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We all come across PDF documents every day — it’s the go-to format for bank statements, instruction manuals, online reports, and a whole lot more.

But is it always the best format? How do you know whether you should be using a PDF document or one of the Microsoft Office file types?

If you’re in a quandary about which format to use for which purpose, keep reading. In this article, I’m going to explain the pros and cons of using a PDF in comparison to DOC, XLS, and PPT files.

PDFs: The Benefits

Let’s start by assessing the advantages of PDF documents. In what circumstances should you always use them?

Self-Contained

If you’re producing content to distribute to other people — for example, sales presentations, lecture notes, or newsletters — you should be using the PDF format to send the files.

The reason? PDFs are self-contained. The file itself contains all the formatting, fonts, and layout designs. They will render the same way every time without relying on the operating system, hardware, or software.

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Anyone who has opened a Microsoft Word document on Google Drive knows how important this is. If you send a DOC file to another user who isn’t using the same app or doesn’t have the same fonts installed, it’s often going to look messy.

High-Quality Printing

Because PDF documents are self-contained, printing shops will happily accept them. They often won’t accept Word documents How to Print Microsoft Office Documents the Right Way How to Print Microsoft Office Documents the Right Way Does it sometimes seem impossible to print documents exactly the way you want? We can help! We show you all your printing options and help you pick the right settings for perfectly printed documents. Read More or other Microsoft Office formats.

PDFs are “What You See is What You Get” — whatever the page looks like on your screen, you can rest assured it will look the same way on a physical copy. High-resolution images will retain their professional look and page layouts won’t be compromised.

Therefore, if you want to print a batch of posters, flyers, or even a PowerPoint slideshow, make sure you save your file as a PDF before heading into town.

Multiple Formats

Yes, you can import paragraphs of text into a PowerPoint file or paste a PowerPoint slide into Excel, but the process requires a lot of tinkering if you want to make the finished document look respectable. The various Office formats are not really designed for countless formats and lots of embeds.

Even if you get your document looking good on the screen, if the file is large, it could take a long time to open and/or save. PDF documents can easily support text, almost every image type, vector graphics, slides, HTML code, and more.

Interactive

Microsoft Office files can be interactive, but PDFs are a better choice for application forms, feedback forms, and other situations that require data entry. Here’s why:

Compatibility

There are merits for using both browsers and specialist PDF readers PDF Reader vs. Browser: Which PDF Viewer Is Best for You? PDF Reader vs. Browser: Which PDF Viewer Is Best for You? A PDF reader is often one of the first tools people install on their new computer. It's not glamorous or sexy, but it's a vital tool in your productivity arsenal. Or is it? Read More .

Ultimately, however, as long as the receiver has a browser installed on their system, they will be able to open your file. It’s not the case if you send a file in the DOC, XLS, or PPT. Not all office suites can handle all the formats.

PDFs: Drawbacks and Alternatives

Despite these apparent benefits, there are still times when a PDF format is not suitable. I’m going to look at some of those situations, and advise you what you should use instead.

Composing Text

PDF documents lack the powerful formatting tools of Microsoft Word and other processors. You can’t edit page layouts, fonts, and other important stylistic issues.

Furthermore, they don’t have spell checkers, grammar checkers, and other writing aids. You should use a traditional word processor to compose your text. Only save the file as a PDF when you’re sure you’ve finished.

Editing Content

PDFs are also not a good choice when someone else needs to edit or add further details to your document 5 Free Tools to Edit PDF Files 5 Free Tools to Edit PDF Files PDFs are universally useful. However, they fall short when it comes to editing. We're here to show you the best free tools to edit your PDF files. Read More . For example, if you’re responsible for adding text to a document and at a later stage in the process someone else is responsible for adding images, it is not wise to send the file in a PDF format.

The format is not editable by nature. PDFs are merely an image of an existing document, rather than being an original document in their own right. At best, most PDF readers will only let you edit a few words at a time.

Images

If you might need to reuse images from a document at a later date, stick to Office apps. You will find it harder — if not impossible — to extract the embedded images from a PDF document.

If it’s absolutely necessary to extract an image from a PDF, you can grab a print screen and edit the image in Paint — but it’s not an efficient workflow, and you’ll probably lose some of the picture quality.

Collaboration

PDF creation apps do not have tools for collaboration. Some paid tools introduce features that the best free readers The 6 Best PDF Readers For Windows The 6 Best PDF Readers For Windows Most people don’t stop to think about the PDF reader they install – they just install Adobe Reader. Adobe's PDF Reader isn’t the only option, though – there are quite a few high-quality, free PDF... Read More don’t include, but the process is cumbersome.

Most productivity suites like Microsoft Office 365 and Google Drive’s apps now allow real-time collaboration on documents 3 Microsoft Office Online Teamwork & Collaboration Tools That Impress 3 Microsoft Office Online Teamwork & Collaboration Tools That Impress With Office 2016 and its free online counterpart, Office Online, Microsoft has rolled out new tools for teams to collaborate remotely and in real time. We show you what you can't miss. Read More . Again, you can do all your work using a traditional suite, then only save into PDF once the document is complete.

Share Your Opinions

I hope I’ve given you a broad introduction about how PDF documents compare with the typical Office suite file formats, as well as explaining when to use PDFs and when to avoid them.

I would love to hear what else you would add to this list. Have I missed any pros? Have I overlooked any significant cons? You can leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments box below.

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  1. Squalle
    February 17, 2017 at 12:39 am

    PDF is a "final product" format. It's not meant to be a collaboration tool. They did take it a step further and made it able to contain editable fields. But in the end, it's meant to be an "ok, here's our document" type of format, not "here, can you add something to this" format.

  2. Ron MVP
    February 14, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    For the target audience, non-technical users, I think this article is right on the point.

    Sure it is something of an apples to oranges comparison, but as I see it, that is precisely the point of the article. The thing is, for non-technical users a PDF and Word document are the same thing, they present text.

    You didn't include the on specific example I use. Unless doc formats are explicitly requested/required, I recommend people submit resumes as PDFs. That way you know for sure what they will be seeing. If you send a tightly formatted DOC/DOCX, their computer may change the formatting just enough to make your carefully crafted document a serious mess.

  3. Ron
    February 14, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    I agree. I don't know that I would compare the two as if they were the same.

    PDF is certainly better when you know you are sending files to someone and you need to ensure they are readable. Not everyone can read a Word file or even have the right version of Word to ensure the formatting comes across correctly. However, at the end the writer brings up Co-Authoring documents. Work on those documents in Word, or what ever your choice of word processor is, and co-author it there if it is a collaborative effort. Then, convert it to PDF for sending it on. PDF was and is not intended to be a editing tool or even remotely a word processor, for all the reasons mentioned above.

  4. Dave
    February 14, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    Aren't we comparing apples and oranges?