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Computing With Bifocals
by Nancy Carroll Gravley

A column for people who remember what
the world was like before there was color.....




PDF Files & Online Tax Forms
February 1st, 2000

I went to the Internal Revenue Service site this week to download some tax forms. Since I purchased a home this past year I will be submitting a more complex form than what I have used the past few years and that requires a different form from the one I automatically received. All the forms were in PDF format. More and more documents on the web are showing up in PDF format for a number of good reasons. Today's column is about PDF files, what they are and how to use them.


The Standard PDF Document Icon

First of all the technical stuff - PDF files are graphical publications that have been converted to Adobe portable document format (PDF). PDF files are created by Adobe Acrobat from other electronic files or scanned in from paper. A PDF file may have originally been created by word processor or desktop publishing software.

The PDF software takes an original file, including images, graphics, tables, and text that is bold, underlined, italicized, etc. and displayed with multiple font sizes and appearances and creates a specially coded file. The resulting PDF formatted file contains all the information needed to display the original file just as it was originally created, complete with all nuances of the original document, including graphics and text styles. These documents can then be displayed and printed from almost any computer, including Macintosh, DOS, Windows, and UNIX, using Adobe's free Acrobat Reader software. To download the Adobe Acrobat reader your browser must be Netscape Navigator 2.0 or greater or Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 or greater. I'll cover the download process later in this column.

First, some background

I work in state government and there are a lot of federal and state regulations about governmental agency web sites. The sites must be accessible and easy for anyone to use, including persons with handicaps. Download times must meet specific time guidelines and more and more governmental business must be accessible through the net. Even though all these things are mandated, there are no positions funded by our state legislature, in our budget, to maintain the sites. That means that someone, in this case me, must maintain the site for our division. Since we deal with Medicaid there are a lot of policy, procedures, schedules, and forms that must be available on our site. Being the epitome of bureaucracy at it's finest, we have lots and lots of forms. All of this has given me ample opportunity to become familiar with PDF.

Putting forms up on the internet can be tricky. Obviously you want the reader on the other end to be able to read the form and download it, preferably still looking the same way it looked when you first created it. This is not just for esthetic reasons either. When someone is trying to obtain services for a needy individual they have every right to expect all of the forms necessary to achieve that goal to be available and in a usable format. Our word processing format at work is the dreaded Microsoft Word for PC. If all the forms were put on the web site using only Microsoft Word there would be many, many people who could probably see them and even download them, but then not be able to open and use them because they don't happen to have the Word on their computer. Using PDF files fixes that problem. I suppose we could choose to create the forms using HTML, however there are more than 20 forms and I personally have a few more things to do than maintain the site, the responsibility for which comes under the heading of "other duties as assigned." I would not even want to think about having to create forms using only HTML. Therefore, PDF files have become a standard not only for our little site, but almost everywhere on the Internet to publish documents, especially where it is important to maintain original formatting.

Acrobat Reader

While there are a number of advantages to using PDF files, there are also some disadvantages. PDF files cannot be searched by most Web Search engines, which means that, for all intents and purposes, their content is invisible to general web users unless they are already visiting your site. However most general web users have neither the need nor the desire to know what our forms look like. What is more important is that there are plenty of other linking words that can lead anyone with the interest to find the site. Once there, the forms would be accessible. Large PDF files can be slow to download and search and unwieldy to send. Acrobat Reader can crash, although I have never had that happen. To use PDF files extensively requires a large learning curve, but for those just interested in being able to read them, this is not the case. Probably the greatest disadvantage for the average user is that you can't just download a form, such as the IRS 1040, and fill it in because you are not allowed to change it. You have to print out the form to use it. That is not a problem for our site at work because all our forms require original signatures so they have to be mailed in to the department. The ability to download the form cuts about a week off the process for the person seeking services. For the IRS forms there is a way to get around that however, and I will cover it today as well.

Whenever you access a site that is using PDF as it's format you should see a notice to that effect. It usually reads something like this:

To use a PDF file, a reader program must be installed on your machine to display, print, and navigate through the Portable Document Format file. The Adobe Acrobat reader is available for downloading free from Adobe's File Transfer Protocol (FTP) Site.

Rather than include the links that may be included in such notices, I suggest you go to http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep.html. This is a direct link to the easiest download site. Once there you will see the installation directions which look like this:


PDF Download

Be sure and note that you are offered the download in both a 68K version and a PPC version. If you have a new machine, like an iMac, choose the PPC version. Note that this screenshot actually has Windows 95 as the platform chosen, but you can choose Macintosh as well. If you don't know what kind of Mac you have, you can check this guide. You will also be asked to choose between bin or .hqx. It really doesn't matter which one you choose, as long as you have Stuffit Expander installed. Once you have filled in the appropriate answers, you go to your File pulldown menu and select download. Once downloaded you will have a new installation icon on your desktop. Open it and follow the directions so that you load it on your hard drive. That is all there is to it.  

This action is going to give you the ability to read PDF files. If you want to be able to more, such as create files in PDF format, or make changes in downloaded documents, you will have to purchase the Adobe Acrobat program that supports that activity. It is a fairly expensive purchase for the casual user.

IRS Forms

The IRS has built in the option of either downloading files to your desktop which you can then print and fill out, or the option to fill out the forms first and then print them out. If you want to just save the forms to be printed you should get them from http://www.irs.gov/forms_pubs/fillin.html. If you want to fill in the forms while they are on screen and then print them out you can do so from http://www.irs.gov/forms_pubs/forms.html. This second option doesn't allow you to save your completed form. I guess if you want to get that ambitious you will have to purchase one of the commercial tax programs available for your computer.

Reader Feedback

As always I am appreciative of the generosity of Mac Observer readers who take the time to share information and make suggestions.

John Konopka wrote with suggestions about trying pop-up windows. John says that this saves him a lot of time, but you have to have Mac OS 8.5 or higher. What it does is create pop-up windows at the bottom of your screen. This is an example that John included:

go under the apple menu and select Recent Documents then release the mouse button (don't go into the sub menu). This will open a folder of aliases pointing to recently used documents which is automatically updated by the OS. Click in the title bar and drag this down to the bottom of the screen. It will become a pop up window. Alternatively, if the window is open and selected you can go under the View menu and select 'as Pop-up Window.' Click on the tab to expand, click it again to close. While it is open you can scroll the window, move icons, rename them, etc. If you drag an icon out of the window it automatically closes back down to its position at the bottom of the screen. If you drag an icon over a closed window's tab it automatically opens to its pop-up position. If you double click on an icon in a window that item launches and the window closes. If you set the View option to 'as Buttons' then a single click will launch the item and close the window. Pretty cool

John also noted that :

I think Pop-up Windows are one of the best ideas Apple ever had. Compared to something like a task bar it gives you access to a huge number of items in a more sophisticated manner. Nothing else lets you accomplish so much with such a minimal amount of activity. In earlier versions of the OS I used to have rare problems with Pop-up Windows turning into regular windows by themselves but I haven't noticed that in a long time.

Once you create a pop-up window it will relaunch automatically every time you turn on your computer.

More on Chess

Chess affectionadios can find out more about on line chess opportunities by checking out Richard Fowell's web site at: http://dmoz.org/Games/Board_Games/C/Chess/Software/Macintosh/Online_Chess/

Thomas Campbell passed along the information that there is also a chess interface called 'fixation' for the Mac ... it allows you to connect to FICS, EICS, and other chess servers on the internet.

If you have any tips, suggestions, or other comments about this, or any other Mac topics, send them to me so that I can share them with other readers.


Copies of Nancy's book Tips, Hints, and Solutions for Seasoned Beginners Using Apple Macintosh Computers With OS X are available in PDF download versions  for US$9.57 and in print version for $18.15 plus $4.00 shipping.   To view sample pages and get ordering information visit the September 14, 2004 column.


Post your comments below.
Check out Nancy's complete index of all her columns for the most complete list of tips anywhere. The list is categorized and is a great reference when you are looking for help!

A Capacious Catalog Of Computer Tips

Talking to a generation that remembers what the world was like before there was color, covers issues for people who don't care how their computer works, but rather what their computer and the internet can do for them.

Nancy has a Master's degree in Human Services Administration and prior to her retirement she worked for almost 30 years in field of mental health and mental retardation. She has been a Mac user for 11 years, and has recently developed an avocation of teaching basic computer skills in both group and one-to-one settings.


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