Portable data file (PDF) documents are designed for sharing information, and look the same regardless of which hardware and software is used to view them.
PDFs aren't designed for editing though, so if you need change or extract text or images, the easiest way is to convert it to a Word document, which you can then open with the office software of your choice (whether that’s Microsoft Word or a free alternative like LibreOffice Writer).
There are several free programs that can do the job, using different techniques to identify and extract images and text, while preserving the original formatting. They're not all the same though, and some application gives much more accurate results than others.
We've put the best PDF to Word converters through their paces to decide which recreates the original document most faithfully. You can see the results of our tests on the left, and click the previews to zoom in.
A new document converter that delivers very impressive results
WPS PDF to Word Converter is a brand new tool from the developer behind one of our favorite free office suites, WPS Office.
It’s incredibly easy to use – just drag the file onto the software’s main screen and pick the export format (options include DOC, DOCX, and RTF) and click ‘Start’.
Because it’s a desktop app, WPS PDF to Word Converter is noticeably faster than online tools, and can process files in batches. The free edition will convert PDFs up to five pages long, so if you want to convert larger documents you’ll need to divide it into chunks first using a tool like PDFSAM. Alternatively, the premium version of WPS PDF to Word Converter costs £22.95 (US$29.95, AU$39.95), with no limit on pagination.
The exported Word documents are very impressive – easily the best of all the PDF to Word converters we tested. Images were preserved and aligned correctly, text formatting was retained, and font styles and weights were accurately reproduced. If you want to convert a PDF to an editable Word document, WPS PDF to Word Converter is the best tool by far.
Download here: WPS PDF to Word Converter
OCR produces documents that look perfect with a little tweaking
As the name suggests, Free Online OCR is a web app uses optical character recognition to identify text in PDFs. This means it works with scanned documents as well as original files – essential if you want to convert and edit a printed handout from a lecture, for example.
Free Online OCR can only convert one file at a time, up to 5GB in size. Select your PDF, pick a language, choose a format (Microsoft Word, Excel, or plain text), and then enter a Captcha to start the conversion.
After a few seconds you’re provided with a link to download the converted file. Unlike some web apps, there’s no need to provide an email address, then wait for the link to be delivered.
In our tests, Free Online OCR did a great job of preserving our PDF’s formatting, presenting text in editable columns. We were particularly impressed that the image was formatted as a header, and locked in place.
The limitations of OCR were visible in a few places – text on colored backgrounds wasn’t always identified, and there were a few rogue tabs and line breaks – but it wouldn’t take much tweaking to get the Word document looking almost identical to the PDF. Free Online OCR is very impressive – we just wish it was available as a desktop app so we didn’t have to upload files one at a time.
Try it online: Free Online OCR
Great for text, but not a good choice for image-heavy documents
There are two versions of Nitro PDF to Word Converter – a desktop app for Windows and an online version – but only the latter is free to use forever.
You can upload multiple files, and there’s a good choice of import and export formats (including Word, PowerPoint and Excel), but there are some significant drawbacks. Unlike Free Online OCR, Nitro PDF to Word Converter emails your converted file to you, and each email address is limited to five file conversions per month – a pretty severe limit that severely restricts its usefulness.
Text was maintained quite well in our converted document – including the keylines between columns, which was a pleasant surprise – but the main image didn’t survive the change of format. There were also some rogue spaces and line breaks, though these wouldn’t take long to correct manually.
Try it online: Nitro PDF to Word Converter
Works well with simple documents, but struggles with formatting
UniPDF is a desktop app, which means it avoids the issues of slow upload and download speeds associated with online tools, and means you don’t have to trust your documents to a third party that might keep them cached.
The trial edition of UniPDF can only convert three pages – to convert more you’ll need to either upgrade to the paid version, or split your PDF using a tool like PDFsam, then recombine the resulting Word documents.
In our tests, UniPDF preserved the overall look of our magazine page, including images, but struggled with complex text formatting. Columns ran into one another, and in some cases the converted text was a dramatically different size to the original, making it tricky to adjust. A few letters were also missing here and there, leaving us with quite an extensive cleanup job to get the Word document to a functional state.
Download here: UniPDF
A jack of all trades, but not a master of PDF to Word conversion
Free File Converter is another online-only tool, and it’s capable of much more than just PDF to Word conversions; it can handle a huge range of formats, and its key selling point is its ability to save files from video sites including DailyMotion and eHow.
You can only convert one file at a time, but the process is simple – click ‘Convert file’, choose an output format and click ‘Convert’. As with OnlineOCR, there’s no need to provide an email address and wait for a message – the download link appears on-screen immediately.
Unfortunately, the results were disappointing. The text from our PDF was converted well enough. But all images and formatting were lost, including headings, columns and font styles.
Line breaks also appeared in awkward places, so even if you just wanted the text, you’d need to spend some quality time with Find and Replace, or your backspace key. If you only want the words, you’d be better off converting the document to plain text format.
Try it online: Free File Converter