Sunday, November 2, 2008

Making PDF's useful . . . and READABLE!

I hate reading pdfs. I've tried several viewers, and no matter the power of my computer they are slow and awkward. I came across a new method almost by accident, and I feel the need to share it. Maybe I'm not the only one who struggles with pdf game manuals, etc., so . . .

I've been lifting jpgs out of pdfs for awhile now using Adobe Reader, but doing so one by one is a pita. I found a program that converts the pdf to images wholesale (any format you want, really) and once I had the pages as pics, before cropping them up for the illustrations (as I was going to do) I was browsing using Picasa's picture viewer (the one that replaces Windows XP's default picture viewer that loads when you double click a pic) and I was floored by how much easier I could navigate--and what's more actually READ!--the doc. And, mind you, this is before I threw the pics into Picasa proper.

So you have a pdf you want to be able to read or reference on your computer without having to print it out. Do this.

Go to and follow method 2 of converting pdf's to jpg. It will take you to Omniformat downloads
Get the 2 programs you need and install them. It is free. It takes about 30 seconds to load while it shows you ads, but otherwise has full functionality.

Using Omniformat, you will set up a folder to drop your pdfs in, and Omniformat will convert them to anything you want. Set it to convert to png (superior to jpg because it's lossless, but functions more or less the same with various programs), and set resultion to 300dpi in the preferences. Take your pdf and drop a copy into the Omniformat watch folder. DO NOT drop the original in, as the program erases the pdf when conversion is done. You will have png pages in a few moments. Move the pngs to to a folder in your library.

Open Picasa (and if you don't use Picasa, you should, period). Go to tools, options, and in the file types tab, make sure png is ticked. Add the folder where the pngs are to Picasa, and then move the folder to a new Collection called "ebooks," "library" or some such.

Why do all this? Do it once and you will be convinced. In Picasa when the thumbnails are at their largest size, I can view 12 pages at once, at a large enough size to tell what I'm looking at. Pic a page with a single click from the thumbnails view and hit Ctrl-4 to start a full screen slideshow. On my monitor, this is the perfect size to read. Esc brings you back to the thumbnail view. Click once on any thumbnail and press and hold Ctrl-Alt to get an instant full screen of that page (and you can scroll through the pages as long as Ctrl-Alt is depressed). You can also view at any zoom you want and navigate in the detailed view. Seriously, this method competes with reading a paper book, and that's saying a lot. Going from thumbnail to full screen and back in a blink of an eye gives you a an amazing sense of the book as a whole. What's more, in essence every doc in your entire library is open at the same time, and you can flip from one book to any other instantly. Make a new book by grabbing ten pages from one and throwing them into an album with ten pages from another. Add tags like to pages like "bookmark" to show where you stopped, or mark sections like "critical hit tables." I could write a whole post on the uses of tagging up a book. Really, I can't say enough how excited I am. I have a ton of pdf's that were next to useless and are now at my fingertips.

But from here you can go on to grab out the illustrations you want from the pdf. Browsing in Picasa, "Hold" all the pages you want pics in the tray, and throw them into a temp Album. Export them to a temp folder on your desktop with Use Original Size box ticked under Image Quality and Image Quality set to maximum. Either use Photoshop or another image editor to crop, or reimport that temp folder of duplicate images into Picasa (add folder), and crop them there. Hit Save to Disk in the top right of the folder to make your crops on the files themselves. Note that Picasa saves a backup of the uncropped file in a folder called "Originals" in the same location as the photo. So go into that temp folder you just made and erase the Originals folder.

Anyhow, it sounds like more work than it is. After you have the programs installed, the workflow is fairly easy, and the payoff is immediate. I can't tell you how much time I've lost dicking around with pdfs in an attempt to read them. Anything you plan to spend more than 20 minutes reading, do this, trust me.


Anonymous said...

Acrobat handles PDF's just fine for me. Plus it's got thumbnail options for viewing. But thanks for the alternative. Maybe another PDF viewer will help FoxIt?

Spooktalker said...

You may THINK your reader has been doing an ok job, but I'm really talking about a major qualitative shift. It's the difference between a cross country bus ride and having your own private jet. ;) All of those readers, Foxit and Sumatra included (them most of all in fact) claim to offer an alternative to Adobe Reader, but they operate from the exact same flawed premises. It's the same shitty interface (actually, I find Reader to have the best interface of the lot) with the same crappy pointer and hand tools, and the same archaic zoom tools, the same ridiculously slow response time. From the perspective of the student of interface design, it feels like reading a book underwater with a robotic crane to turn the pages. At risk of bragging, my discovery is HUGE, and there's no going back for anything! :) Foxit . . . really, pshaw.