Open source PDF readers, creators, and editors

Open source alternatives to Adobe Acrobat for PDFs

Open source PDF readers and editors
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Do you still use Acrobat for working with PDFs?

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, a powerful PDF reader that handles most documents quickly and with ease, while KDE's Okular serves a similar purpose. Evince has a Windows port as well, although Windows users may also want to check out the GPLv3-licensed SumatraPDF as an alternative.

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, well, practically every other application, the CUPS printing system does a pretty good job of outputting documents as PDFs.

Editing PDFs

Ah, this is where things start to get tricky. Or at least where they used to. The world has changed a bit and it turns out that recent versions of LibreOffice Draw do a fantastic job of editing PDF files, and not just adding and deleting pages as you might expect, but for editing text and images as well (so long as your PDF was created directly from a source document and not from a scan). It's not perfect, and I've had it choke up on a few more complex documents, but I'm still impressed with what a good job it does on many of the documents I've had to work with.

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. 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.


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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About the author

Jason Baker - Jason is passionate about using technology to make the world more open, from software development to bringing sunlight to local governments. Linux desktop enthusiast. Map/geospatial nerd. Raspberry Pi tinkerer. Data analysis and visualization geek. Occasional coder. Cloud nativist. Follow him on Twitter.