Alternatives for Creating PDF Files

Michael C. Barnes

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format from Adobe Systems that creates a document that is independent from the hardware, software and operating system that created the original document. A PDF document is both device and resolution independent. PDF documents can be viewed on just about any system using a PDF viewer. Adobe distributes their viewer for free, called Acrobat Reader. Sending PDF files is much friendlier than sending live document files. PDF files are compressed so they take up less disk space and bandwidth. PDF allows the reader to access the files without having to have the actual program that created the files. You can create a presentation with Powerpoint, save it as a PDF file and not have to worry if the reader has Powerpoint installed on their computer or not.

While viewing PDF files is free, software for creating PDF files can be quite costly. This article will describe some free and low cost alternatives to Adobe Acrobat Distiller for creating PDF files.

Prior to PDF, PostScript was the page description language (PDL) of choice. PostScript was originally developed at XEROX Park by Marin Newell and John Warnock. The current implementation of PostScript was created by Adobe Systems.

PostScript is still the primary PDL for Apple, Linux and Unix based systems. It is possible to create a PostScript file using Microsoft Windows. To do this, you need to create a printer that is PostScript Compatible. Go to the Control Panel and select "Printers and Faxes". Select the option to add a new printer. Select local printer and then LPT1. Now you need to select a PostScript printer. You can either download a generic postscript printer definition from Adobe or use one of the predefined PostScript printer definitions. The Apple Color LW 12/600 PS is one option. Any PostScript printer will do.

To create a PostScript file, simply print and then choose your newly defined PostScript printer. Check the "Print to File" option. We can now create PDF files by going to the the website. This site allows you to upload your .ps files and then convert them to .pdf files for free. The ps2pdf capability comes from a freely available package called GhostScript. GhostScript comes with most Linux and Unix distributions but if you are running Microsoft Windows, you will need to download GhostScript from here.

Once you have downloaded GhostScript, you have all the tools you need to create your own PDF files. However, the process is not automatic. We can take things to the next step by downloading a program called GhostWord.

GhostWord is an interface to GhostScript that allows you to create PDF files directly from Microsoft Office. GhostWord installs itself and places an ICON on the toobar that allows you to automatically create PDF files. You will need to have GhostScript in order for GhostWord to work. GhostWord can be downloaded from here.

The latest version of OpenOffice, an open source alternative to Microsoft Office, integrates the ability to create PDF files. You can download OpenOffice here. I use OpenOffice as my primary office suite.

Adobe's Acrobat Distiller is a program that provides industrial strength PDF capability for all programs. Acrobat Distiller is not inexpensive but it is a very powerful package. There are lower cost alternatives to Acrobat Distiller. The software I use is Software602's Pro PrintPack 2002. Software602 offers quantity discounts as well. I am quite satisfied with Pro PrintPack 2002 being my primary PDF generator on under Microsoft Windows.

Two other low cost solutions for generating PDF files include FinePrint and RoboPDF. I have not tried either of these packages out but both are relatively inexpensive. Most of these programs offer a trial period so you might want to download these and try them out.

Linux users now have all the tools they need to create PDF files from any application. Since KDE 3.0, Linux users can select to print a PDF file or FAX from any application.

Perhaps, in the future, Microsoft Windows users will have this capability.