Katherine Boehret

Creating Documents for All to Read

For years, people have accessed a variety of digital content in one of the most universally accepted formats: Adobe’s Portable Document Format, better known as the PDF. A PDF holds images and text without altering a document’s original fonts and layout. It can be searched, protected with a password, disabled from printing and enriched with bookmarks and hyperlinks that make it more navigable.

But while Adobe provides a free reader for viewing PDFs, creating PDFs yourself can be costly and confusing, even though the format is great for saving and sharing documents of almost any kind including images, Web pages, Word documents and emails. For users who want higher-end PDF creation and collaboration software, Adobe Systems Inc. offers its $450 Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional software program. But that’s pricey for most casual users. So this week I tested some inexpensive or free methods for making PDFs.

Converting documents into PDFs is simplified with Adobe’s online service (top) and Docudesk’s deskPDF program (bottom).

There are plenty of Windows programs available for download online that will help you create basic PDFs. On Windows computers, I tried three programs, starting with the $20 standard version of deskPDF from Plano, Texas-based Docudesk Corp. (www.Docudesk.com). I tested a stripped-down and less-expensive version of Adobe’s program called Create Adobe PDF Online, which works by uploading your document at www.CreatePDF.com and costs $10 monthly or $100 annually. And I also used a free program called CutePDF from Acro Software Inc. (www.CutePDF.com).

If you own a Mac, things are even simpler. Macs come out of the box with the ability to turn documents into PDFs, and I tested that function as well.

DeskPDF and CutePDF worked roughly the same way, though deskPDF costs $20 and CutePDF is free. Adobe’s less-expensive program offered a few more features than deskPDF and CutePDF, such as the ability to add password encryption to a document or to make it unprintable by others. Making PDFs on the Mac was a cinch, including options to compress or encrypt a PDF. None of these methods allowed me to add extra features to PDFs like bookmarks and hyperlinks; for that, you’ll need a more serious program.

When Microsoft’s Office 2007 program shipped early this year, many people expected that it would have the built-in ability to save documents in PDF format; it didn’t. Users can find a patch that fixes this on Microsoft’s Web site.

Apple’s operating system has long been known for the ease with which it can create PDFs using built-in tools. Put simply, any document that can be printed from a Mac can also be turned into a PDF. Users follow the normal steps necessary to print a document or Web site (usually File, Print), but can choose a button on the Print screen labeled “PDF” that converts the document.

In seconds, I turned all types of documents on my iMac into PDFs, including images in JPEG and TIF formats, emails, Word documents and Web sites. This last conversion was helpful for saving not just a view of the current screen, but the entire site from the top of the page to the bottom.

Options labeled “Compress PDF” and “Encrypt PDF” can be chosen in this Print screen. I chose Encrypt PDF and protected a PDF using a password in one quick step. The option to compress a PDF will decrease the size of an image in a document, but won’t decrease the size of a text-only document.

Two of the three Windows programs use a method similar to Apple’s, letting me send documents or Web sites into print mode and converting them into PDFs. Downloading and installing deskPDF or CutePDF adds a virtual printer driver to the computer. Rather than choosing a separate button labeled “PDF,” the conversion program is selected from a list of printers, and hitting the Print button saves the document as a PDF file. The first time I did this, I thought my document was printed rather than saved because a printer icon appeared in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, as if the document was printing. But a screen appeared asking where I wanted to save the new PDF, and I specified a location.

Docudesk offers free 24-hour technical support with all of its deskPDF programs, even trial versions. The company also touts its $40 deskUNPDF program, which restores PDFs to Word documents for editing purposes, one of the features also found in Adobe’s $450 product.

CutePDF writer and deskPDF must be used with separately installed converter programs, but these are small and free, and their installation is prompted after each of the core programs is downloaded. Both programs are also offered in upgraded versions that cost $50 for CutePDF Pro and $30 for deskPDF Pro, enabling advanced features like hyperlinks, encryption, password protection and printing restrictions.

Adobe’s Create Adobe PDF Online program offers a few more features than the others, but feels a bit disconnected because it uploads documents to the Web for PDF conversion rather than converting documents in an installed program.

An option called Create Adobe PDF Online Printer installs a printer driver on your PC, like deskPDF and CutePDF. But this saves your PDF online forcing you to retrieve it via Adobe’s Web site, an emailed link or an emailed attachment.

After registering to use Adobe’s online conversion product, users must select the file or Web page intended for PDF conversion. Security features are optional with each document, such as requiring a password to view it or not allowing others to print it. I tried both successfully. Once converted, a document can be delivered to you via email in a link or attachment. It can also be retrieved from a Conversion History section on the site or converted directly on the site.

Most of these conversion programs are available in some free capacity. DeskPDF can be used five times free of charge in the standard and professional versions before it starts adding a watermark to each PDF, which is intrusive. Adobe’s program can be used five times for each email that you register before you must subscribe to its conversion service.

If you need to save a document in a format that has the greatest likelihood of being viewable by all of your recipients, PDFs are the way to go, and they aren’t difficult to make.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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