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Book Review -- PDF Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools

I have a love-hate relationship with PDF files. They are incredibly useful tools that solve lots of problems. They are unmatched for when you need to get your document turned into paper at the local print shop; you no longer have to figure out what file formats they handle at the shop, or worry about Windows to Mac conversions. As a webmaster, I also know they are the fastest way to have a version of your web pages that you know can be printed out with no problems. And of course they excel at what they were first designed to be -- a platform-independent electronic document that can be easily shared and viewed by anybody with a computer.

As a webmaster, I also see how PDFs are misused -- as a way of whacking together a website on the cheap, taking some documents that weren't necessarily designed to be viewed online and quickly and cheaply stick them up, whether that makes for a good user experience or not.

PDF Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools by Sid Steward illustrates both sides. These hacks include a number of highly useful ones that I immediately started to use daily. On the other hand, some of them also go to great lengths to get a PDF to do something that is probably better done in some other format -- such as HTML.

Let's concentrate first on how this book can help you. Like the other books in O'Reilly's Hacks series, it's divided up into sections. Here they are "Consuming PDF", "Managing a Collection", "Authoring and Self-Publishing: Hacking Outside the PDF", "Creating PDF and Other Editions", "Manipulating PDF Files", "Dynamic PDF", and "Scripting and Programming Acrobat". To get full value from this book, you have to be more than just a consumer of PDFs, using the Acrobat Reader or browser plug-ins. You'll need to be a producer too, most likely with the full Adobe Acrobat package (either Standard or Professional.)

Almost right away, I learned something in the Consuming PDF section that helped. Hacks 4 and 5 talk about Adobe plug-ins, where you find them, and how you can manage them to speed up Acrobat's start up process. Hack #5, on how to manage profiles, was the first of many hacks that relied on a script or add-in of some sort. In this case it was a batch file that you would use to call Acrobat.

If you create PDFs, you'll want to check out Hack 24, which explains the difference between smart, dumb, and clever documents. (This isn't some red state/blue state thing -- a document is smart if it uses tags to help define its content.). Hack 29 talks about how you can create either print-on-demand or e-books using Acrobat, if you want to get into the self-publishing business. And Hack 41 is a good explanation of the compatibility and incompatibility problems you get from moving between different versions of Acrobat. As a webmaster, I'm always looking for ways to save bandwidth, and Hack 60 shows how you can optimize, or refry, Acrobat files to make them smaller.

The final section of the book covers some fairly advanced topics, things that really do deserve to be called hacks. These include integrating tools like Perl, PHP or Java with Acrobat, controlling Acrobat with scripts, or using the Acrobat Software Development Kit.

On the other hand, there were a number of sections that made me think of the "If you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" saying. While you can create HTML front ends for PDFs, or use PDF forms for data collection, there's probably other solutions that may work better -- such as HTML front ends for HTML pages, or HTML forms. But the section at least shows the breadth of Acrobat's usefulness.

Even if you are someone, like me, that thinks Acrobat PDFs have a clearly defined but limited role, you will still find lots of tips in this book. If you are looking to maximize your investment in Adobe Acrobat, you'll find even more.

This review originally ran at Blogcritics