Portable Document Format (PDF) files routinely fill people's browser windows and e-mail inboxes. They're sent there by organizations, companies and government agencies that use this format to ensure that documents such as tax forms and loan applications look the same on whatever computer they're opened.
But you can also use this format yourself with a little work.
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___Personal Tech E-letter___ Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro answers reader e-mail and expands on themes he touches on in his weekly newspaper column. The e-mail version of this weekly feature includes links to the latest gadget and software reviews.
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Why not just send a Word file? A PDF will preserve whatever text styles and graphics you added, which you can't count on with Word files transferred between computers -- even those running the same version of Word. It will also be readable on computers that don't have Word installed at all. Lastly, a PDF cannot be edited except with high-end software (a handy consideration if you're sending contracts back and forth).
But although PDF reader software, such as the free Adobe Reader (www.adobe.com/reader), runs on desktop machines and handheld organizers, PDF writer software is hard to find in Windows. (Mac OS X can make PDFs from any application; just select the Print command, then click the "Save As PDF..." button.)
Neither Windows XP nor Microsoft Office includes a save-as-PDF capacity, although some Office competitors, such as WordPerfect by Corel and OpenOffice, do feature that option. The cheapest PDF-creation program from Adobe, the developer of the PDF standard, is its $299 Adobe Acrobat Standard.
However, since this format is an open, well-documented standard, other companies have been able to develop their own free PDF-publishing tools -- or at least, free in a monetary sense. Two programs, CutePDF Writer (Win 98 or newer, www.cutepdf.com) and Pdf995 (Win 95 or newer, www.pdf995.com) come in free versions intended to promote upgraded or ad-free siblings, while a third application, PDFCreator (Win 95 or newer, sourceforge.net/projects/pdfcreator) is an open-source project.
Fair warning: All of them involve intimidating installations for computer novices. Just getting each set up requires downloading and installing separate files, a process inadequately explained by their instructions. PDF995 was slightly easier to install, but not by any great margin.
Once properly downloaded,however, all three programs worked well. To get a PDF copy of a document -- from whatever application, be it Word, a Web browser or anything else that can print -- just select the "Print" command instead of "Save," then choose the PDF-creation program instead of your usual printer.
All three translated even moderately complex word-processing documents, spreadsheets and even presentations into perfectly legible, completely portable files.
Where they differ is in the options they provide at this step, and in how obnoxious they can be in routine operation.
PDFCreator, for example, is smart enough to name a new PDF after the file you're converting it from. CutePDF offers the most straightforward interface; once you select it as your "printer" for a file, you're presented with a simple "save as" dialog box. It will also regularly remind you that a $50 version can do things like rotate pages or stamp them with text or images ("draft," "top secret" and so on), but that seems like more money than most casual users will want to pay.
PDF995 was most annoying in use; every time it processed and saved PDFs, it popped up ad banners and other advertising windows. To get rid of those, you'll have to pay $9.95 to register it.
If you're going to be cranking out PDF copies of your work with any regularity, go with PDFCreator, which does the basic job as well as the other two but with fewer hassles once installed.
Otherwise, though, the simplest option may not be any of these programs at all: Adobe maintains a PDF-conversion Web site (createpdf.adobe.com) that allows five free uses when you open a new account, then costs $10 a month. It's not nearly as fast and convenient as using a program right on your computer, but for every-now-and-then use, the price is right and the setup procedure (none) is as well.