I'm a veteran of the Old Days of Computing—back in the days when people with WordPerfect had a hard time sharing documents with Word users, and a PageMaker user couldn't send their files to someone that specialized in QuarkXPress.
I'd like to think that other veteran users share my appreciation for Adobe Acrobat
, which appeared toward the end of those dark times.
It was pure genius: the Acrobat PDF (Portable Document Format) was essentially a screen version of Adobe's PostScript printer-definition language, which meant that you didn't need to have the same programs as someone else to see what their documents looked like. All you needed was Adobe's freely available Acrobat Reader.
Acrobat has been through several iterations but the basic concept remains unchanged. However, we've gotten so used to passing PDFs around that an increasing number of people ask the question, "How can I turn this document into a PDF?"
Adobe's Acrobat is the obvious solution, and as can be expected it does everything you'd want and more—in fact, that may be its biggest problem. Acrobat can take any document and turn it into a PDF for electronic books, the Internet and intranets, on-screen use, handhelds, prepress, and probably a few things I can't think of right now. That's why technical writers and people in the publishing industry love it. But if your needs are more modest, or simply more specific, there are a number of alternatives that are worth exploring.
I looked at four programs that create PDFs, including Adobe Acrobat itself, and put them through their paces using a handful of Microsoft Word 2000 documents and various output parameters. The tests were designed to explore how each program handled creating PDFs for print and the Web, and also to see how or if they automatically created bookmarks and hyperlinks within them. Finally, I tested how they handled automation and batch PDF creation.
A word on methodology: I stuck with Word documents because, based on conversations online and off, it seemed to be the application most people wanted to create PDFs with. (Adobe's website also claims that 70% of Acrobat users use it to convert their Microsoft Office documents to PDF.) Also, technical writers and designers already have PDF functionality built into many of the programs they use.
If you're not an Office user, that's fine; the beauty of Acrobat is that it can work as a printer driver (meaning that any program that can print can create PDFs) or as a processing tool (meaning that a PostScript file generated by any program can be used to generate PDFs). Only one of the applications here works exclusively with Word.
Adobe Acrobat, of course, sets the standard.
It provides four different ways of creating PDFs: the stand-alone Distiller program, which converts PostScript files to PDF; the Distiller printer driver, accessible from any application; the more simplified PDFWriter printer driver; and PDFMaker for Word.
If you're unfamiliar with PDF creation, it should be mentioned that these—and every other PDF-generating program—allow you to control the final product's appearance and file size by setting compression and resolution parameters for graphics and embedding rules for fonts.
PDFMaker provides one-click PDF creation from the Word toolbar. In addition to image compression and font settings, you can use Word's built-in Heading styles—or any other style you select—to automatically create a hierarchical list of bookmarks, acting as the PDF's table of contents. You can also have PDFMaker recognize hyperlinks to the Web, within documents or between documents; turn Word comments into Acrobat notes; link footnotes and endnotes; and more.
With Distiller, you can designate folders that will be regularly polled for the presence of PostScript files. When a file is found, it is automatically processed and converted into a PDF. This is very useful for people on a network who want to create PDFs from their documents but would rather not learn the ins and outs of Acrobat's settings.
My only complaint with the package is that while Distiller provides the ability to save a collection of parameters as a preset, you can't do the same with PDFMaker for Word—that is, you can use Distiller presets, but you can't save your settings for converting Word documents. And, strangely enough, Distiller was the only program of all the ones I tried that incorrectly caused a line to appear over a graphic that was supposed to be obscuring it.