Nuance's bold PDF reader goes free

Nuance brings its crisp interface to a new free PDF reader, and it's got a decent feature set that should appeal to casual PDF users.

Editors' note: After the program launch, the PDF conversion feature started functioning properly. Additional comments have been added below.

Nuance brings its crisp interface to a new free PDF reader, and it's got a decent feature set that should appeal to casual PDF users. Exclusive today on CNET Download.com for its first day of release, Nuance PDF Reader 6.0 is a strong entry to the growing field of zero-cost Adobe Reader alternatives such as Foxit Reader.

Nuance's new free PDF reader uses a clean interface. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Nuance comes with two toolbars. The one at the top of the program is loaded with big icons, but it avoids clutter by hiding most of the secondary tools behind drop-down arrows. The toolbar at the bottom contains PDF-relevant details, such page number, zoom percentage, and viewing format. It's bigger than in most competitors, though, and it looks good on larger screens. It's a bit distracting to have to look down from the center of the screen, and it'd be great if one of the PDF reader-makers could just redesign the entire concept.

If you like clean, simple installations, you'll appreciate that the version of Nuance I installed lacked any annoying opt-out windows.

Editing is limited in the free version to highlighting, underlining, and crossing out, and although you can view comments that have been made, you can't add any of your own. Frustratingly, the free online PDF conversion service that Nuance comes with wasn't working when I tested the program.

If it does become functional and performs well, it could be a killer end-run around the lack of more editing features. Users could convert a PDF to Microsoft Word, for example, edit the PDF in Word, and then use a free PDF creator such as doPDF or NitroPDF to "print" the Word doc back into PDF format. It's inelegant, but a much better solution than paying a hundred dollars for a conversion program you're only going to use once.

Nuance's PDF conversion Web site. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

There are two other minor problems that stand out. First off, the lack of tabbed viewing means that each open PDF lives in its own window, so its harder to do document conversion than in competitors such as Foxit, which does support tabs. Secondly, Nuance uses more RAM when running than competitor Foxit Reader, 26 MB of RAM with two PDFs open for Foxit compared to 46 MB with two PDFs open for Nuance. That's still far more nimble than Adobe Reader, but for users on older, less powerful machines that might be a concern.

These problems aren't deal-killers, though, and in general using Nuance was a hassle-free experience.

Updated at 3:10 p.m. PST on February 18, 2010: The PDF conversion feature is now working. Clicking the Convert PDF button on the toolbar will take you to Nuance's conversion Web site, where users can choose from four output formats, multiple language translation options, and image quality settings. The converter can return a file in Microsoft Office 2007's DOCX and XLSX formats, Rich Text Format, or WordPerfect, and it can translate the PDF into English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, or Hungarian.

The output document quality in DOCX was generally high, with few errors. Several additional blank pages were added in places that they didn't exist in the source PDF, and there were occasional, minor alignment issues. The RTF output quality was much worse, with significant alignment problems on every page. I didn't test the XLSX or WordPerfect formats. If you're looking for high-end, high-quality conversion, this program isn't for you. But users who are looking for more than adequate conversion on the fly should find Nuance's free PDF conversion perfectly acceptable, not to mention giving Nuance a tool that most other free PDF readers lack.