The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Leedberg's List: PDFCreator

Leedberg's List is my opportunity to tell the world about a piece of software that I think is great, and makes computing easier or more useful. The program of choice today is PDFCreator.

Basically, PDFCreator allows you to produce PDFs (portable document format), which are then readable by the free Adobe Acrobate Reader, or the numerous open source PDF readers, such as GSView/GhostScript.

First, let me address for a moment the PDF format itself. I frequently hear people decry PDF, saying that's better to use standard HTML. This complaint mostly seems to stem from the general hatred people have towards web browser plug-ins (mostly motivated by Macromedia Flash, which, I should mention, will never make Leedberg's List -- at least not in its current form). However, it's important to remember that PDFs were never necessarily intended to be viewed through a web browser plug-in. Rather, I prefer to think of PDFs as files that one can download and then view on their local computer, much like MP3 or EXE files. It just so happens that the default installation options for Acrobat install it as a plug-in for easy access.

But, regardless of how you view them, PDFs are quite useful. With a PDF, the author of the document can control exactly how the document will look when viewed on screen or printed. This is certainly not the same for HTML (which can be rendered differently by different browsers, and you never quite know how it's going to print) or Word/.doc files (which can look drastically different when opened with different versions of Microsoft Word. A PDF file will look the same whether opened with Adobe 7, Adobe 5, GSView, XPDF, and on and on. It's a great, great format when it's important to you to have formatting and design in tact on the viewer's end. On the other hand, HTML can be good when you need to use hypertext, want easy copy-and-paste, and want to be sure that whoever opens the document probably already has the necessary viewer software. On the other other hand, Word/.doc files are almost never a good format to use, in any situation -- but that's another blog entry for another day.

Back to PDFCreator. One of the strengths of PDFCreator is that it allows you to create PDFs from pretty much any program. It installs itself as a printer on your system. So, when you have a document open that you want a PDF of, you merely print it, choose the PDFCreator printer, and a PDF will be created that looks exactly as the printed output of that file would have looked like. It's really easy, and really useful.

Obviously, this has uses when you have a document that you want to distribute to a broad group of people. For instance, if you've typed up a paper in Microsoft Word, and want to give it to people and you're not sure if they all have Word, you can print it from within Word using the PDFCreator printer, create a PDF, and then distribute that PDF file to everyone. Any program from which you can print, can be used to produce PDFs.

Any program. Which is what gives it a lot of flexbility. Here's another example of how you could use it. I have a credit card, and each month I pay my bill online. Whenever I do so, the website presents me with a webpage that represents a receipt for my payment, and instructs me to print out that page for my records. Now, if I actually did this every month for each credit card, I'd be needlessly wasting paper and killing trees -- not to mention taking up space. And the problem is, I rarely ever actually need this receipt, but I still want to have it in case I do need it at some point. With PDFCreator, I can "print" the receipt to the PDFCreator printer, which produces a PDF file which is exactly the same as the printed output would have been. I can then electronically file away this PDF file, and if I need a hardcopy of the receipt for some reason, I can just print out the PDF using Acrobat or something similar. I actually do this a lot with online receipts -- it saves a lot of paper, and I find it easier to organize electronic files than lots and lots of hard copies. You might say, "Greg, you can just save the webpage they gave you from within your web browser." Yes, that's true. But, in order to have it print and look exactly the same, you'd also have to save all of the graphics and so forth. You end up with a directory full of files -- and even then sometimes the page won't look the same later on if it depended on certain types of scripts. With a PDF, you get the printed output, all within one file.

PDFCreator basically acts the same as Adobe's commercial program, Acrobat (sans "Reader"). Acrobat installs a "Distiller" printer which you can then use to do the same thing as PDFCreator's printer. However, Acrobat is commercial and currently costs ~$260 retail, whereas PDFCreator is free and open source. I've used both, and don't find the output of PDFCreator to be of any lower quality than Acrobat. Additionally, Acrobat, like many commercial programs, feels it has a right to take over your computer. In addition to installing the requisite printer, it also attempts to install plugins into various applications, including Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, even though the printer is easy enough that nothing else is needed.

In the end, PDFCreator is a simple, flexbile, powerful little program. It lets you easily create PDFs, which even initially has a lot of good uses. However, once you get used to it, you'll start to find lots of times when making a PDF is really beneficial (especially opposed to printing). And of course, it compares very favorably with its competition, especially the expensive Adobe Acrobat -- even if you ignore the price! Great program.