Why I’m using Foxit reader for Acrobat PDF files

For a while I had been reading good things about Foxit Software’s tools for reading, creating and editing PDF files, but never bothered to actually try them out. I recently switched from using Adobe’s Acrobat reader when I finally got fed up with the oversized, bloated product and it’s constant nagging to go off and update itself online (especially since this causes a UAC prompt on Vista). I used to dig around and kill off the update functionality, but enough was enough – why should I have to struggle to try to make the software behave how I want when it might just be easier to switch to a different product.

So, after a very quick download of the 3MB installation file and a simple, no frills installation, I was ready to go. Compare this with the vast and unnecessary 21MB of Adobe’s Acrobat reader – and don’t get me started on the fact that they force me to first download a download manager before I can finally download the actual setup file, when I could have just used my several highly competent browser plugins to get the install files so much quicker. Foxit also comes as an MSI – so much easier than Adobe’s EXE file when it comes to deployment using standard tools such as Group Policy Software Installation (GPSI) or scripts. These download sizes are reflected in the relative amounts of memory consumed by these two products when opening files to view.

Why do I care about my PDF file reader so much? Well, I actually use PDFs fairly extensively for storing “read-only” copies of my own documents, which I then want to access, print, share or publish as easily as possible.

Creating all these PDFs is easy

For creating PDF files I have been using FreePDF XP for ages. This is a free tool which enables you to output PDFs from almost any application by printing to the virtual printer installed by the software (which sits on top of GhostScript). This has been really successful for me on both XP and Vista operating systems. Although the original is written in German, translations exist for a great many languages including English, and you can request the files required to translate into further local languages as well if you had a need for something not already covered.

I’ve also recently been using the feature in Office 2007 to save as PDF. This is a free additional download from MS – this is due to them having to take the functionality out of the core product in the face of anti-competitive practices lawsuits in the EU and elsewhere. I have found the quality of the output using this to be less than great, especially for images. I don’t really want to send people a document where my company logo looks like it has measles. The alternative XPS format may be a good alternative, but right now I can’t rely on recipients having the capability to read these without some effort on their part to download and install the viewer.

Having said this, I have had a few gripes with PowerPoint 2007. FreePDF shows up pretty average square bullets as weird symbols from some other font. On the other hand, PowerPoint itself can’t reproduce a “glow” outline nor the soft edges on my pictures when exporting to PDF (it does a fuzzy grey outline instead of a clean fade-to-white). The pictures themselves are OK, so what’s so damned hard for Microsoft to work out about what is basically a gradient fill? I would rather it be omitted and leave a hard edge than be included and show up grey and dirty-looking.

Why do I use PDF files instead of the original document?

The main reason for me using these type of “portable document” formats in the first place is so that I can send or publish documents with a pretty high expectation that what the reader gets is what I intended, without them calling me to ask why it won’t open. I also use PDF for any “final version” documents which I want to keep so I can do less self-checking to make sure I have the latest version – I only keep one PDF of a document, even if I have several original Word docs or whatever.

A third use I have for them is for re-using parts of documents I have already written. It is trivial with FreePDF to print pages “1-3,7,18,29-” of a Word document out to a PDF file, rather than copying and pasting these equivalent sections out to a new document, making sure the formatting is OK etc. Using PowerPoint I usually set up a custom show which only includes the slides to print, rather than the ones to display. In a couple of clicks I can ‘save’ this cut-down version as a PDF ready to publish or send to people. My training courses often have appendices of “quick reference” information, such as shortcut keys for an application. I re-use this content with a small amount of reformatting and produce laminated handouts for course attendees. These are often A5 and double sided rather than the original two pages of A4 – the whole point is that they can be kept around on the desk as a handy reference sheet, so they should not be too big.

Surely a PDF just prints exactly as saved – WYSIWYG, right?

What I don’t want to spend time on is changing all the font sizes and paragraph layout to convert everything to the smaller scale. Instead, I generate A4-formatted PDF files and then print two pages to a sheet. Using Adobe’s Acrobat reader, I can do this fairly easily, but the problem is that it then adds a margin around the sheet in addition to the margin which already exists within the pages. This means I have to do an extra formatting step to minimise the margin in the original before making the PDF to work around the extra margin issue. With Foxit reader, it does no such thing, and is quite happy to reduce print two A4 pages on one sheet of A4 without adding anything extra at the edges, so I can just get on with printing and laminating them ready to hand out.

Acrobat reader has now been uninstalled from my system. Now I have just two tasks to do – change the link on my website which points to the Adobe reader download to enlighten my visitors to the alternative of Foxit, and learn more about doing clever things with XML and style templates so I can do no extra formatting of content, just re-use it in a different format with zero effort.

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