One of the best PDF editors will be very useful if you’ve got a Portable Document Format file to alter, annotate or otherwise improve. But which of the many PDF editors, paid or free, out there is best for the task you have at hand?
PDF files may be seem to be permanent. They were designed to retain the kinds of high-qualify design and page layout that you expect from printed media, such as magazines and newspapers.
But the best PDF editors let you make changes to the unchangeable, with tools that recognize text in scanned documents and let you edit text and images.
If leaving behind notes is more your jam, then there are PDF annotation tools that let you mark up files and make notations so that someone else can update the original.
Need a PDF editor that can handle all that? Not to worry — we’ve tested more than a half dozen different options to produce a list of the best PDF editors for altering text, changing images and leaving annotations in documents. Here’s what we’ve found.
What is the best PDF editor?
When you need to edit documents, the best PDF editor is SmileOnMyMac’s PDFpenPro 11 — at least on the Mac — thanks to its host of features and outstanding capabilities in optical character recognition (OCR).
The app also lets you create PDFs, forms and tables of contents if you need creation tools on top of editing and annotation capabilities.
That’s great if you’ve got a Mac, but what about the rest of us? Windows users (or Mac users considering an alternative) should turn to Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, which also boasts an impressive tool set. We also like Acrobat Pro’s OCR capabilities, including how easy it is to edit scanned text.
If you prefer free software, give PDF Candy a try. Its text-editing tools are a bit limited, but it excels at converting and creating files. In fact, in our ranking of the best free PDF editors, PDF Candy checks in at No. 1.
If you’re just looking to annotate documents, Mac users don’t need to stray any further than the Preview app that’s built in to macOS. Apple’s Preview is easy to operate and it’s free. So is PDFescape, and since this browser-based tool works with everything from Chrome to Firefox, it’s the best PDF annotation tool you can use for free.
In addition to those recommendations, we’ve also tested PDF Expert, PDFelement Pro and Sejda PDF Desktop Pro. Each app has its strong points, but ultimately, there are too many quirks for those programs to rank high on our list of the best PDF editors.
The best PDF editors you can buy today
PDFpenPro is a macOS-only PDF editor that’s been available for many years. It’s also available in a less expensive version with fewer editing options. (That version, PDFpen, is available for iOS devices as well as Macs.)
PDFpenPro is a standout for Mac users thanks to its solid features, not the least of which is an excellent OCR engine. With full PDF-document editing, you can make changes to text and replace images in PDF documents. Additionally, you can create PDFs from scratch, create or edit forms, and create tables of contents for your PDF documents.
The application’s OCR tools are rock-solid. When you open an existing PDF file in PDFpenPro, the application automatically detects whether the document you’re working with is a scanned image or already contains selectable text. If it’s the former, the application asks whether you want it to recognize the text on the page.
Even with large documents topping 400 pages, PDFpenPro handled text recognition seamlessly in a matter of minutes, making the text searchable and editable. That said, editing recognized text is not as easy as editing text in a non-scanned document.
You’d expect Adobe Acrobat Pro DC to be great because it comes from Adobe, the birthplace of the portable document format. To some extent, this full-service PDF-editing application meets that expectation.
Acrobat Pro DC offers a complete set of PDF-editing tools, and it even lets you edit scanned documents. Acrobat DC’s OCR engine can convert scanned documents to text, which you can then search through and change.
But Acrobat doesn’t offer to convert an entire document the moment you open it. Instead, the app waits for you to begin using the Pro DC’s edit tools, recognizing and converting the pages as you select them for editing. Changing text in an OCR’d document was simple and the results looked great.
It’s also easy to edit images and text in documents you haven’t scanned. I was able to make changes to everything with zero issues.
What I don’t like about Acrobat Pro DC is the interface. It feels like a half-realized demo of what the app could be. Editing tools surround your document, and the UI feels disorganized, offering few options for customization.
Because it’s designed to work on both Macs and PCs, Acrobat Pro DC looks like it belongs in neither environment. This doesn’t make this program bad at what it’s supposed to do; it just makes you feel like you’re working outside your chosen OS.
Our new pick for the best free PDF editor is PDF Candy, because it offers something many free options do not — an OCR feature for scanning text. You can’t edit OCR’d text in this web-based PDF editor, but you are able to upload PDF files and extract text and create a text document, RTF file, or Word document in both .doc and .docx formats.
You can choose from 44 tools to create or convert PDF files. It’s also easy to rearrange pages within a document, add watermarks, protect PDF files with passcodes, edit metadata within a PDF file, split or add pages to documents, and extract images. Actual text editing is pretty limited, the trade-off you make to enjoy a fairly feature-rich free PDF editor.
Once you’ve made your edits in PDF Candy, you can download the edited document or upload a new document to work on. PDF Candy keeps all of your documents in a queue so you can download them all at once after you’ve finished making changes to them.
PDFescape is a basic, web-based PDF-editing and -annotation program you can use for free to work on PDF documents that are smaller than either 10MB or 100 pages, whichever is greater. (PDFescape used to limit you to 50 pages, so the higher limit is a welcome change.) If you need to edit larger files, you can upgrade to a premium account for $36 a year. There’s also an “ultimate” plan for $72 per year.
Accessible through any modern web browser, PDFescape offers no OCR capabilities like PDF Candy does. But PDFescape’s annotation tools are easy to use. You’ll find a pretty solid set of standard annotation tools that can easily add, highlight and strike through text; insert notes; and otherwise mark up the pages of your PDF file. Using the web app’s insert tools, you can also add new images and text to a document, white-out text, and add web links and form fields.
PDFescape does have some major limitations in adding new text. Because there are no OCR capabilities, you can’t make changes to existing text; you’re limited to adding new text to an existing document. Additionally, the app has very limited font options, as it doesn’t use any of your computer’s fonts. So you’re limited to Arial, Courier New, Times New Roman, Verdana and a Signature font for signing documents.
Apple’s Preview app is built-in to the macOS and offers a minimalist but valuable set of tools for marking up any PDF file. You won’t find full-on PDF editing here. But if you need a basic set of tools for highlighting or redacting text, making notes, or adding comments to a document, you won’t likely need much more than what’s already available on your Mac.
Preview’s markup tools are hidden when you first open a PDF document. To see them, you’ll have to look for the small pencil icon that appears near the Spotlight search bar at the top of your PDF document’s toolbar. Clicking this reveals a small set of tools you can use to select text and add objects, text or notes to your document.
The app’s standout feature is a signature tool you can use to store a signature you create using your trackpad or scan using your Mac’s iSight camera. You can then easily add that signature to a document by clicking Preview’s Signature tool. Simple and easy to use once you set it up, Preview’s signing feature will prove its usefulness every time a digital document requires your John Hancock.
One final note for macOS Mojave users: You can access all of Preview’s editing tools without opening Preview. Just use QuickLook to view a PDF, then turn to the Markup button in that mode.
This summer, Apple released a public beta for macOS Big Sur, and we’re expecting the final version of the new Mac software now that it’s fall. Changes to Preview are minimal in macOS Big Sur, so expect the same markup tools as before should you upgrade.
Readdle’s macOS-only PDF Expert is a popular PDF-editing tool that allows you to make changes to text in existing PDF documents, including by removing and replacing images, updating text, and adding text of your own. PDF Expert lacks OCR capabilities, so if you want to edit text in scanned documents, you’ll need to look beyond this program.
Of all the apps I tested, PDF Expert has the cleanest interface and therefore was the most pleasant to use. Two tabs appear at the top of the screen: Annotate and Edit. Clicking one of them gives you an appropriate selection of tools to perform either annotation or editing tasks.
PDF Expert’s editing tools are flawless. Click text in your PDF, and tools for editing text will slide out so you can make changes. Select an image, and tools for changing the image appear. You can move selected text anywhere on the page you want or remove it altogether.
PDF Expert struggles with large documents; otherwise, this would have been my top pick for both macOS and Windows. But every time I attempted to open my nearly 450-page test file, PDF Expert hung. Until this program behaves more dependably, look elsewhere if you tend to work with larger documents.
Wondershare’s PDFelement Pro is a full-featured PDF editor with an OCR engine for recognizing scanned text and a standard set of tools. With those, you can fill in forms, annotate documents, create and add signatures, and edit images within a document.
PDFelement had no problem opening anything I threw at it, including scanned documents, large files and image-heavy PDFs. Once documents are open, PDFelement Pro offers a fairly simple interface, with a set of tools on the left side of your document that are easy to figure out. Just select a tool, and you can go to work making changes to the file.
Editing images, adding signatures and using annotations in the application all worked as planned, but I did experience some odd behaviors when I was editing or adding text using PDFelement Pro. In particular, when I was editing existing text in a document, the application wanted to make the text bold and would not allow me to change the content back to regular text. Also, when I added new text boxes, my own text did not display normally; the program always added a space after I typed an apostrophe. And the program constantly played my Mac’s system beep as I typed. That’s both annoying and not optimal.
Sejda is a web-based PDF-editing application that works on any OS that has a modern web browser. A desktop version converts that web interface into something that runs on your computer.
You can use a free version of Sejda, but it limits the number of daily tasks you can perform and the size of the documents you can access.
To get the most out of the program, you can buy an annual license for both the web and desktop versions for $63. A perpetual license for the desktop version is a one-time payment of $126, but it doesn’t give you access to future updates or the web version. You can also buy a weekly pass for both versions for $8 if you’ve got a one-time project that requires Sejda.
Sejda has no OCR engine, so you can’t use this app to edit PDF files created from scanned documents. You can edit only PDF files that already have selectable text.
To edit your PDF file, you upload it to the Sejda website and then use the toolbar at the top of the page to choose your tools. You’ll find tools for editing text, adding links, adding form fields and images, and signing or annotating your document. All of Sejda’s tools are rudimentary at best.
The app breaks every line of text in your document into a single text entry, so you can’t edit entire paragraphs of text. When you do edit existing text, remnants of the previous text often get left behind in the document. Sejda will let you add new images to a document, but you can’t use the app to edit or remove existing images.
Sejda isn’t a great app, but it works in a pinch when you need to make a quick change to an existing PDF document and you have no other tools at hand.
How to choose the best PDF editor for you
The first question you should ask yourself is what you need a PDF editor for. If it’s just to mark up documents and add digital signatures, PDF annotation software will better serve your needs.
Because there are several perfectly fine PDF annotation programs available for free, you can save yourself some money. (As we mentioned, Mac users can save even more time since the Preview app on their computers includes markup and signature tools.)
If you’re in the market for a full-fledged PDF editor — one that lets you manipulate text and create documents — consider what kind of features you’ll need for PDF editing. Applications with good OCR capabilities are likely to cost more; if you don’t need OCR, though, it’s possible to make do with a free PDF editor.
While PDF editors are great for introducing changes or notes to documents, they’re not necessary if you simply want to read a PDF. For that, we’ve got a list of the best PDF readers you can download.
How we test PDF editors
We look at both PDF editors and PDF-annotation applications. Every PDF editor can also annotate documents, but dedicated PDF-annotation tools aren’t designed to make changes to any of the original context in a PDF document.
While testing each of these applications, I used a few different types of documents, including large, text-heavy files; documents with a mix of formatted images and text; and simple documents with text and images inserted into the document in a linear fashion. I tested features like text recognition (when that was supported), and I tried making changes to text, replacing and adding images, and adding annotations.