape which will allow you to edit PDFs as weel.

Where Scribus shines is with complex layout of text and images and its ability to very precisely handle fonts and color.
It can also import PDFs as vector drawings, or more precisely groups of vector graphics, which can be ungrouped and edited as vector drawings.
Currently there is also work going on to be able to handle complex text layout with non-Latin languages and fonts.

In limited circumstances, I use Google Docs to convert pdf files with straightforward, simple pdf files. I also use CloudConvert, an add-on to Google Drive. The latter works surprisingly well, even with fairly complicated documents. It is free for limited conversions, minimal cost for on-going bulk conversions.

I didn't know about some of the recent progress in editing PDFs, I use pdflatex a lot, but also a number of other editing tools that support export to PDF.

What about creating PDFs from the command prompt or opening a PDF with a Viewer from the command prompt? Do you have recommendations for command-prompt-friendly PDF tools?

Good question! This isn't an area I've explored much personally but I'd be really interested to do a little exploring and find out what the available tools in this area are. Do you have one that you like in particular?

In reply to by Arie Morgenstern (not verified)

I needed to convert a PDF image to JPG and found Image Magick (www.imagemagick.org) worked well. I suppose technically it's not what you mean, since it is used to create, edit, compose, or convert bitmap images, but it worked for me.

Hi, I am looking for a open source solution for creating pdfs or documents on which we can have control on options like "save" , "printing" etc , so that i can either disabling/enabling those options.

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