PDF creation and conversion applications are more common than rainbows in Hawaii. A new version of one of these utilities, Lulu Software's Soda PDF Pro + OCR promises big features for its modest price; unfortunately, though it performs basic functions adequately, it doesn't quite deliver on the pot of gold.
Soda PDF Pro + OCR has plenty of competitors, including Nuance PDF Converter Enterprise 7, Foxit Phantom PDF Business, and Nitro Pro 7. All claim to have the features and power of the standard, Adobe Acrobat X Pro, which costs far more. None of the low-priced contenders matches Acrobat X Pro's features and sophistication - but many people would be perfectly satisfied with a program that came close to it, if that product's price were substantially lower. Measured against these competitors, Soda PDF 2012 Pro + OCR ties with Nitro Pro 7 for the lowest price, but it also has one of the most basic sets of features. See also: Group test: what's the best PDF tool?
Like all of the other PDF applications, Soda PDF 2012 Pro can convert documents from other formats into PDF files. It has a button labeled 'Create from Any File', but "any file" actually means "any Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file; any PNG, GIF, or BMP image file; or any plain-text file." You can't open HTML files, TIF files, or many other types of files from within the application. Dragging a TIF file into the application crashed it. Like the other applications, Soda PDF 2012 Pro does install a printer driver on your system, so you can create a PDF file by opening your file with its native application and printing--but that's an extra step.
Also like most PDF applications, Soda PDF 2012 Pro has no trouble creating good-looking PDFs from source files saved in other file formats. I created a PDF from PCWorld's home page using the application's printer driver, and it looked identical to one that I created in Acrobat X. Likewise, the Word and Excel documents I converted to PDF with Soda PDF 2012 Pro looked great.
The OCR engine used by this version of Soda PDF (other, less expensive versions don't include it) is a good one. I scanned a Verizon Wireless bill using the application, and other than some minor font weirdness--mixing fonts of two different types and shades in a couple of lines--the document looked better than versions produced by most PDF applications with OCR capability. Soda PDF 2012 Pro correctly converted all of the amounts on the bill, and it converted the wireless carrier's logo as an image, not as text; other applications I've tried, including Nuance PDF Converter Enterprise 7, haven't recognized the logo properly.
Converting from PDF to other formats is more of a challenge for Soda PDF 2012 Pro. I had trouble getting the application to convert a 58-page computer user manual to Word format; this particular document has caused problems for some other PDF applications, too. On a few occasions when I tried to convert the document, Soda PDF 2012 Pro and/or Microsoft Word hung at the end of the process.
At other times, it worked, but performed the conversion a bit more slower than other applications, taking about 3 minutes to complete, versus 2:45 for Acrobat X and 1:20 for FoxIt Phantom PDF. Soda PDF 2012 Pro's conversion quality was only so-so. In converting an ugly PDF to Excel, the application made the file even uglier, even stripping out colors. On the other hand, when I converted PDFs that had originated in Adobe InDesign to Word and to HTML, the resulting documents looked reasonably close to their originals. On average, Soda PDF 2012 Pro's conversions were as good as those of most other PDF applications I've tried, though not nearly as good as Acrobat X's.
Soda PDF Pro: Beyond the Basics
To differentiate themselves, PDF applications must offer additional features, and Soda PDF 2012 Pro is pretty light on extras. It does have an attractive 3D viewing mode, in which documents look like book pages, with corners of pages curling to indicate that you can turn them; but beyond that, the application is rather bare-bones.
Its form creation tools are very basic. For example, it can't scan a document and try to recognize potential form fields, as Adobe Acrobat X can--a feature that sometimes saves loads of time. When you create new form fields in a document, you can't copy and paste elements--you must create each new field individually. (Lulu says that it's working on adding that feature to a future release.) I did like being able to create buttons with transparent backgrounds, and being able to modify form elements' properties easily by changing settings in a fly-out Properties menu.
Soda PDF 2012 Pro has no redaction features for securely blacking out portions of a document so that no one can read them--and it doesn't let you embed live Web content, such as YouTube videos, to documents. Lulu says that it will implement both redaction and live Web content "in the next few months," and it hopes to add the capability to incorporate audio and video at some point. The application has no collaboration tools (that is, no check-in\check-out ability and no versioning) and no SharePoint integration, unlike some rival programs. It does offer batch processing, however: Select a folder full of files, set it to convert them all, and then sit back and watch it work.