Are you trying to learn more about Portable Document Format files? If yes, you should check out our guide here on the key things to know.
Whether you’re a student, an office worker, or anyone who uses a computer at all, you’re probably familiar with PDF files. What you might not be familiar with is exactly what a PDF file is or how it works.
Let’s decrypt the acronym first. PDF stands for “portable document format”. That starts to describe what PDF files are, but not in a truly meaningful way. After all, aren’t all document files portable? What differentiates PDFs from other document files?
If you’re interested in the answers to these questions, keep reading here for our comprehensive overview of all things PDF.
How Does a Portable Document Format Work?
Knowing that PDF is an acronym for Portable Document Format doesn’t do much in the way of explaining what this kind of file format does.
We can break it down to each individual word to try to get a better grasp. “Document” is pretty obvious. Anyone who’s opened, sent, or otherwise worked with a PDF knows that it’s a document file type, like a Word document or text file.
“Format” is just as easy to understand. Something about the construction of a PDF separates it from other document file types like the ones I listed previously. Think about it like the difference between a JPG and GIF file type. They’re both used for images, but that surface-level similarity is the only thing they have in common.
“Portable” is the most confusing part. Like I said earlier, pretty much all files are “portable” in the sense that you can send and receive them. Not all files are easily accessible, though.
Imagine a scenario where you’re sending a work report to your manager. You created this report in Microsoft Word, the obvious choice for most professional documents. For whatever reason, your manager is working from home, and he or she has to use a personal computer. Unfortunately, this personal computer isn’t equipped with Word like the computers at the office.
Here’s where the problems start. If your manager doesn’t have Microsoft Office installed on his or her machine, then your Word file will be completely inaccessible. Your manager might be able to see a preview of the report in his or her email, but it will be impossible to read the full thing.
You could always copy and paste the report into the email message itself. You could also use a free, accessible alternative like Google Docs. If you’ve ever resorted to either of these options before, though, you’ll know that they aren’t always ideal, especially if your file incorporates a lot of specific formatting, styles, and/or themes.
Another alternative might be to take screenshots of each page, but that’s time-consuming and not necessarily all that useful. For example, unless you have some special software installed, you can’t search for text in an image file. Moreover, it is every bit as time-consuming and difficult digitally compile all of the images into a single file.
You could also print your document as a physical file. This wastes paper, though, and fails to address the searchability issue. If you need to find a specific phrase or section, you’re out of luck. Plus, in this scenario, you need to send the document to your boss. Unless you plan on mailing it and you’re both okay with waiting 3-5 business days, printing is pointless.
PDFs Are the Solution
To circumvent all of these problems, you can save your Word document as a PDF. You don’t have to have a specific program or software suite to open a PDF file. Most people use Adobe Acrobat, but, as with Microsoft Office, not all computers have Adobe out of the box.
PDFs understand this issue and automatically open themselves in an internet browser if they can’t find some version of Acrobat (or another PDF viewer) on your machine. Best of all, PDFs aren’t picky about which web browsers they can connect to. Google Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, even Internet Explorer—you name it, PDFs can work with it.
Whether you open the file in Adobe Acrobat, your web browser, or an alternative program, PDFs are fully text-searchable, too. Instead of scanning through image after image in hopes of finding the right phrase, you can use the same techniques in PDFs as you would with Word or any other textual file.
Even better, PDF files are incredibly easy to create. All you have to do is write a Word document or some other text file, then save it as a PDF type instead. (Using the work report example, you would save the original ‘Report.docx’ file as ‘Report.pdf’.)
If this isn’t feasible for some reason, you can also print your document into a PDF file. Adobe includes this feature with all of its Acrobat offerings under the name “Save as PDF” or some variation. Microsoft Office also includes a preconfigured option for this labeled “Microsoft Print to PDF”.
Finally, other Microsoft programs—like Excel and PowerPoint—have an Export to PDF feature. You can find this feature under the File tab in the “Export” option.
Either way, converting your file is as simple as a click (or two) of a button.
HTML and ASPX to PDF
Word documents and .txt files aren’t the only formats that you can convert to PDF. You can even convert HTML and ASPX text.
To be fair, this is a little more complicated than the previous methods. It isn’t just a one-click solution—you have to write a little bit of code.
You can use basically any programming language available, but I recommend C#.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with C# (or programming in general), no worries—you have a multitude of options to pick from. For example, you can look up online tutorials or even enroll yourself in C# programming classes. This requires a lot of time and dedication, though, so, unless you just really want to learn how to write code yourself, this probably isn’t the best route.
You could hire an expert to convert the text for you. Depending on the file size and how quickly you need the conversion done, though, this option could be way too expensive to be feasible. It becomes even more expensive if you plan on making HTML or ASPX to pdf conversions on a regular basis.
Your best bet is to download a conversion software that will do the heavy lifting for you. If you’re strapped for cash or just wary of making a serious software purchase, you aren’t out of luck. A coalition of generous developers around the world has published dozens of open source, entirely free alternatives to free software.
I’ve personally had the most success with IronPDF. This software is incredibly customizable, with both HTML and ASPX C# create PDF options. It’s easy to use, too, even for people (like me) who aren’t C# geniuses. IronPDF comes with pre-packaged tutorials and code examples to help anyone get started. Best of all, it is completely, 100% free to use.
Other Benefits of PDFs
PDFs aren’t just easy to create and universally accessible. They also include a variety of cool features that other document formats simply do not have. Many of these features are only available in Adobe Acrobat, but Microsoft Edge and a few other browsers include some of the basic capabilities.
Advanced Form Creation
If you’ve ever tried to create a fillable form in Word, you know how much of a pain it can be. You have to open a hidden tab (the Developer tab, specifically, which is only accessible from the Options section buried at the bottom of the File tab) to access them, and, even then, they don’t perform all of the functions you need.
For example, let’s say you want to automatically send a completed form via email when a user clicks a button in the document. To do this in Word, the form functions on the Developer tab are not enough. You’ll have to use a macro. Microsoft Macros can do wondrous things, but you have to have at least a basic understanding of how to code in order to do anything with them.
Creating a similar button in a PDF is much less difficult. In Adobe Acrobat, especially, all of the hard coding is completed for you on the backend. All you have to do is specify the parameters.
That doesn’t mean that PDFs are less customizable, though. Like I mentioned in regards to C# code, the connections and interfaces for PDF files are incredibly robust, especially when compared to Microsoft’s Visual Basic (the program you use to design macros). In other words, although PDFs are all-around easier to manipulate, highly skilled users won’t face any limitations to their customization needs.
Microsoft claims to offer a variety of encryption and security options to keep your private information private. These options aren’t always that user-friendly, though. For example, if you password-protect the file and lose that password, there is no recovery option. Also, the safeguard options are located in two different places (the File tab and the Review tab), which can make it difficult for inexperienced Word users to hunt them all down.
Word documents also have numerous security gaps. Unless you really know what you’re doing, a “protected” Word file is just as vulnerable as an unprotected one. Even if a malicious user can’t directly copy and paste text from the file, he or she can still take screenshots and retype or otherwise recreate the document from scratch. Granted, this might take that malicious user a ridiculously long time, but it’s hardly impossible.
PDFs are much safer. Though they are, in some respects, just as accessible and editable as Word documents, their security options include the ability to complete lockdown any file you don’t want outsiders to see. In other words, without a password or some specific credential (like a username invitation), no one can so much as open the PDF.
It’s also much simpler to lock and hide sections of PDF files than it is to perform the same function in Word. Features like Redact in Adobe Acrobat enable users to wipe all data they don’t want other people to see. Word advertises the same capability, but “hidden” and “locked” items in Word files can be easily reverted to normal, copyable text.
With all of these security advantages, it’s no wonder that most high-end software programs automatically submit documents as PDFs. (For an example, see my article on the advantages of VDR.)
Smaller File Size
Despite all of these advanced settings, PDF files usually take up less space than other document types. A simple file with no add-ons or customizations may still be multiple megabytes in Word format if it meets a certain page count. That same document could only be a few hundred kilobytes as a PDF.
Even when PDF files aren’t smaller, though, they’re very easy to compress. Usually, you’d have to put other document files into a zipped folder if you wanted to make them smaller. The only other real alternative would be to reduce each file’s page count and customized elements. Depending on what kind of information you’re storing, doing that could defeat the purpose of the document.
In contrast, it’s incredibly easy to turn a 20 MB PDF into a 100 KB PDF without compromising on content. (For more details, check out this guide.)
Smaller file size is convenient for multiple reasons. First, and most obviously, smaller files take up less room, meaning that they put less strain on your machine’s storage capabilities. Second, they’re easier to send. Emails, text programs, and even some social media platforms have size limits for the files you can send. Compressing those files as much as possible is a great way to ensure that you always include all of the info you want to communicate.
Want to Know More?
PDFs are a genius solution to a common business problem. They don’t take up a lot of room, they’re simple to work with, and they’re incredibly robust in functionality. They even integrate with traditional coding languages.