PDFs suck

Posted Feb 16, 2005 in Browsers, Design, Technology, Web Design.

I have noticed a gradual increase in the use of Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) on websites. I saw that the NHL had abandoned the rest of the season, so I went to the website of my local hockey team to read the news. On the front page, there was a link to a letter from the NHL's Commissioner to the hockey fans. Clicking the link sent me, without warning, to a PDF document of the letter. It was a 1-page letter that could easily have been produced in plain old HTML.

PDFs suck, people! They require the Adobe Reader plug-in to be accessed (which may not be available for your user agent), take an age to load, and never fit in with a website's design. They're great for huge user guides and technical manuals, but they're a fucking pain in the ass otherwise.

So please, web designers, tell your clients that PDFs should be used as an absolute last resort.


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    From one Philly guy to another, I will tell you, that the PDF experience is MUCH different on the Mac.

    Posted by Stephen Collins on Feb 16, 2005.

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    << the PDF experience is MUCH different on the Mac >>

    And perhaps that is the problem. Many web designers are using Macs to do their work, and they forget that most of the universe is using a Windows PC. The PDF is excellent if you have tens or hundreds of pages of stuff, particularly if there are vector-based drawings within the content. But for small documents, normal markup should be used.

    In the future, I hope that a combination of XHTML, SVG, and related technologies will eradicate the need PDFs, SWFs, and the like.

    Posted by Simon Jessey on Feb 16, 2005.

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    Adobe Reader 7 loads PDFs infinitesimally faster.

    Posted by Basil Crow on Feb 16, 2005.

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    Okay, I just downloaded and installed Adobe Reader 7.0. It does seem to be orders of magnitude faster than 6.x; however, it requires a 20Mb download (which is bad for people on dial-up) and it doesn't address the other issues I mentioned.

    The World Wide Web is supposed to consist of hypertext documents - that is what makes it so damn cool. As soon as you throw in something that requires a plug-in, you are making your product less accessible, because some user agents will not support it. There is no reason to have 1-page PDFs, that are basically just text, instead of hypertext documents. You should use the right tool for the job.

    Posted by Simon Jessey on Feb 16, 2005.

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    My stance is simple: use PDFs where you also like portability. Take a CV for example. I like to read it on-site (in fact, I won't read it if it's PDF). But I'd love a PDF for its portability and the consistent print layout. Maybe it's not cool for lazy people, but please, offer both.

    Posted by Rob Mientjes on Feb 16, 2005.

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    << and they forget that most of the universe is using a Windows PC >>

    Maybe this is the real problem.


    Posted by Stephen Collins on Feb 16, 2005.

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    Rob: I agree that PDFs are a good idea for a CV or résumé, although many people will use a Microsoft Word Document for the same purpose; however, it should be in addition to an HTML version.

    Steve: Macs are good at some things, and crap at others. They are the Betamax of the personal computer world, as far as I'm concerned. As an Englishman, I would have to say that Apple makes products that are "all mouth and no trousers". All bling and no sting.

    Posted by Simon Jessey on Feb 16, 2005.

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    Well as someone who uses Macs and builds his own PCs, i'll disagree.

    As for the PDF, when you think about what the document is being used for, PDF is probably the best format. It was being passed around for display on numerous websites, it is being emailed to season ticket holders and it is being printed and mailed to season ticket holders.

    For one document with that many delivery methods, I feel the PDF format probably works best.

    Posted by Stephen Collins on Feb 16, 2005.

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    Yeah, but the point I was making as that PDFs are often used instead of regular markup when there is no reason to, except perhaps because the webmaster is bone idle. The document in question appears on the Philadelphia Flyers website as a PDF, but on the NHL website as HTML. The Flyers' webmaster just couldn't be bothered, and the PDF is wholly unsuitable for the task it was undertaking.

    Posted by Simon Jessey on Feb 16, 2005.

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    At my old job, many times someone would send me a document and ask me to put it up on the website. They couldn't understand what would take so long, since I could just upload the PDF, but I would explain that I needed to make the page accessible so I was adding it as HTML, which could be easily read on-screen, include hyperlinks, site navigation, etc. They PDF would still be available for printing with the original format. PDFs are good for some things, like you mentioned above, but even one-page announcements or newsletters are added to sites with no indication that the link leads to a PDF document.

    Posted by Andrea Piernock Barrish on Feb 17, 2005.

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    Simon, I'm curious -- what is it exactly that Macs are 'crap at'? I know you have reservations about the iTunes DRM model, but we should put that down to a legal/policy decision and not a shortcoming of the hardware. After all, you can buy iTunes songs using a Windows PC and be subject to the same DRM, so it's hardly a platform-specific problem.

    I'm genuinely interested in your thoughts, as I've just put my Windows PC in the bin and moved to the Mac. I would never, ever go back ... maybe there's something I'm missing on the PC side of things?

    Posted by David on Feb 17, 2005.

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    << I'm genuinely interested in your thoughts >>

    I don't want this thread to turn into a PC vs. Mac hate fest, but I'll share a few thoughts with you about it if you like. My feelings about Macs are complicated. Apple makes computers that are 10 times better than they used to be, but they needed to.

    Buying a Mac is a bit like buying a Ferrari. A Ferrari is VERY good at what it is meant to do. It goes fucking quickly, it looks and sounds gorgeous, and it feels like every penny you spent on it has gone into making it the best it can possibly be.

    A PC, on the other hand, is ALL the other cars put together. It CAN go fast and look gorgeous if it wants to, but it can also go off-road, pull a fucking great boat, or be customized to such an extent that it can practically walk on water if its asked to. The PC is the best all-rounder by far. You wouldn't want to put a tow hitch on your Ferrari, would you?

    And then there is the cost. Macs have always cost Ferrari money. "But what about the Mac mini?" I hear you cry. Well, once you've bought a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and a USB port expander (because your mouse and keyboard already took up both sockets), you are already spending more than the equivalent PC.

    More software is available for the PC. Much of it is shit, but that still leaves a huge choice of great software that the Mac is denied the use of, or is forced to run a PC emulator to take advantage of. The gap is closing, but it's still huge. The exception is design software, which began life on a Mac because Macs used to be better at graphic-related tasks.

    The funny thing about all this is that I'm looking to buy one of these Mac minis myself. For the first time, I can pick up a cheap Mac that will allow me to do web testing without breaking the bank.

    Anyway, if this thread starts becoming a flame war, I'll close it immediately and without further justification.

    Posted by Simon Jessey on Feb 18, 2005.