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How can I make a .pdf file?

Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) is designed as a cross-platform document format. Adobe gives away the reader for .pdf files. However, Adobe's Acrobat program, for creating PDFs, must be purchased. But cheap bastards of the world, fear not: there are some other ways to create PDF for free. For Windows users, there is a popular utility called Primo PDF. Another good choice -- one that has been around for many years -- is a tool called Ghostscript. Ghostscript is available for practially any popular operating system.

I'm going to outline the steps involved in doing this on a Windows machine, since that's what I usually use. However, Ghostscript is available for the MacOS, Linux, UNIX, OS-2, and VMS.

We won't be creating a PDF document from scratch. Instead, you'll make the document in another program (Microsoft Word, or whatever) and then convert it to a .pdf file.

Strictly speaking, what I'm referring to as Ghostscript is actually two programs: Ghostcript, and Ghostview. Ghostscript is the behind-the-scenes engine that does the real work; Ghostview is the friendly face that lets us put that engine to use. You can download the lastest versions of Ghostscript and Ghostview from the University of Wisconsin, at http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost/. Alternatively, you can download a zip file of the versions I use from this site. The zip file includes version 7.05 of Ghostscript, and version 4.32 of Ghostview.

Choose  a printer Once you've downloaded the files, you'll need to first install Ghostscript by running gs705w32.exe; after that, run gsv43w.32.exe to install Ghostview.

To make the process of creating PDFs a little easier, you should do a little groundwork first: install a postscript printer that prints to a file. What does that mean? You're going to tell your computer a little lie: you're going to install a printer that doesn't exist, and then you're going to have the computer save everything it sends to that printer into a file on the computer.

The process for doing this varies slightly depending on what version of Windows you're using. I'm going to outline the method for doing it in Windows 98, since that's what's running on the laptop in front of me.

Open the Printers folder and double-click "Add Printer." The "Add Printer Wizard" appears. Click the "Next" button, then select the "Local Printer" option and click next again.

Chose a postscript printer from the list: pick a manufacturer from the left-hand pane, and a model from the right-hand pane. I usually choose HP, and select as the model the HP Color LaserJet PS. The model doesn't matter too much, but remember: if you want to be able to make color PDFs, you will need to choose a color printer. (Strictly speaking, I don't think you _have_ to use a Postscript printer, but since Postscript has for years been the standard for high-quality printing, it seems like a good idea.) After you've selected a printer, click Next.

The wizard will ask you what port you want to use for this printer. Select the FILE: option and click Next.

Choose  a portGive the printer an easy-to-remember name, such as "Postcript File Printer." You'll be given the option to make this your default printer, but you probably don't want that.

That's pretty much it. Your computer might need to copy some files off of the Windows CD. You might also be asked if you want to print a test page.

Now, open the document that you want to convert. (That is, open it with whatever program you would usually use. Don't try to open the original with Ghostscript.) Print the document, selecting your new Postscript File Printer as the destination printer. When you click "OK" to print the document, you'll be prompted to choose a location for saving the file. It doesn't matter where you put it, as long as you remember where it is. The resulting file will be a ".prn" type file.

Now, just open the .prn file with Ghostview, and choose "Convert..." from the file menu. You'll see a dialog box which asks you to make a few choices: what "device" you want to use, the resolution you want, and which pages you want to convert. For the device, choose "pdfwrite." Choose the maximum resolution (600 dpi in my settings), and make sure all the pages are selected (that's the default). Click "OK," and you'll then see a standard "Save File" dialog box. Choose a filename and a location, and you're done. Generating the PDF may take a few minutes depending upon the size of the document and the speed of your computer. One other note: Ghostview doesn't add file suffixes on its own, so you'll need to actually include ".pdf" at the end of the filename... otherwise, you won't be able to open the file just by double-clicking it.

And that's it. If everything went OK, you've now got a nice, clear, error-free PDF file.

Converting the file PDFs generated with Acrobat can do some neat tricks that you can't do with Ghostscript, such as creating forms that can be edited by the end user. But if all you need to do is create a simple, cross-platform compatible document, Ghostscript is a great way to go.

Oh... and although I can't imagine why anyone would need to do this, it's possible to create PDFs with older versions of Ghostscript, too. The procedure was a little different, however. Since I'm one of those people who never throws anything out, the old page is still available by clicking here.

The Ghostview interface (Windows)