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Free PDF Files using GhostScript or OpenOffice.org

There are many ways of producing PDF documents. The cost for these programs runs from free to many hundreds of dollars. And, even the free ones are not quite free if you count the nagware, shareware, addware, poorly written software and spyware etc. 

After working with PDFs for many years and trying many programs, I have found that my three favorite PDF conversion programs are Acrobat Distiller, GhostScript, and OpenOffice.org (OOo). Acrobat Distiller comes with the Adobe Acrobat Professional retailing for $450. GhostScript is free for the download and has almost all the features of Acrobat Distiller. OOo is a free full-feature office suite. GhostScript and Distiller produce PDF from any program that can print from Windows.

For details about installing, configuring and using GhostScript see below.

Using OpenOffice.org to Produce PDF files

OOo will export flawless PDFs directly from every program in its suite of programs. Just open your MS Office files in OOo, make any formatting changes you want and then click the PDF button for perfect renditions every time!

To use OOo download it for free from OpenOffice.org. If you tried OOo 1.x and were disappointed, version 2.0 has just been released and is much improved. Not only does it have considerably better support for importing and exporting MicorSoft Office files but it now includes a full feature Access database clone and provides many other new and improved features. For a very through review of OOo 2.0 please see: http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1874157,00.asp

Summary of Basic Setup and Usage of GhostScript

NOTE: This document contains a good deal of detail, but it call all be boiled down into a few simple steps listed next. Most of the detail that follows is for those who may get stuck. Enjoy! - GK

Basic Installation

  1. In Windows, install a PostScript printer using a print-to-file port.
  2. Download and install GhostScript and GSView software. http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost/doc/AFPL/get851.htm

Basic Usage

  1. Print your document to a PostScript printer and give your print file a name.
  2. Open the print file in GSView and from menu File/Convert to PDF format

(Optional) Summary of Command Line or Point & Click Setup and Usage of GhostScript

Advanced Installation:

  1. Install PostScript printer, GhostScript and GSView (as above).
  2. Add the path to the GhostScript lib and in folders to your Windows PATH environmental variable.
  3. Associate the bat file PS2PDF.BAT to the extension of your print files.

Advanced Usage:

  1. Double click on print files in Windows Explorer or My Computer to convert files.
  2. Use ps2pdf from Windows command (DOS) Window

Details for Setting Up GhostScript to Produce PDF Documents

Before you try any of the procedures documented below please be aware that many computers already have GhostScript and GSView installed and many have the path variable set to GhostScript paths also. If you are unsure about any of the setup procedures please contact me or another knowledgeable staff member for assistance.

For some of the advanced setup and usage below, it may require that your Windows extensions be turn on (made visible) in Windows Explorer (My Computer). Use Tools/Folder Options in Windows 2000.

Some Definitions

PostScript Printer
A PostScript printer is a printer that accepts PostScript commands as input.
PostScript is a non-proprietary, industry standard, printer control language developed by Adobe and widely used by many applications, operating systems and hardware output devices.
Printer Driver
The software that converts formatting information in computer documents into information a physical printer can understand.
PostScript Printer Driver
A printer driver that converts computer documents into a format that PostScript printers can understand.
PDF stands for Portable Document Format which is an Adobe non-proprietary, industry standard. PDF documents retain all the detail of the format of computer documents no matter where they are opened.
A very powerful, Open Source and free program that converts PostScript printer files into PDF format.

Basic Steps In Converting Documents to PDF

For all methods of converting documents to PDF there are basically two steps:

  1. Print the document to a file using a PostScript printer driver
  2. Convert the generated PostScript file to a PDF document using the GhostScript program.

GhostScript can be used in many ways to produce PDF documents. We will discuss four ways here:

  1. Using the graphics interface program GSView
  2. Using the Windows (DOS-Like) command line.
  3. Point & Click from Windows Explorer (Simple to do but requires advanced setup.)
  4. Select multiple files, right click and use "Open With" ps2pdf.bat

Overview of Setting up a PostScript Printer

Before you can print to file using a PostScript printer you must setup a PostScript printer on your computer. It is unnecessary to actually have a physical PostScript printer present to setup the printer. In the process of installing a printer on Windows you will be asked for a printer to install. Any PostScript printer will work. A good PostScript printer to use is one similar to a non-PostScript printer you commonly use. This is because most of your current documents will be able to be converted without being reformatted. For example if you usually use the HP LaserJet 5 then the HP Color LaserJet 5/5M PS printer would be a good choice. If you can't find one similar to your current printer, choose an advanced model from any manufacturer. You can distinguish PostScript printers by the PS at the end of the printer name. The Windows installation program usually copies many printer drivers from many companies to your hard drive. These are then available for you to install the printers without accessing any other disks or the Internet. If you will be producing wide format documents you will want to use a wide format PostScript printer driver.

Details for Setup and Usage

Software Setup

  1. Install a Postscript Printer: From Windows 2000 desktop go to Start/Settings/Printers. To start the printer installation wizard select Add Printer. Select local printer and at "Use the following port" choose "FILE: Print to File". Then select an appropriate PS printer and finish the printer installation wizard with your choice of responses.
  2. Install GhostScript and GSView: Links to download GhostScript and GSView can be found at: http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost/doc/AFPL/get851.htm. You will want the Win32 version of AFPL GhostScript. Installation is mostly automatic and uses standard windows installation files.
  3. Set Windows PATH (Optional): Advanced users may wish to set Windows PATH to the GhostScript programs to enable command line and point and click methods. See "Setting GhostScript Paths..." below.

Printing to a PostScript File

  1. Open or create a new document in any Windows program.
  2. Go to printer setup under the file menu and set the document printer to your print-to-file PostScript printer.
  3. Add content and format your document the way you want it to look.
  4. Print the document from your application.
  5. When asked for a file name, enter the full path and filename. Don't forget to remember this path and file name! Microsoft Office documents want to add a ".prn" extension to the name. From most other applications you will probably want to add ".sp" for PostScript file as this is the standard extension for PostScript print files.

Convert the PostScript File to PDF Using GSView

  1. Open GSView and then open the print file you just created.
  2. From the menu use File/Convert to open the conversion dialog.
  3. Under device select pdfwrite and press OK.
  4. Give your PDF file a name.
  5. Notice that you can convert your documents to many other formats including Tiff and JPEG, and that each format has many quality and compression settings.

Command Line Usage (For Advanced Users if GhostScript is in Windows PATH)

  1. From Windows desktop select Start/Run and type "cmd" (without quotes) and press Enter.
  2. Navigate to the folder where your PostScript file is located (use the CD command).
  3. Type ps2pdf myfile.prn myfile.pdf to convert a file named myfile.prn printed to a PS printer from a MS Office program to a PDF file named myfile.pdf.

Point and Click (Optional if Windows PATH variable is set)

  1. From Windows Explorer double click on your postscript print file.
  2. The first time you double click on your file you will be give an "Open With" dialog to select a program to open the prn or ps PostScript print file. Select "Other" and navigate to the ps2pdf.bat file in GhostScript lib directory. Make sure "Always use this program to open these files" is checked and press OK.
  3. The next time you click on a file that has a prn or ps extension the file will automatically be converted into pdf.
  4. If you have many files to convert, try selecting them in Explorer, left click on selection and select "Open With" PS2PDF

Setting GhostScript paths in Windows PATH System Variable

If you want to use the command line, point-and-click or to create PDF documents you will need to add two paths to the Windows PATH system variable. These paths are the path to the location of the GhostScript executable named gswin32c.exe and the path to the PostScript to PDF conversion batch program named ps2pdf.bat.

  1. Check to see where GhostScript has been installed. It is typically found in C:Program Filesgsgs8.51 but may vary depending on where the software has been installed and the version installed.
  2. From Windows 2000 Desktop, right click on My Computer, select Properties and the Advanced Tab.
  3. Under System Variables click on path. Select Edit, click once on the text field in Variable values and press the End key.
  4. (WARNING) When editing the path variable take care not to delete the existing path settings in the string under System Variables or you could mess up your computer a bit. If by chance you do delete the selected text (for instance by typing the semicolon while the text is still selected) cancel out of the dialogs and start over.

  5. At the end of the line of paths type a semicolon and the two paths to GhostScript in and lib folders. What you enter will look something like this: ;c:program filesgsgs8.51in;c:program filesgsgs8.51lib (The rules for setting paths are that each path must be preceded by a semicolon, have no spaces between entries, and end without a back slash. The end of the line should not contain a semicolon. Also, the first path on the line should not have a semicolon preceding it, but you usually will not be editing this.)
  6. When finished editing the path click out of the dialogs with OK, OK, OK.
  7. To make the new path active, log off your user workspace and back on. (You could also just reboot but it takes longer.)

Last Updated: December 2, 2005

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