5 reasons why you should avoid free PDF editors

Employee on her laptop frustrated, biting pencil
(Image credit: Unsplash / JESHOOTS.COM)

We’re all looking for ways to save money on our tech and software - and you can make real savings choosing the best free PDF editor over paid-for versions. There’s a reason there are so many you can download so many Adobe Acrobat alternatives without subscriptions. 

However, while these free editions pack many of the same powerful features you’ll find in premium PDF editors, there may be strings attached. After all, ‘free’ doesn’t always mean free. That doesn’t mean all free PDF editors have these problems - but these top 5 concerns are absolutely worth your consideration.  

Kofax Power PDF is a top rated PDF Reader

Kofax Power PDF is a top rated PDF Reader
Techradar editors report Power PDF allows easily making alterations to existing PDFs, as well as annotating and converting other file formats into PDFs. Visit Kofax.com for more details.

1. Limited features 

  • Time-limited demos, pared back functionality, dealing with dreaded watermarks 

This might be the most obvious, and safest issue you’ll encounter with free PDF editors: a lack of features, compared to what paid software can offer. Are you for instance merely limited to editing the words already present on the document, or can you add new paragraphs, resize the text boxes, move them around, delete them?

The same applies to images, videos, and other media. Can you replace them, alter them in some way, or are those fixed in place? Obviously it all depends on what you’re after, and how much editing you wish to perform.

You’d also need to check if the software or service you’re working with has a paid-for upgrade - something EaseUS PDF Editor offers - or if the company offers another similar product for a fee, like Nitro PDF Pro. If that’s the case, chances are what’s free is limited: you might not be able to work with all the advertised tools, only see a certain number of a document’s pages, or you can only open a PDF up to a certain size. This free tool might only be free for a limited time, and likely most crucially, the output may be watermarked, with the company’s brand plastered all over your personal document. 

2. Lack of support 

  • Poor UI, frustrated users, a fruitless quest for answers 

If you’re getting something for free, this could lead to various cost-cutting measures. And you, as the user, end up paying the price for it.

We see it too many times in the form of badly (often hastily) designed user interfaces, leading to a confusing and frustrating user experience, as you try to figure out how to do the tasks you were hoping to achieve. This can, and does, also happen with paid-for programs, but it’s not the sort of issue you’ll find in the likes of Adobe Acrobat and Kofax PowerPDF.

And this frustration would expand onto technical support. After all, if there was a limited budget to get enough programmers and beta testers to create an enjoyable working experience, chances are asking for help about the ‘finished’ product will be met with limited, or at worst, a lack of response. In our own experience, we found some services offering forums populated with frustrated users and very little useful solutions, or incredibly badly written instructions that left us more confused. You might have to wait for days for an actual response, and if you’re on a deadline, such a delay is certainly not welcome.

3. Online performance

  • Web-based working introduces potential issues 

You’ll find that there’s an increasing number of services that offer to do everything online, via your browser. This can be seen as incredibly convenient, since there’s no software to download and install, and we all love our web browsers, right?

But this opens up yet another can of worms. What’s the upload speed like? What about the download times? How responsive is the interface the bigger the file you’re working with? Although browsers can do wonderful things, they are still not as efficient nor as responsive as using software directly on your computer. And all those handful of seconds waiting for something to happen can add up to a lot of lost time.

But worse than that, what about the quality of the output? Will your document’s media be degraded in order to reduce the overall file size for quicker downloads?

Again, some services will be better than others about this, and if you’re keen on saving as much money as you can, you’ll need to invest time experimenting with the various tools on offer, and decide which one gives you the fewest compromises for your needs. Soda PDF and PDF Candy are two free online PDF editors that fared well when we tested them.  

4. Output compatibility 

  • Official PDF Reference guidelines 

Now here’s something many don’t really think about when trying to edit PDFs: how compatible would the output be? You see, Adobe has regularly published a PDF Reference document, which explains to software developers how to create a product that will output PDF-compatible files.

This document has evolved over time. On top of being an open standard since 2008, those references are now much more detailed and unambiguous than they were when Adobe released the first PDF back in 1993. Although, of course, developers need to abide by these guidelines if they want the PDFs created by their software to be opened by the numerous PDF Readers out there, which version of the Reference are they using, and are the rules or cutting corners here and there?

You may not encounter any issues if your document has a simple, basic layout, but the more complex the file, the more likely problems could arise. And this isn’t a theoretical problem. The firm is aware of this, lacing Adobe Acrobat Reader with numerous exceptions to make sure most ‘badly formatted’ PDFs can still be opened. But that’s because they have the resources to do this. What about those other readers which might well have not catered for all possible wrong formatting? Suddenly, your PDF file which should be read by anyone, can’t be. All because of a few too many cut corners. 

5. Security concerns

  • Trust issues over confidential documents 

Security is always a topic to keep in mind. Sometimes, it’s with asking, is a tool is free, how does the company make its money? Because the answer may be: your personal data. 

If opting for a free PDF editor or reader, you want to be sure your data is safe - not being poorly stored, sold, or processed without your consent. This is certainly a concern, and especially with online services. Ideally, you’ll want to know where your data is stored, and whether your files are deleted once you finish editing and downloading. It’s a question of trust, really. You may feel more comfortable using something from a name you recognize in the free-tier sphere, like Canva PDF Editor.

And it’s not just developers of free PDFs. Data security breaches are all often in the news, with sensitive data of millions of people unprotected in the wild - taken from businesses and state agencies. Security through obscurity isn’t a viable solution either, especially if you’re editing sensitive confidential data. It’s worth noting that, when we tested Foxit PDF Editor, we were particularly impressed with its redaction tools.

Chances are using your free PDF editor will be fine. But caveat emptor. It’s important to know the potential dangers of what you might get yourself into. If you’re on a tight budget, and are looking for a company offering a free PDF editor, maybe try the service on a few generic documents first, to see how it fares, and what happens to your data, before trusting it with more critical tasks. 

Steve Paris

Steve has been writing about technology since 2003. Starting with Digital Creative Arts, he's since added his tech expertise at titles such as iCreate, MacFormat, MacWorld, MacLife, and TechRadar. His focus is on the creative arts, like website builders, image manipulation, and filmmaking software, but he hasn’t shied away from more business-oriented software either. He uses many of the apps he writes about in his personal and professional life. Steve loves how computers have enabled everyone to delve into creative possibilities, and is always delighted to share his knowledge, expertise, and experience with readers.