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Free PDFs with Windows

by Wendy J. Woudstra   


Every now and then, I get a flurry of emails from people asking how they can inexpensively create PDF files without purchasing the full version of Adobe Acrobat.

While I do own a copy of Acrobat, I know that for many people, the price of the package is prohibitively expensive especially for people who only need to create a few files a year.

There is a simple way, however, to create PDF files from almost any program on your Windows machine. If you can print it, you should be able to PDF it using this method

1)      Install a PostScript printer driver.

Most personal printers are not PostScript printers, so unless you're sure that your printer is Postscript compatible, you'll need to install a new printer driver. Please note that you don't actually need to own the printer, you just need to make Windows believe you do.

Go to the Control Panel menu (from either the My Computer icon on your desktop, or the Settings item in your Start Menu) and choose Printers.

Click on Add Printer, and select a PostScript printer.═ I chose the Apple LaserWriter Pro. There are a wide variety of Postscript printers available in the menu, but this one is near the top, and I know it works well for black and white PDFs. If you want your file to convert in color, you'll need to choose a color Postscript printer (like one of Apple's Color LaserWriter series).

Make your selection, and proceed. You may need to use your Windows installation disk to finish installing the driver. When prompted to print a test page, decline.
2)      Print your document to a file.

Open the program and document you need to convert to PDF, and select the Print option from the File menu.

From the selection box that opens, choose your new PostScript printer, and click the box ═that indicates you wish to Print to File.
Click OK to save the file. Be sure to name it with a .ps extension filename.ps for example. Your computer may wish to save it with a .prn extension, but you should override that setting for the conversion.
3)      Convert the PostScript file to PDF.

Go online and use your browser to visit http://www.ps2pdf.com.
Select your .ps file for conversion, and in a few moments your completed PDF document will be available for you to download.

All that's left to do is test it out with a copy of Acrobat Reader. I've tested a wide variety of documents with images, non-standard characters and equations using this method with very good results.


Q. Is there a way to go from PDF back to *.doc so you can edit again?

A. Assuming you no longer have a copy of the original document, there are a number of things you can try. While I don't know of any programs that will convert from PDF to Doc format, but there are several which will convert PDF files into HTML, which you could then open and edit in Word:

  • pdftohtml is a free downloadable program that seems to do a good job in extracting information from a PDF
  • Adobe has a free web-based script that will convert PDF to HTML on the fly.
  • Adobe Acrobat 5, the full version, has a built in feature to convert from PDF to RTF, which may be worth your while if the documents you need to recover have complex tables and formatting that may not convert well to HTML.

Q. Is there a way to create PDFs cheaply using a Mac computer?

A. If you're running Mac OS X, you can open up a document, hit "Print", and then hit "Preview" — it will open in Mac OS X's Preview app. In Preview, choose to "Save As PDF", and you've got a PDF version of your document.

Click here for more information on this feature.

Q. This is just too complicated for me. Are there other options?

A. A few vendors and service providers have emailed me with information on their products and services. The free options are listed below.

  • www.pdf995.com has great free PDF creation software that has features you just can't get with the free 'Print to PS' option.
  • If you're trying to convert a Microsoft Word file, you can give FastPDF.com a try. It's currently a free service that will convert your Word file to PDF in about an hour, though the owner says they may move to a pay-per-use model in the future.
    by Wendy Woudstra