December 25, 2006

Creating PDFs with PDFCreator

Author: Scott Nesbitt

For many Windows users who want to create PDF files, Adobe Acrobat is overkill. Acrobat has more functions and features than they'll generally use, and with a price tag of $299 ($449 for the professional edition), Acrobat costs more than many people want to spend. Luckily, Windows users can create PDFs from any application using the GPL-licensed PDFCreator. Built on top of Ghostscript, a popular free PostScript interpreter, PDFCreator is fast and configurable. For most purposes, it's a great alternative to Acrobat.

You can download the installer for PDFCreator from its project page. You can get the installer as either a Windows executable or as a Microsoft Installer package. The Windows executable comes in two versions -- one with Ghostscript, one without. After downloading the installer, run it and follow the prompts.

One version of the PDFCreator installer bundles AFPL Ghostscript version 8.54. If you have another version of Ghostscript -- such as the GNU or EPS variants -- installed on your computer and want to use that instead, you can do so by clicking the Ghostscript option and selecting your preferred version from a dropdown list.

While you can start using PDFCreator right out of the box, you can (and should) tweak the settings to produce better PDFs. To configure PDFCreator, click Start -> All Programs -> PDFCreator -> PDFCreator, and then select Printer -> Options.

You can configure many of the same options that are available in Adobe Acrobat. You can, for example, select a compatibility level (to ensure that your PDFs can be viewed in both newer and older versions of PDF readers), set the resolution, and make sure that the file opens and displays as quickly as possible when posted on the Web. As well, you can tell PDFCreator how to compress the text and graphics in a PDF and whether to embed all system fonts or just the fonts that are used in your document.

Based on my experience with creating PDFs (using a number of applications, both in Windows and Linux), I've found that the following configuration works well:

  • Set the Compatibility to Acrobat 4.0.
  • A resolution of 600 dpi is good for on-screen viewing. If you plan to have the PDFs printed, then set the resolution to 1200 dpi.
  • Use the ZIP option for all of the Compression settings. ZIP compression nicely balances making your PDFs smaller while maintaining their resolution.
  • Since you can't always be sure that the person viewing your PDF has the same fonts as you, select the option to embed only the fonts that are used in your document. Embedding all fonts will bloat your PDF.

PDFCreator also enables you to protect your document's content. You can set it to ensure that no one can copy the text and images in your file, modify the document, or print it. You can also password-protect your PDFs.

Creating PDFs

To create PDFs with PDFCreator, open a document in any Windows application and select File -> Print. Choose PDFCreator from the list of printers, then click OK or Print, depending on the application. A dialog box appears, where you can add or change the metadata for the PDF -- its title, author, the dates on which it was created or modified, and keywords. This dialog box also contains a button to configure PDFCreator, overriding any global options that you have set, and another for emailing the PDF. When you're ready, click Save. In most cases, PDFCreator writes PDFs faster than Acrobat does; you should have a PDF file within a few seconds.

In addition to PDF, PDFCreator can also save documents in several bitmap graphics formats, Postscript, and EPS.

PDFCreator is easy to use, but how do the PDFs that it creates stack up against those generated using Adobe Acrobat? With many documents, PDFCreator has the upper hand; with others, Acrobat produces better results.

While working with PDFCreator, I converted a number of different kinds of documents to PDF -- word processor files, spreadsheets, diagrams, and Web pages. The documents varied in length from two to 15 pages, and contained images. The PDFs generated by PDFCreator from the documents and spreadsheets were smaller than those generated by Acrobat. Depending on the size of the source files, they were anywhere from 10 to 50KB smaller and they didn't contain any fuzzy fonts or distorted images. Why even worry about the size of files when storage isn't very expensive these days? A smaller PDF opens a lot faster in a reader, regardless of which reader you're using. This could be a factor is you're posting your PDFs on the Web.

When it came to Web pages, PDFCreator and Acrobat performed equally well. The sizes of the PDFs I created was comparable -- within a few kilobytes in size. But when it comes to PDF versions of diagrams, Acrobat has it all over PDFCreator. I created a number of diagrams using Visio and the Windows version of Dia. The PDFs generated by PDFCreator were consistently larger than those output by Acrobat -- anywhere from 50 to 100KB larger, sometimes more.

PDFCreator has some other problems as well. It doesn't do that great a job of preserving links within a document. Most of the time, links in tables of contents or to other sections in a document don't work. And I've never been able to get PDFCreator to include bookmarks.

Using PDFCreator on a network

In addition to working as a desktop application, PDFCreator can be installed on a server using its network install option and produce PDFs from any computer connected to the network.

I tested PDFCreator on a small home wireless network, which has four notebooks connecting to it at any time. Using the Windows Add Printer Wizard, I connected to PDFCreator on the server. If you're going to do this, make sure that 1) PDFCreator is running on the server, and 2) you select the network printer option in the Add Printer Wizard.

When I first tried to print a PDF from one of the notebooks, I was puzzled why it didn't work. It turns out that you need to have the PDFCreator program running in the background on the server for this work. Once it was running, PDFCreator worked exactly as it did when I used it as a local printer -- the only difference is that the printing process took a few seconds longer.

PDFCreator does a solid job of producing PDF files from most Windows applications. The PDFs are perfect for archiving, emailing, printing, or posting on the Web. Most Windows users -- from the average home user to someone with a small office -- will find that PDFCreator packs most of the features that they need from PDF software.

While a dedicated Linux user, Scott Nesbitt has a number of Windows-using friends he introduces to the joys of FOSS.

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