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Let's say I have the same TeX input, do different TeX distributions produce different PDF, and if so, which would produce best quality for print? I know my Miktex uses fontconfig to some intent, would a Mac OS X TeX distribution use Quartz/Cairo font facilities for instance?

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No. All free distributions of TeX software (i.e. MikTeX & TeXLive) use the same software which produces the same results on all platforms.

Note that this may not be true for the few commercial distributions left (e.g. BaKoMaTeX).

  • What if luatex or xetex is used with system fonts? Could there be a difference in that case? – Ian Thompson May 19 '14 at 10:17
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    If you use different fonts, you will have results looking different. – Stephan Lukasczyk May 19 '14 at 10:50
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    @StephanLukasczyk: Yes, but that doesn't depend on the distribution but on the fonts. You could transfer these fonts to other platforms and would then get the same results there. – Martin Schröder May 19 '14 at 11:23
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    @amn Why do you think fontconfig has a 'direct relationship to font metrics'? If that is true, it is certainly not obviously so, and I would like some evidence that it is true at all. As far as I know, fontconfig is used to find the fonts but that is all. If this were not the case, you shouldn't be able to use a font fontconfig doesn't know about by specifying the full path but you can. Indeed, as far as I know, Xe/LuaTeX doesn't even use the substitution rules from fontconfig. The metrics are in the fonts. – cfr Aug 17 '14 at 1:04
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    Sorry, not fontconfig but freetype (on Linux, for instance). PDF may either embed font outlines, reference font by name (no embedding of outlines) and provide the text to render, or convert text to outlines, essentially having a PDF viewer display text as it would display shapes etc. In at least one out of these three cases - the last one - freetype or another library, depending on the platform, will be involved by TeX to convert text to vector graphics. This means that this vector graphics essentially depends on which library, and, by extension platform, was used to produce it. – amn Sep 16 '15 at 11:36
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Martin Schröder's answer is entirely correct. The different free distributions use the same software and so should produce the same results.

However, different versions of pdfTeX may produce different PDFs. This is not necessarily a matter of quality, though, and I doubt it would make much difference to the printed result. It might, however, make a difference to the size of the PDF, for example, or to its compatibility with different PDF viewers. That said, the defaults are very conservative so it is very unlikely a PDF produced by even the latest pdfTeX will not work on the vast majority of machines. In fact, this has happened to me only once on a campus which was using a really ancient version of Adobe Reader. The PDFs produced by default by pdfTeX at that time could not be viewed on the standard PCs. The PDFs produced by a sufficiently ancient version of pdfTeX would possibly have been OK. (Since it is easy to alter the version of PDF produced, I didn't pursue this line of enquiry.)

Print quality would be affected if fonts were not embedded and the document was printed on a machine which did not have fonts matching those on the machine where it was produced or which had different versions of those fonts. Again, though, all reasonably recent distributions have embedded all fonts by default, including the base 14 subset of the 35 postscript fonts (for documents using scripts which are not too large e.g. Latin, Greek etc.).

Different results might also be obtained on a machine where the local administrator had changed the default settings system-wide e.g. to use a different set of the 35 postscript fonts or to embed or not embed certain fonts. But that is not a question of the distribution of TeX in use but of the way the distribution is customised for the local environment.

  • That's probably the difference betweeen PDF 1.5 (with object streams) and PDF 1.4. – Martin Schröder Aug 17 '14 at 11:41
  • @MartinSchröder Actually, I think it was between 1.3 and 1.4. (pdfTeX was producing 1.4 and Adobe Reader could only cope with 1.3.) But I might be mixing up the numbers... – cfr Aug 17 '14 at 12:33
  • For 1.3 to 1.4 you would get a graceful fallback: Some colours (using transparency) would simply be wrong. But 1.5 simply won't work. – Martin Schröder Aug 17 '14 at 16:21
  • @MartinSchröder In that case, I have no idea why Adobe Reader 4 could not open PDFs generated with pdfTeX. We assumed it was because it wanted 1.3 at most and pdfTeX was generating 1.4. If that's not the case - and it was just our guess at the time - I have no idea. – cfr Aug 17 '14 at 22:15
  • That would be the case - AR 4 can only open 1.3. In theory the viewer could try it anyway, but AR probably fails safe. – Martin Schröder Aug 18 '14 at 7:38

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