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How to convert your data into a PDF file on a Mac

Oleg Svirgstin    

Part I

This is the thing that I love about the Apple style of living most of all. Apple prefers to share most of the burden of not-so-easy-to-perform tasks with its users. It's like having a smart and friendly expert sitting inside every computer blessed with a bitten Apple on the shield, readily available to come and help...or even any moment.

This time I'll start the long and exciting story about converting documents of any format into a PDF.

1. Nutrition Guide

Some programs don't support printing. Games. Utilities that deal with nothing printable. Poorly written programs. It's easy for a Macintosh developer to add some degree of printing support. In Mac OS X, everything that may be printed may just as easily be converted into a PDF. You don't have to install anything on your computer; there's no need to find and uncheck some hidden controls or do anything special.

What I reveal in this section relates to the vast majority of Mac programs, including some parts of the operating system itself. To avoid a totally abstract discussion, we'll use a non-existing application called "Nutrition Guide" as a sample. The real programs that you use may do the same for you with different types of data for other purposes.

Nutrition Guide knows about nutrition values, health concerns, and cost specifics of various meals. It allows users to schedule, analyze, and optimize their "nutrition intents" for a given period of time. Nutrition Guide provides lots of incredible functionalities. Schedules are stored as file system documents, denoted as ".toEat". "What-to-buy" lists are summed up with all necessary data: required amounts, expected prices, and so on.

There are also profiles that store every client's preferences and limitations in ".diet" documents, as well as the "Nutrition Values and Prices Table".

Nutrition Guide is able to beautifully print all these types of data in several user-controllable formats.

2. The easiest way

You've told your friends about this program. They're interested, but since they don't yet own a Mac, you can easily help them remotely. It's up to you how you will set their "diet" profiles. (They're your friends, not mine.) It's also up to you to request a reasonable compensation for this service. There's no need for enemies with some friends...

Now, how would you deliver them the results? They don't run Nutrition Guide on their PCs. They can't watch these easy-to-read beautiful productions of the program. Don't worry. Let the communication facilities do that for you. Just save the "toEat" plans and "what-to-buy" lists as PDFs.

Prepare the "what-to-buy" list, and make it the topmost document. Though it's not a requirement, save it before going on. Remember: At any moment the computer may unexpectedly switch off (due to a power failure, for instance). Then choose the "Print..." option from the "File" menu. Inside the Print Panel, in the lower left corner, there is a button labeled "PDF" with a tiny black triangle next to the word. Press it and hold it. A menu will spring up, listing options that you can choose.

Usually you will want to select the "Save as PDF" command. The smart and friendly expert will show you another dialog, asking where you want to save this file. By default, the expert suggests that you christen the PDF file that is about to be created with the same name that you gave to the document that you converted. You may change that name to whatever you like. Then press "Save".

Now, navigate to the place where you saved that PDF and double-click its icon. There you are! Your document has printed itself into a PDF file as if it was another printer. Now you may attach that PDF file (or files) to an email message and forward it to the "clients".

3. The easiest way+ and some other easy options

You may avoid the "Save as PDF" dialog if all that you want to do is to forward your printout by email. Choose the "File->Print..." option and press the PDF button. But now select a different option, "Mail PDF". After a wink or two, you'll face a newly created email message, with the results of the virtual printout attached, but with neither destination nor subject set.

Laziness is the major driving force of progress. Later you'll learn how to make Mac OS X do even more work for you. Even if being lazy contradicts some moral principles (in general, it is not good to be lazy), it is wise to avoid activities that can be easily automated. Once thought of and made to work as desired, these activities will just work for you, preventing typical human mistakes, pedantically obeying every rule that you define.

You may request a PDF of the smaller size (compressed). Older computers might have to spend more time opening such documents, but we're living in the age of gigahertz.

Or you may choose to encrypt. It might be useful if, for instance, your friend plans a secret party someday, or prefers to keep the "what-to-buy" list a secret from other people.

If you choose that option, after the PDF has been processed, the operating system will ask you to specify and confirm the password. Then you'll have to choose a place on your disk where you want to store that file. There you are! A password-protected PDF file. It won't even let you inside unless you enter that password. Very smart.

Attention: Some third-party Windows applications may ignore PDF passwords, or even fail on them. Be prepared for this. Nothing is as expensive in this life as security.

If you did us a favor and purchased Spool Pilot for Macintosh, you'll be able to print your data to one of several graphic formats instead of a PDF.

4. Be the master of your own data, Level 1

The "Print to PDF" facility inside Mac OS X is pretty easy to use. It is very flexible, as well. To make use of its flexibility, we'll have to learn about its principles of operation. Knowledge is Power.

Options in the PDF menu are called "PDF Workflows". Since we are getting deeper, we cannot afford to refer to things with improper terms. The easiest tool to control available workflows is the PDF menu itself. There is a command at the bottom of that menu, labeled "Edit Menu". Choose it, and click the "plus" button. Just select a folder, an alias to a folder, an application, a command line tool, an Apple Script, and an Automator workflow, and confirm your selection. There you are! You have a new option in the list.

The "Edit Menu" command is too liberal. It doesn't check whether a given candidate may be used as a "PDF Workflow". You may easily assign any tool or application to that role, though only those that have been specially prepared to work as a "PDF Workflow" will actually work. For instance, there is an application named "Preview" inside Mac OS X that knows how to open and handle PDF files. Assign it as a workflow and get your printout open inside Preview... Preview is very smart; try it.

Text Edit or Safari will fail to open the file. Most other applications will, too. Tools, scripts, and Automator workflows require special treatment to become a useful PDF Workflow.

However, you may choose an alias to a folder on your disk as a PDF Workflow, and that will work. Create a folder and name it "AuntBeeNutrition". All PDF printouts addressed to Aunt B. will go here, if we perform two easy steps.

Step one: Let's create an alias to the folder. Select the "AuntBeeNutrition" folder in the Finder window, and choose the "Make Alias" command from the "File" menu. Done. You now see the new "AuntBeeNutrition alias" file. You may rename it to anything you like other than "AuntBeeNutrition", since that name is already present in the same directory. Okay, I didn't call that folder "AuntBee" just to be able to use that name. It would probably be better to name that alias "Save NG facts for Aunt B." instead, since that name will appear in the PDF-menu, and it's better to make menu commands as self-explanatory as possible.

Step two: Make that alias a new "PDF Workflow". Choose the "Print" command from the "File" menu in any application that supports printing, (Nutrition Guide would do), press the PDF button, and choose the "Edit Menu" command. Add a new workflow to the list by pressing the "+" button. Select "AuntBee" and click "Open". Done.

Create a document with "Nutrition Guide". Name it "Test Aunt Bee". Choose "File->Print", then "PDF->AuntBee" in the Print Panel. Take a look in the folder "AuntBeeNutrition". There is a new file named "Test Aunt Bee.pdf". One more reason to give self-explanatory titles to documents that you plan to PDF out: The generated PDFs will be born with that same name.

You may have asked, "What is an alias?" An alias in Mac OS X is a file that points to another file or a folder. It's a smart pointer: It knows how to find its destination even if the file or folder that it points to has been moved to another location or removed. Did I mention that Mac OS X deploys a lot of magic?

If you had several clients, you could repeat these steps for each of them and never spend a second or two to manually navigate to the Save panel to put their data where it belongs. If you assign a real folder (not an alias to a folder) to that task, it will appear as a submenu in the PDF menu and do nothing.

You may...

Step one: Create a folder named "NG Clients", and then put aliases to all your client folders into it.

Step two: Make that folder a command in the PDF menu.

If you added your clients to the PDF menu itself, now it's time to remove them by clicking the "-" button in the Edit Menu command. It's starting to sound like a professional talking, isn't it?

So far, we didn't do anything complicated, but got some very useful results.

If we have dozens of clients (great... that must be a profitable business!), is it possible to do something for all of them with one click in the PDF menu? Yes.

To be continued...


See also

Virtual Printer for Macintosh: why is there no...

Virtual Printer Drivers for Windows



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