Everyone has heard of PDF – the Adobe Portable Document Format. But what is a PDF file, why are PDF files so popular, and how does that affect choosing the right printer?
What is a PDF file?
A PDF file is a document format created by Adobe that can include text, images, fonts and other content independent of any specific hardware, software or operating system. In other words, any document is readable on any hardware (desktop, laptop, smartphone or printer), with any compatible software (Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Reader, web browsers, native smartphone applications, software embedded in printers) and any operating system (Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, embedded systems).
PDF is an open format and has a number of features that make it arguably superior to most other file formats for sharing documents. This is different from most other document formats. For example, while the Microsoft Word .docx format has been standardized as Office Open XML, there has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the format and the standards process and there are significant implementation issues with the format across different application programs, including Microsoft Office.
One of the most useful features of PDF is that each element, including text, is positioned on the page as part of the format. This means that, unlike most word processing formats, text is guaranteed to be placed in the same place on the page, regardless of the hardware, software or operating system – e.g., there will not be any tiny shifts due to default fonts or other configuration parameters that can, with other formats, result in different pagination of the same document on two different systems. In other words, PDF is closer than most formats to a universal What You See is What You Get system.
PDF documents normally include all necessary fonts except for the standard 14 base fonts (Times, Courier, Helvetica, Symbol, Zapf Dingbts). As a result, PDF files do not suffer from the “missing font” problem that can occur with shared Word or other documents.
While a free PDF reader is available for nearly every current computer system, creating PDFs is often more complicated.
- Adobe Acrobat The top-of-the-line option is Adobe Acrobat but most people do not need all of the features, or the expense, of Adobe Acrobat.
- Applications with Native PDF Support Some document creation programs such as WordPerfect and LibreOffice include PDF creation as a standard part of the software.
- Printer Driver You can also install a program that will let you “print” from any application to create a PDF. My favorite of these is Pdf995 which costs $9.95 but can also be used totally free in an ad-supported mode. Warning: some programs (but not Pdf995) will place an advertising watermark on any PDFs created in a free trial mode, making it great for trial but not useful as a free product.
- Custom Software There are PDF creation libraries available for Python, PHP and other popular programming languages to generate PDF documents directly from a web site or other application software.
Since any hardware, software and operating system can display PDFs, and most systems can print anything they can display, what is the big deal about printing? There are a few special things to know about printing PDF files compared to most other document formats:
- Almost everything is automatic: When you print a PDF file, almost everything is determined automatically, including the page size. Provided you have the same paper size (e.g., 8-1/2″ x 11″) as the PDF was created with, everything works quite well. There are some exceptions – the PDF format does not include support for single-sided vs. double-sided (duplex) printing, paper tray selection or other finishing options (e.g., stapling or folding), so those setting need to be set separately when printing a PDF document.
- Native Printer Support Many printers such as:
the HP M402n
and the Brother HL-L5100DN include PDF support.
Look for language such as “PDF version 1.7” in the specifications. Generally the bottom of the line printers do not support direct PDF printing, but most mid-to-upper range printers include this feature. This feature doesn’t matter for everyone, but it is one step in enabling features such as automatic printing from web sites or via email.