How to work with PDF files on a Chromebook

Learn how to use tools to create, annotate, and extract text from a PDF on a Chromebook.

Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

People who use a Chromebook are likely familiar with at least a couple of common ways to work with the Portable Document Format (PDF) created by Adobe in 1993 that preserves a document’s layout and design. Receive a PDF in Gmail? Open it to display the file or save the PDF to Google Drive. Want to find a PDF on Google Drive? Search for text in PDFs stored on Need a PDF for a meeting? Attach or link to a PDF in Google Calendar event details.

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Follow the steps below to use a Chromebook to create, annotate and extract text from a PDF–all with native Google apps and tools. If you need additional PDF editing capabilities, you might also explore the third-party apps mentioned below. Open your Chromebook and sign in to get started!

SEE: Google Sheets: Tips and tricks (TechRepublic download) 

How to use Save or Print to create a PDF

When you edit within Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, or Drawings, choose File | Download | PDF Document (.pdf) to create and save a PDF version of your document (Figure A). 

Figure A

Screenshot of Google Doc with File > Download > PDF Document menu displayed.

Create a PDF from many Google apps with the File | Download | PDF Document menus.

Jamboard also offers a Download As PDF option from the three vertical-dot menu. When you use this method to create a PDF, the system saves the item into your device’s default download location (e.g., chrome://downloads/).

Alternatively, you may create a PDF from Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, or Drawings file with File | Print | and then select Save As PDF for the Destination (Figure B). Ctrl+P from a web page brings up this option, too. The File | Print method allows you to select a location to store the PDF file.

Figure B

GIF alternating between Chrome three-dot menu with Print option, and the print details with the Save as PDF option displayed.

Create a PDF from a web page or a Google app with the File | Print option. This lets you choose where to store the PDF file.

How to open a PDF from the Files app to annotate

You may annotate PDFs on a Chromebook from the Files app (Figure C). 

  1. From the Chromebook Shelf, select the Launcher (typically, this is in the lower-left corner).
  2. Type Files in the search box.
  3. Click or tap on the Files app to access your Chromebook files.

Figure C

Screenshot with Chrome Launcher, search box with "Files" word entered, and Files app displayed and circled.

If you want to annotate PDFs on a Chromebook, use the Files app to access your PDF.

4. From the left-side menu of the Files app you may browse My Files (items stored on your device) or your Google Drive files (items stored on Google Drive). Navigate to the PDF you want to edit, then click or tap on it to select it.
5. Select Open (above the list of files), then select View (Default) (Figure D). This will open the PDF in a new browser tab for viewing.

Figure D

Screenshot of Chromebook Files app, with PDF selected, and Open menu drop-down with built-in View option highlighted.

From the Files app on a Chromebook, select a PDF, then choose View. This opens the PDF in a new browser tab that includes annotation options.

6. To switch from View to Annotate mode, select the pen icon in the upper-right corner (Figure E). This activates a menu with five icons: A pen, a highlighter, an eraser, an undo button, and redo button. The pen and highlighter options both allow you to adjust color and line width.

You may use the above PDF annotation tools from the File app for any file you can access while offline, as well.

Figure E

Screenshot of a PDF open in a new browser tab, with annotation menu options displayed (e.g., pen, highlighter, eraser).

Select the pen icon in the upper-right area to access PDF annotation tools.

How to open a PDF with Google Docs to access text

When you open a PDF stored on Google Drive with Google Docs, the system converts the PDF into images and text in a Google Doc.

  1. In Chrome, go to
  2. Go to the PDF file you want to access on either My Drive or a Shared Drive.
  3. Click or tap on the file once to select it, then select the three vertical-dot menu to display several options. Alternatively, right-click on the file.
  4. Choose Open With, then select Google Docs (Figure F). The system will open the PDF in Google Docs.

Figure F

Screenshot of Google Drive with PDF selected, and Open with menu displayed, and Google Doc option about to be selected.

From Google Drive, select a PDF file, then open it with Google Doc to gain access to text contained within the document.

If the PDF contains complex images and layouts, it may not necessarily display accurately. However, PDF files that are primarily text, such as articles or books, are more likely to provide access to the contained text.

Other Chromebook PDF editing options

Third-party apps, such as Kami and Adobe Acrobat, offer even more powerful PDF editing capabilities to people who use a Chromebook (Figure G). 

Figure G

GIF that alternates between screenshot of editing tools and screenshot of the Adobe Acrobat Android app main menu options.

For more advanced PDF editing, explore either Kami (a web and Chrome app, displayed here with the dark left menu) or Adobe Acrobat (an Android app, displayed here on a gray background). Both Kami and Acrobat support work offline.

People who need to work offline (as well as online) might explore Kami, which includes markup, comment, text, equation, and shape tools, along with PDF split and merge functions. Kami offers a free basic plan, a professional plan, discounted pricing for teachers, as well as plans that include features often used in the legal profession, such as Bates numbering. People who use Chromebooks that support Android apps could consider the Adobe Acrobat Android app, with many features available for free, although an upgrade (approx. $9.99 per month) adds editing capabilities. Acrobat is also available as part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription service.

Your experience?

Do you often work with PDF files on a Chromebook? What tools do you use to view, annotate, or edit PDFs on your Chromebook? Let me know your favorite PDF Chromebook apps (for online or offline use) either in the comments below, or on Twitter (@awolber). 

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