Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Just what is PDF format, how do I view it, and why do people use it?


I got a manual for a monitor, but it was not a paper printed manual,
it was in PDF form! Question: How do I convert those 1’s and 0’s and
all that other stuff into simple plain English?? And why do they put it
in PDF in the first place? Why not simply put it in English to begin
with? Seems like an avoidable second step.

Oh, the English (assuming that manual was written in English, that
is) is in there. You just have to look at the PDF the right way, and
with the right tools.

As for why, the clue is in what PDF stands for: “Portable Document


One of the problems with displaying documents on a computer screen is that everyone’s computer is a little different. You see this all the time with web pages – on some computers the screen’s a little wider, on others the character size is a little larger, and on others some of the fonts used may not be available at all.

The result is that many documents might look quite different when displayed on your computer versus, say, mine.

Now, in many cases that’s ok. For example, if all your document contains is text or words, then the size of the characters, how it wraps on the screen, and even the specific look of the characters is actually not all that important. What matters is what’s written, not how it looks.

” A document that has been created in PDF format is intended to look exactly the same everywhere …”

On the other hand, many documents rely on looking the same everywhere. In fact, that’s one of the benefits of paper: once printed it doesn’t change, no matter who’s looking at it or where.

PDF format tries to solve this problem. A document that has been created in PDF format is intended to look exactly the same everywhere, across all computers regardless of configuration, operating system, or any of a number of other variables.

And perhaps as important, a PDF document should look the same everywhere when printed.

Another advantage of PDF is that you only need a (free) PDF viewer to read a PDF document. If you forward, for example, a Microsoft Word or Power Point document around, you’re kind of assuming that everyone has Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. Not only are they not free, but they’re quite large and not everyone wants them.

With PDF viewers being nearly ubiquitous, you can create those documents as PDFs and then just about anyone can easily and quickly view them exactly as you expected them to be seen.

That’s why many computer and software user manuals and other documents are distributed as PDFs: it’s much cheaper to place another file on the disk, and yet you can still count on exactly what it will look like to the user that bothers to open it up. (It seems like paper is particularly wasteful since so many people never even bother cracking open users manuals Smile.)

PDFs are also quite useful for other things. With PDF viewers nearly everywhere now, it’s a very convenient container format for documents. For example, I’ve recently begun scanning paper documents into PDF form and discarding the paper. PDF is likely to be readable on any computer for many, many years to come, and is easy to store and backup. (I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap Sheet-fed Scanner which is incredibly fast and easy.)

But you do need a reader to turn all the resulting ones and zeros inside those PDF files into something you can actually read.

Adobe has readers you can download for many different platforms, and if you’re running Windows I happen to be a big fan of Foxit Reader, which is smaller and faster.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed a reader, you can just double click on those “pdf” documents (or use File->Open in the reader) and you should see the document open up on your screen in a familiar, and readable format.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

13 comments on “Just what is PDF format, how do I view it, and why do people use it?”

  1. For purposes of this person, I would have expected you to push Foxit way ahead of anything Adobe does. Their software, as you know, is bloated and slow, and too needy…wants to update itself. I also understand some versions “phone home” too.

  2. I used Adobe Reader; but eventually it got to be mostly unreadable. I even uninstalled and reinstalled it a couple of times, to no avail. Then I downloaded Foxit, and I’ve had no problem since.

  3. PDF. An abomination whose time for destruction has come. It’s humongous, slow, clunky, awkward and yuck.
    I cannot (and will not) get used to the idea of my cursor becoming a grasping claw hand. Nor will having to learn techniques to use the program (note I do NOT use the word tool) appeal to me. Because by the next time I have a use for it, I will have forgotten the tricks needed to apply the program.
    I am really not interested in learning and relearning and relearning and….

  4. I agree with you Foxit is so much better than Adobe. I changed after I had some major issues with Adobe and I can’t believe how easy and fast Foxit is. Plus I learned what PDF means, thank you :).. Sincerely Margaret Louk

  5. Too many people make their manuals with 2″ margins, and with each page starting “If you use Win98 do this, . . .If you use XP do that . . etc. “and then lock the text with a password!” so I can’t just select the bits I want, and remove all that wasteful white space. I finish up printing ten pages instead of one, which is wasteful of paper and the result is not very easy to use. It is a good idea spoiled by the users (and by Adobe giving them that password). It used to be very sloooow, but as machines have got faster that’s not quite such a problem.

  6. I’m sorry, but I just can’t agree with PDF-bashers. It was, and is, an elegant solution to a problem that increases in complexity all the time. Back when I was teaching Physics, I used to post the solutions to homework assignments (AFTER they had been checked and discussed in class) on my web site. By simply scanning each page and using Adobe Acrobat to save it in PDF format, I was assured that every student would see every in its original form, in my handwriting. No matter what OS each student used, there was a free PDF reader available for each of them so I didn’t need to worry about that. It was even easier with printed documents (labs, practice problems, old quizzes and tests) — I just used Acrobat to create a copy in PDF format, no scanning required!

    So a tip of my cap to the team at Adobe that invented this “universal translator” back in the early 1990’s. The original Reader has become unwieldy due to Adobe’s efforts to cram so many features into it. But it still works for me, as well or better than its competitors.

  7. About editing PDF. PDF is just like a printed piece of paper not intended to be edited. However writing on it is possible.
    For example the PDF-xchange viewer has a typing tool. If you want some thing gone you can use it to draw a filed rectangle across it.

  8. “assuming that everyone has Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. Not only are they not free”

    Microsoft offers free Office Word/Excel/PowerPoint readers downloadable from their web site. You can not modify or create files, but you can read what others have sent you.

  9. How do I pull-up an old PDF file with no icon on my screen?

    I don’t understand the “no icon on the screen” comment. Open Windows Explorer, navigate to the folder containing the PDF, and double click on it. (I’m sure I’m missing something.)



Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.