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?
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.
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.
Because PDF documents are self-contained, printing shops will happily accept them. They often won’t accept Word documents 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.
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.
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:
- Fixed Fields — There is no possibility for an end-user to accidentally delete a field, incorrectly interpret what data is needed, or miss a question.
- Step-by-Step Guides — Creators can add margin notes to guide users through complicated forms.
- Formulas — You can make a PDF instantly add sales tax or calculate exchange rates on an invoice. Obviously, Excel also allows you to work with formulas and equations, but there is no way to retain the formulas when converting from XLS to PDF.
- Signature — Some services, such as Adobe Sign and DocuSign, let you add your signature to contracts and other personal documents in an easy and secure way.
There are merits for using both browsers and specialist PDF readers.
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.
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.
PDFs are also not a good choice when someone else needs to edit or add further details to your document. 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.
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.
PDF creation apps do not have tools for collaboration. Some paid tools introduce features that the best free readers 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. 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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