Almost everyone has a PDF reader application installed to open and read PDF files. My choice is Foxit PDF Reader; many people use Adobe Acrobat Reader. Such programs share characteristics: they are free, they allow for no, or limited, editing of PDF files, and they lack tools such as collaboration features, applying security to documents, and the like.
With Christmas almost here, I started thinking about tax deductible gifts to myself. This led me to consider the big brothers of the free PDF reader software family. I began looking at Foxit’s big brother, PhantomPDF, but expanded my search to three other programs (Wondershare PDF Element, Nitro Pro, and Adobe Acrobat Pro, under the drop down headings below). I thought setting out my views on those packages may assist anyone else currently seeing an uptick in PDF briefs in their practice. As to what suits me, it would help to know what I in particular am looking for in a PDF editor. If you want, you can jump directly to my conclusions.
Most barristers will have seen their briefing change, especially in 2020, to be in the way of electronic briefs as opposed to a paper brief. This brings challenges of storing and manipulating that data. I find that my briefs take one of two forms:
- A single file containing all the documents on which I am to advise (in essence, a brief with possibly no tabs or separation between documents); or
- A collection of files, of various file formats, sent to me by email or uploaded to a cloud storage facility.
In both cases, there is the potential for the brief to be updated as time goes by, meaning that documents are added and dropped out as the matter develops. My use case for a PDF editor includes:
- Adding, removing, and reordering documents in my brief;
- Indexing documents;
- If documents are not machine readable, making them so (using OCR, or Optical Character Recognition);
- Adding bookmarks and other aids to navigation;
- Adding non-destructive highlighting, notes and comments; and
- Making destructive edits – amending the content of PDF files.
I tested each program with a 8,000+ page court book in the form of one huge PDF file. I also used three PDF files of 2-5 pages each to test the opening, combining, editing functions, and to generally test functionality with. I then used a brief of about a dozen mixed format files (PDF, Word, Outlook, Excel) to assemble and manipulate as one would a bundle. Finally I used one page of a typed, high contrast, but not natively machine readable document, to test the OCR function of each. All testing was done on a laptop using good old keyboard and mouse, although Phantom does offer touch control for those with touch screens.
Foxit PhantomPDF (found here)
This is Foxit PDF Reader’s big brother. Retailing for around AUD184 for the Standard edition (there is a Business edition, which I have not reviewed), this is a one off purchase cost as opposed to Nitro and Adobe’s subscription models. Foxit offer a 14 day trial, which I used for this review.
I was particularly looking forward to seeing the ‘portfolio’ feature in Phantom. A portfolio allows the user to add, delete, and rearrange PDFs, Word documents, image files and other formats to create an ordered collection of documents. In essence, an electronic form of the traditional paper brief, allowing the user to order documents in their preferred manner. While this creates an output familiar to barristers, in practice this mode was in my experience lacking in several respects.
Once in a portfolio, documents can not be edited without exporting them, editing them, and re-importing them. Bookmarks can not be added to a portfolio. Moving between documents requires clicking on the document in the thumbnail display pane, and then navigating the document selected. If a portfolio is paginated, this is especially frustrating. In the end, the portfolio mode is less flexible than I had hoped for, and of no real value to my workflow.
As to other features, Phantom has a full suite of PDF editing tools, allowing files to be manipulated extensively (Phantom’s free brother, Foxit Reader, allows only non-destructive editing by way of highlights, text boxes and the like). Foxit have a collection of video tutorials on their website which cover the main features of the program, so I would prefer to pick out features which are relevant to my workflow:
- OCR (Optical Character Recognition): OCR allows Phantom to detect letters on a page and convert them to readable, editable, text. In my testing OCR was reasonably swift (in the region of 10 seconds to convert to editable text a single page of machine typed font), and results were more than tolerably accurate, although accuracy depends on the quality of the original scanned document. I find OCR a major benefit when quoting from documents, so this is a big point in favour of using Phantom;
- Pagination: arguably less relevant for barristers than solicitors, but nonetheless very useful, Phantom lets users paginate multiple documents. This has use to me when advising on documents – if one paginates the documents provided, one can refer to precise page numbers, rather than “about half way through the draft agreement titled suchandsuch”. Helpfully, Phantom creates a copy of the document once paginated; that way, if the bundle order changes, the paginated copy can be deleted and a new pagination batch can be run. It’s an edge case as to utility, but certainly nice to have;
- Editing and manipulating PDFs: PDF files can be stitched together; pages can be inserted or removed; one can even insert non-PDF files (such as a Word document) into an existing PDF. These functions work smoothly, albeit my rather old laptop struggled with the necessary grunt to insert multiple documents into an existing large PDF. This ought be distinguished from documents inside a portfolio, which can not be edited while within the portfolio;
- Cross-referencing: one can create hyperlinks across documents to jump to a specific page. An example may be a submission which refers to a page in a bundle: a link could be created to jump to that particular page of the electronic bundle. Implementation of this is a bit clunky, with several steps required, but given the power offered in being able to click back and forth to exact pages of documents, this feature may reward those willing to put time into it. For whatever it is worth, my view is that a paginated and searchable electronic bundle open alongside the document which cross-refers to the bundle, makes for a more efficient workflow;
- Compare: two PDF documents can be compared, and Phantom will prepare a marked document showing the changes. Similar to Word’s ‘legal blackline’ function, this worked well in testing and was in my experience swift in operation;
- Integration: Phantom integrates with Microsoft Office applications, allowing from the tool ribbon the option to convert the open document/spreadsheet/email etc. into a PDF, and also apply redaction to the PDF. I do not see much need for this, as Word’s native functions allow documents to be saved in PDF format.
Phantom has other features which may appeal to some, such as collaboration tools (which I did not test), and applying security to documents (again not tested).
Wondershare PDF Element (found here)
Element costs AUD79 per year for the Pro variant (which was the version I tested), or one can pay AUD159 (at the time of writing, reduced to AUD129) for a perpetual licence. Like Phantom, there are numerous tutorials available, in video and written form.
Element has a very blue interface by default (and the colour scheme cannot be changed), but despite that the icons are well laid out and make clear what is going on. The interface does suffer from the dreaded “more” button, with the functions which don’t make it onto the tool ribbon hidden under a drop down menu. A sure fire way to ensure that users do not use those functions, and pagination is one of the functions notably hidden behind the Quixotic “more” button (although it appears on the ribbon in a separate menu, which is a function of muddled design). Between the slightly garish colour scheme, and less than helpful menu arrangement, I can not recommend the user interface.
The OCR function is a separate, almost 400Mb, download (which only needs be downloaded the first time one uses OCR). OCR felt a bit slower than Phantom, but there was not much difference in processing time.
Editing documents by adding and deleting text from a PDF resulted in some lag compared to the speed at which Phantom was able to edit text, although again that may be down to my less than modern laptop. In saying that, scrolling through documents felt slightly faster in Element than in Phantom. Navigation is broadly similar to Phantom, although Element does allow for more levels of control over bookmarks; ‘child’ bookmarks can be set, allowing (for example) one to bookmark main headings in a document, and then make child bookmarks for sub-headings beneath that heading. This may be of use to some, although in practice I found it not to add any great utility.
Element had no issues combining multiple files, even of different file formats, to create a consolidated PDF (helpfully, the combined file comes with an index page noting the documents held within it). There is no equivalent of Phantom’s portfolio mode, but given the shortcomings of that feature this is no great loss. Pagination can be applied to documents in similar manner to Phantom, and with this Element allows (indeed, it requires) the user to create a template for batch pagination (covering placement of the numbers on the page, starting number, prefixes and suffixes etc.).
Interestingly, Element allows for files to be saved in EPUB format. Perhaps useful for someone who wants to use an ereader as their means of storing bundles or court books.
Sadly, the less than optimal interface, and the lack of a function to compare PDF files, means that Element falls behind Phantom in my order of preference. I also note that Element did once crash on exiting the program, something Phantom did not suffer from.
Nitro Pro (found here)
Nitro offer a PDF editor (Nitro Pro, currently at version 13) as part of their bundle combining Nitro Pro with their PDF signing software (the bundle being called Nitro Productivity Suite). The Productivity Suite costs AUD242 (although at the time of writing this was reduced to AUD193.60) as a one off payment, and again a free trial is available (used for this review).
Installation was unusual, in that the program conflicted with both Foxit Reader and Unified Remote (which has nothing to do with handling PDF files). Coupled with some crashes experienced while testing, this leads me to question the robustness of this program.
Once installed, the interface was extremely similar to Phantom’s layout, which made navigation straightforward. Editing functions, rather than being found under a discrete menu (as in Phantom) only appear when the ‘edit’ selection tool (which is a small icon in the left corner, and which looks like a normal area select tool – as such this tool was missed by me initially) is active. Editing felt more pernickety than the other programs tested, with precise clicking sometimes required to select what were not unduly small blocks of text.
When handling files, navigation of the 8,000 plus page PDF was noticeably slower in Nitro than with Phantom. Editing the text of PDFs was also more hit and miss than Phantom. Overall, features were not as polished as with other products tested. Nitro, like Phantom, offers a portfolio mode, but in a far less polished form: one can see the files comprising the portfolio (as thumbnails or a text list), but the files need to be opened individually even to view them. This offers no benefit over using a normal file explorer to browse a directory of files.
The PDF compare function was particularly sensitive in use, picking up lots of items which were not changes in text but may have been changes (undetectable to my eye) in formatting. Hence lots of false positives were generated, undermining the value of the comparison tool. The OCR function similarly was less polished than the other programs tested.
Given the stability problems, and the general lack of polish compared to other offerings, I can not see myself using Nitro for my practice.
Adobe Acrobat Pro (found here)
Probably the most well known name in the PDF handling domain (not surprising, given that Adobe created the PDF format), Acrobat comes in Standard and Pro versions. Important tools such as document compare, and converting documents to PDF format, are only available in the Pro variant, so this was the version I looked at. Adobe offer subscription options only, with Acrobat Pro costing AUD21.99 per month (AUD263.87 per year), or AUD36.29 per month if opting for a month to month subscription. A 7 day free trial is available, used for this review.
The interface is immediately familiar to the roughly 99% of readers who have used Adobe Acrobat Reader. Large colour coded icons dominate, and pop up (lots of pop up) bubbles provide information on various functions.
Acrobat’s OCR was by far the fastest of the programs tested, and was able to pick up even poorly defined text. For anyone who prioritises this function, Acrobat was by far the superior product tested.
The portfolio tool was also the most full featured of the programs tested, allowing for comments to be added to documents in a portfolio (a feature not offered by any other program on test), and both allowing for bookmarks to be added to documents in a portfolio, but also preserving bookmarks in documents imported to a portfolio. Text can be edited in documents in a portfolio. Again, Acrobat offers the most fully implemented form of this feature, and it makes portfolio mode a viable tool for electronic briefs.
Editing tools allow for control over the size and colour of shapes and freehand drawing, making Acrobat slightly superior to the other programs in terms of drawing options.
Rather than a feature by feature review, it is perhaps best summarised to say that Acrobat performed as well, if not in several instances better, than any of the other products tested, in terms of speed and range of functionality.
As may be clear from the above, the four programs tested can be whittled down swiftly to two: Phantom and Acrobat. Sadly, issues of stability, functionality and user interface meant that Nitro and Element did not enamour me at all.
As between Phantom and Acrobat, I would expect many people to gravitate to Acrobat. Its interface is colourful yet clean, pop up help abounds, and it’s hard to see a feature which has obviously been omitted. Yet that comes at a cost: the AUD184 cost for a PhantomPDF licence would buy you just over 8 months of use of Acrobat. Being both inherently frugal and also averse to the vogue for software being provided on a subscription basis, I give the nod to Phantom as a cost effective option which does not feel significantly compromised in terms of functionality. Yes, Phantom misses out on a more functional portfolio mode, and the OCR is slower, but assuming this to be a multi year investment the cost differential is significant.
As to whether my practice needs a fully featured PDF editor, as opposed to the free PDF reader software known and used by all, on balance I think the need is justified even though several of the functions offered by these programs would be seldom if ever used by me.
The must-have functions in my view are the power to dynamically add, remove, and generally organise documents into an electronic brief, effectively recreating digitally the effect of reordering a hard copy brief but with the benefit that documents can be edited without destroying the original. OCR is beneficial, where I typically receive scanned copies of documents and find myself needing to quote from, or otherwise manipulate, that scanned data. Finally the compare tool is very useful, particularly for showing changes over time in sections of legislation. It seems that Father Christmas may be getting an updated wish list of tax deductible gifts from me to me.