We've all been there, trying to sign a lease after moving to a new city or sending off the documents required for a financial application. PDFs are a persistent part of life these days, even if they might feel a bit dated, and coordinating the conversion from real-world paper to a PDF file can be obnoxious, but your phone can actually handle it for you. In fact, you may not even need to install a separate app to do it.

There are plenty of ways you can generate PDFs in a pinch, and probably a hundred apps that claim to do it, but we'll be focusing on two good ways from two specific and well-known apps to generate PDFs from real-world documents: Google Drive and Adobe Scan.

Since each has its own advantages, you can decide for yourself, but I'd recommend Drive for making a PDF with your phone's camera, and Adobe Scan for making a PDF from existing images you've already taken.

Google Drive

The reasons to use Google Drive for your PDF needs are:

  • It's simple and easy.
  • You probably don't need to install anything, most phones come with it.
  • It syncs PDFs that it creates to Google Drive, a boon to G Suite-based productivity and cloud storage.
  • Perspective can be corrected automatically.

Google Drive
Google Drive
Developer: Google LLC
Price: Free+

Creating PDFs in Google Drive on Android is simple:

Left: The floating action button opens a menu (right) which includes the "Scan" option for creating PDFs.

Just open the app, tap the "+" floating action button in the corner, and in the resulting menu, select "scan."

Line up, review, and tweak the photos you take for PDFs in Drive. 

Line up the document in the viewfinder, trying to make sure all four corners are visible and that your view is mostly flat, and take the photo. (Holding the document with your hands while scanning is possible, but you'll need to be careful.) After a bit of processing, Drive then gives you the option to review and accept or reject the photo before importing it into the PDF. Tap the big checkmark when you think the photo is good enough, and the app will correct for some distortion and import the document in black and white (by default) to the PDF.

Drive can automatically correct for perspective, too, so you don't need to worry too much if you can't snag the perfect shot, it will stretch and tweak things to compensate all on its own, though some content might end up a bit off kilter.

More options are nested in other menus.

From this screen you can add more pages to the current document ("+" icon), re-capture any page that has already been added (the reload/redo icon), alter the crop/distortion correction (crop icon in the top right corner), change color settings (palette icon in the top right corner), and delete, rotate, or rename the scan (all through the overflow three-dot menu top right). Further options in the nested settings menu allow you to change paper size, orientation, and image quality, though the defaults should be fine for most of us.

Once you're happy with the results, just tap the check mark in the bottom right. Drive will ask you where to save it and what to name it, and after you tap "save" in the bottom right corner, it should be there. Congrats, you've just made a PDF with your phone.

Google Drive can do OCR, but it's a separate function.

You can also get PDFs captured in this way to generate into text documents via OCR, but it's a multi-step process. You'll need to either open the PDF again later in Google Docs as a document or toggle a setting in Google Drive to change how uploaded documents are handled ("Convert uploaded files to Google Docs editor format" in Settings -> General from the desktop site). Google's OCR is pretty good with text, but strange formatting or unusual languages, symbols, or graphics can sometimes confuse it, so plan to review it later for errors.

Adobe Scan

If you need a different set of features than what Google Drive's app can provide, and you're willing to give up the deeper integration with G Suite's services, Adobe Scan may be more your style. Its advantages include:

  • OCR (optical character recognition) which turns scanned documents into searchable, copyable text.
  • Works with images/photos you already have.
  • Perspective can be corrected automatically.
  • Auto-capture streamlines the photo-taking process.
  • Works with the Adobe Acrobat app for built-in signing and filling out forms.

The process for Adobe Scan isn't much more complicated than it is on Drive, but I would say it is a little less user-friendly.

Adobe Scan can capture photos automatically and do perspective correction, too. 

When you open the app (and grant it the permissions it requires to function), you'll be presented directly to a camera viewfinder. Scrolling left or right through the carousel at the bottom allows you to select between types of documents. The Aperture icon next to the shutter button controls Auto-Capture, which allows Adobe Scan to take photos of documents automatically once they're in frame, and I'd encourage you to have it on since it can save some time. Either way, you can still capture documents manually with the shutter button.

Adobe Scan isn't quite as good at picking up the edges of documents for perspective correction in my experience, but it offers the chance to correct the crop for each item as it is scanned (by default, after enough scans it will ask if you'd like to disable that).

The UI isn't quite as clear as Drive when it comes to advancing steps. The gallery icon is how you move forward once you've taken all your photos.

Once you have captured all of the documents you want to be included in a given PDF, tap the gallery icon to the bottom right and it takes you to a screen where you can review the contents.

Adobe Scan can make PDFs from images you've already taken or downloaded.

(If you'd prefer to make a PDF from images that were previously taken, the icon to the bottom left on the capture screen which looks like a stack of photos allows you to import them into the app to generate a document from.)

Options for tweaking PDFs are better labeled in Adobe Scan. 

From the review screen, you can rename the PDF (text/pencil icon top center), or use the navigation bar at the bottom to do things like add more pages, reorder items, change the crop, rotate images, select color settings, or delete pages.

When you have the PDF and its contents in a place that you like it, tapping "Save PDF" in the top left corner saves it locally, dumping you to the default "recent" list of documents in Adobe Scan.

Several ways to open and share PDFs.

From here you can share existing documents, open them in Acrobat, and fill them out/sign them via the Adobe Acrobat app. After a short bit of processing, the files listed here also include OCR text. If you need to get them off of your device (which is probably the whole point of generating a PDF), you can share the files via that aptly-named "share" button. Options include shooting off a link to the file stored on Adobe's Document Cloud, sending the file via Email, or you can pass the file to another app via an intent with "Share a copy."

One word of warning: I have run into issues with non-link, standalone PDF files generated by Adobe Scan. It's clear that Adobe tries to push users into sharing PDFs via links over services it can charge for rather than the files directly (there's no option to just save/export the PDF as a file to a specific location, for example). However, some of the files it has generated for me have had issues and couldn't be opened, though the online links created at the same time worked fine. YMMV, in my experience, Drive does a better job handling PDFs as actual files.

This is just two ways to generate a PDF on your Android-powered phone. While Drive is likely the best and most convenient choice for users in a pinch just trying to put together a basic PDF, you've got options — more than we even listed here. So the next time you think you'll have to find a scanner to put together a PDF, remember that the phone in your pocket is perfectly capable most of the time.