Get five free conversions with Adobe's online service, or go the download route with the free CutePDF Writer.
Dennis O'ReillyFormer CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Recently an associate whose PC lacked Adobe Acrobat sent me a Word file via e-mail, asking if I could convert it to PDF and e-mail it back to her. Since the process took all of about 30 seconds, I was delighted to help. Then the next day she sent two more files in need of conversion to PDF, and a couple of days after than another. After her fourth request of the week I felt compelled to tell her about two ways she could have converted the files herself for free: Adobe's own Create Adobe PDF Online free trial, and Arco Software's great CutePDF Writer freebie.
If you use Office 2007 you can download Microsoft's free Save as PDF or XPS utility, which adds the ability to convert files to PDF or Microsoft's competing XML Paper Specification to all eight applications in the suite. The great thing about CutePDF Writer is that it works with programs other than Office 2007. See below for more.
Slow and limited, but readily available: Create Adobe PDF Online
I've used Adobe's free PDF-conversion service for years, and while the $10-a-month service ($100 for one year) used to allow you to create 10 PDF files for free, that number has been reduced to five free conversions, which is sufficient for people who rarely have the need to make a PDF. (If you need more than five files converted, sign up for a new free e-mail account and re-register with that address.)
The downside to Adobe's free trial is that you have to register, and you have to wait for your PDF to be delivered. Otherwise using the service is straightforward. After you sign up, click Convert a file (you can also choose Convert a Web page), enter the path to the file/page you want to convert, or click Browse and navigate to the file.
Click Continue to open the Conversion Settings window. Here you select the type of output you want to optimize the file for (Web, Print, etc.), password-protect and otherwise limit use of the file, and select a delivery method.
The default delivery method is to have a link to the PDF e-mailed to you, but you can also choose to have the file sent to you as an e-mail attachment, wait for the file to open in your browser, or download the file from your account's Conversion History page.
After you click the Create PDF button, you receive a confirmation of the conversion that tells you how long you'll have to wait for the file to be available. When I tested the service, I had to wait a little less than 25 minutes for the file to be delivered, which seems like a long time to me. You're also informed that you have 72 hours to retrieve the file.
Fast and full-featured: CutePDF Writer
If you have more than the occasional need to convert a file to PDF, downloading and installing CutePDF Writer is a faster and simpler approach. The program installs in just a few seconds, though it requires a second program, which it downloads automatically--after you grant it permission--as part of the installation process. Once it's in place, simply open the file you need to convert in the application of your choice, choose File > Print, and select CutePDF Writer in the drop-down list of available printers. The utility opens a Save As dialog box, where you can rename the file and choose where to store it. What could be simpler?
Which makes me wonder why anybody would choose Adobe's clunky and limited online PDF-conversion service over a free utility such as CutePDF Writer. Perhaps they have an aversion to downloads, though this one lacks ads, spyware, or other unwanted companions. Or they may be using a PC other than their own and need a one-time conversion that doesn't entail a download. Still, downloading, installing, and using CutePDF Writer is faster and simpler than using Adobe's service even after you've completed the initial sign-up. I guess this is one of those computing areas where the online version can't match the desktop approach.
Monday: disk management and optimization made simple.