Thursday, June 29, 2023

The State of Mac PDF Software


Just wondered if Preview (and other PDF apps for that matter) are considered “stable” at the moment?

I know the story above is from some time ago, but still in 2022 I have editing issues in all my PDF applications where markup gets screwed-up, with even Preview being continually unreliable for marking-up documents that need to be accessed and used days/weeks/years after their creation.

For me, at least, Preview works fine these days, in that the previously discussed bugs, form saving, and progressive rendering weirdness have been fixed. I think my biggest issue is that copying the selected text doesn’t always work well.

It seems to me users are caught in a bit of a trap here. While Adobe giveth in open-sourcing PDF format years ago, they then taketh-away, as ultimately they have (reliable!) control of PDF editing software compared to every other app out there. And seemingly they know it, as the price they continue to charge for using Acrobat remains excessively high years later… even Standard DC is $13/mth, while Pro DC is just 2 bucks more at $15/mth (both provided you take an annual commitment), so even if you only need the Standard tools it’s $156 (making $180 for Pro little more!) – but that’s PER YEAR, so pretty expensive for average users.

Adobe Reader no longer has a good interface, but from what I hear for many uses it’s the only option. Fortunately, I only work with basic PDFs. Howard Oakley has a series of posts about PDF without Adobe.


That being said, my PDF viewer/notator of choice on macOS is Skim. It is free, open source, fast, lightweight and has many customizable features. Skim started in the scientific/education/research area but is very useful for daily PDF wrangling. Unfortunately, it is dependent on PDFKit, so do not use it for editing and sharing important forms (that should always be done in Acrobat Reader or Pro).


I have to admit my first interaction with support re. PDFpenPro since their acquisition from Nitro was less than satisfactory. I was attempting to edit a form originally created in Acrobat Pro by adding a new form field and found myself unable to edit the field’s border (or for that matter, any of the previously created form fields’ borders). I’ve tried 3 times now to submit a ticket on their support page[…]

David Buckley:

I recently experienced the issue of form filled out in Preview simply did not stay filled when shared. Super broken and really problematic as it was a form I REALLY needed to have filled out properly and usable by recipient.


So it seems there is basically no clear answer here on best app usage. I suppose things are open to constant change with each app update, contributing to making such hard-and-fast determinations difficult anyway, along with each user’s individual needs & usage.

The things I’ve heard here and elsewhere seem to be[…]

David Weintraub:

Apple’s Preview software does what 97% of their users need. It can open most PDFs, allow you to mark them up, and even fill some of them out.


If I need people to fill out forms and gather information, I use web based solutions like Google Forms, MailChimp, or SquareSpace Forms.

Adam Engst:

My understanding from talking to a friend at Adobe (but some time ago, so I might be misremembering) who knows more about PDF than anyone on the planet is that PDF truly is a standard, but there are lots of implementations of various versions of the standard, many of which don’t do a good job. Apple’s implementation falls into that category. And interoperating between multiple mediocre implementations can cause headaches.

Adobe Acrobat is probably the closest you can get to a reference implementation. I’m not fond of the app, but it’s the best bet for any tricky PDFs.

Marcel Weiher:

Acrobat Reader is a 360 MB download, 1.12 GB on disk.

My cube had a 400MB drive. That included DPS and And TeX. And Sybase. And the developer tools, Project Builder, Interface Builder etc. Improv.


Update (2023-07-17): Pierre Igot:

Apparently, in macOS Ventura, the search feature in the Preview app is broken as soon as you try searching for a keyword containing… an accented char. I have lots of PDFs in French. I open one containing 2 occurrences of “René” with an accent and 8 occurrences of “rene” (without an accent) inside French words. When I type “ren”, I get a (predictably) longer list of hits. As soon as I type “é”, I get a system beep and… this. So it finds the 2 occurrences, but lists them as “not found”.

If I type “rene” in the same PDF without the accent, I get the 2 + 8 = 10 matches, but the 2 occurrences of “rené” are not highlighted properly and they only show because Preview found “ren” in them. Similarly, in another PDF containing 7 occurrences of “décennie”, matches for “décen” are all listed, but with “not found”, with a system beep, and no way to highlight them.

9 Comments RSS · Twitter · Mastodon

I like Skim for annotating PDFs but for editing PDFs have been using Readdle's PDF Expert. It feels nicer to use than Acrobat. I've stopped using PDFpen.

PDF Expert is the best, hands down. Adobe Acrobat Pro DC used to be the best, but now it does not work properly on Mac. Try to search (Command F) in a PDF and to scroll, and it becomes excruciatingly frustrating behaving like a zombie!!!

Weird post. PDF Expert solved this years ago. I have Adobe Acrobat Pro and almost never touch it, other than for OCR'ing or searching whole folders.

PDF Expert is almost as expensive as the official Adobe products. Definitely not a good alternative in my opinion. PDF app pricing on Mac is just broken (thanks so much for that Adobe; subscriptions are a pox).

I don’t mind paying for good software. My sense is we’re paying dramatically less for software than we were 30 years ago in real terms and getting dramatically more.

PDF Expert is the best 100%.

The most common issue people have with pdf files is the fact that many pdf files are created by turning an image of a form page into a pdf. That’s not the same as creating an actual firm and therefor. One of the form fields will work if you want to fill them out digitally.

Some years ago I simply gave up trying to annotate PDFs (due to IIRC different incompatible implementations of annotation storage & access, used in different apps) and fill out forms with Preview, and didn't want to spring for additional software (and all that goes along with all software: updates, update fees, security holes, incompatibilities, ...). So instead of using annotations, I just adopted copying (or if necessary cropped screenshotting and copying) from PDF in Preview and pasting into an "annotation" document (which is obviously stored separately from the PDF). Instead of trying to fill out forms in Preview, I create a Text markup field, format it as needed, move & size it to fit the "field", and enter the needed data. For additional fields, copy & paste the first one, and edit the text. To save the completed document, print as PDF. All of which is stupid, crude, inefficient, and cheap. Works for me, but my needs are simple, and this obviously trades one set of inconveniences for another.

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