Create PDFs On The Cheap

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted March 03, 2003
If you want to securely and easily publish documents on the Web while retaining the fonts, layout, pagination and graphics of original Word processing or desktop publishing documents, you need to be able to create documents in Adobe System's Portable Document Format (PDF).

The PDF document format, which can be read by Adobe's Acrobat Reader, has become ubiquitous, a de facto industry standard. Besides Web publishing, many governments and courts now insist companies and lawyers submit official documents in PDF files.

Attorneys and others use PDF to create vast document databases from electronic and hardcopy sources. They scan pages, use optical character recognition (OCR) software to translate contents to computer-readable text — then combine graphic and OCR files to create exact PDF simulations of original paper documents.

Part of the reason for Adobe's success with PDF is its classic Web software marketing strategy. It provides the Acrobat Reader — a piece of software that works as a browser plug-in or stand-alone viewer — as a free Web download. Everybody has it now.


If you want to create your own PDF files, though, or modify or annotate existing PDFs, you need the company's Acrobat 5.0 product — which sells for $250. Or rather, that was the only way to create PDFs. Things have changed.

Adobe Alternatives
Several companies have now developed and market much less expensive alternatives to Adobe's PDF creation software. We reviewed two: RoboPDF 2.0 ($50) from eHelp Corp. of San Diego, Calif. and pdfFactory ($50) from FinePrint Software of San Francisco. Both are also available to download in free, time-limited trial versions.

They work much the same way. After you install them, you can create PDF files in any Windows application using the File/Print dialog. The PDF creation program shows up in the pull-down list of printers. Select it, click OK and the program automatically creates a draft PDF file, which you see in a pop-up viewer window. You can then save it as a PDF file. It's that simple — or can be.

If you want to control how the program creates the PDF file and activate enhanced features such as adding electronic watermarks, encrypting files and working with fonts and bookmarks, click Properties in the File/Print dialog to access the PDF creation program. This is where the two products diverge.

Part of the point of the PDF format is that you can encrypt files for distribution and set passwords for decrypting them, thus preventing unauthorized viewers from reading or altering your documents. The basic version of pdfFactory does not include the encryption features — you have to buy the $100 pdfFactory Pro to get it. The basic version of RoboPDF does include encryption.

pdfFactory Pro and RoboPDF offer essentially the same Adobe-standard security features. You can encrypt using default 48-bit or much stronger 128-bit encryption. You can set passwords. And you can set permission levels — preventing authorized viewers from printing the document, selecting text in it, modifying it or annotating it.

RoboPDF has one additional copyright protection feature that pdfFactory does not have. It lets you add an electronic watermark in the background of each page of the document. It appears whenever the document displays — and, more importantly, when it's printed.

You input text — "Copyright Jupitermedia," for example — select the font, font style (solid or outline), font size and transparency level. In the final PDF file, the text appears diagonally across each page.

Well-produced PDF files make it easy for viewers to navigate by creating an index of "bookmarks" which are displayed in a column at the left of the Acrobat Reader screen. Bookmarks are typically chapter and section headings. The user clicks on a bookmark to go directly to that page and section — the PDF version of hyperlinks. They're especially important if you're publishing long documents on the Web.

pdfFactory provides a simple but effective feature for automatically generating bookmarks. You tell the program the font, type size and formatting used for headings in your document at up to nine different levels — i.e. head, subhead, sub-subhead and so on. It automatically finds each heading and uses the text as a bookmark. pdfFactory will also automatically convert URLs in the document's text to PDF links.

RoboPDF does not provide any bookmark or PDF link functions.

To ensure accurate reproduction of an original document on any computer, PDF creation programs "embed" the original type fonts — store them right in the PDF document. Why? Because the computer that receives the document may not have those fonts, and if it doesn't, it won't be able to display the document as intended without font embedding.

RoboPDF embeds fonts automatically and transparently to the user. pdfFactory also by default automatically embeds fonts, but it allows you a little more flexibility as well. You can embed additional fonts used in the document that the program may have missed, or turn font embedding off to reduce file size. For most users, this is not a critical feature.

Both programs are dead simple to use. With its slightly richer feature set, pdfFactory takes a little longer to master — though we're still talking minutes.

Both let you set the quality and size of resulting files — this is mainly a matter of setting the resolution of text and graphics. We created a test file with text, photo and graphic and created PDFs with both programs — using the same quality settings.

RoboPDF created noticeably better results — mainly crisper, blacker text. It's worth noting that the resulting files were within 20KB of being the same size and the RoboPDF file was in fact the smaller. The pdfFactory result was still acceptable, however. The difference was less noticeable but still there when we printed the test files.

Parting Thoughts
If your primary concern is securely transmitting sensitive documents that you want the receiver to be able to print in optimum quality, RoboPDF is clearly the better choice because you don't have to pay extra for the security features.

But if you're creating PDFs for publishing at Web sites, pdfFactory, with its bookmark functions and greater flexibility in handling fonts is a better bet.

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