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PDFs get more nimble

Although Adobe created Acrobat and its portable document format more than a decade ago, Adobe’s products are not the only way to make or look at a PDF file.

Here’s an exercise in generating a blank stare from average computer users around the office: Ask them what PDF stands for. A high percentage will probably be able to tell you that you need the Acrobat Reader to open a PDF file. Many will probably roll their eyes at how slow that darn reader is to open in their Web browser when they click on a PDF link. Some may even say that you need a program from Adobe called the Acrobat Distiller to make one.

But despite the fact that it’s a Pretty Darn Familiar format, there’s a Paucity of Definite Facts about it. One is the fact that PDF stands for Portable Document Format, which is designed to reproduce documents faithfully, with fonts and images and page layout identical no matter what platform your computer runs on, and no matter whether you own the program the document was created with. But that’s not the only area of ignorance surrounding PDF files. For example, none of the statements in the opening paragraph is entirely true.

Although Adobe created Acrobat and its portable document format more than a decade ago, Adobe’s products are not the only way to make or look at a PDF file. And thanks to the recent introduction of the Acrobat 7 platform, PDF files are no longer as slow to load as they used to be. And that’s enough to make any finger-drumming file freak breathe a sigh of relief.

Pretty darn fast reader

You don’t need to lay down a nickel to improve your Adobe Acrobat experience. Hie yourself over to Acrobat’s site and click on the Acrobat Reader 7 link right away. The free reader reads all the same PDF files just as before, but in my informal tests, it starts up twice as fast as the Reader 6 and 5, and opens large PDF files significantly faster once it’s open. Since many companies and governmental agencies use PDF as a way to post their documents on the Web, this fact alone will take a little tension out of many people’s online experience (especially those who download their tax forms from the IRS site, which has been using PDFs for years).

But there’s a little more to Acrobat Reader 7 than faster load times. The new reader comes in two flavors–a basic one that works like Reader 6 used to, and an enhanced version that lets you annotate Acrobat files. This is a boon for any of us who do any kind of online research, because annotation lets you virtually scribble notes in the margins, highlight important parts, or slap a sticky note to a document.

But this level of interactivity is handy, although it’s of a minor order. The real boon for information workers is the ability to make their own PDF files out of highly formatted documents (or even a plain Word document that you don’t want people to edit). You’ll need more than the Reader to do this.

PDF the Adobe way

The on-ramp to Adobe Acrobat file writing carries a steep toll: Adobe’s software offerings start with Acrobat Standard 7, a $300 program, and climb to Acrobat Professional for $450. For a lower cost of entry, you can visit Adobe’s site >http://createpdf.< and sign up for online Acrobat creation--a service that gives you a free trial of five documents, then charges $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year.

If you install Acrobat software instead of going the online route, it’s simple to create PDF files: Open a file you’ve already made, select File Print, and pick Acrobat as your printer. Instead of coming out on paper, your document is transformed into a PDF file ready to upload or send via e-mail. In addition to being un-editable and looking the same on computers without your fonts, the PDF file is often smaller in size. In informal tests, I’ve shrunk 30MB Word files down to 4MB PDFs using Acrobat 7 Professional. Not all compression is quite so dramatic, but it’s a rare PDF file that’s not at least a bit smaller than its raw counterpart.

For people who favor Windows Explorer, there’s another Adobe way to make Acrobat files: Select one or more files in Explorer, right-click on them, and select Convert to Adobe PDF. The Acrobat writing software will prompt you for a file name and convert the document there and then. You can also combine multiple documents this way, with each successive file appended to the previous one. If you create reports piecemeal, this is a convenient way to combine all the elements into a final draft.

PDF alternatives

There are lower cost alternatives to Adobe’s Acrobat line which create documents that may not be high-quality enough to create coffee table books, but which work fine for Web and regular print jobs. I’ve reviewed FinePrint Software’s $80 pdfFactory and $110 pdfFactory Pro >

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