PDFs: Always Portable, Now Affordable

It’s happened to all of us. A friend sends an important document but you’re unable to view it because you don’t have the appropriate software. For example, to open a meeting notice created with Microsoft Publisher, you need Publisher or compatible software. Or perhaps you’re trying to open a pamphlet created with QuarkXPress, software written for the MAC, but you have a Windows PC and couldn’t use Quark if you wanted to. As they say in France, quelle drague.

Get Adobe Reader  Fortunately, the folks at Adobe Systems have made it their business to solve the problem of document intransigence caused by software and/or platform (operating system) incompatibilities. No matter what operating system you use — within limits,Get Adobe Acrobat Reader. but Windows, MAC, Unix, Linux, Palm, Symbian, Pocket PC, even OS/2 Warp are all supported — you can download and install Adobe’s free Acrobat Reader. (We recommend the final release of version 6.0; the just-released version 7.0 is piggishly slow and plagued with security problems.) That’s part one of the Adobe solution. Once installed, Adobe’s Acrobat Reader will open any PDF (Portable Document Format) file, no matter what software was used originally to create it, and without regard to the original operating system.

Making PDF Files  The second and last part is making the document to be shared into a PDF file. PDFs retain the format, graphics, fonts and color of the original and can be opened by anyone using Acrobat Reader. It will come as no surprise that Adobe also makes some very fine software for making PDF files. It’s called Acrobat, The Standard version will set you back $300; an online subscription to convert documents to PDFs is $10 a month or $100 annually. For most of us, that’s more than it’s worth because we’re probably not going to create PDF files on a daily basis. Other manufacturers, such as ScanSoft offer software in the $50-100 range that can code and decode (convert back to native format) PDF files. The limitation here is that you typically get to activate and install the software on one PC, and then you can buy another copy for your laptop, another for your partner’s PC, another…

Built in PDF Creation  Some software, such as the OpenOffice suite, some versions of MS Office, and the software bundled with some scanners, include the ability to export as a PDF any document they create. If you expect to make a lot of PDFs, it’s worth looking for this easy-to-use feature when purchasing office suites and scanning software. But what if you don’t own these programs and aren’t planning to buy them anytime soon?

Free Online PDF Creation  For the casual user who now and then has a webpage (HTML), text file (TXT), spreadsheet (XLS), image (BMP, JPG, GIF), or MS Word document (DOC) to convert, there are several free online converters. A good one is PDF Online, formerly goBCL. You upload the document, or tell the converter where to find it on the web, and get back a PDF of the document via email. The conversion is free because the developer hopes you’ll like the results enough to buy his desktop or server software.

Free PDF Print Drivers  The same kind of thinking motivates software designers who offer free, downloadable PDF print drivers. An example is PDF4Free, which we have not tried. The print driver route is particularly felicitous, but usually limited to Windows systems. Once installed you can use it with any software on your system that makes printable documents. It makes no difference whether it’s an invoice, a CAD drawing, an appraisal, a picture, a postcard, a spreadsheet, an email, or your last will and testament. If you can print it, you can send it to the PDF print driver which will make it into a PDF file, usually with a number of creation options. The drawbacks? We’ve seen versions that time out after a small number of conversions, and at least one that installed spyware. Caveat emptor!

Our Choice: PDF Creator  Naturally, I saved the best for last. The PDF creation software I recommend without reservations is PDF Creator, a free, no strings, Open Source PDF print driver that works nicely in any 32-bit version of Windows, from Windows 95 on up. It won’t time out. There’s no spyware. And because it’s Open Source, it’s continually being upgraded.

Go for It!  In case it wasn’t obvious, the Adobe PDF solution won’t “fix” that incompatible document we talked about in the first paragraph. The PDF solution only works proactively. You and your correspondents need to equip yourself with Adobe’s free PDF Reader, and with PDF Creator or similar, and then share your documents as PDFs. Got it? Go for it!

P.S.  We haven’t found a MAC equivalent of PDF Creator, but MAC users might want to try PrintToPDF, shareware (free to try; $20 to buy) from a reliable source.

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