Complete Guide to Creating and Editing PDFs for Free


You know Adobe's portable document format: PDF. It's everywhere, from downloadable documentation for a motherboard you need to tweak to press releases from the assemblyman from Lower Someplace, PDFs rule. Why? It's not hard to understand:

  • PDF files are supported by computers and mobile devices, including smartphones; comparable formats such as Microsoft's XPS don't enjoy nearly as wide a level of support
  • PDF files are cross-platform, enabling you to create a PDF on a PC and read it on any other device with PDF support
  • PDF files can be secured in varying ways, including view-only and view and print/no edit, and so on
  • PDF files can support hyperlinks, images, and other rich media features
  • PDF documents can be optimized for web display, eBook readers, PC printing, and high-resolution professional printing

Add up these reasons, and it's easy to see why PDF make sense if you need to distribute a document that can be read everywhere.

Although Adobe sets the standards for PDF files with its Acrobat PDF creation and Reader PDF display software, Adobe isn't the only game in town when it comes to PDF creation. In this article, you'll discover if your system is already ready to spit out a PDF on demand, how to add PDF output to your system, and how to track down free tools that enable you to perform some PDF editing.

Check the File Menu for PDF Output Options

Depending upon the software included on your system, you might already have a PDF creation program installed. To find out, open the File menu. If you see an option such as Publish to PDF or Export to PDF, your application includes a built-in PDF creation feature.

Core WordPerfect Suite X4 and Open Office 3.1 are two current office suites that include PDF output in the File menu. To add PDF output to Microsoft Office 2007, download the free Microsoft Save As PDF plugin .

If you don't use applications that include PDF output, you can add PDF output by installing a PDF creation program that runs as a virtual printer driver. These programs install an option in the Print menu, so you can use File, Print to create a PDF file.

PDF Settings 101

Depending upon the PDF creation solution you use, you have varying amounts of control over the size, quality, and features in the completed PDF file. Some PDF creators provide a selection of PDF styles that optimize output for online, print, or other uses.

Some creators also provide additional options through a tabbed interface that appears during the creation process, or might add PDF settings to the Advanced Options portion of the PDF virtual printer's properties sheet. Some of these options include:


Various versions of the PDF standard have been created over time , each adding additional capabilities. Although Adobe now supports PDF versions up to 1.7 (used in Acrobat/Reader 9.x), most freeware PDF creators output PDF version 1.5 (compatible with Acrobat 6.0 and above) and might offer compatibility with older versions.


While you can individually adjust settings for resolution, font embedding, graphics quality, and other options that can influence file size, a PDF style option provides a quick way to select from optimizations for commercial printing, online viewing only, printing and viewing, and options designed for archiving (PDF/A) .

Editable Text – or Not

By default, text in a PDF file remains editable if you create the PDF file from a word-processing or other text-based document. However, if you used non-standard fonts in the original document and cannot embed the fonts in the PDF, you might need to select the option to export all text as curves. Doing so enables the document to look just like the original even if the fonts are not available on the target system, but essentially converts the PDF file into an image file.


By adjusting the level of bitmap compression or by selecting different styles (which also affects bitmap compression), you can greatly affect the size of the final document. However, there's no free lunch. Note the huge difference in image quality between the default (view/print) and the eBook versions of the file.

Color Model

The default color model is RGB, which matches the way that displays work with color. However, if you are creating a PDF file for printing, you should choose CMYK if your PDF creator allows this option.


Some PDF creators provide options for password-protection of the PDF file, or can restrict the user's ability to print or edit the file.

Hyperlinking, Transition, and Presentation

Most PDF creators are designed primarily to create PDF files suitable for viewing or printing. However, PDF files can also include hyperlinks, transitions, and control over the user interface. PDF creators that support these features, such as the Export to PDF option in OpenOffice 3.1, will also prompt you for settings that control how the document will first look when opened, whether users can interact with the PDF file or just view it, whether hyperlinks in the document will function,  and others.

Adding PDF Output to Your System with Freeware

For this article, we tested three freeware PDF creators and compared their results to the Export to PDF feature in OpenOffice 3.1. For testing, I created two one-page documents, both of which included a large bitmap. One was stored as a rich text format (RTF) file, and the other was stored as a Microsoft Word 97-2003 file.


CutePDF is a small download (about 3.7MB), but when you install it, there's a catch – you must also install a free PS2PDF converter such as Ghostscript (the installer provides a link). That's just the first limitation in CutePDF. If you're looking for control over your PDF output quality, CutePDF also falls short. CutePDF offers no option to select PDF version, compression levels, security, styles, or other common PDF settings, but it does include a resolution setting. Its Advanced Option menu is primarily designed to configure the Ghostscript Postscript-compatible driver it uses for output. CutePDF produces a good-looking PDF file that was also the largest file of the four programs selected, and when you save your PDF file, it includes a plug for a more powerful paid version.


DoPDF is a freebie from novaPDF. DoPDF offers more control over the output PDF file than CutePDF, including page size and the option to embed fonts. However, like CutePDFWriter, doPDF does not support PDF version, compression levels, security, or styles, and includes a plug for a more powerful paid version during the creation process. DoPDF created a PDF that was one-third the size of CuteFTPWriter with identical image quality.

Bullzip Printer

Bullzip Printer, despite the name, is the most powerful of the three virtual PDF printer drivers in this comparison. You can control most PDF settings through the Advanced Options dialog of the Bullzip PDF Printer driver.

You can also save documents in most popular bitmap formats as well as PDF. It supports PDF version settings, initial zoom level, quality settings, watermarks, passwords, and can also append and merge PDF files. It provides the most features of any of the freeware PDF writers in this roundup, and it produced the smallest file of the three.

Bullzip Versus OpenOffice 3.1

OpenOffice 3.1's Export to PDF lacks Bullzip's ability to select the PDF version (although it can create a DF/A-1a file suitable for document archiving), but it can create PDF forms, provides plenty of control over how a PDF document will display, and maintains hyperlinks in the document. When creating a one-page PDF file with a large bitmap and hyperlinks, Bullzip lost the hyperlinks, while OpenOffice 3.1 preserved them.

Bullzip's output file was one-fifth the size of OpenOffice 3.1's, making it a better choice for print or web display, but if you need to create an interactive or self-playing PDF file, OpenOffice 3.1's a better choice.

Editing PDF Files using Web Apps

You can try out lots of PDF editors for free, but sooner or later it's time to pay up or clean off. If you only need occasional PDF editing, consider a couple of free online services:

PDFescape : Includes touchup, merge, form, and markup capabilities. Registration is not required, but allows you to store edited files online.

PDFHammer : Includes security, metadata, page deletion and reordering, and file combining.

Extracting Photos for Free

Want to pull images from a PDF file? Download the freeware Some PDF Images Extract and you can pull JPEG images from PDF files.

A-PDF offers a trial version of its A-PDF Image Extractor . Check out the website to see how you can get a free license.


Before you create a PDF, decide how you want to use it. The way you create it has a lot of impact on its size and features.

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