A Comparison of File Formats:

Criteria for choosing a portable document format

Every document format has advantages and limitations.  When choosing how to archive and distribute print-formatted documents, you should consider the amount and the kind of information to be presented, how accurate it must appear, and the timeframe, staff, and budget for "creating" and updating the documents and maintaining the supporting systems. 

Feature  HTML  Vector PDF  Raster PDF  PCL/HPGL TIFF
Files can be viewed with Any browser SwiftView Pro+PDF, Acrobat Reader SwiftView Pro+PDF, Acrobat Reader SwiftView, others SwiftView, others
Free viewer available Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Create without special software ($) No No No Yes No
Online image accurately matches printed format No Somewhat Yes Yes Yes
Automated updates without quality checking No No Yes Yes Yes
Print mixed legal+letter No V3,4,5: No
V6+: Yes
V3,4,5: No
V6+: Yes
Yes Yes
Small files Yes No Yes, for an image Yes - Zipped PCL is up to 32 times smaller than PDF! Yes, for an image
Practical document page limit 20 200 200 1,000,000 10,000
Searchable text Yes Yes Sometimes, e.g. from SwiftView PCL Yes except from non-SwiftPublish print drivers Sometimes, e.g. from SwiftView
Fast display Yes No No Yes Yes

When to choose PCL/HPGL

PCL (including its drawing subset, HPGL) is a powerful and useful intranet and Internet document format.  PCL does not replace all uses of HTML or PDF, nor is it about, database interchange (like XML).  PCL is about printable documents, and is ideal when precise formatting, ease of document production, and simplicity of document overall system development and support are paramount.

PCL is the actual document exactly as it prints on LaserJet-compatible printers.  With PCL, you can go from printed page to distributable electronic document without proofing because they are in fact the same - not a conversion

Conversion to other formats changes the appearance either completely (like HTML) or in sometimes-not-so-subtle ways (like PDF). 

Here are a few examples of when to use PCL/HPGL:

  • When the format of documents (how they appear on paper) is legally controlled or extremely important.  PCL has proven to be better for: loan application packages, financial documents in general, government documents, user manuals, reports, documentation, bills, statements, invoices, etc.
  • When the document has page layout.  Examples are page headers and footers and the phrase, "see page 42 for details."  HTML has neither page numbers nor even the concept of "pages."
  • When the document is designed to be printed on paper.  ERP reports are an excellent example.  Since they are already being printed, they are already in PCL and there is essentially no additional effort to create PCL.  Using PDF or HTML requires conversion steps that can be expensive, time-consuming, difficult to efficiently implement, and impossible to keep 100% accurate.
  • When there is no huge IT document management organization.  Without even knowing it, most business people use PCL every day whenever they print on a Windows laser printer.  PCL can be created as an electronic file simply by using "print to file" in a Windows print dialog.  All other formats require some sort of non-automatic, complex conversion software and/or deployment processes.
  • When documents are LARGE, such as huge reports or print jobs, many with hundreds of thousands of pages of related information.  Breaking them apart is an artificial process that makes their management much more difficult. 
  • 2-D Engineering drawing interchange. HPGL is THE standard for sharing drawings because like PCL it is the actual output to many large-format plotters.
  • In business-to-business applications.  PDF and Acrobat have an advantage for casual use, consumer-facing applications because of the general availability of free Acrobat Reader.  In production, frequent, use, business-to-business applications, one minute to transparently download and install SwiftView viewer is negligible compared to the productivity savings of a small, fast, reliable viewer and document format.
When to choose TIFF         More about TIFF

TIFF is THE STANDARD for capturing and archiving black and white images, e.g., FAXed and scanned paper documents.  And SwiftView is a leading tool for production viewing and printing of TIFF images.  Here's why!

PDF is starting to see some use for imaging, due to Adobe's constant drumbeating, the availability of free Acrobat Reader, and two features that the original TIFF standard lacks: embedding searchable text such as that produced by OCR (optical character recognition), and the highly efficient JBIG2 compression format for bitonal images.  However, recent advances in TIFF standards have eliminated most PDF advantages.  TIFF files can now contain text for Windows OS fileystem search (supported in SwiftView 8.3.3), and ISO has published a new TIFF/IT extension for JBIG2. 

PDF also has been adapted for the graphics arts industry, incorporating some of the more recent color matching and other advanced graphics arts technologies.  SwiftView's outstanding display speed and advanced TIFF features overshadow any other reasons to build a business scanning, imaging, or archiving application around PDF instead of TIFF.

For more information about the TIFF standard, see the TIFF home page at Adobe (Adobe currently administers the TIFF 6.0 specification).  For more about the TIFF/IT standard for prepress digital data exchange, see the Library of Congress overview

When to choose HTML

HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is an excellent format for documents that are largely text and whose exact formatting is not critical.  HTML is relatively format-free and works best only with trivial graphics.  The text does not appear in pages with a specific width or length, so changing the browser window shape may change the width and placement of text and images.  You never know how many pages there are until you actually print them!  Graphics are limited to simple GIF, JPEG, and PNG images unless plug-ins are installed.  Even then, each image is a separate file, increasing website server software requirements.  HTML has the advantages of ubiquity (since it can usually be viewed with any web browser), and a "dynamic formatting" approach. 

PCL has these advantages over HTML: 
  • Single File - An HTML "page" tends to be composed of many separate files.  This makes the document as a whole difficult to create and maintain.  A PCL document is normally a single file.
  • No Conversion/Fast Turnaround without Proofing - Even relatively simple text formatting cannot be easily translated to HTML.  For example, the SwiftView Configuration Manual is 100% text, about 40 pages long, and is maintained in Microsoft Word.  Both Microsoft Word's Internet Assistant and QuadSoft's HotMetal Pro can convert it to HTML, but neither handles the indents, columns and a number of other issues properly.  The result is many hours of effort to "finish converting" it to HTML each time the manual is released.  The PCL manual can be "created" in less than 30 seconds without special software or special review: we just print-to-file and put it on our website.  This allowed us to easily split the manual recently, take a look at both.  The "creation" and upload can even be automated!
  • True Formatting - The lack of true formatting in HTML can be a problem for many documents.  For example, what if your original document is a training or reference manual which says "see page 23 for details"?  In HTML, there are no pages without substantial, special work whose result is most often awkward to use.  With PCL, pages, page numbers, headers and footers are all preserved.  With PCL, the entire document is real and identical to the original, because it IS the original.
  • Accurate Appearance - If you expect users to print pages, HTML cannot reliably reproduce the exact appearance of the onscreen page on paper.  PCL can, because it is the printer format.
Documents whose original format is important are excellent candidates for PCL. 

When to choose PDF         More about Raster v.s. Vector PDF

PDF, due to its PostScript heritage, and ongoing development in the graphic arts industry, has many more features, especially in rendering color photos and graphics.  As a result, PDF is the language of choice for documents which require highly accurate color reproduction.  It also is MASSIVELY more complex than PCL, HPGL, or TIFF, making it difficult to reliably display and print any PDF file.

Because PDF is not an actual print format (except for a few very expensive, large production printers) most documents are printed to PCL office printers when proofing PDF conversions.  Because the PDF becomes PCL before printing, this additional conversion can and does introduce errors, altering the document's appearance and content, so documents must always be re-checked ONLINE with Acrobat for accuracy.  This is much harder than with a real paper copy.  Thus, PDF is best suited for single-version, graphics-intensive, high-color documents with few authors and many readers, supporting the extra proofing steps.  For most other applications: large reports, business-to-business communications, document sharing, and engineering drawings, PCL and HPGL are clearly better portable document formats.

PCL has several key advantages over PDF because:

PCL is the document print stream - it inherently maintains the document's true appearance
PCL is the standard stream of data accepted by all HP LaserJet and compatible printers - most office printers in the world.  Because it is a print format, you can simply copy PCL into a LaserJet any time from a DOS command line and you have the original document on paper again.  Because PDF is a converted version of the document and does print directly to your printer, PDF can and often does modify the original appearance of the document. For example, PCL files printed from documents that contain mixed page sizes, such as mortage closing packages and legal contracts, will always print on the proper sized pages (if the printer supports multiple paper sizes).  The same document in PDF, printed from Acrobat Reader, will not print on the correct paper sizes.  Furthermore, because PDF depends on Acrobat for printing, printing PDF is slow and error-prone.

Capturing PCL from your documents is free, easy, and zero-cost.
Any program that prints on a LaserJet printer can output PCL for free.  On Windows, capturing PCL is as simple as clicking the "print to file" box in the Windows print dialogue.  On UNIX systems, it's easy to redirect capture of the print queue.  Adobe Acrobat authoring software costs up to $449 per user, and is relatively difficult to implement on production systems.  Finally, and most importantly, since PDF documents are conversions, each must be carefully examined to ensure integrity, a time-consuming QA process. 

SwiftPublish allows you to automate capture of zipped PCL print files directly from Windows applications.  It also insures that the resulting PCL file is fully searchable (a problem in the Windows print environment.)

PCL files are generally smaller than PDF files, and always smaller when zipped
Zipped PCL files are up to 32 times smaller than PDF equivalents for normal business documents.  SwiftView directly views industry-standard ZIP-compressed PCL files.  Acrobat Reader cannot view zipped PDF. 

Even documents with substantial graphics—what PDF is best at—can be smaller in zipped PCL than in PDF.  This advantage translates to substantially faster document and drawing viewing, as well as reduced server and Internet connection loads.  On the Internet, the display speed of zipped PCL over PDF is dramatic, and is completely transparent to users: SwiftView views the file just as if it was unzipped, except much sooner!

PCL inherently renders more easily and quickly than PDF for many documents. 
Users printing large documents or many documents select PCL over PostScript or PDF because PCL's relative simplicity enables much faster viewing and printing speeds. 

PCL is an open standard
The most important definition of "open" is the ability to change vendors while retaining control over data.  Companies who adopt widely-used open standards like PCL and HPGL will always have a choice of vendors who drive one another to produce higher quality software because they are truly competitive.  Users of Adobe's proprietary formats must generally use only Adobe-driven technology.  Competing implementations for creating and reading PDF are weak at best, keeping PDF users captive to Adobe.  Acrobat Reader, like most free software, has few updates and support is nonexistent. 

Better, faster tools for real productivity
Of course one of PCL's biggest advantages is the SwiftView viewer!  But PCL's inherent speed and simplicity make other PCL tools better, such as the high-performance Direct Mail tools from Jet Letter and Mailing Innovations.  Most report and forms generators output PCL because it is very easy to take a simple text file and add PCL formatting to it. 

Customers tell us: Why PCL works better than PDF for their documents

Customers tell us: Why HPGL works better than PDF for their drawings

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