I submitted a journal paper this morning, and they asked me to include a PDF file, which I expected, and a Postscript (PS) file.

Generating the PS file proved more difficult, because some of my LaTeX commands, which I always compiled with pdflatex, wouldn't compile with latex (in particular including graphics).

I ended up converting the PDF into a PS file, but obtained a file 4 times the size (approx 20 MB instead of 5 MB).

It also seems that opening a Postscript file with any modern reader takes longer, as it has to 'convert' (compile maybe? or interpret?) the file.

I was wondering -- what's the use of Postscript today? Are there advantages over the more modern and widely used PDF?

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    use pdftops to create a ps version of your pdf file – user2478 Dec 11 '14 at 12:59
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    Most readers will call pstopdf to convert the ps file to a temp pdf file and then open the resultant pdf file. A nice thing about postscript is that I can send it directly to most decent printers. – Batman Dec 11 '14 at 18:37
  • @Batman I realise it gets converted in many cases, but can't you send a PDF directly, too? (I can send this from the command line and let CUPS worry about any conversions required.) – cfr Dec 12 '14 at 3:14
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    If you use pdftops, check for discrepancies. Especially if your document includes any diagrams - make sure these are rendered correctly. If not, use pdf2ps from ghostscript instead. (The file will be larger in this case, though.) – cfr Dec 12 '14 at 3:18
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    @cfr - depends on the printer. My home printer (a Samsung) does postscript but not pdf, so I can netcat postscript files to it on machines without CUPS. – Batman Dec 12 '14 at 11:41

11 Answers 11


Postscript is still used as an intermediate document format, since it is a fully fledged programming language allowing you to compute graphics, which PDF doesn't. PDF shows just the result (after some conversions, sometimes called "Distillation") of the computation Postscript is able to do.

The Postscript based PSTricks package is an example that heavily makes use of graphical computation. It can even solve differential equations. And if you have a Postscript printer, it can do these computations for you.

EDIT, to answer Daniels comment:

One feature that makes Postscript the preferred format, in particular for a publisher, is its editability. If, for instance, line art in a document is too faint, the publisher may want to enhance it a bit globally before giving the document to press. This very issue was raised, e. g., in this question.

With Postscript, doubling the line width in the whole document is easily accomplished by putting

userdict /setlinewidth {2 mul systemdict /setlinewidth get exec} put

into the document header.

With PDF such a tweak is much more complicated.

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    All this is right, but IMHO misses the point. What exactly is the benefit of having the printer to solve the differential equations? What cannot be done with PDF? – Daniel Dec 11 '14 at 13:56
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    @Daniel See the answers here – percusse Dec 11 '14 at 14:16
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    @percusse: I know the linked question and answers and also quite a bit about PS features. I just think all this misses the point. IMHO, the question is not "what could be done with PS", but "what could only be done with PS" in the context of document typesetting. Is their any "killer feature" wrt. document processing that causes publishers to still insist on PS, because with PDF they could not produce adequate results? I strongly doubt this and think the only reason is: History. The old PS tool chain just works and updating it to PDF would cost money. – Daniel Dec 11 '14 at 15:12
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    @Daniel The reason for publishers to insist on PS is simply stupid. So I don't mean to praise the usage of PS. I think today it's just a matter of a nice compact way of preserving document content. However it is not to reject that PS is an amazing way of doing very very complicated stuff. You can also say you should be able to simulate a pendulum with say as a ridiculous example XML. We don't need to generalize every tool to everything. I think PDF and PS are a perfect couple in terms of how performance, portability and sophistication is compartmentalized. – percusse Dec 11 '14 at 15:35
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    Sounds like PS is a bit like LaTeX itself. – immibis Dec 11 '14 at 23:38

From a publishers perspective, I think, the only fundamental reason is legacy software. Postscript has been a long-lasting and broadly accepted standard. Updating the existing tool chains to PDF would require a massive investment.

So I think, it is all about history. There is a great Q&A that discusses the fundamental differences between Postscript (PS) and PDF from a technical perspective: Fundamental differences : PSTricks, TikZ/PGF and others, but misses a bit on the (historical) significance of these technical differences:

Basically, the technical differences are:

  • PS is a (Turing-)complete language that permits to defer arbitrary computations to rendering time, that is, when the PS file is used (i.e., printed).
  • In PDF, all calculations have be completed when the PDF file is produced.

At its time, the PS model had some clear advantages:

  • In the 80s a decent workstation (VAX-11) was able to compute 1.5 million instructions per second (MIPS) and was equipped with maybe 1 MiB of RAM.
  • Rendering a complete A4 page at 150x150 dpi resolution on such a system was already challenging. Going higher (300x300 or 600x600 dpi) was basically impossible.

  • However, even at that time, a laser printer was able to print a page with 200x200 dpi or more.

  • Industrial printing machines used by publishers were already able to cope with much higher resolutions.

By delegating the computational intensive part to use-time, that is, the printing device, PS provided portability between all these devices and made it possible to prepare high-quality documents even on affordable computers. Instead of equipping every workstation with enough RAM and CPU power to render pages at 200x200 dpi (not to speak about the disk sizes and network throughput one needs to store and transfer the resulting documents), it was enough to have one $10,000 laser printer to do the job for the complete department. If the book got professionally published, the $10,000,000 industrial printer could process the same PS document to render it at 1200x1200 dpi.

20 year later, the CPU power and available amount of RAM is 4,000 times higher. Printers featuring a PS raster image processor (RIP), however, are still relatively expensive:

  • Already in the 90s, "software-RIPs" (e.g., ghostscript) became popular. Ghostscript does all rendering on your computer and thereby makes it possible to print PS documents even on an affordable printer that does not feature a hardware RIP.

  • By the year 2000, the ordinary PC and network throughput has become so powerful that "software-RIPing" before printing is typically a lot faster than using the printer's built-in RIP – especially when printing complex PS documents.

  • In the same decade, PDF became popular, so also the importance of PS as the broadly supported standard for printer documents declines.

  • Nice. See the video link at the end of my question for more pragmatic chocie that drove people to go with the flattened version of PS which became PDF. – percusse Dec 11 '14 at 17:57
  • It is not just history and inertia which makes PS an important file format in the printing business. It is its potential to be modified by humans in order to adapt it to special requirements. – AlexG Dec 15 '14 at 15:22

As you've already experienced, there's a tendency for modest-sized ps files to blow up to enormous pdf files. This is because postscript, being a general programming language, has enormous potential for algorithmic compression.

For a simple example, consider a sheet of 5mm graph paper. A pdf would contain the end-points for every line. In postscript, however, this could be accomplished with 2 loops.

Converting backwards, from pdf back to ps, is not capable in general of making use of algorithmic compression. The pdf would have to be analyzed by some really smart AI/expert. The normal conversion is just to represent the same pdf structures with postscript, which tends to be more verbose. Eg. a 32-bit binary integer will take 4 bytes in a pdf, but it will take 1..14 bytes in a (ascii) text representation.

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    gozzilli is doing the opposite conversion – Max Dec 12 '14 at 15:18
  • @Max Indeed, that order makes it a bit pointless. – JamesRyan Dec 12 '14 at 17:56
  • @Max & James, I've added more to address the pdf->ps conversion. – luser droog Dec 13 '14 at 4:58
  • @Max & James : The conversion direction is irrelevant here. The original question is about the value of Postscript these days. +1, btw. – AlexG Dec 17 '14 at 11:36
  • @AlexG the conversion direction is vitally relevant here because it is not a lossless conversion. By starting in PS and adding an intermediate PDF step you lose quality. By starting in PDF and converting to PS you gain nothing. – JamesRyan Dec 29 '14 at 17:47

There is also a Latex-specific historical reason why some publishers still request PS versions of documents. This is relevant primarily in cases in which the publisher just takes an author-prepared document and prints it (or puts it online); for example, many conference proceedings in computer science are produced this way.

Previously, the typical toolchain for Latex users involved EPS figures for vector graphics, latex, dvips, and ps2pdf. With this kind of toolchain it was easy to produce broken PDF files that did not properly embed all fonts that they used. Fixing this was a bit painful if you just have the broken PDF file, but it is usually fairly easy with standard tools if you have the original PS file. Hence publishers asked for the PS version so that they can re-do the PS-to-PDF conversion for the authors.

Nowadays everyone uses PDF figures for vector graphs and pdflatex to compile their Latex files. This way anyone can easily produce valid PDF files with all fonts correctly embedded.

Publishers are a bit slow to learn that the world has changed, and they are a bit slow to update their tools. For example, I am aware of a publisher that has a web system that requires that you submit a PS file along with the PDF file, but they do not really need those PS files anymore, so they nowadays recommend that the authors just submit some dummy PS file and name it so that the publisher knows that it should be ignored...


One reason I recently learned about is that you can generate a printer-specific PS file (e.g. by using your PDF reader's print to file feature), which already contains all the printer settings you chose, which is very helpful for complex print jobs (e.g. containing different but same-size paper media) that need to be printed again every now and then.


In my world they are two sides of the same coin. PDF is a display format. Postscript is a printer control language. Both were created by Adobe but for slightly different jobs. PDF is difficult to program against for sorting or adding objects (yes I know you can do it in Acrobat, etc. - try sorting or adding dynamic text to 250,000 pages and let me know how long it takes!) PDF does not have tray logic - all pages must be printed on the same paper stock, not so with Postscript. If there is any chance that the original data might end up in a book/collection where the printer might have to pull glossy paper stock for images, or card stock for covers - can't use PDF. Also depending on the printer - for almost any printer - all it can really print is either Postscript or PCL. Anything else requires your computer it "translate/convert" which adds another layer of what can possibly go wrong? So I think the question really is what the end user envisions they will have to do with the data - and that they don't want to be responsible for the conversion.

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    A PDF document can set PickTrayByPDFSize to true to choose the paper tray by the size of the page... – Paul Gaborit Jul 22 '15 at 16:13

I simply use ps for creating my graphics and embed these in plain TeX, which is processed by pdfTeX. Advantage: portability and full generality of the graphics. PStricks uses ps under the hood, and is in LaTeX, and because of that is restricted by the inheritance of LaTeXs picture environment. The big advantage is that you don't have to be aware of ps. No experience with PStricks on the issue. Disadvantage: In PStricks for example not all orientations of straight lines are possible. Advantage: a wealth of PStricks examples are available. I have created a library of ps pictures, which is called PSlib and made avaible on NTGs WWW. An article on the matter has appeared in GUST bulletin and has been submitted to MAPS. My work is similar to the work of Don Lancaster. The files I submit are the ps pictures and the plain TeX source code. I process it by pdfTeX. MAPs editors convert my plain TeX material into CONTeXt and that has proven to work fine. I suppose that GUST works along similar lines. I have no experience in how to submit to a general publisher. Kees van der Laan


So, PDF and PostScript are targeted to different needs. If you want to VIEW a document you use PDF. IF you want to print a document, especially in a large batch print facility, you use PostScript.


I avoid using pdf, if pdf is all I can find then I first convert it with ghostscript. PDF has plenty of security and privacy issues. Most PDF viewers have zero focus on privacy, postscript files don't have nearly as many "features"(i.e. underhanded attack vectors), and postscript viewers, the ones I have used at least, restrict access to the filesystem. However, I wouldn't trust printers to not be vulnerable to filesystem access from postscript files. In circumstances requiring privacy the use of PDF as opposed to PostScript should be considered a hostile act.


The practical reason why they ask for postscript is because they want the highest possible quality source file. When you convert to PDF it does things like scale/compress images, substantiate formula based drawing to fixed coords and so on. It is possible to use better quality settings than the defaults when generating a PDF, but people tend not to.

No matter what interprets the code the values become baked in at the point it is run. ie. as it is converted to PDF.

So outputting a PDF and then converting back to a PS is really missing the point. The quality is already lost. Just as if a photographer wanted a RAW to keep extra photo info, you can't take a JPEG and convert it back to one.

(Printer toolchains have been able to easily convert between PS and PDF for over a decade, it isn't a legacy issue)

  • The advantage of using PS is that the printed result will be closer to what was originally intended.
  • The advantage of using PDF is that the printed result is repeatably what is baked into the PDF.

Since I worked on the code that does the conversion I thought I would be helpful. But it is clear that new people are not welcome here and that plausible but incorrect guesswork is favoured over fact. Daniel's answer has a lot of correct technical details but then jumps to the wrong conclusion. Postscript is not some out of date thing that is being left behind, it is THE format that printers use and that whatever you send will be converted to at some point.

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    The print output quality of PostScript and PDF file formats is the same. If you use a good converter with the right settings, conversion from PDF to PostScript and back doesn't lose visual quality. The default settings of PDF and PostScript generators may be indeed different, PDF generators being set up to do lossy compression to decrease quality. So if a random PDF generator and a random PostScript generator are used with their default settings, it may be possible that the PostScript generator generators better visual quality. But this depends on the tools. – pts Dec 12 '14 at 19:00
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    @pts technically speaking you are incorrect. Postscript can algorithmically generate shapes much more accurately. Imagine a curve on a graph, a postscript file can contain the formula whereas the pdf has the plotted points. So if you know what your target is you can make a pdf of similar quality, but if you decided later to blow it up to double the size the postcript file would give a much smoother curve. It is similar but not identical to the difference between raster and vector. – JamesRyan Dec 12 '14 at 20:42
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    Depends on your object. If your object consists of curves and lines there is no difference at all. Note that, PDF still understands the basic arithmetic primitives of PS and can represent objects symbolically. Besides that a vector graphic is meant to be a vector graphic so doubling its size does not change the quality. You have to have a computationally very very complicated mathematical object (even mandelbrot set is not enough) to see any difference. – percusse Dec 12 '14 at 21:06
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    Flatten properly and there will be no difference. I don't understand your point. It is how people use Adobe Illustrator all the time PDF output with extremely detailed vector graphics. Nobody creates them in actual sizes. A billboard poster can be created in landscape A4. Exceptions don't rule the common point of PDF. Did you ever flattened a PDF and read what the commands are? It is PostScript language. I recommend you to do so. – percusse Dec 12 '14 at 23:05
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    OK let's keep it at that point. – percusse Dec 12 '14 at 23:18

with pdf and post script if we install the resources on the printer, then we can reduce the file size and get good quality of printing. for archiving purpose in pdf we need to embed the resources in the file and provide security to that with rc4 128 bit encryption using sha hash algorithms

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