Parallel Versions Forever?
November 11, 2011 1:47 AM   Subscribe

Your country uses A4 paper. When you encounter files on the web that are only available in US Letter format, how much does that inconvenience you and/or annoy you? (And does it inconvenience you more if you want to print these files?)

Asking because I'm prepping a website that will offer hundreds of PDF documents, and I'm always thinking about ways the site can be less U.S.-centric than most of its peers.

I'd love to offer both U.S. Letter and A4 versions of all docs. In practice, this would be very labor-intensive. (These aren't word processing docs that can flow into any set of margins; they're music scores that 1) get adjusted and tweaked carefully in every case to ideally fit each page and 2) will occasionally have small changes -- so there would be both lots of initial labor and some continuous extra-version-control labor.)

So what I'm trying to understand is how much that labor would be worth -- how meaningful it would be in terms of sending a welcoming message to A4 users and reducing annoyance.

Am I guessing right that looking at a US Letter-formatted PDF onscreen isn't really a bother, but printing can be more of an issue? When you print, are you used to just making US Letter docs "fit to paper" when you print, and losing a little size / having slightly odd-looking margins? Or would a perfect fit make a big difference? In the context of a website, would always having A4 versions of docs make you think, "Wow, it's easier for me to use this site than other U.S. sites"?
posted by kalapierson to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm in the UK. Yes, printing US letter on A4 is a pain, but that depends on whether the document 'loses' something when scaled for A4. Printing A4 on Us letter just introduces some top and bottom gaps, which aren't a problem, but printing US letter on A4 introduces scaling, so the stuff you want to see gets smaller. I can't remember a specific site to link to but I do remember downloading PDFs from sites that offered both US and A4 formats to choose from, and I thought that was a nice touch.

Are you sure you've got a significant non-US audience? Why not interact with your audience a little:

- do twin versions of a few documents and track your download stats

- put a voting widget on the site and poll your site users

Those might each give you some more reliable data on which to base your decision, if it's going to involve lots of work.

Alternatively, as far as I can work out, while printing letter as A4 is a faff, if you format everything for A4, it's not a faff for people who want to print it on letter paper. Test this yourself: format one score for A4 and ALSO for US letter. Print each version twice, as US letter and then as A4 and see what the difference is. That might let you spot that formatting for A4 in fact keeps everyone happy with identically scaled content, just with margin gaps top and bottom for those who print on US letter, which might be less of a user issue.
posted by dowcrag at 2:04 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am in the UK and routinely print chemistry papers and never notice the size. Articles from the Journal of the American Chemical society print out fine next to the Royal Society of Chemistry. I don't know if the RSC is in letter as well, but I think it would be in A4 and I think the the ACS journals are most certainly in letter. It doesn't make enough of a difference to even notice unless you are paying CLOSE attention. I just print out things using the default settings.
posted by koolkat at 2:06 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have never even noticed a problem printing US letter pdfs. In fact, I only realised just now when reading your question that most of what I print presumably is US letter size. The other direction is far more problematic: occasionally I have had software set to print to US letter, and my file is A4 and it cuts things off weirdly.
posted by lollusc at 2:12 AM on November 11, 2011

'Fit to paper' has always been the default for me, and I've never found things in Letter noticeably weird when printed.

dowcrag: I'm not sure that you don't have it backwards though... printing a document in Letter on A4 paper is where you get the extra space at top and bottom, I think. Are you thinking of Legal rather than Letter?

My advice: use fairly generous margins and a not-too-tiny text size, and tweak them so that the document looks ok when sized to fit A4.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:14 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agree - most of the time I use 'fit to paper' and it works fine.
However, if you use a lot of graphics, it may cut off or scale weirdly.
posted by xmts at 2:26 AM on November 11, 2011

Response by poster: It is useful to hear people saying fit-to-paper doesn't bother them in the context of general (word-filled) docs.

Scores are a weird case where the visual really matters. So I can't, for example, just use generous margins. (Part of making a professional-looking score is filling up every page carefully and beautifully, minimizing # of pages and therefore # of page turns as much as is reasonably/aesthetically possible.) So maybe think of this as a graphic design question, where weird or big margins will matter more. I probably should ask this question in a more specialized forum (awesome as AskMe generally is at weird questions!).

(I do have a significant non-US audience; so far my music has had performances in 20 countries, not because I'm internationally important but because I really care about inviting non-US relationships... part of which is details like this. So all the non-US-centric stuff I think about is partly practical ["Can you use this well?"] and partly symbolic ["I'm not ignoring you / not acting like only the U.S. exists"]. In the case of paper sizes, the symbolic isn't worth massive labor; I'm just trying to figure out whether the practical is. :))
posted by kalapierson at 2:52 AM on November 11, 2011

It not a problem to print as fit-to-page, but you might be surprised at how many PDFs incorporate some element that is intended to be printed to scale correctly. Anything with a sheet or card to fold and fit in your wallet, anything to do with passport photos, anything that needs to be cut out, etc. they all sound like edge cases (and they are) but they do occur with some regularity.

With the exception of scale issues, I've never had a problem.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:55 AM on November 11, 2011

Just how fiddley are your performance scores?

You know when you have those awkward French publications (the awful Kamus performance scores etc.), when I photocopy them and shrink them down to A4 usually I have no problem reading them (but then some horn music isn't always so complicated... especially as the French stuff rarely requires transposition, ha!).

(I usually photocopy them so they fit in my bag/case to get to rehearsals, otherwise the original scores get tattered really easily! Honest!)

But a little change in scores size shouldn't bother, UNLESS you've got hella complicated accidentals/transposition etc. and just as long as the change doesn't warp the score too much (If it's weird and wide that's more difficult to read? But I don't think that'll be a problem). I'm assuming this is all typeset/done on computer, there are still composers with hand written material out there?
posted by jujulalia at 3:10 AM on November 11, 2011

dowcrag: "Printing A4 on Us letter just introduces some top and bottom gaps, which aren't a problem, but printing US letter on A4 introduces scaling"

I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. A4 is taller; Letter is wider. If you have a document in A4 and scale it to fit on Letter, you will shrink the content slightly and have wider margins on the left and right. If the document is Letter, scaling it to fit A4 again shrinks the content slightly and introduces wider margins, this time at the top and bottom.

If the OP can design a layout that's as wide as A4 and as tall as Letter, it would print at the same scale on each, with just a bit of extra space when printed (at the top/bottom for A4 and left/right for Letter).
posted by Rat Spatula at 4:19 AM on November 11, 2011

To make that last bit more explicit - you'd lay everything out in an A4-width, Letter-height box, as I described, and then pick one size for the PDF, say Letter. You could then instruct A4 users to choose "Centered, No scaling" in Adobe Reader's print settings.
posted by Rat Spatula at 4:25 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Scores bother me more than text, but I've never come across anything horrific (or, at least, more horrific because of the scaling). It's certainly never put me off, or been a factor in my choice of edition.
posted by monkey closet at 5:32 AM on November 11, 2011

Best answer: Let's say that you're whitespace agnostic. Here's a somewhat practical way to do that:

Letter is 612 x 792.
A4 is 595.3 x 841.9.
(units are PDF units, which are 1/72").

Here are your choices:

1. Reflow the music for both (yes, this is a pain, especially if you care about musical typography and aren't fully happy with Sibelius' defaults)
2. Author to a letter window with tight margins but centered on an A4 page. Keep one version as A4, then crop it to letter and save it as a letter version. This will give big white gutters on A4 and tight margins on letter, but this is also highly automatable with the right tools.
3. If the PDF is well authored in letter, it is possible to reauthor it programmatically to change the page size to A4 and to inject a transformation matrix into the page contents so that there is a uniform scale to best fit the rest of the contents to A4. This approach is decidedly non-trivial and depends on well-authored PDFs, but would give the best quality. However, there are few people who are qualified to do this work and even fewer tools.
4. Create the document at A4, rasterize each page to an image at say, 300 dpi, scale the image to best fit letter, and generate a new PDF with an image for each page. This is also highly automatable and could even be run on a server to do this on the fly, but like 2-3, you will need someone to write code.

FWIW, I was one of the engineers on Acrobat versions 1-4 and currently work on (among other things) PDF tools. My company's tools could easily do #4 right now. I see the need for our toolset to have the capability of doing tasks like #2, although it's not there. #3 is decidedly non-trivial.
posted by plinth at 5:42 AM on November 11, 2011

Ooops! Got mixed up between letter and legal, so yes, my idea is the wrong way round. Sorry!

But others have come up with better ideas in the meantime...
posted by dowcrag at 6:01 AM on November 11, 2011

You can use "PA4" which will fit both US Letter and A4. A bit of discussion.
posted by massysett at 6:26 AM on November 11, 2011

Does PDF have a concept of floating headers and footers? I know that Postscript has a way of doing this, which PDF mostly incorporates. What I am thinking is that the difference between a4 and letter is 6mm x 18mm. (a4 210x297, letter 216x279).

If you center the music on the page, you have 3mm on the sides "extra" on letter. That is practically unnoticeable. You certainly aren't going to fit an extra measure into 6mm, so that dimension is easy- just design the page to fit 210mm.

For the height, it's 9mm on the top and the bottom. Depending on the density of the music, you might fit another line in onto an a4 page, but you would be shaving it pretty close. If you again center the music, you can have your headers and footers float off the exterior margins of the page, and perhaps instruct the document to add a few mm of margin to the top and bottom of the page in a4. I think that by splitting the difference like that, you can maintain the visual quality of the printed page without having to actually redo the music.

What I don't know is whether PDF has the capability to automatically do this on the client side, depending on what paper size the user has chosen. If it doesn't, you still could do it pretty easily by coming up with some kind of macro that re-renders your sources based on your settings.
posted by gjc at 9:08 AM on November 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the fantastic discussion, everybody. Plinth, I will definitely experiment with your suggestions (#4, for example, could be massively labor-saving even if the process were manual rather than automated). I never cease to be excited by the random experts you run into on AskMe.
posted by kalapierson at 11:21 AM on November 11, 2011

just to add: I've had pre-formatted US Letter .doc documents actually stall some printers here in the A4-zone. (And I seem to remember some .pdfs doing the same.) So: annoying&incovenient both, yes.
posted by progosk at 2:12 PM on November 11, 2011

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