Why does my Microsoft Word document display differently on different computers?

Microsoft Word documents display differently on different systems because of differences between the systems. Getting Microsoft Word documents to display identically typically means processing them into something else.


I have a document which was created in Word XP and is 226 pages. When I send it to a client who is using Word 2003, it looks totally different and is over 330 pages. How can I send the client the document without it changing? Also, they wanted a pdf version, which looks nothing like the word document. How can I get the word document to look like the pdf?

Well, to be honest, you’re trying to do something that Word documents aren’t really intended to do. As counter-intuitive as it sounds Word isn’t really about making the document look exactly the same everywhere.

But your client is on the right track, actually, since that’s what PDF files attempt to do.

In a nutshell: it’s all about the system, and the printer.

The most common reason documents look different on one machine as compared to another is the printer.

When Word displays a document in “Print Layout” form, it actually uses the characteristics of the currently selected printer to determine what the layout should look like. Obvious items such as default margins, paper size, and other charaterstics of printers in general can have a document appear quite differently when viewed, or printed, on one system versus another.

The most common reason documents look different on one machine as compared to another is the printer.

In fact, if you have more than one printer on your system, you can watch this happen. While the document is up in Word, hit FilePrint and then select another printer. When you do this the Cancel button will change to Close. Select Close, to close the document without printing it, and the document you’re viewing will be redisplayed, taking the characteristics of the new printer into account. Depending on the differences between your printers, the change can be subtle, or quite dramatic.

Another possible difference is the use of fonts which are not common to all systems. If you create a document using one font, and then view that document on another system where that font is not installed, Word will attempt to substitute something “close” to the font you wanted. Unfortunately, “close” is fairly vague, and can often be startlingly different from the original.

PDF files are one approach at solving this problem. PDF, which stands for “Portable Document Format”, is a document format that attempts to be rendered exactly the same everywhere, no matter what your system or printer characteristics.

Most commonly, PDF creation software acts like a printer – but in a sense it’s a printer that’s the same everywhere. You create your portable document by printer to a PDF virtual printer. The result, a PDF file, can then be viewed anywhere with a PDF reader, and should look, and even print to a real printer, exactly the same as your original PDF.

There are several options to creating PDF files. Adobe Acrobat is the most recognized tool, and actually defines the PDF standard. Another, cheaper alternative is the free and open-source PDFCreator.

So my bottom line recommendation is simply to create a PDF, authoring your document so that the PDF comes out the way you want it to, and then share that with your client. If you need to share editable Word documents, then simply realize that they will not display, or print, exactly the same everywhere.


  1. Greg Webb

    This issue is bigger than Ben Hur and yet so few people know about it. As Leo has stated, printer and fonts can change the look when the document is opened on another computer. Problems due to printer characteristics are fairly easily fixed by setting the page setup on the target computer to be the same as that on the source computer. Fonts… well just stick to the common fonts on the source computer for maximal compatibility.

    Other sources of major problems on target computers are ‘styles’, or lack of them, and ‘lists’. It’s beyond the scope of this brief comment here to explain why but they are the source of many problems. It’s more noticeable in large documents because page numbers in cross references and table of contents are obviously wrong. On closer inspection you’ll start to notice that lists are not always correct, more noticeable with numbered lists, and that some styles are no longer correct.

    Word is not designed for handling large document collaboration, which includes sending clients reports. As Leo has suggested, create the PDF of your report and send that your client. If they want changes, have them communicate them back and you make the necessary changes and then PDF the revised report again. It’s the only way that you can be absolutely certain that your client sees what you intended.

  2. Mioko

    Hi, I would like to know how to change the font inside the comments locally. If I use the Format, Style and Formatting, this will change all the comments globally. I need to change the font just for one of the comments. Thanks for your advice.

  3. JeNay

    My sister’s printer prints out everything but her website address on her works cited pages of her references. When she send it to me it comes out fine but won’t print out for her. She has MS Word and uses a HP PC Please help
    Thank you

  4. Jane F

    I have two computers a laptop and a desktop. They both have Win XP and Office 2003 and were working fine. But recetly I bought a bigger HD to my desktop and reinstalled everything. Now the documents I write in my laptop look different in my desktop! Its driving me nuts as it was not happening before.

    Same configuration of the paper layout, same printer, same style and type of word, same programs, etc. But the lay out is different! any clue?

  5. question

    i have a similar but bigger problem… the thing is that i installed the same font on 2 different machines (both with same os and software) the font is gill sans condensed, but it looks different on each one… the machines have exactly the same stuff and configuration… i even checked the screen dpi, the font smothness, etc but had no luck, anyone had this problem before? they look way too different, as if it was another font, but if i open a flash document, it would warn you if the font wasn’t installed, but it doesn’t (so this means that the font is installed) it just displays different… any clue?

  6. pedro

    I have found that even the same letter fonts within word vary from installation to installation. If you want to establish a estandar in portable documents definetely use PDF but if you MUST MUST be able to see a word document exactly as it is seen in another computer (because you have put a lot of work already fixing it and its too long) what you can do is in the original computer where the the documents looks right, go to c:/windows/fonts then copy all fonts and paste them to a pendrive. then go to the computer where the document is not been seen right and install all fonts anew. It will say that some fonts are already installed, its ok if you do not install them and install everything else. This way you ensure that every font used in the original computer is also in the other one and no sustitue is being used. Good luck!
    PS: I have tried this several times and is the only solution I have found for this problem so far.

  7. Lee Anderson

    My problem is similar but it happens when the same printer is used and different pcs. We have several word docs that are the direction inserts for the products we make. They were all created with Word XP and all are formatted to fit to 2 pages. We got 2 new Dell Optiplex pcs last year. No problem. We got 2 new Dell Vostro pcs in April. No problem. We upgraded to Word 2003 in June. There is no problem with the new pcs but on the old pcs, the direction inserts spread to more than 2 pages, a lot more. The pcs are networked and they are all accessing the same files. They all run Windows XP home edition. When you print the insert from the old pc it is evident that the font looks a little bigger. Of course we could change the formatting but then, when printed from the new pcs the text would be too small. It

  8. Karen

    The problem we are having is that 2 computers in our house are viewing special characters differently. For my job we use the plus minus sign a lot. One one computer it works fine, the other computer it appears like an upside down A. They both have word 2003, they both have windows XP and they both use the same printer. So, what is causing this and is there a way to rectify the problem?

  9. Rhonda

    I am just in the process of having a website designed and when I view the website on my desktop it looks fine. Everything is aligned, pictures and tables where they are suppose to be, but when I look at it on my office computer or home laptop, it looks a mess with the tables all distorted and pictures smaller and overlapping. The programmer is telling me there is nothing she can do about that….this seems strange considering I see everyone elses websites and they look consistent. I’m thinking she doesn’t have the experience to do the website. I sent her a 22 page PowerPoint presentation to use for the web design layout, but I’m not sure of what software she is using to to convert the Powerpoint file to a website. Does anyone have any suggestions? I’m really concerned about how unprofessional the site is going to look,

  10. Cynthia Steele

    I have installed MS 2007 home/studen on 2 computers in my home; a desktop and a laptop. The programs do not even have all the same fonts. The laptop has some fonts that the desktop doesn’t have and visa versa. Both systems are running Vista and both were installed with the same disk. I have also seen many occasions where the document comes through totally different.
    My daughter often does her homework of the laptop the send me the things she needs printed. We almost always have to revise to document before printing, due to changes in layout and fonts. It is very frustrating.

  11. Peggy Maraia

    I have a problem with a word template created with Microsoft Word 2003. On my PC it is perfect, and prints perfectly, but on other company users it’s goes crazy and doesn’t fit on a page. . . . Please help . . .

  12. bill betts

    I created a hyperlinked document index in Excel. I want to know why a document in Windows XP looks different when opened directly than when I open it via the hyperlink. The view I want to see is a word doc showing the following EMail fields at the top: To; CC; Subject, and Introduction fields .

  13. Neil

    I had a similar issue, one of our clients PC suddenly decided to go a bit weird and display all the Word docs they usually use differently to everyone else. It also decided to screw up some of the Outlook fonts too, but not as bad as it screwed Word, which is odd.

    Solution in the end was to copy fonts over from a good PC and then for the hell of it go into regional settings, and then to the tab with roman, japanese etc on. from here tick the tickbox at the bottom to reapply language (and i was hoping font size and regularity too). Did a restart after both those things and worked a charm!

    Think I got a bit lucky but worth a try if you’ve tried nearly everything else :)

  14. Vinod CR

    If you do not want pdf, you can install the MS Office document image writer. Create document in word, excel etc, select print from file menu and change the default printer to the document image writer. It will give you an image of your document which will not change in different systems and can be viewed same as the original document by every one whom you forward it.

  15. Mercedes

    We recently converted to Microsoft Windows XP and Microsoft 2007 applications. Subsequently, we received larger (24-inch) monitors. When using MS Word 2007, we made the dicovery that the on-screen view (and printed version) of a document page is not necessarily the same view (and printed version) that another user will see when viewing (or printing) the same page. For example, my page 19 may be another’s page 22. My layout looks great on-screen (and printed); another user’s layout (page endings, etc.) is different and not what we want. What is the source of this problem? How do we fix this so that we can ensure that what we see is what others will see when we distribute our documents?

  16. Gamble

    When I send MS Word document via MS Outlook, the client sees a much larger document that takes up their entire page beyond the Margins. How do I assist to allow them to see the document as I see it, whichout it being “super-sized?”

  17. Hilary Walker

    In 1995-6 I “wrote a book” on my Shakespearian laptop (already out of date at the time!). Now laptop is “broken” (no display on screen), how can I “read” this old format programme? (Old Word prog) Also have it on floppy disc but of course current PC’s have no floppy input, and please I don’t want to have to spend any money on new kit ‘cos I don’t have any spare! Many thanks, Hilary

  18. Connie

    If you wrote it with a version of Word from long long ago, the new word will probably be able to convert it. Your big problem is getting the file off that old machine. Perhaps a local computer store will have an old computer with a floppy disk and can download it for you.

    Does the old broken laptop have a hard drive? If so, your best conversion option might be to have the hard drive pulled out and copy the files directly off it.

  19. Thomas

    “I had a similar issue, one of our clients PC suddenly decided to go a bit weird and display all the Word docs they usually use differently to everyone else. It also decided to screw up some of the Outlook fonts too, but not as bad as it screwed Word, which is odd.

    Solution in the end was to copy fonts over from a good PC and then for the hell of it go into regional settings, and then to the tab with roman, japanese etc on. from here tick the tickbox at the bottom to reapply language (and i was hoping font size and regularity too). Did a restart after both those things and worked a charm!

    Think I got a bit lucky but worth a try if you’ve tried nearly everything else :)

    Posted by: Neil at June 7, 2010 2:06 PM”

    Just wanted to post my thanks for this, had a verry similar issue at working using a clients custom fonts, installed them to a few machines. Same document, connected to same printers and same word settings, a number of extra pages would randomly been added to any documents using the fonts but revert back when moved to a good machine. Been searching for a week and done the same as above seems to have solved it!!!

  20. Ken

    The secretary at my church sends be the bulletin to check and make corrections in each week. She uses Windows XP, Office 2003 Pro. and MSOffice 2003. I have the same programs on my computer, and my settings are the same as hers on here machine, however, the lines do not show up the same on mine as hers. She has two pages she sends and when I open it, there are three pages. I do not understand why.

    You probably have a different printer. I’d recommend re-reading the article you just commented on. It addresses your question.

  21. Evie

    I have a similar issue. My Word file displays hyperlinks differently when I email the Word file as part of the email (not as an attachment) in Outlook to myself. It’s still on the same computer, same printer. In Words the hyperlinks are Calibri in Outlook they change to Times New Roman. Using Windows Vista and Office 2010. Got any suggestions?

  22. Brian

    I am running Office 2010 and have some Word documents that are on a USB hard drive (attached to my computer) that is shared over the home office network. When i open any Word document form letters on my computer the auto date field is showing the date formula ( { DATE etc…} ) not the actual date, but from any other computer accessing the same files over the network the letters display the date fine. Any thoughts.



  23. Ron Ross

    I am editing a lengthy document (140 pages) in Spanish. At the beginning of the document I could right click on a word and get a list of synonyms and had the option in most cases of looking at a thesaurus as well. But as I progressed in the document, the synonym / thesaurus function stopped appearing as a option. I’m using MSOffice 2013. How can I get it back?

  24. Kristin

    I have a Tablet and changed a PDF file to Doc file. I sent it to a friend to use but now it’s not working for me. Do you have an answer Leo?

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article. Seriously. You'd be shocked at how many people make comments that prove they didn't.
  • Comment only on the article. If you have a new, unrelated question start with the search box at the top of the page.
  • Don't post personal information. Email addresses, phone numbers and such will be removed.

VERY IMPORTANT: because of a rise in comment spam that's making it through our filters any comments that do not add to the discussion - typically off topic or content-free comments - run a very high risk of being flagged as spam and removed.

If you have a new question unrelated to the article above, ask it on the Ask Leo! ask-a-question page.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *