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Citation Software Inc.
 Specialists in variable-data publishing since 1986

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QUESTION: What is a page-description language?

ANSWER: A page-description language (PDL) is a computer language that describes the text and graphics in a document. Printers and RIPs understand page-description languages.

There are only a few page-description languages that are in widespread use today. Perhaps the best-known page-description languages are:
  • IPDS (invented by IBM)
  • PCL (invented by Hewlett-Packard Corporation)
  • PDF (invented by Adobe Systems Incorporated)
  • PostScript (also invented by Adobe Systems Incorporated)
Usually, AFP, PostScript, or PCL is used when you are printing a document on paper; and PDF is used when you want a file that can be viewed on the screen by using 1) the Adobe Acrobat software, 2) a Web browser that is capable of displaying PDF files, or 3) some other software application that lets you view PDF files. However, you can also print PDF files on paper; and these days, more and more people are generating PDF output (as opposed to AFP, PCL, or PostScript output) for printing hard-copy documents.

How Does a Page-Description Language Fit Into a Workflow?

Today's state-of-the-art electronic-publishing software and hardware allows for many different workflow configurations.

We won't attempt to describe all of the possible ways that page-description languages are used. Instead, we'll describe two of the most common situations.
SITUATION #1: You use word-processing software to write a letter. Then you use a laser printer to print the letter on paper, and you mail it via U.S. Mail.

Let's assume that you're using Microsoft Word to write the letter. After you've finished writing it, you click on "File," then you click on "Print," then you click on "OK." Microsoft Word then generates page-description-language code that describes the contents of your letter; and your computer sends the page-description-language code to the RIP inside your laser printer. (Depending on your printer, the page-description-language code will probably be either PostScript code or PCL code.) The RIP rasterizes the page-description-language code and sends the result of the rasterization process to the print engine in your printer. The print engine prints the letter by using toner or ink to draw text and graphics (if any) on the paper.

SITUATION #2: You use page-layout software to create a newsletter. Then you convert the newsletter to PDF format and distribute it via email.

Let's assume that you're using QuarkXPress to create the newsletter. After you've created it, you instruct QuarkXPress make a PostScript file containing a description of the text and graphics in the newsletter. Then you use Adobe Acrobat Distiller to convert the PostScript file to PDF format. You email the PDF file to each person on the distribution list for the newsletter.

Some recipients of the newsletter simply use the Adobe Acrobat software or the Adobe Reader software to open the PDF file read it on the computer screen. Others prefer to read the newsletter on paper, so after opening the PDF file in Adobe Acrobat/Adobe Reader, they click on "File," then click on "Print," then click on "OK." The Adobe Acrobat/Adobe Reader software generates page-description-language code (probably either PostScript code or PCL code, depending on the printer). The computer sends the page-description-language code to the RIP inside the printer. The RIP rasterizes the code and sends the result of the rasterization to the printer's print engine, which prints the text and graphics by depositing toner on the paper.

How Do You Determine Which Page-Description Language to Use?

In most situations, you don't really have to worry about which page-description language to use — provided that your computer system has already been set up to work with the printer(s) that you utilize. The software applications that you use to create and print your documents will automatically generate page-description-language code that is appropriate for the printer(s) that you are using. For example, if you are printing to a Lexmark Optra printer, your application will most likely create PostScript code when you instruct it to print a document.

Some printers can understand more than one page-description language. For example, lots of desktop laser printers can understand both PostScript and PCL. If you have a printer like this, your or your system administration have probably already decided what page-description language you want your printer to use; and you or the system administrator have probably already set up your computer to tell your applications to use that particular page-description language when printing documents.


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