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Advisor Insights

The Best Tools for Editing PDF Files

Contributor Ben Brown reviews some of the tools that advisors can use to edit the predominant file format.

Created by Adobe a full 26 years ago in 1993, the Portable Document Format, or PDF, still reigns supreme as the file format of choice for documents you need to look the same on every device or app. As advisors, we're likely using and sharing PDF files on a daily basis, from portfolio and investment analyses, to financial-planning deliverables or supporting documentation, to account statements, tax returns, and beyond.

Nearly all of the most commonly used platforms and devices have some sort of built-in PDF viewing functionality, whether you're using Windows, MacOS, Android, or iOS. While opening and viewing PDF files is fairly straightforward, editing them is another story, with most basic PDF readers offering only limited functionality. Predictably, the need to edit a PDF file is likely to be greater in a business setting, where additional features such as editing existing text or images, adding annotations, document redaction, and adding fillable form fields are particularly useful. Thankfully, there are a number of PDF editors on the market to help you level up the PDF abilities of your advisory business, each with its own strengths depending on the operating system and devices you're using.

For Windows Users: PDFelement Pro and Drawboard PDF
Windows users are likely to find great value in Wondershare's PDFelement Pro software. PDFelement offers an intuitive interface that looks as if it were designed by Microsoft as part of its Office suite, with a familiar "ribbon" style toolbar. Like any good PDF editor, you have the ability to create, combine, edit, and convert PDF files. PDFelement also includes several templates available from the launch screen for expedited PDF and form creation.

The editing and navigation experience once a PDF file is open or created feels much like Microsoft Word. Text can be added or edited, images can be inserted, and you can add headers or footers to each page. You can also annotate and add comments to the PDF. The upgraded PDFelement Pro version offers advanced features, including the ability to easily redact sensitive information (such as a client's name or Social Security number) and to create and edit form fields, optical character recognition (OCR) to recognize text in images, and the batch-processing of documents (particularly useful if you need to make the same changes to several PDF files at once, such as adding your firm's logo). PDFelement ($79 for a perpetual license; free on mobile) works on Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS, though most business users are likely to want to opt for the desktop-only Pro version for the advanced features ($129 for a perpetual license).

For those using Microsoft Surface devices, Drawboard PDF is a great tool that enables seamless PDF markup and annotation abilities with the Surface Pen. While not a fully featured PDF editor capable of advanced redaction or OCR functionality, it serves as a fantastic complement to a more robust PDF editor when on the go or marking up a PDF during a client meeting. Drawboard PDF can be purchased via the Microsoft Store (current pricing: $11.99).

For Mac Users: PDF Expert and Preview
Mac users looking for a seamless PDF editing experience across both MacOS and iOS should give PDF Expert a try. Consistently rated as one of the top paid apps in Apple's App Store and winner of an Apple Editors' Choice award, PDF Expert offers a clean user interface and a topnotch reading experience with fast search and smooth scrolling capabilities. From the "edit" tab, text, images, and links can easily be transformed, with the font, size, and opacity of the original text automatically detected. PDF files can also be optimized for sharing with reduced file sizes, and it's quite easy to link your existing cloud storage solutions to quickly access/edit files and to transfer documents when switching devices.

Where PDF Exert shines is in its annotation and editing capabilities, and these are greatly enhanced for those using an iPad and Apple Pencil. PDF files can be quickly marked up when taking notes or adding comments, text can be highlighted and/or redacted easily, and legally binding electronic signatures can be added, all on the go. Notably, PDF Expert does not offer OCR functionality or the ability to add form fields, so users will have to determine if those features are a priority for their business. PDF Expert is available via the App Store ($79 for the Mac version; $9.99 for the iOS version plus $9.99 for the in-app Expert upgrade).

If your Mac PDF editing needs are fairly simple, then you may already have the functionality required. Built in to MacOS, Preview allows you add text to PDF files, highlight text, add annotations and notes, or even freehand drawings. Combining PDF files or rearranging pages is a breeze in Preview using the thumbnail preview sidebar.

The Cross-Platform/Premium Option: Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
Adobe knows a thing or two about working with PDF files given it originally created the format. While Adobe Reader is a great free option for those looking to read PDF files or add simple annotations and highlights, Adobe Acrobat Pro DC (DC is short for "Document Cloud") provides the most advanced functionality of any PDF editor on the market. Adobe Acrobat Pro DC features full OCR capabilities, redaction of sensitive information, electronic signatures, and a mobile scanning utility called Adobe Scan that allows you to scan any document into the platform using your phone's camera. With Adobe Scan, your captured documents are automatically converted into PDF files that you can edit or fill in if scanning a fillable form. You can also build detailed PDF forms that can translate text entries into a bar code that can be used to copy data to other apps or devices.

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC's user interface is fairly accessible and makes editing or marking up a PDF file straightforward. You can also add watermarks, headers/footers, images, backgrounds, and numerous other tweaks (so many, in fact, that feature bloat is somewhat of a concern with Adobe Acrobat Pro DC). Not surprisingly, a premium PDF editor comes with a premium price tag, and as of 2017, Adobe no longer offers a nonsubscription purchase option that includes future updates. (Note that Adobe will still sell you a stand-alone copy of Adobe Acrobat Pro 2017 for a whopping $449.) Users can either pay $24.99 per month for Adobe Acrobat Pro DC without an annual commitment, or $14.99 per month with an annual commitment.

The Right Fit
Choosing the right PDF file editor depends on your specific needs as an advisor, as well as the platform and devices on which you plan to use it. For many, the simple annotation and markup features of free software such as Adobe Acrobat or Preview may be enough. For those in need of advanced features such as data redaction, OCR capabilities, and full editing functionality, PDFelement, PDF Expert, and Adobe Acrobat Pro DC offer compelling qualities at varying price points, while mobile PDF annotation and/or editing is greatly enhanced with tools like Drawboard PDF (Windows) and PDF Expert (iOS).

Access Ben Brown's article archive here. Brown is a certified financial planner and an IRS-enrolled agent. He is the founder of Entelechy, a fee-only financial planning and investment management firm based in Bethesda, Maryland, serving clients in the Washington, D.C., area and nationally.

The author is a freelance contributor to Morningstar.com. The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.