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Making a PDF from Office - Save or Print?

How you choose to make a PDF file from Microsoft Office can make quite a difference to how the PDF file looks and behaves. Web links, bookmarks and page backgrounds can appear, or not, depending on how you choose to make your PDF – Save or Print.

Saving Office documents to Adobe Acrobat PDF files has always been popular – more these days because the tools to do it are commonly available and often free. PDF files are usually smaller than Office documents and are ‘fixed’ so the reader has limited ability to alter a PDF they receive.

There are two ways to convert a document to the PDF format:

  • Save As’ to save a version of the original document to a different format.
    • Modern Office lets you make a PDF directly. This choice is sometimes called ‘Export’ or ‘Convert’.
  • Print‘ which intercepts the printer output from a program to make a PDF file.
    • Instead of a paper page coming out – a PDF file is created which looks like the paper pages.
    • Both Windows and Mac have in-built options to do this from any program, not just Office.

Save As to PDF

In modern Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Outlook you can Save As or Export to a PDF file. Choose ‘PDF’ from the Save as type list.

Warning! The modern pane also lets you choose PDF but without the important choice of exporting options. Click on ‘More options’ to open the traditional (full) Save as dialog with the important extra choices for making a PDF (like Standard or Minimum size).

‘Printing’ to a PDF is a common and popular option because it’s independent of any particular program.


The option is installed as a Windows printer driver and is available as a ‘printer’ from any Print option in any program. Look in the list of Printers for ‘Print to PDF’.

There can be other PDF options in your Printer list, for example Adobe Acrobat Pro adds its own Print to PDF choice.


On the Mac, it’s a separate option at the bottom of the Print dialog.

After you start a ‘print’ to PDF you’ll be prompted for a file name and folder to save the new PDF to. The program you print from doesn’t know (or care) that a paper page isn’t really being created.

Differences between Save or Print to make a PDF file

There are important differences between converting a document to a PDF and ‘printing’ to make a PDF file. When printing, the source program (Word, Excel, a browser etc) will only pass along necessary information to be put on a printed page.

PDF files can have clickable links to web pages or other documents – but they don’t always work when created from a Word document even when they look like a link. Why?

Hyperlinks or url’s in documents won’t ‘print’ to a PDF file – that’s because a paper page can’t have clickable links so the link information isn’t passed along to the ‘printer’. However, the look of a link (ie blue text, underlined) is part of the text formatting so that is printed. We’ve all seen printouts with links printed on the page – in a ‘printed’ PDF the text will look like a link but not act like one.

Most PDF display software has a trick to make working links ‘on the fly’. If recognizable ‘link’ text is in a PDF (eg starting with ‘http://’ ) then the PDF viewing software will convert that into a working link. This is NOT part of the PDF but a feature of the software that puts the PDF onto your screen.

Sidebar: Outlook does a similar trick – plain text emails can’t have links but Outlook looks for ‘http://’ in the text and converts that into a clickable link when displaying the message to you.

That means you can ‘print’ to make a PDF and it can have clickable links – but only if the source has the links in clear text. Embedded links (ie links ‘under’ some text) will NOT work in a PDF made by ‘printing’ but text links can be made to work.

Confused? Here’s a table of examples and if they’ll be clickable links in depending on how the PDF is made:

SampleType Works as a link



Print to PDF

‘Save as PDF’

Office Watch

Plain Text – no link



Office Watch

Text with link attached



Text with http:// prefix
but no link created in Word



  1. The text looks like a link in the PDF file (ie blue, underlined text) but is not a working link because the underlying url wasn’t included.
  2. The link doesn’t exist in the PDF file when made but a working / clickable link is usually displayed by the PDF viewing software when the file is opened. If the PDF viewer has an “Automatically Detect URL’s from text” option set ON (the default in most PDF viewers) then the plain text in the PDF will be converted into a working link. If the PDF viewing software can’t detect links or the option is switched off then no working link will appear in the PDF. ‘http://’ prefixes are the most common links created this way but may also work for text starting with other url prefixes such as ftp:// , // and mailto: .

If you want working links in a PDF file – stick with Save As / Convert or Export options because they’ll pass along all link details from the source document to the PDF.


In PDF’s bookmarks show up as a navigable tree of links along with the document. It’s an interactive ‘Table of Contents’ – we’ve done that in all our Office Watch ebooks:

Note: The word ‘bookmarks‘ has different meanings in MS Word and PDF. In Word ‘bookmarks’ are references to places or blocks of text within a document. Word’s equivalent to PDF bookmarks is the Document Map which is created from headings in the document.

A PDF with the bookmark tree is created from either the Word heading styles or explicit bookmarks in the source document.

If you ‘Print’ to a PDF the details of Word styles or bookmarks are NOT included and no PDF bookmark tree can be created.


Normally Word does NOT print page backgrounds because a paper page printed with a background to the main text is often expensive, slow to print and unreadable compared to the screen display.

That applies to anything output to Word’s print function, whether the destination is a paper page or not. If you print to a PDF utility you normally won’t see a page background in the PDF file.

But if you save to a PDF file, you should expect the background to be included in the PDF.

Printing backgrounds is controlled in Word. Under the Print dialog, click on the Options button. In Word 2007 and later versions:

Warning: don’t confuse the ‘Print in background’ or ‘Background printing’ options which control the speed of printing not what is printed.


Document watermarks (usually ‘Confidential’ ‘ASAP’ ‘Do not copy’ ‘Urgent’ etc.) act like page backgrounds in Word but are handled differently to standard page backgrounds.

Watermarks will be included in printouts including ‘Print to PDF’ and should also appear in PDF’s made via ‘Save As’ options.

The ‘Print background colors and images’ option does NOT apply to Word watermarks.

Which one to use?

Which is better, to Save to PDF or Print to PDF? There’s no simple answer.

‘Save As’ will more accurately copy the look and actions of the original document into the PDF clone. But that might not be what you want – additional document details (Microsoft calls it ‘metadata’) can be copied to the PDF and visible to the reader.

‘Print’ options will make a PDF that looks like a printed page. Broadly speaking, if you can’t read it on a printed page it won’t be available in a PDF version. This effectively hides the additional ‘metadata’ from PDF readers. However, as we’ve seen, that means active hyperlinks from the document, bookmarks and usually backgrounds won’t appear in the PDF.

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