Saturday, 8 July 2006

Review of free PDF creation software

by Charles Pooter

This article can be considered a belated sequel to this and this.

Introduction
Other operating systems such as Linux and OS X come with tools to create PDF files. This article will review some of the various free PDF creation tools available for Microsoft Windows and make recommendations as to which one you should install.

Before I start the review, some important information about PDF files. The PDF (Portable Document Format) is an open standard for the distribution of documents in electronic form. It is extremely popular and is useful in many situations, especially for distribution of documents that are to be printed. However, it is over-used as a format and should not be used in the following situations:

  • Putting information on a website, except when you intend for people to print-out the information. Use HTML instead.
  • Sending a document that you want someone to edit. PDF should be considered a read-only format in most situations. If you want someone to edit a document, send the document in a writable format such as a Microsoft Word file (doc) , a Rich Text File (rtf) or an OpenDocument file (when it becomes more popular). If formatting isn't important, send the document as plain text.
That said, if you need to create a PDF file in Windows, there are now free, downloadable tools for doing so. These tools can only create PDF files. Those needing advanced functionality, such as the ability to change text in existing PDF files, should purchase Adobe Acrobat. As far as I know there are no free tools for accomplishing this task.

The tools
CutePDF (download printer driver, download converter program)
Go2PDF (download)
pdf995 (download printer driver, download converter program)
PDFCreator (download)
PDF Online
PrimoPDF (download)

CutePDF
Home page
Download printer driver
Download converter program

Version reviewed: 2.6
Publisher: Acro Software
Licence: Freeware

Installation:
The CutePDF installation requires installation of two components: the CutePDF Writer printer driver and a converter program (in reality a "lite" version of GPL Ghostscript). The driver installation was simple enough, except for the following ambiguous warning...


...which I foolishly thought (for a second) meant that it would only work on the 64 bit version of XP. The install also claims it needs a reboot, which seems a little over the top. The program installs a PDF printer driver and creates a program group with a link to a readme file and the uninstaller. The converter program installer basically unzips some GPL Ghostscript files into a separate folder inside the program files directory. In conclusion, the need for two installers and the use of GPL Ghostscript in a separate folder (which may interfere with an existing Ghostscript installation) is a bit messy.

Functionality:
Like most of these tools, to create a PDF from an application such as Microsoft Word, with CutePDF, you just print using the installed PDF printer. When you do this CutePDF presents you with a file dialogue to choose the folder and filename to save the resulting PDF. It does not present you with any other options. After choosing a file name and location, the program creates a PDF and that's it. This is a no-nonsense approach, but I like the option of having Adobe Reader open after creation of the PDF.

Document quality:
The images and text produced were sharp and well-defined. I could see no noticeable difference between the output produced by CutePDF and that produced by Adobe Acrobat. Word bookmarks were not transferred to the PDF. The file size of the PDF was twice that of Acrobat with default settings.

Uninstallation:
The uninstallation generally went without a hitch, but strangely the uninstaller also removed the GPL Ghostscript installation, even though this was a separate install. The CutePDF program group was also left on the start menu.

Conclusion:
Not a bad download, with good quality output, but the installer could be better and more options could be provided when creating the PDF.

Go2PDF
Homepage
Download (but don't bother)
Version reviewed: 1.01
Publisher: Wondersoft
Licence: Freeware (but actually cripple-ware)

Installation:
The installer for Go2PDF is simple and effective. It seems to make it clear before and after the installation exactly what it is installing and how to use the printer driver:

Functionality:
Like CutePDF, Go2PDF merely presents a file dialogue and then produces the PDF file without fanfare.

Document quality:
Here's where Go2PDF falls down. It turns out that every page of every PDF produced by Go2PDF contains an advert for their pay product:

This would be fine if it was made clear before installation but it isn't mentioned, in any obvious way, on their website nor is it mentioned by the installation. If that wasn't bad enough the PDF file was nothing like the original Word document, as most of the paragraph formatting was lost. This product is free, but essentially useless.

Uninstallation:
There was no reference to Go2PDF in "Add/Remove Programs" so I had to delete the printer manually.

Conclusion:
Don't bother as there are much better free downloads available that don't feature unannounced adverts.

pdf995
Homepage
Download printer driver
Download converter program
Version reviewed: 7.9s
Publisher: Software995
Licence: Freeware (adware)

Installation:
Like CutePDF, pdf995 uses two installers: one for the printer driver and one for the converter program. After installing the printer driver you are prompted to download and install the converter program. When you run the converter installer, you are given the following message:


The free converter is a version of Ghostscript hidden away neatly in the pdf995 folder. Like with CutePDF, I feel it would be easier if there was one installer.

Functionality:
pdf995 is adware. This is made clear on the webpage. After printing your document with the PDF printer driver and, as usual, selecting the file and folder, ads are displayed for 30 seconds or so in browser windows and an upgrade message is displayed:

After the PDF is created, Acrobat Reader opens automatically. This is a useful feature as you will always want to inspect PDF files to check they reflect the content and presentation of the source file. The PDF file produced is advert-free.

Document quality:
The images and text produced were sharp and well-defined. As with CutePDF, I could see no noticeable difference between the output produced by pdf995 and that produced by Adobe Acrobat. Word bookmarks were not transferred to the PDF. The file size of the PDF was over twice that of Acrobat.

Uninstallation:
Uninstallation basically went without a hitch, removing the driver and converter, but a link to the website was left on the start menu.

Conclusion:
p95995 is perfectly functional and produces high quality PDFs. The company makes it clear that that the program is adware, which is fair enough. A single installer would be better. If you want an ad-free program, read on.

PDFCreator
Home page
Download
Version reviewed: 0.9.2 (AFPL version)
Publisher: pdfforge
Licence: GPL/AFPL

Installation:
PDFCreator is quite a large download at over 12MB. The installer looks very professional...


... and after showing the licence agreement, gives the option of a "standard" or "server" installation. The server installation allows installation of a PDF printer driver that can be shared on a network. This could be a very useful feature in an enterprise environment, as it would allow the software to be used without installation on every PC. The installer allows you to choose if you would like to install a browser toolbar, which allows you to generate PDFs from your browser, but is also a revenue generator for the publishers. In any case it is an optional component and a link to the privacy policy is shown in the installer.

A previous version of PDFCreator used Microsoft Installer (MSI) technology for the installation. This was useful in the enterprise environment, as it allowed the program to be easily distributed to PCs with Microsoft SMS or Active Directory group policies. The current installer no longer seems to contain an MSI file, which is a pity.

Functionality:
PDFCreator works like all the other tools in that you print your document using the PDF printer driver. However, before asking for a file name and folder, PDFCreator allows you the opportunity to enter metadata for the document:

This is extremely useful, as if the document is intended for upload to the web, this extra information will be indexed by search engines such as Google. It will also be used in document storage systems in the enterprise environment. The screen also gives the option (or not) to have Adobe Reader open the PDF file after it is created. Whilst producing the PDF, PDFCreator shows a small animation. All of this adds to the appearance of professionalism that we saw in the installer.

Document quality:
PDFCreator creates documents of a very high quality. Text and images are sharp and the file size is about twice that of Adobe Acrobat. As with the other programs, bookmarks did not seem to transfer.

Uninstallation:
Uninstallation worked without any issues.

Conclusion:
PDFCreator is an excellent free tool for producing professional PDF files. My only (very minor) gripe is that they seem to have abandoned the MSI based installer. Apart from that I recommend it.

PDF Online
Homepage
Conversion page
Publisher: BCL Technologies

Installation
PDF Online is not a tool you install on your PC, but an online conversion service.

Functionality:
PDF Online allows you to upload your document using an html form. Your PDF is then emailed to an address of your choice. No registration is required. The service seems very fast and effective, although it will take a while to upload large documents even with a broadband connection.

Document quality:
Text was clear and sharp, but images had obviously had their resolution lowered.
This is explained here. The file size of the PDF was very small. Bookmarks were not transferred.

Conclusions:
PDF Online is a great free online service, especially if you need to produce a PDF quickly and haven't got access to a program on the PC you are using. However, if you are able to install a program like PDFCreator locally, you will be able to produce results of a higher quality.


PrimoPDF
Homepage
Download
Version reviewed: 2.0
Publisher: activePDF
Licence: AFPL

Installation:
The PrimoPDF installer was another relatively large file at over 10MB. The installer was a professional, simple and effective affair, which also gave the option of opening the manual (a PDF file, unsurprisingly) at the end of the install.

Functionality:
As with all the other downloadable tools, PrimoPDF uses a PDF printer driver. After selecting the PrimoPDF printer, the program presents you with an option screen:


One minor gripe at this point, is that the My Documents folder would be a better choice for a default saving location. However it obvious that PrimoPDF offers more options than any of the other free programs. The first extra option that you notice is the ability to change the output quality of the PDF. Changing this setting would affect the compression of images within the document and in turn affect the file size. Pressing the "Security " button, opens the following window...


..which allows you to set various PDF security settings. None of the other free programs seem to have this functionality. Pressing the "Document Properties" button opens a window that, just like PDFCreator, allows you to enter metadata for the document. After selecting your options and pressing "OK", the PDF is produced and Adobe Reader opens it for viewing.

Document quality:
Document quality was top-notch and indistinguishable from PDFCreator. Bookmarks were not transferred from Microsoft Word. The file size, with print quality settings, was twice that of Acrobat with default settings.

Uninstallation:
Uninstallation of PrimoPDF worked without any problems.

Conclusions:
PrimoPDF is an excellent free tool. It produces high quality PDFs and is the most fully-featured of the free tools I have reviewed. I recommend it.

Overall conclusions
For the home user, PrimoPDF seems to be the clear winner. It is fully featured and produces high-quality PDFs without any problems. PDFCreator is also a fine choice for the home user. For the enterprise user or administrator, PDFCreator may be the better choice, as it allows installation of the tool on a server. Hopefully they will go back to using an MSI installer, as this would allow easy distribution of the tool to desktops within an organisation. If you are stuck on a PC without a PDF creation tool and cannot install one, PDF Online could be a life-saver, but if you have a choice, install PrimoPDF or PDFCreator, as they produce higher quality PDF files.