Manfred Kuechler
Hunter College

Version: February 27, 2002

May 22, 2003:
I don't the time for a full update right now, but here two important pieces of information
  • Adobe Acrobat 6 will be released at the end of May. There will be a "standard" and a "professional" version. 6 PRO is available in an academic edition for about $100.
  • A reader of this page (Stuart Hart) pointed out that you should install the "Acrobat Distiller PPD information" with your "PS printer driver" rather than relying on the generic ppd (as I recommend below) if you want to produce documents in color.

How to produce PDF documents -- with and without Adobe Acrobat

Note that Adobe Acrobat is available in an "Academic Edition" -- full functionality at a fraction of the list price (more details and vendors). 

What are PDF documents?

PDF stands for "portable data format" which was developed by Adobe Systems. It is a data format which preserves formatting instructions like page layout (as generated by commonly used word processing software like MS Word or Corel WordPerfect but other applications as well) which has become a quasi-standard for documents delivered via the web. In particular, many government documents as well as online journal articles are made available in pdf. Since there is a fixed page layout -- in contrast to htm documents, it is possible to refer to specific sections in the document by page number.

Unlike documents in the generic web format (technically known as html) which can be displayed directly by web browsers (like Netscape or MS Internet Explorer), pdf documents require a special reader or plug-in. However, the Acrobat Reader is distributed for free and it is bundled with many software products, so that for many end users no separate installation is necessary. If the web browser is properly configured, pdf documents will display automatically in a browser window. Also, when properly generated (but often this is not the case) the file size of pdf documents is considerable smaller than documents in .doc (MS Word),  .wpd (WordPerfect), or .rtf (an alternative "portable" format). And file size, of course, is an important consideration for delivery via the web (e.g., from course web sites).

While the Acrobat Reader is the most commonly used software to view pdf documents, there are other viewers (see below). So, one should distinguish between the pdf specification and the specific Adobe Acrobat software. Though Adobe Systems maintains copyright to pdf, it has granted wide license to use this format for other applications.

How to produce PDF documents -- with Adobe Acrobat

The easiest way to produce documents in pdf is by using the Adobe Acrobat software. The current version is 5.0 (released in March 2001; with an upgrade to 5.0.5 in December 2001). Documents in pdf can be produced by Conversion from other applications. This is a particular attractive option as an instructor can continue to use his/her favorite creation tools. The conversion occurs via "printing" to a specific (virtual) printer which is installed with the full Acrobat product. So, one simply selects the "Acrobat PDFWriter" printer from the printer menu, provides a file name when prompted for one, and this is it. Alternatively, one can select the "Acrobat Distiller" printer from the printer menu. The latter is preferable when the document is more complex, e.g., when it includes graphics and complex layout. The resulting .pdf file can then be uploaded to the course web site or, more generally, to any web server. This process works with any Windows application. There are additional considerations when using specific applications:

MS Word 2000
If MS Word/Office is installed on your computer when you are installing Adobe Acrobat, the "PDFMaker 5 for MS Word" is also installed and a special "Acrobat" button appears on the MS Word tool bar. Using the "PDFMaker" has great advantages as it preserves specific functionality of your Word (.doc) document like bookmarks (internal links) and hyperlinks to web sites. The resulting pdf document (while larger in size) will have the same "clickable links" as the original Word document, so it preserves both page layout and links (while an htm conversion preserve the latter only).
Unfortunately, early on the standard installation of PDFMaker did not work with MS Word XP (2002).  Following some advice I located in "Adobe Forums" -- a discussion board for Adobe users -- I was able to make PDFMaker work with Word XP on my station, but the official advice from Microsoft was to wait till Adobe released an updated version (more info from MS on trying to make it work and more warnings). The update to 5.0.5 with improved MS Office integration was released in December 2001.

WordPerfect 9 (2000)
This version of WP comes with its own built-in PDF converter, available from the "File" menu after you have opened a document. No need to have the full Adobe Acrobat installed. This, however, is a basic pdf conversion which will not preserve any links. Links in the original WP document will appear in blue and underlined in the resulting pdf document, but they will only look like links without functioning as such.

Capturing and editing web pages. Version 5.0 now includes the option to capture complete web pages (including graphics) and turn these into a .pdf document to which comments and highlights can be added (example: Hunter College home page as captured pdf document). This is very useful for documenting the specific contents of a web page at a particular point in time, as the contents of many web pages change frequently.

The Acrobat Reader (as well as any pdf viewer) is sufficient to view and save pdf documents found on the web. However, the full Acrobat software lets you extract individual pages and combine pages from different pdf documents into a new one. E.g., to produce a document providing excerpts from several laws and regulations on a particular subject, say "accessibility requirements for software" to comply with the ADA.

Scanning printed documents. Acrobat is also my software of choice when scanning printed materials. Typically, the default settings produce files of reasonable size making additional editing unnecessary. However, the initial file is an "image only" file even if the printed material consists of text only. This means that the text is stored as an image and that such a pdf document can not be searched for text strings. The consequence is a fairly large file size and considerable lack of convenience.

Such documents should be processed further so that the text is recognized as text ("optical character recognition - OCR"), reducing the file size and adding much convenience. Such "paper capture" option was included in Acrobat 4.x, but was no longer included in Acrobat 5.0. Rather one must now use a separate product Acrobat Capture or use the "pay per document" Adobe online service (also available on a monthly subscription base). Subsequently (in late May 2001), Adobe made a "Paper Capture Plug-in" available which can be downloaded free of charge.

In sum, Acrobat is a very sophisticated product offering many options, but just using its basic features without changing the default settings does not require much learning. Any faculty able to deal with the basics of MS Word or WordPerfect can use Acrobat without much training, but the benefits are tremendous. Unfortunately, the retail price is about $250, and so far Hunter' s ICIT (see e.g., my presentation at the ICIT seminar in the fall of 2000) and the CUNY Online project (e.g., my advice for faculty new to Blackboard) have simply ignored all my pleas to make this tool available to faculty interested in adding online components to their courses. Given the continuing neglect of faculty's needs for "going online" (and trying to cover it up by writing fiction about what is being done), I searched for a way to produce pdf documents without having the Acrobat software available. The "poor person's way to produce pdf documents" is described in the following section. But, there is also a full feature "Academic Edition" available from select retailers (like Computer Products for Education) for less than $60 -- much more affordable. So, unless money is a big problem, I strongly suggest to get the "Academic Edition" and all its features (like PDFMaker for Word) rather than using the absolutely free approach described below.

How to produce PDF documents -- without Adobe Acrobat (and not having WP 2000 available)

This solution uses the fact that there is relation between the pdf specification and the "PostScript" (PS) printer language, a page description language (PDL) also developed by Adobe Systems. Without going into any technical details, let it suffice to say that a number of typically high end (laser) printers are PostScript printers. As a page can either be physically printed or displayed on a screen, the idea is to use PS to include page layout information with the contents. And as .ps file is ready to be used by a specific printer it does not depend on the specific application (e.g., MS Word or WordPefect) or the specific platform (e.g., Windows or Mac) where it was generated. So, you may just put a .ps file up on a web server and some people do this. But, as with .pdf documents, browsers cannot handle such documents directly and the user needs to install a PS viewer in addition. So what is different? The key is that .ps documents can be produced by installing a free PS "printer driver". And rather than forcing the users (students) to install yet another viewer, the instructor can convert the initial .ps document into a pdf document using a PS viewer which also allows to convert the .ps file into pdf. So here are the steps (fully tested on Windows only, Mac users need to experiment):
  1. Instructor needs to install a PS printer driver (free) to be able to save .ps files on his/her disk -- no need to actually have a PS printer
  2. Instructor needs to install GSView, a shareware PS/PDF viewer which also converts .ps files into pdf
Installing a PS printer driver. This can be done in various way and a PS printer driver along with ppd (PS printer definition) files for many common printer models comes with various Windows versions (95, 98, 2000, NT, Me). One could just follow the standard procedure for adding a printer (in Win98): "Start"/"Settings"/"Printer"/"Add Printer" which brings up the "wizard". Just follow the direction and add any PS printer; when the screen about "picking a port" comes up, switch from the default "LPT1" to "File" -- this way the output typically sent to the actual printer is written to disk (and in the process a prompt for a specific file name appears every time this "printer" is used).

However, rather than using this standard procedure, I recommend to install the Adobe PostScript printer driver (AdobePS) for Win9x  or whatever operating system you run on your computer (other Windows versions, Mac). Don't worry about downloading any "ppd" files as you are instructed. Though these are available at the Adobe web site as well, you don't really need them as the APS printer driver comes with a generic ppd which is all you need as you only want to print to file. To install the APS, simply double click on the downloaded .exe file and follow the instructions. Select the "generic" ppd, and select "file" as the port -- as in the standard Windows printer installation described above.

Obviously, you need to do this only once. After the installation is complete, you can select the "Generic PostScript Printer" from the printer menu in any Windows application.

Installing GSView. The is the second part of the one time installation business. GSView requires another piece of freeware, so must download and install two pieces of the software in this order:

  1. Download and install AFPL Ghostscript (current version for Win 9x, NT, 2000 is 6.50). It is fairly big file (close to 6 MB), so be patient and use a time with little traffic.
  2. Download and install GSView (current version 3.6) for Windows, OS, Linux OR

  3. download and install MacGSView (I am not sure whether this Mac viewer has the ability to convert to pdf as well)
Producing pdf documents. This is a two step process:
  1. Producing a .ps from within your application (e.g., MS Word or WordPerfect) by "printing to the Generic PostScript Printer"; you may have to change the file extension to ".ps"
  2. Opening the .ps in GSView and then converting it to pdf via "File"/"Convert"/"pdfwrite" (the latter is the default)
The default settings in GSView tend to produce rather large pdf files. Here is a file size comparison based on a short (1 page) WordPerfect document:
Format File size
Original Wordperfect (.wpd) 9 KB
pdf with Acrobat PDFWriter 6 KB
pdf with Acrobat Distiller 17 KB
ps with Generic PostScript Printer 47 KB
ps converted to pdf with GSView (default settings) 143 KB
ps converted to pdf with GSView (300 dpi, full embedding=no) 26 KB

Obviously, using GSView requires a bit more knowledge about the formats involved and some tweaking of the default setting to produce files of acceptable size. Also, pdf documents produced with GSView may not look that good on screen (even when subsequently viewed with the Acrobat Reader -- as your students would do), but they print fine.

GSView is also a PDF viewer and it can be used to extract individual pages from a larger pdf document (which the Acrobat Reader will not let you do).

GSView is shareware and you will be nagged to register the product every time you use it. Registration costs 40 Australian dollars (some 25-30 US $), and you can pay online via credit card, but it is legal to use it unregistered. So, you should try it out for a while to see whether you will become a regular user and just getting rid of the nagging reminder is worth the money.

Bottom line: Using GSView as described above is a work around not offering the same degree of convenience and efficiency as the full Acrobat software. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, Hunter and CUNY faculty will get the support they deserve.