If the precise formatting and fonts of a document are essential, PDF is the perfect format. It requires nothing more than a competent PDF reader for documents to display precisely; everything's packaged in and ready to go. Which is all lovely until you need to extract some of that information.
PDFs are usually a one-way street, consigning you to look and not touch. Unless you possess the original document used to generate the PDF in the first place, editing is going to be out of your reach.
Or is it? We're here to look at the solution: PDF to Word converters. These tools will analyse PDF files, extract the text and images, and make the best stab they can at creating a Microsoft Word-compatible file that replicates the source. Results are unlikely to be absolutely perfect – particularly if the text in your PDF has been scanned or flattened to an image. Look for a converter with OCR (optical character recognition) if you do have flattened documents.
We tested using a sample magazine page from our chums at Computer Arts, and opened the results in Microsoft Word 2010. Note that LibreOffice's much looser interpretation of the DOCX standard will likely lead to quite poor results.
FoxyUtils is our pick for the best free PDF to Word converter - particularly for tackling unusual fonts
FoxyUtils takes the top spot in our test for several reasons. First, it was by far the cleverest when it came to picking a font similar to that of our test document, outputting a Word file very close to the original PDF.
Second, it did well with the images in our document, recognising that there was more than one and breaking them up appropriately. And third, when you use Foxyutils' tools, you contribute to the company's tree-planting efforts. Isn't that nice?
There are slight restrictions – a lack of OCR chief among them - and obviously you’ll need internet connectivity to get the job done. But the lack of a dedicated software package, Foxyutils’ use of SSL, and its promise to delete files as soon as they’re downloaded means you could use this in a business situation if required.
2. Nitro PDF to Word Converter
Nitro PDF to Word Converter offers, solid PDF conversion with just a couple of niggles
You'd be forgiven for missing the free online version of Nitro PDF to Word Converter when visiting its site, given that it's so smothered in adverts for its paid-for desktop app, but this is a perfectly competent free tool – no OCR though, sadly – suitable for occasional use.
Upload your PDF, give it an email address to send the results to, and it'll transform that PDF into Word, Excel or Powerpoint files and vice versa; we wouldn't recommend using the Excel converter for mission-critical work, however.
We were impressed with its attempt at converting our test document. There was a bit of text cleanup required, possibly as a result of the unusual font, but it separated the page’s images into individually editable boxes, got the layout perfectly correct, and even managed to replicate the drop-cap, a feature that’s often missed. Overall, not a bad job at all – we'd have preferred a direct download rather than it being delivered via email, but that's a small gripe.
UniPDF is a great choice for batch PDF to Word conversion, but isn't compatible with all files
UniPDF is a completely free Windows desktop PDF to Word converter (unless you're using it commercially) but one which fell over for an unspecified reason when converting our test PDF to Word format. But let's not be hasty here: UniPDF happily extracted the raw text, had no problem converting the PDF to a pixel-perfect PNG file, and did an good job of converting that very same PDF to HTML format, which we'll count as at least a partial pass.
Although UniPDF doesn't support OCR (so flattened PDFs won't convert to editable text) we were impressed with its ability to translate our document's mildly unusual fonts into similar examples. It's also an easy app to use if you're doing batch processing – just drag in a folder full of PDFs, hit 'convert' and it'll go through each automatically.
Considering the long-winded limitations of many online tools, this is a reason to try UniPDF. But if you absolutely must have a Word document? Maybe not.
4. Free File Converter
Free File Converter is a bit quick and dirty, but it's easy to use, with broad format support
Free File Converter couldn't be simpler: upload your PDF, select an output format (everything from doc to ebook formats like EPUB and MOBI) and click the button to get a download link to your converted file. As you might expect, it offers a number of different format conversions besides just PDFs, although unlike the best free PDF to Word converters, there's no OCR to be seen.
PDF to Word conversion was okay, but not exceptional. Some of the text formatting Free File Converter gave us was a bit off, with certain headlines running over from one line to two, and it rendered all of the images on the page as a single background graphic, limiting flexibility.
But there's one huge upside: Free File Converter can handle PDFs up to 300MB in size, so if you've got a huge, simple PDF to process it could be just the trick.
A free PDF to Word converter that's an OCR specialist – as long as you feed it the right file
OnlineOCR is the only OCR-only tool in this test, but there's a reason: OCR works well in certain circumstances, and very poorly in others. Our magazine page, when flattened and run through OnlineOCR's converter, did not fare well. Whether this is a limitation of the unusual fonts or the background images we're not sure, but the mess it made of the boxes at the bottom of the page suggest it's just not great at this sort of complex PDF to Word conversion.
That's not to say it's a poor tool. Far from it; this outperforms a number of competing sites in its class, so much so that we've actually used OnlineOCR here at TechRadar to pull text from magazines so old that their archive discs have crumbled – although this required a lot of preprocessing to improve the clarity and contrast of text.
Scanned PDFs of black text on white background tend to work perfectly without any fiddling, so if you've got a suitable source you'll get on well with this tool.