Software995 pdf995
BCL Technologies goBCL
Canon CanoScan 9900F
Creating PDFs for (more or less) free
Windows 95/98/Me/NT 4.0/2000/XP

BCL Technologies

CanoScan 9900F
Windows 98/Me/2000/XP, Macintosh OS 9.x, 10.1, 10.1.3 and higher
A few months ago, I wrote about tools for creating PDF files, comparing third-party programs to Adobe Acrobat 5.0. What I covered then was just a smattering of what was available, owing to the fact that comparing every single PDF creator out there would quickly engulf the entire magazine. With the recent release of Adobe Acrobat 6.0, and particularly because of its increased focus on everyday users (especially those who use Microsoft Office), I thought it would be worth the time to cover some other alternatives that had been previously missed.

Unlike the previous programs I covered, these three are free, or at least bundled. Of course, there are a few caveats, but overall it's hard to beat what you get for the price.

Part of Software995's pdf995 suite, pdf995 installs itself as a printer driver—just print a document from any application and away you go. Software 995 partly supports itself with advertising: every time you create a PDF, an ad appears in a browser window. The ad-free, paid version is almost free at $9.95 US ($19.95 for the full suite of three programs), and provides access to e-mail technical support (with the free version, the best you get is an FAQ on the Software995 site).

Pdf995's combination of simplicity and low (or no) cost is tempered by a lack of flexibility. Beyond a few basic parameters like paper size and orientation, there's little you can do to finesse your PDF output—you can't choose image compression methods or set font embedding and subsetting parameters, to name two significant omissions. If your documents regularly mix text and a significant amount of graphics and you want to keep file sizes within a certain limit (say, for a website) you'll have to look elsewhere. But for documents that are predominantly text, pdf995 will do just fine.

If you crave true platform independence, BCL Technologies' GoBCL might be the solution for you. While the site says that "both PC and Mac platforms are supported," it really doesn't matter what you use—so long as it can generate Word, Excel, PowerPoint, RTF, or text files. That's because GoBCL doesn't install anything on your computer; it's an online service. You send GoBCL a file either by uploading it to the site or via e-mail, and GoBCL e-mails you the resulting PDF. (The site warns that files are processed in a queue, implying that there could be a delay if many people are using the service at once. My test files all made the round trip in under two minutes each.)

Like pdf995, GoBCL is better suited to simpler documents, and not just because of the supported file formats; there's also a 500K limit on the size of uploaded files. Another important consideration is that GoBCL implicitly encourages a certain plainness; because the PDFs aren't actually generated on your computer, GoBCL can't embed your particular fonts in the PDF. For example, my original document used Dolmen for the major headings, Frutiger for subheads, and Minion for body text. The PDF that I received substituted Times for the headings and body, and Helvetica for subheads. Furthermore, characters like em-dashes didn't survive the font substitution.

The last time around, I neglected to mention another means of creating PDFs—directly from scanned images. I looked at Canon's CanoScan 9900F, one of a small handful of their desktop scanners that support direct-to-PDF scanning. (Considering its other features, like 3200 x 6400 optical resolution and automatic photo retouching, it's also the most expensive. Less expensive models like the LIDE 30 will also do the job.) One-button scanning has been a feature on scanners for some time now, but they generally allow you to automatically print, e-mail, or fax a scanned document. The CanoScan 9900F, however, has a button for PDF. Press the button, and your file goes straight to the Presto PageManager software that comes bundled with the scanner. You can also scan from the CanoScan Toolbox, which allows you to set options like colour depth, resolution (up to 400 dpi), and default file name and location.

Either way, the result is the same: a PDF with selectable, searchable text—that is, in ideal conditions. Black-on-white body text came through flawlessly, but coloured text, like headlines and other kinds of display type, could be iffy. In some cases, if I tried to use the text tool, the highlighted area didn't always match the type (which leads me to conclude that the software is creating PDFs in which the actual text is hidden and the bitmap is displayed.). Also, there's no opportunity to correct the OCR that turns the scan into text. In my tests—admittedly all from clean documents—I had no errors, but I'd like to have the option to fix problems that must occur in some cases. Finally, the OCR invariably conked out on reversed type (light lettering on a dark background).

As expected, none of these options is as full-featured as Adobe Acrobat itself, because—also unsurprisingly—most people don't need all the features in Acrobat anyway. But by paring down the feature set even further and adjusting the cost accordingly, PDF creation is now in everybody's reach. And that's not a bad thing.

Originally appeared in The Computer Paper (September 2003)
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