Youth Tech: How I am using PDFcreator+Dropbox+iPad to print in color, never buy toner again.

I get a lot of attachments and documents

I often get a lot of emails with attachments. Pdfs, word documents, and always with the powerpoints. And they are often for a specific meeting or call I am about to go into, and they need to be either brought to the meeting, or reviewed in advance. And additionally they almost always have some important parts that are color coded. 

I hate reading on the computer screen 

There are lot of reasons, the screen is the wrong shape for most word documents. If I am trying to focus on deep content, my desktop always has something interrupting me, meeting reminders, IMs, email alerts, frequent request to install something and reboot etc. Even the position of sitting at the keyboard is not how I sit when I normally read. So for me it it a nightmare. 

Printing them out is cumbersome and wasteful

For important documents I would in the past just bite the bullet and print them out. Grab the printout and read through them. For ones that are less critical, I would skim them on the screen.

The issue with this system comes up after the meeting etc is over. If the document is really critical.. I now have to figure out where to store it, and do I keep it with me in my bag, at my desk at work etc. If it is not for long term storage, or is often the case, the meeting I went to had the explicit goal of updating the information, and the document is now hopelessly out of date. And so into the trashcan it goes.

And most of the documents I get are in that category. Short term, and quickly made obsolete, but need to be in color (which can be expensive when printed from home), and should be in a printed form since they need a lot of focus to digest (or at least not on a monitor).

iPad to the rescue

It took me a while to get this whole process worked out, and there were several improvements to one of the components several months in that made it way more streamline. But I feel like it is pretty optimal at this point. (there are one or two things I would like to see added to the ipad app for dropbox, but I expect those changes are ahead, and are not significant enough to prevent me from sharing)

The key component of my process is the ipad. it works like paper. it works in color. it has the ability to have the key app (dropbox) installed on it.

The process

Step1: Install PDF creator (

This app is a handy, and open source, free PDF printer. it installs on windows and creates a new printer on your system that instead of spitting out paper spits out a PDF file. There are a few configuration items to setup. but we will go through those in a moment. There may be other free options, and there are certainly other pay options, but this is what I use, and will be doing the setup from that point of view.

Step 2: Install Dropbox on your desktop (

This is another awesome and free app. It basically provides cloud storage for your files, and is multi-platform. It is a great way to back up critical files off your PC, and it will keep more than one PC perfectly in sync. So if you have a PC at home, and a Mac laptop at work, you will always have access to the files you have in your dropbox. And all you do is drag files to it like a normal folder. And the critical bit for our use here is, it has both an ipad app, and several other iPad apps that will work with it natively (goodReader, PlainText for example). 

By default you get like 2GB of space free, and if you pay more, or get your friends to sign up, you get more space. (for example, if you click the link above, you can help me out getting some free space)

Install Drop box: So run the installer, and pick the location for your drop box. remember where that is.

Config PDF creator: Then go to the configuration for PDF creator, and setup autosave, and set it to autosave to the dropbox folder (or subfolder if you want), and maybe tweak the auto name the file gets. I have it so that the actual file name comes first followed by the date. It should be pretty straight forward, but if you have any issues with this part shoot me a message on twitter @jacksodj.

Configure  printing: Now you have a properly setup PDF printer, now go into your windows settings and make it your default printer. 

Summary, at this point you now can hit print on any document in any program in windows, and it will automatically save it as a PDF, give it any easy to understand name, let you know when it was printed exactly, and sync automatically to the dropbox cloud. pretty seamless so far.

Now lets go get that document and read it.

Step 3: Install drop box on the ipad. (fire up the app store and do a quick search)

This one is easy. again the app is free for this part. download the app, provide it with the login you setup earlier when you downloaded and installed on your PC.

Now you should be able to see all of the files you printed on your iPad. obviously you need a network connection for this to work, but it does a pretty good job of being almost instantly updated when you are online. From there you pick the file and it does a pretty good job of being able to render out the pdf files.

You can also choose to open in other programs on the ipad, like books, or goodreader which will keep a persistant copy independent of network status. In fact, prior to the release of Dropbox for the iPad I used goodreader as the key part of this process, but that involved making a copy of the documents I wanted to read, and I could not delete them from the server when done. With the current dropbox app you can delete files when done, and you can also view documents in full screen.

At this point you should be able to print from any app, have it save as a pdf, automatically sync to the cloud, and immediately be viewable on you iPad. It will be in full color, ready to email someone else if you need to, and you will never have to buy a printer or toner again. You will be the most green person you know in this area.


The only things I wish that the ipad app for dropbox had which it doesn’t yet are the following. and they are both related to having used it so much for this, and need to keep things tidy.

1. sort by date. This would make it a lot easier to find the file I just printed. if you get a bunch this is not as quick as if you had some other sort options.

2. move to folder. they recently added the ability to delete items, but I still would like to be able to move items out of the main folder once they have been read. currently you need to be on a PC/Mac or in a browser for this to happen. as a result it hasn’t for me 🙂