A PDF file preserves a document’s appearance across diverse platforms. For example, when you open a PDF file of an annual report, the file you see onscreen looks the same as a printed version. Just as important, you didn’t have to have a copy of the software that created the PDF file to view it. The format been around since 1991.

PDF files are easy to share, easy to view, but not so easy to edit. Send someone a PDF, and they’ll likely see your document as you intended.

With Google tools, you can view and create PDF files. If you view PDF files in Chrome, you can open the file, then use the down (and up) arrow keys to scroll through the document’s pages. You can also create a PDF from any Google Apps document (i.e., a file in Docs, Sheets, Slides, or Drawings) by downloading the document as a PDF file. Here’s how:

  • On a laptop or desktop (Figure A), use the Chrome browser to login to Google Drive, open your document, then choose File | Download As | PDF Document (.pdf).

Figure A

Download any of your Google Docs as a PDF file in your laptop browser.
  • On an Android or iOS mobile device (Figure B), install and use the mobile apps (install the Drive, Docs, Sheets, and/or Slides apps). In the mobile app, open your document, then choose the three vertical dot menu in the upper right | Details… | Download. The system will download your document to your device as a PDF file.

Figure B

Save a Google Docs to PDF format from your Android device.

Google also offers at least five distinct places to store and access PDF files: Books, Calendar, Drive, Google+, and Sites. What you intend to do with a PDF determines where you choose to store the PDF. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Need to search PDF content? (Google Drive and Sites)

PDF file content search works with PDF files stored on Google Drive or on a Google Site. For example, when I search for “github” on Google Drive, the search results display several items, including the “Sample Syllabus” PDF file. My document appears in the list because the word “GitHub” appears in the text of the PDF.

Google indexes the contents of PDF files stored on Google Drive (Figure C). More specifically, if your PDF is a text file, Google will index the first 100 pages of text; or if your PDF is an image file, Google will attempt optical character recognition on the first 10 pages (learn more about PDF search).

Figure C

Search the contents — not just titles — of PDFs on Google Drive or Google Sites.

2. Share a PDF? (Drive, Calendar, or Sites)

You may share a PDF file the same way you share any file on Google Drive: select the file, then choose either the “get link” or “share” menu options. You can also share a file stored on Google Drive as either a link or an attachment within Gmail.

Attach a PDF to Calendar events or a Google Sites page to share a PDF in context (Figure D). A PDF attached to a Google Calendar event provides people meeting support materials. (Note: be sure to set PDF file permissions so that event attendees can open the file.) A PDF attached to a Google Sites page lets you share a file in context. For example, a page with a conference workshop description provides context for an attached PDF file of slides.

Figure D

Attach PDF files to Calendar events or Google Sites pages for easy reference.

3. Read and discuss? (Google+)

Share a link to your PDF file on Google+ to provide context and encourage discussion (Figure E). People can comment, +1 the post, or even re-share it with their followers.

Figure E

Want to discuss? Share the PDF on Google+.

4. Read and sync? (Books)

If you goal is to read an especially long PDF, upload the document to Google Books (Figure F). You can read PDFs anywhere you can access Google Books. Unlike all the other methods, Books remembers your place. For example, stop reading on page 23 in your web browser, then open Google Books on your Android phone and continue to read page 23. Bookmarks sync, too.

Figure F

Upload a PDF to Google Books to sync your place across devices.

You flip pages to move through a PDF file in Books instead of moving down a continuous vertical scroll in the Chrome PDF viewer. In Books, the right/left arrows flip pages. Books also offers options to view either a one- or two-page layout, as well as to zoom in or out (Figure G).

Figure G

Customize your view of PDF files in the Books browser.

Web or PDF?

Today, web browsers, web standards, and web apps reduce the need for PDF files. If you’re certain the people who will read your information will have internet access, share your information with a web document.

In situations where a web document won’t meet your needs — or those of your readers — a PDF file remains one of the best ways to preserve a document’s layout and ensure that nearly anyone can view it.

What role do PDF files play at your organization? What types of documents do you share as PDF files? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.