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Yours truly In response to http://www.changethis.com/content/AboutOurPDFs, "Change This", who arrogantly (and not in an Ayn Randian complimentary sort of way) say:

We know that every PDF you've ever read on your computer screen has made you curse.

We know that you've hated every minute you spent scrolling through a PDF designed for printing, not reading on your screen.

Ours are better.

We spent weeks meticulously designing a PDF layout that is specifically designed to look beautiful on the screen. A layout that is a joy to read.

Um. Yeah. Right.

PDFs Suck to Eleven

Sorry, PDFs do suck, yours included.

This is an earful mostly 'coz I keep running into sites that pack the damned things all over the place. Not the least of which is, um, work, a large nationwide nonprofit whose website mostly consists of out-of-date PDFs (except where it consists of out-of-date Flash animations). Of which reading anything more or less exactly sucks.

A slightly modified version of this rant was sent the webmaster of the site in question.

  1. The don't index particularly well. Google tries. But they still suck.
  2. Bloat sucks. Sure, half the web's on broadband. Half isn't. And increasingly more is on various wireless or discontinuous connections (handheld, mobile)
    • Size of your PDF that sucks (9.02 AlphaFemaleBlogging): 387 K
    • Size of extracted text: 35K
    • Estimated size of well-coded HTML: 70K
    • PDF download time on dialup[1]: 90 seconds.
    • Text download time on dialup: 8 seconds.
    • Estimated HTML download time: 19 seconds.
  3. PDF. Readers. Suck. All. Of. Them. Full. Stop.[2]
  4. Search. The reader that sucks least for navigation sucks most for searching. The reader that sucks least for searching sucks most for nav.
  5. .
  6. Sucky rendering. "Beautiful" borders, but your actual content brings me back to 1984.
  7. Cut'n'paste (where it works) sucks.
  8. Can't be browsed from text-mode browsers. Sure but who's that you ask? Google. Blind/disabled. Many web-to-PDA tools (Plucker, AvantGo). And the 0.1% oddball types such as myself who occasionally choose to use (or are restricted to using by virtue of connection limitations) text-mode browsers. Several of which rather impressively Do Not Suck[tm].
  9. Speaking of PDAs, PDFs suck on PDAs. No free reader best I can tell. And PDAs kinda suck for this sort of thing anyway, but I can tell you that HTML rendered in Plucker sucks a whole lot less than your PDF. Which would also bloat the damned 16MB of storage I've got.
  10. Editing. Sucks. Ask your webmistress/master. Got to fire up ye olde PDF editor/converter to make simple changes. Rather than diving straight into the HTML for a quick fix.
  11. "Plugins" Suck. Fortunately, my preferred browsers (Firefox and Galeon) can be configured not to use these. But on MS Windows, they're an incurable disease: browsing along pleasantly, and suddenly massive machinery shifts into gear, programmer-imprisoning corpothugs splash screens appear, "update wizards" start, and you're stuck with an application-within-an-application chimera that's neither browser nor reader, but the worst of both. Paraphrasing Kennedy on Washington DC: an application with MSIE's stability and security, and Adobe Acrobat's speed and agility[3].
  12. Navigation. Sucks. Nothing like, for deep content, an all-in-one webpage you can scroll through with (dealers choice) the space bar, scroll wheel, scrollbar, mouse, page-(up|down) keys, or other mechanism of your choice.

So: PDFs suck 11 ways. Gee, that's straight out of Spinal Tap: most things only suck to ten, but with PDFs, "we can go to eleven".[4]

Thank Doc Searls for pointing out to the rest of us that you suck, law of PDF association.

Got to tip ye olde hat to Jakob Nielsen who noted long ago that PDFs Suck (except that he mistakenly typed "Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading").

PDF is great for distributing documents that need to be printed. But that is all it's good for.

Jakob keeps his roses and stinkers online for all to see, going back decades. That gem dates from June 10, 2001. He also notes that Flash is 99% Bad (October 29, 2000).


  1. 4.4 KB/s net rate, about the best I can get sustained. And generally a fraction of that (2.2 - 3.4 is typical).
  2. FWIW: Acroread, Acrobat Reader, xpdf, gv, and the GNOME/KDE PDF readers for Linux. Hate 'em all, with gv being the least offensive reader from a navigation standpoint, though it has no search. For a full review of PDF viewers that suck, see Jon Corbet's The Grumpy Editor's Guide to PDF Viewers, and pay him his shekel if it's still in the premium view mode, he's worth it.
  3. John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm .
  4. Really, I wrote this out, counted the ways PDFs suck, and found it was 11. Can't be mere coincidence, eh?

mail: kmself@ix.netcom.com
Last updated 2004/11/30 23:43:21