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If you design print-ready, cross-platform forms or illustrated pages for the Web, you're familiar with Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF), as well as Adobe's app for creating them, Acrobat. But Adobe isn't the only game in town, and the PDF environment is ripe for a back-to-basics tool. Arts PDF has taken the plunge with Nitro PDF, a full-on competitor to Adobe Acrobat 7.0 that provides most of the same key features for one-third of the price. The PDF has come a long way since its original purpose as a simple way to share information electronically, and Acrobat has diversified into an ecosystem of instruments to fit pros, such as architects and publishers who create, produce, and distribute documents, alongside tools to manage work flow, author data-entry forms, archive information, and handle print production. Arts PDF has been selling well-regarded Adobe Acrobat plug-ins and work-alongs for several years. While the upstart company can't go toe-to-toe with everything a big organization like Adobe offers--such as refined documentation, a plug-in development kit, and subtle capabilities that most users don't even understand--Nitro PDF can suit a small business or a single user who simply needs basic PDF creation. But if you can get Adobe Acrobat Standard for the street price of less than $100, we recommend Acrobat over Nitro PDF.
Nitro PDF 1.77 is easy to load on your Windows 98 or higher PC; once you have the installer, one click does the trick. You can download the 20MB program for a 30-day free trial and pay $99 to keep it. A CD version is available for $129.
Palettes, menus, toolbars, and buttons densely crowd the Nitro PDF interface. We found it difficult to interpret many of the tiny icons. For example, a crossed hammer and wrench opens the Preferences dialog, and what looks like a red felt pen opens the digital signature menu. However, the Organizer--a floating palette for configuring and applying key features--makes it easy to keep your bearings. And a loupe tool, which Acrobat lacks, nicely magnifies a small patch of screen without zooming in on the whole work space.
Nitro PDF boasts a feature-for-feature match with Acrobat 7.0 Standard; it can convert a wide range of document types and batches of files into PDFs and combine pages from several sources into one file. Nitro also allows basic text editing with graphics tools for marking up, commenting on, and drawing on PDFs. But while Nitro can display a document in a variety of views, it provides less flexibility to select text. Acrobat can highlight type line by line, by the column, or within a box you draw on the screen; Nitro PDF offers only line-by-line selection.
Nitro includes reams of corny clip art, but you can easily add your own graphics files. You can also add stamps on each page to display the page number, the author, the review date, and so on, or you can combine clip art and stamps into headers and footers.
Nitro PDF offers security tools to encrypt a file, assign it a digital signature, or allow it to be read onscreen, but not printed. Nitro also lets you smarten up PDFs with metadata keywords to attract Web search engines. Plus, when you distribute a large archive of data stored in PDF files, you can include all the metadata to improve search results--a must when consigning thousands of pages of text to a CD or a DVD. Also necessary for large files, Nitro lets you add bookmarks, which creates hyperlinks to chapters and subheadings.
We encountered some odd behavior when converting files to PDF; for instance, when we dragged and dropped files for conversion onto the desktop Nitro PDF icon, it instead opened the program's print-to-file driver. And when we converted HTML documents into PDF files, the hyperlinks disappeared--a glitch we didn't encounter with Adobe Acrobat.
The shoestring nature of Arts PDF's operation becomes evident when you look beyond the software, and the five screens of Nitro PDF's built-in help file read like a sales brochure. You can't download the manual from the Web site; when we laboriously copied the HTML into a Word file, it ate up 90 pages, with useful but not detailed information. For example, Nitro leaves you on your own for creating forms or adding metadata. Arts PDF lacks telephone support, and e-mail support costs $10 for a five-incident package. Downloading the app for $99 comes with two weeks of e-mail help; if you buy Nitro PDF for $129 on CD, you get five incidents of e-mail support. The company thankfully runs an active question-and-answer Web site where you can post queries; when we checked, most of them received quick replies from the company's chief technical officer.