The PDF Explained in 10 Easy Steps

businessman editing PDF on laptop; work from home

The PDF, or portable document format, is one of the most resilient file formats ever created. Originally invented in 1993, PDFs can easily hold different fonts, photos, charts, and more. Best of all, PDFs can be edited on any operating system or device: Windows or Mac, laptop or desktop, mobile phone or tablet. Since its software is open-source, PDFs aren’t proprietary to any specific company or platform and can be developed, used, and distributed freely.

If you’ve noticed an uptick in PDF use recently, chalk it up to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced millions of employees across North America to shift to remote work-from-home offices. The PDF is perfectly suited for such a moment when files are moving fast between different users on different platforms and flexibility is key. Thanks to their high compression rate and low file size, PDFs are also easy to share and viewable within browsers, making them a marvel of cross-program capability.

But that doesn’t mean PDFs are always easy to work with. Because of the open-source nature of the software, free PDF readers and editors proliferate—and some of them are less secure than others. Microsoft Word has enhanced its PDF capabilities, empowering users to edit and fill out PDF forms alongside regular text documents. Meanwhile, Adobe—the inventor of the PDF format, which the company granted royalty-free rights to in 2008—has different tiers of popular programs:

  • Adobe Reader, a free PDF viewer;
  • Adobe Acrobat, an entry-level option for PDF editing and creation;
  • And Acrobat Pro, a key part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud and the most comprehensive PDF software.

No matter how proficient you are with PDFs—or how much you dislike working with them—they’re a key part of today’s digital ecosystem.

Most applications contain a Save As a PDF option that’s easily accessible when you click File or Save As. You can also use the Print function to easily change the file format to PDF. After clicking Print, select Save As a PDF from the drop-down menu where your printers are listed (this should be the first option if you don’t have any printers installed on your laptop or desktop). Using Adobe Acrobat, you can take this one step further by converting any website, photo, or screenshot into a PDF. Simply select File > Create and then select from options like PDF from Screen, Window, or Selection Capture; PDF from Scanner or Web Page; or PDF from Clipboard.

The benefits of Adobe Acrobat are evident when it’s time to edit a PDF. Send a single document out to multiple reviewers if needed and each of them can enter their changes, similar to the popular Track Changes tool in Microsoft Word. After selecting the text that needs to be edited or commented on, right-click for options like Add Note to Replace Text, Strike Through Text, Add Comment, or Create Link. If you’re the owner of the PDF, you can then go cycle through each edit or suggestion individually, clicking to easily accept, reject, or respond to the annotation.

If you have scattered pages, files, or documents that need to be packaged into one source of truth, Adobe Acrobat shines again. Click Combine Files on the toolbar, then drag and drop the different components of the whole PDF you want to create. Rearrange them, crop them, alter their orientation, and then save them as a single PDF—voila. This can eliminate hours of tedious cut-and-paste work, creating a new baseline document for multiple stakeholders to collaborate on.

Alternatively, if you have a massive PDF that you want to break into parts, Adobe Acrobat makes it easy. With the large file open, click on Tools > Pages > Extract or Edit PDF (depending on your software version), then use the same options mentioned above (rearrange, crop, etc.) to slice and dice that overstuffed PDF and turn it into the concise document you need.

Although it’s assumed that the contents of a PDF are more locked down or less editable than copy in a Word document, even the free Adobe Reader allows for a quick text search to go right to the information you need. (This is particularly handy if you’re looking through a large PDF, like a contract or agreement.) Click Edit > Advanced Search > Open Full Reader Search and then filter by specific phrases, subjects, or lists of information. Adobe Acrobat also has robust text search baked right in.

Although free options like Google Forms and Survey Monkey are popular, Adobe Acrobat adds an extra layer of security for collecting important information. You can easily add form fields to your PDFs and enable the addition of text by anyone with access to the document. You can specify the criteria allowed for each form response (quantity, date, yes/no, multiple-choice answers) while existing electronic forms (or even a scan of a paper form!) can be easily converted to PDF form fill status. Adobe Acrobat also provides a safe way to collect signatures on forms, a critical component over the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply click Fill & Sign, which allows you to add pre-saved electronic signatures or initials to areas where physical signatures were once required. Security settings built into Adobe Acrobat allow you to lock the PDF so that only the desired user can modify certain sections.

If you work regularly in a format like Google Docs, Google Sheets, or Microsoft OneDrive, you can transform any of those file formats into a more easily shareable PDF. Click on the Share & Export or Export to a PDF option from the dropdown File menu in the platform of your choice.

Gone are the days of the clunky, ill-sized photo embedded in a Word document. Adobe Acrobat makes it much easier for users to more elegantly insert and edit images in PDFs. With a document open, click on Tools > Content Editing > Edit Text & Images or Add Image for a host of intuitive controls, including drag-and-drop functions, direct file upload options, and quick resizing and cropping tools.

With additional images comes a large file size for most PDFs. Check the size of your final file by right-clicking it, then selecting Properties or Get Info and looking for a number in kilobytes (KB) or megabytes (MB). If the file is bigger than 15-20 MBs, you’ll want to compress it so you can more easily share it. Click File > Reduce File Size or File > Save As Other > Reduced Size PDF or Optimized PDF to resize those images and make the overall PDF more manageable.

Whatever your criteria, Adobe Acrobat provides the capability to encrypt, protect, and even redact the contents of your PDF. Under the Tools > Protection queue, you can adjust the way your PDF can be accessed, edited, viewed, saved, signed, and manipulated. The flip side of that coin is that because PDFs are so common and so easy to work with, they’re often used in phishing or ransomware scams. Never open an unexpected PDF attachment to an email, especially if it’s from an unknown sender. All it takes is one click on an infected file to wreak havoc on your computer.

PDFs are the gold standard in our digital world, and more workers across North America are working with them than ever before. If you or your employees need a PDF primer or are looking for help with programs like Adobe Acrobat, CMIT Solutions can help.

We empower our clients to protect their information and enhance productivity with better collaborative tools. Our proactive monitoring and management services protect computers, networks, servers, and even PDFs, while our world-class tech support lets you concentrate on running and growing your business while we worry about IT. Contact us today for more information.

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