Dirt-Cheap PDF Files

Free PDF!

Most Windows applications that can print can also produce PDF files. Here is a way to produce PDF files for free. The secret is that a PostScript printer driver produces a PostScript file as output. Freely available utilities can then be used to convert the PostScript output to PDF.

It’s even easier on Linux and Macintosh. And OpenOffice.org does it too.


Download and install Ghostscript and Ghostview. Ghostscript is an interpreter both for the PostScript language and the Portable Document Format. Among other formats, it is also able to produce PDF output. Ghostview is a graphical front end to Ghostscript. (Don’t forget to register these utilities if you continue to use them.)

Now install a PostScript (PS) printer driver that prints to file. Select “Start-Settings-Printers-Add New Printer”, and in the Add New Printer Wizard select to install a local printer. Choose HP as the printer manufacturer and as the printer choose HP LaserJet 4/4M PostScript. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have this printer, but you must make sure the printer you choose is the PostScript version. When prompted to select the port to use with this printer, select FILE:. Name your printer “PostScript File”, and don’t bother to print a test page. It’s probably not a good idea to make this printer your default printer!


If your application offers print preview you can check the appearance of your output before ‘printing’ your PDF file. When you are happy with the preview and you are ready to print your PDF file, select “File-Print” in your application, select “PostScript File” as your printer is selected and click “OK”. Because you are redirecting printer output to a file, you will be prompted for a file name. Give your output file a name, click OK again and the file will be produced.


The output file produced in this way will have a .prn extension, but the contents are pure PostScript. If you have Ghostview installed, you can rename the file to a .ps extension and the icon will change to a Ghostscript icon. Load the file into Ghostview, select “File-Convert”, and then check that “pdfwrite” is selected in the Device list. Click “OK”; you will be prompted for a file name again (I use the same filename with the extension changed to .pdf), click “Save” and the job is done.

You can now open up your new PDF file in Acrobat or other PDF viewer of your choice.

Even easier in Linux

Linux users probably already have everything they need to produce cheap PDF files.

By default, Linux sends PostScript data to the printer. So any application that allows print output to be redirected to file produces a PostScript file. The file can then be converted using the ps2pdf utility that comes standard with most distributions.

At the command line use: ps2pdf output-file.ps and the result will be output-file.pdf. Couldn’t be easier!

While neither method is particularly elegant, but they are cheap and easy methods if you occasionally need to make a basic PDF file without any fancy features.

Mac does it seamlessly

Macintosh OS X produces PDF natively, it’s as simple as choosing Print -> Save as PDF

Built-in PDF production

The open source office suite OpenOffice.org has print-to-PDF functionality built-in. Unfortunately it is a little bit fiddly. Basically you need to indicate that you want PDF output in two places - when you choose the printer driver and when you choose the output format. Hopefully future versions will streamline the process.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • select File Print (Control-P)
  • In the print dialog:
    • Select Name: “PDF Converter” (your converter may have a slightly different name)
    • Select “Print to file” and the “Save as” dialog appears
    • Input file name including .pdf extension
    • Select File type: “PDF”
    • Click Save
  • Back in print dialog - click OK

Check output in PDF Viewer and enjoy!

First published: PC Update Oct 2003 (online version updated)