Nitro reads PDFs right, earns Editors' Choice

Given Adobe Reader's security hang-ups, and an already-saturated free PDF reader market, introducing a new reader could be a risky venture. But Nitro PDF Reader offers a smooth, secure, robust, and free toolset for getting down to business with PDFs.

Alternative free PDF readers have become something of a cottage industry in software, and Nitro just rewrote the instruction manual. A company known for its trialware-only versions of PDF readers, the new Nitro PDF Reader (32-bit | 64-bit) does just about everything the consumer could want in a free reader.

The company not only includes essential PDF reading and editing features at no cost to users, but there are no hidden tricks. There's no watermarking, no toolbars to install to get added functionality, no restricted saving. Combine the lack of limitations with Nitro's smart interface and smooth performance, and there's no reason not to give the PDF reader an Editors' Choice award.

Nitro PDF Reader boasts five main features: tabbed PDF reading; PDF editing including highlight tools for commenting and sticky notes for freeform comments; adding text to PDFs, which means that you can fill out forms easily; a signature stamp for digitally adding your imprimatur to documents; and PDF creation using drag-and-drop or the in-program PDF creating tool.

Tabbed PDF reading is nothing new, but the ease with which you can navigate through the PDF is what you'd previously expect only in paid programs. PDFs open into a ribbon interface that sounds cluttered from the description, but is actually well-organized and uncomplicated. At the top left corner is a Quick Access bar with button for key functions: open, save, print, undo, redo, and a customization option. Below that is the default ribbon, which can be hidden.

The extra features are what makes Nitro so usable, so it's not a coincidence that the ribbon opens to the Tasks menu. From there you can adjust how the PDF is displayed, swap the editing tools, create a PDF, and extract text or images. There's no way around the ribbon, but users who don't like it can hide it with an arrow next to the search field on the right.

The highlight tool will switch automatically from box highlighting to character highlighting, depending on whether you start highlighting in an empty space or over some text. It also lets you replace the yellow highlight with strike-through or underline. The sticky notes feature would be better served by allowing a single-click to bring up an existing note instead of a double-click, but creating one is dead easy. It also will record the computer's user name and add a timestamp to the note, making it an ideal tool for keeping track of ideas when collaborating.

The text tool is for adding freeform text to a PDF. Users who want to fill out a PDF-based form are better served by the form-filler tool that helps you locate fields needing input. This is a much simpler procedure, especially on government forms like an I-9, and ensures that the text is always properly aligned. You can also add your signature digitally, if you've got it saved as a file, through the stamp signature tool.

A less obvious option in Nitro is the secure digital signature management, accessible from the File menu under Digital IDs. This allows users to manage and edit certificate-based secured PDFs, which means that Nitro can be used to some degree in sensitive business situations.

Nitro offers a robust toolset including tabbed PDF reading; editing including highlight, strike-through, and underline tools for editing and sticky notes for freeform comments; adding text to PDFs, via either the form-fill tool or the text typing tool; and PDF creation using drag-and-drop or the in-program PDF creating tool. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Nitro PDF Reader sports a ribbon-style interface borrowed from the previously released paid version of Nitro. This may still frustrate some users, but it feels slick and connected to Microsoft Office. If you don't like or need the ribbon, you can hide it with an arrow that lives to the left of the search engine. You can also customize the ribbon, placing your most commonly accessed tools where you need them.

There's also a solid Help environment, not only including links to the knowledge base and user forum, but also links for submitting bugs and suggesting new features.

In testing, Nitro's functionality kept pace with its comprehensive toolset. When you install it, it will ask if you want to contribute anonymous usage data. Users are opted in automatically, so if you don't like contributing don't install on autopilot. When it comes to performance, Nitro feels as fast as its major competitors such as Foxit in opening PDFs cold. Converting larger files from their original format to PDF does take a while, but that seems to depend more on your hardware and the document's contents than any problems in Nitro. The drag-and-drop took a few seconds to begin once initiated, but overall converting a four-page Word document took about 2 minutes. Loading even lengthy PDFs felt nearly instantaneous and responsive.

Nitro also lets you add a digital scan of your signature to documents. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Nitro isn't perfect, but none of the problems were deal-breakers. For one thing, it's officially still in beta, which may account for some of the issues that follow. The program installed without fail on two x86 Windows 7 computers and one x64 Windows machine, but a small minority of users have reported crashes on start-up, preventing them from using the program at all. Converting documents on the fly into PDFs is a cool feature, but canceling PDF conversion did not stop the conversion process at all, and there appeared to be occasional text and word-wrap conversion conflicts when the source file was a MS Word DOC. In these rare instances, the text was imported as a low-quality image, rendering it unsearchable.

Speaking of search, the search utility in the top right corner of the interface isn't bad, although it would be nice to see Windows 7-style federated searching. Lastly, there are no current plans for a Mac version.

Nitro PDF Reader Free does more by default than any free PDF reader currently available, does precisely what it advertises, and does it unobtrusively, rocketing it to the top of the PDF pack and making it definitely worthy of an Editors' Choice award.

Related podcast: Free PDF reader boasts advanced features with Larry Magid and Nitro PDF Chief Product Officer Lonn Lorenz.