How to deal with a PDF file

Question: I receive Adobe Acrobat files all the time. The extension on the files is .PDF. What does PDF mean and how is it different from .TXT or .DOC? – JT

Answer: PDF stands for “Portable Document Format”. It’s a file format invented in 1995 by Adobe Systems, king of the software graphics tools.

The PDF format is a universal translator for documents that contain graphics and formatted text. No matter what operating system your computer is using (as long as it’s graphics-based, not a command-line system), and no matter what document software you’re using, you’ll be able to see a PDF file just as its creator intended. (See below for information on getting the free PDF Reader.)

Let’s say I’ve created a newsletter about my cat Roo on my Windows computer with a desktop publishing program. If I want you to see it on your computer but you don’t have the same operating system or desktop publishing software as I do, we’re kind of stuck. I could print it out and send it to you by mail, but that defeats the purpose of electronic distribution. Since I don’t want you to miss the running diary of her attempts to terrorize my housemates, to say nothing of the litterbox action shots, I need to find another way to get the newsletter to you.

If I have Adobe Acrobat, I can convert that document into a PDF file, preserving its look and feel, including all the layout, fonts, text, and graphics. Then I can send the PDF file to anyone in cyberspace and, using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader, they can see my original newsletter as it was meant to be seen.

You could argue that I could cut and paste the text portion of the newsletter into an e-mail or send it as a TXT file, but that would require dissecting the whole document. In a TXT file, you’d also only get the text and nothing else. I could also create the newsletter in Microsoft Word, provided you had the same program (and program version) on your computer. But if I want to share the newsletter with hundreds of people, all who have different viewer programs and computer set-ups, that becomes problematic. PDF solves the problem.

Another beauty of the PDF format is that it is compact, so a large document can be compressed down into something that won’t take until the next millennium to download. Text and graphics can also be selected from within a PDF file and used elsewhere later.

If you encounter a PDF document on the Internet, your browser will probably prompt you to download the Acrobat Reader program, or ask you where it is on your computer, so here’s how to get your free copy:

  1. Connect to the Internet and go to
  2. Review the information on the screen carefully to see whether there are things you want to opt into or out of, before you download the Reader.
  3. Click the Download button. A dialogue box will pop up at some point and ask you where the program should be downloaded to. Choose a folder that you’ll be able to find later and click OK.
  4. The installation program will download to your computer. When it’s done, find it in the folder you specified and double click it to install the program.

If you use Netscape Navigator, the install program will provide a plug-in that will display a PDF document inside Navigator. If you’re an Internet Explorer user, you’ll get an ActiveX control. Everyone gets an independent reader program that can be run outside a browser from the desktop. You may need to restart your system for the installation to take effect.

If you’re interested in creating PDF files, the professional version of Adobe Acrobat (7.0) costs about $400-500, and is available for Windows and Macs (you can use this page on Adobe’s website. Its features include creation of PDF documents from any application, advanced document annotation (including attaching naughty audio comments to paragraphs of insurance policies that you don’t like – don’t ask how I know), conversion of web pages, creation of interactive electronic forms, and accessibility features.

We also have a freeware version of a PDF creator in our TechnologyTips Software Library that I use on a regular basis. It acts like a virtual printer and will create the PDF document through that printer. You can find it here.