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X.4 PDF and Printing

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PDF handling and Printing are important aspects of Mac OS X.4. OS X’s out of the box PDF handling has existed right from the start along with the capability to create PDF from any print dialogue and always been a cool feature of OS X. Printing has been a bit more difficult. Let’s recap how X.3 improved the handling of these topics and see how X.4 improves that.

X.3

Since X.3 the Mac’s PDF viewing capabilities and performance have been very good. Unless you needed very special features such as forms or encryption, the on-board Preview could compete with Adobe’s unpleasant Reader application and with its really nice find feature even outperform it.

Printing has been a somewhat different story. Ever since starting with OS X, I found its PDF-based print architecture to be less than perfect. The files it generated seemed to be bloated and often failed to print properly on old PostScript printers – one of the reasons why my dad had to replace his good old LaserWriter. Apart from the printing sometimes seeming a bit slow in comparison to doing direct PostScript printing from Linux or the classic Mac OS, it works without problems for me. Possibly because I’m not currently doing any graphics related work – sometimes there seem to be complaints from the people who heavily need all the features of the printing system.

Real World Printing

So what has changed with X.4? Not too much, I’d say. But a few changes made it into the system, that make your daily work easier. One is that the installer will now install a whole load of printer drivers – including the GIMP ones – onto your system. While those add up to a whopping total of more than 1,5GB, it’s well worth the space. At least for people who use portable computers as few things fell as silly as not being able to print just because you were too stingy to carry the relevant drivers around. Perhaps I’m just lucky, but I have yet to run into a printer on which I couldn’t print.

OK, that’s not true… there’s still a StyleWriter II somewhere at my parents’ house and we might even have the NEC P6 sitting around somewhere, but nobody considered using them for years and just establishing a working connection between them and my Powerbook would require non-trivial kinds of magic. Hmmm, I assume that I could be up and printing on the StyleWriter within ten minutes or so using one of our old Macs with a serial port, sharing it over EtherTalk and using Classic to do the printing…

Printing on any of the printers in our department isn’t a problem thanks to either AppleTalk printing (which remains the most reliable, IMO), the LPD queues our admin has set up or even Rendezvous Bonjour on a new printer. Similarly printing at my parents’ house isn’t a problem using AppleTalk over Airport (although it sucks that you can only have AppleTalk active on one of your network links, which means I have to change that setting if I want to print). And finally, the other day, in preparation for the Running Dinner at Jan-Philipp’s place, I enjoyed printing on the obscure old LaserJet he has over Airport Express (and potentially printer sharing) with a single click.

The only situations in which I still find printing difficult are those where Windows printers are involved. The results for that seem to be, ahem, iconsistent. Sometimes it seems quicker to cycle down to my department and use the printer there than to use one of my flatmates’ printers. But I haven’t really investigated this thoroughly and mostly given up on the topic because two crappy and unreliable software components, Windows and Cisco’s VPN software are involved. Both of which I don’t really understand and which have the tendency to just break down for no good reason. I don’t really want to handle the Windows computers myself, as I don’t want to break anything and get into trouble for that.

Printer Setup

Print Center Icon Let’s have a look at X.4’s printing software now. Quite a few things have been shuffled around with this update. Looking at the different windows you see when setting up and using the printer, you get the impression that the transition isn’t quite finished that as there are quite a few applications involved in what’s going on.

In previous versions of OS X we used the Print Center (I think that was the English name) which took over the job of the good old Chooser. Step by step this started including not only the management and setup of printers (not that that’s something anybody cares about) but there were also weak tries at reintroducing desktop printers and a fax feature added to the OS. And the software situation started being messy, with there being the Print Center, the desktop printers which are actual applications and even a Fax system preference pane. My suggestion in that situation was to just move all the set-up aspects into single system preference pane and get rid of the setup applications.

And that may be what Apple are trying to do. We now have the Print & Fax preference pane which collects a list of printers, standard settings like the default paper size and printer, as well as the fax and printer sharing setups. While I still consider it a bit freaky to have the printer sharing checkboxes in the Print & Fax preference pane and also in the Sharing preference pane, it’s certainly handy. I do think, though, that the UI should make clear that the checkbox you check here affects the same setting as that in the Sharing preference pane. In fact, it also presents a finer grained setup about which printers you do and don’t want to share which isn’t available in the Sharing preference pane. So there should be a reference the other way as well. A little extra bug seems to be that once the Sharing pane has been opened, the checkbox of its Printer Sharing item won’t correctly reflect the current status after it has been changed in the Print & Fax pane.

Where things start being a bit freaky, though, is when you start to configure printers. Checking a printer’s queue will open the printer’s own little application and to show a window containing that information. While I don’t like the fact that a separate application – complete with Dock cluttering – is opened, and I seem to remember that this was much better in OS 9 or even QuickDraw GX where everything happened in the Finder, this still makes sense and has the advantage of giving us a unique way to look at a printer’s queue.

Pressing the buttons to configure a printer or to add one to the list of available printers is much more confusing, though. Where you’d expect a sheet to appear to let you choose the relevant options, the Print Center will be launched to display either a window or its information palette. This is done in a way that the switch between the applications may just not be apparent to the user but which may very well leave you with the extra and confusing icon of the Print Center in the Dock after closing the window you have been dealing with.

So the Print Center is actually still in the business of doing all the work here (with the UI updates in the preference pane when making changes in Print Center being really fast and good, btw). And its feature to add printers has been significantly improved for this. Pressing the button to add a printer there won’t open what used to be the System’s slowest opening sheet anymore but a separate window, the Printer Overview, which is the same window that the button in the Print & Fax preference opens.

Printer Overview Window with a few printers

And this window shows that Apple seem to be aware that the previous way of adding printers was overly technical. Instead of having to worry about first choosing a protocol (i.e. gibberish) and then looking for printers, the window will display all the printers that the system manages to see without help in a list. I.e. this simple window with its convenient filter field should be able to locate the vast majority of printers that people use. Nice.

If your printer can’t be located that way you can press the button at the bottom of the window to get to the old sheet for locating printers that gives you all the gruesome protocols and options. Or, for IP printing, there’s a second ‘tab’ (well, UI wise this is a bit strange…) to set up IP printing in a reasonably simple way.

In short, we’re finally seeing good progress in printer selection. And if both the printer selection and setup will be moved right into the system preferences, I think we’ll have pretty much the best way to deal with this topic which unfortunately is fairly complex. In fact, trying the different options and protocols I was amazed that AppleTalk (or PAP, I think) pretty much beats all of them in terms of comfort. Many of the other methods still require you to do some manual setup, like explicitly telling the system what printer you are using or figuring out what options are installed on the printer. Things that seem to have worked without any problems in AppleTalk printing for a decade or so.

A final aspect that’s worth mentioning in this context is that the software can now give you information on the printer’s toner supply. While I’ve heard people complain that Apple is putting annoying commercial links on there screen here for buying supplies, there seem to be no such links for the printers I have access to and the feature itself seems like a good idea. It seems to be available in the print sheet and in the Print Center. On the other hand, our printer tends to always claim that it will run out of toner soon, so I’m not sure the info you get that way will be helpful. In addition I don’t quite understand what the bar in the information sheet – which sadly is available from the Print Center only – wants to tell me. Any hints?

Toner supply information sheet

Printing

Now, let’s go on to look at printing. Nobody’s really interested in setting up printers anyway. That’s just something which can get in your way when needing to print something really quickly. And we’ve seen that Apple have improved your chances of getting through printer setup without pain. In fact, having to use the manual printer setup could be considered one of the worse cases anyway as in the good cases of Bonjour and printer sharing you can just select the printer you’d like to use in the print sheet without any need for prior setup.

The print sheet remains largely unchanged from X.3. My memory may fail me here, but the paper handling pane of that sheet seems to have new options for resizing the output to a certain paper size. Which may come handy. (The paper sizes you can see there strangely include the ‘… (small)’ paper sizes which seem to have vanished from the rest of the system and only differ from the others margin-wiser – I’ve never quite understood those, probably something about printer margins or so.)

Paper Handling pane in the print sheet

The final aspect that saw changes is the menu for PDF workflows. And, looking around on the internet, I saw many people complaining about it because its little black triangle doesn’t look good and having a menu pop out of such a button isn’t HIG-compliant. All this may be true, but to be honest I welcome this change. Just keep in mind how that part of the dialogue looked not too long ago: Ugly large buttons with strange icons in them. Perhaps that could be interpreted as HIG compliant in some strange way but it always looked like an eyesore to me. So I prefer the updated look.

Sure, the triangle is strange, but moving it a bit to the right and making it less pointed may improve that. I also like that the buttons’ order is switched. The PDF Services button now comes with a number of pre-defined services, and you can use Automator to make your own. The menu now also contains an item to edit it directly, letting you add and remove PDF Workflows without needing to dig around in some obscure folders in the Finder. It won’t let you re-order the Workflows, though.

PDF Workflow Actions setup window

The only thing that remains unclear to me is how Workflows can be made to post-process a file, e.g. using CocoaBooklet and then still send it to the printer without too much hassle. I still think that would be quite a good use for PDF Workflows.

PDFKit

On to a slightly different topic, PDFKit. In X.3 everybody was impressed with Preview and how well it handled PDF files. Many third party developers expressed their unhappiness at only having access to the fairly simple PDF handling features they got from the standard Cocoa environment when a much more powerful set of features was already available. In X.4, finally their wishes are fulfilled and the much more powerful PDFKit is available to all developers. It contains features like searching PDFs, adding notes and accessing the table of contents to them.

My first – and possible only, as I don’t care too much – experience with PDFKit wasn’t too positive, though. In my experiment to make an Automator action I made use of PDFKit. All I wanted to do was to open a PDF file, manipulate its metadata and write it back to the disk. The metadata stuff worked fine but in the process of writing the file lost it’s built-in table of contents – the one that appears in Preview’s drawer – which isn’t acceptable. This may have well been my fault, but I remain unaware of it. Perhaps this requires deeper digging in the frameworks or they’re just not good enough for that yet.

Preview

Preview Icon To see OS X’s PDF features at their best, it has always been a good idea to look at the Preview application. There are a few new features, such as the tool to annote PDF files with red circles and text notes. That’s as sweet as it is useless – it seems that you can save those annotations but not remove or edit them once they’ve been saved – very slowly, I might add, even when no changes to a file have been made – to the file. They don’t seem to be found by Spotlight either. As saving a file with annotations kills its table contents as well, I suppose that it wasn’t just my fault that I couldn’t add metadata without killing it as mentioned above.

Preview window with some annotations

More useful features include Preview’s new ability to store the last page you looked at in a document and re-open it at the same place the next time. And a global list of bookmarks for the application which let you jump to a specific page of a specific file right away. This still seems a bit rough, though, with the list of bookmarks being in the application’s preferences and not accessible by Spotlight. There are also a couple of view settings, letting you see double pages if you have a huge screen, the integration of the screenshot tool Grab right into Preview and the nicely integrated slideshow tool with the same interface as all other slideshows on the system.

What could turn out to be useful is that Preview lets you make rectangular text block selections now — by holding the option key. Particularly in multi-column files copying and pasting text was next to impossible without that. Preview also integrates nicely with Spotlight as far as PDF files are concerned by automatically starting a search for the term that Spotlight looked for after opening the PDF. Unlike Safari, which will cleverly only use the first word of the last Google search term for text searches, Preview uses the whole search term, though.

Strange aspects of the app are that you can’t crop bitmap images – but can crop PDFs – and that the little previews of PDF pages are displayed in reverse order, which I consider particularly useless.

While Preview is definitely good enough for everyday use, there remains one problem for me that had been introduced back in X.3. When doing a search for a word in a large file which can take a while (say, half a minute on a 5MB 500 page file or a few minutes on a 100MB 100 page file) Preview will lock up completely while searching and not finding anything. I had hoped this would be resolved with the X.4 update.

Safari

To finish, let me note that Safari has native PDF support now. Which it should’ve had from day one of course, but hadn’t. It’s there finally, and I remain underwhelmed. In part because I can’t get it to zoom the PDF to the full window width by default. And always having to select a menu item that’s inconveniently hidden in a contextual menu sucks. It will certainly be good enough for occasional PDF reading and being able to print and save the files right from the usual Safari menus is nice. But having in mind that Schubert IT’s PDF Browser Plugin has come very far in the past years, what Apple offer looks like its not enough.

June 14, 2005, 2:02

Tagged as X.4.

Comments

Comment by Colin D. Devroe: User icon

Again, another great X.4 post - Sven - please refer to my post: http://theubergeeks.net/2005/06/11/quarter-life-crisis/

June 14, 2005, 16:41

Comment by ssp: User icon

Thanks for the flattery and invitation, Colin!

What still puzzles me is a what that 9 Rules thing is about. I couldn’t figure that out from the site alone. Is it more than a list of web pages? And what are the rules?

June 14, 2005, 17:58

Comment by anonymous: User icon

In my experience, Preview will lose the Table of Contents of any file it saves, even with no editing.

May 11, 2006, 20:34

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