Introduction to Page Description Languages

Here is the introduction to the group of articles to teach you about Page Description Languages. You will find the descriptions of the terms, examples of PDLs and their classification.

What is page description language?

PDLs serves as a binding link between computer applications, such as graphics tools, text editors, etc, and output devices: publishing (printing) systems and displays. Most printing systems treat printed pages as a rectangle of m pixels in a width and n pixels in a height. Of course, it is not convenient to store such large files in memory, edit them, and transfer them over the distributed network. Page Description Languages describe the appearance of a page at a higher level than an array of pixels.

Some of PDLs were invented by printer producer companies. For example, PCL (HP printers language) and HP-GL/2 (HP plotters language) were invented by Hewlett-Packard, AFP (IBM and Ricoh printers language) was devised by IBM. The other ones were developed by software companies, like Adobe with PostScript and PDF languages or Microsoft’s XPS. Every company that invented its own PDL also developed a corresponding interpreter. The interpreter is a program that is also often called “driver”, which translates high-level PDL to an array of pixels that in this order is transferred to native low-level software of a printer.

PDL diagram

How PDLs function in conjunction with printers and other output devices?

PDLs play a crucial role in the communication between software applications and printers or other output devices. Here’s how PDLs function in conjunction with printers and other output devices:

  1. Document Creation: When you create a document on your computer using software such as a word processor, spreadsheet program, or graphic design tool, the content is represented in a format specific to that software. However, printers and other output devices need a standardized language to interpret and render the content correctly.
  2. Translation to PDL: Before sending the document to the printer or output device, the software application translates the document into a PDL. Common PDLs include PostScript (PS), Printer Command Language (PCL), and Open XML Paper Specification (XPS), among others.
  3. Device Independence: The use of PDLs allows for device independence. In other words, the same document can be printed on different printers or output devices without requiring modifications to the document itself. As long as the printers support the same PDL, they can interpret and print the document consistently.
  4. Print Processing: Once the document is in the PDL format, it is sent to the printer or output device. The PDL contains instructions on how the page should be formatted, including the fonts, graphics, colors, page layout, and other details necessary for accurate reproduction.
  5. Printer Interpretation: The printer’s firmware or software has the capability to understand the PDL and interpret the instructions it contains. It translates the PDL into the specific commands required to control the print mechanism, such as instructing the print heads to spray ink or laser beams to form characters and images.
  6. Printing the Page: The printer uses the interpreted instructions to print the document page by page. As the paper passes through the printer, the appropriate elements are rendered, and the final output is produced.
  7. Support for Advanced Features: PDLs can also support advanced printing features, such as duplex printing (printing on both sides of the paper), color management, and handling complex graphics or vector images.
  8. Other Output Devices: While printers are the most common output devices associated with PDLs, they can also be used with other output devices like plotters, digital presses, and multifunction devices that can scan, copy, and fax documents.

In summary, PDLs serve as an intermediary language that allows software applications to communicate with printers and other output devices. They ensure that the content and layout of documents are accurately reproduced on different devices, enabling consistent and reliable printing results.

The role of PDLs in transforming high-level graphical information into a format that printers can understand and reproduce.

Page Description Language plays a crucial role in transforming high-level graphical information into a format that printers can understand and reproduce accurately. PDLs are used to describe the layout, content, and formatting of a page, ensuring that the printed output matches the original digital representation.

Here’s how PDLs work in the process of transforming high-level graphical information into a printer-friendly format:

  1. High-level graphical information: At the initial stage, the high-level graphical information is created using various software applications like word processors, graphic design tools, desktop publishing software, or even web browsers. This information can include text, images, shapes, colors, fonts, and other graphical elements.
  2. Translation to PDL: Once the high-level graphical information is ready, it needs to be translated into a format that printers can understand. This is where the PDL comes into play. PDLs act as an intermediary language between the high-level graphical information and the printer’s hardware.
  3. Printer-specific commands: Different printers have varying capabilities and processing requirements. PDLs ensure that the output is tailored to the specific printer’s capabilities. PDLs contain printer-specific commands that instruct the printer on how to interpret and reproduce the graphical elements accurately.
  4. Rasterization: PDLs help convert vector graphics and text into raster images. Rasterization involves converting geometric shapes and text into a grid of pixels (dots) that the printer can understand. PDLs handle this process, ensuring that the resolution and quality of the printed output are maintained.
  5. Color management: PDLs also handle color management. They ensure that the colors specified in the high-level graphical information are accurately reproduced on the printed page by taking into account the color capabilities of the printer and the paper used.
  6. Compression: PDLs often use compression techniques to reduce the file size of the print job, which allows for faster transmission to the printer and reduces memory requirements during printing.
  7. Spooling: The PDL-converted print job is then spooled in the printer’s memory or storage before being printed. Spooling allows multiple print jobs to be queued and processed in a proper order.
  8. Printing: Finally, the printer interprets the PDL commands and reproduces the page according to the specified layout, colors, and other graphical elements. The printed output should closely match the original high-level graphical information, thanks to the accurate translation provided by the PDL.

Common examples of PDLs include PostScript (developed by Adobe) and Printer Command Language (PCL) (developed by Hewlett-Packard). These PDLs have become standard languages for printing, enabling efficient communication between computers and printers to produce high-quality printed documents.

What is the benefits of using PDL language for document rendering, layout, and manipulation?

Using Page Description Languages (PDLs) for document rendering, layout, and manipulation offers several significant benefits, both for end-users and software developers. Here are some of the key advantages:

  1. Device Independence: PDLs provide device independence, allowing documents to be created and rendered consistently across various printers and other output devices. This ensures that the document’s layout, fonts, graphics, and other elements appear the same regardless of the hardware used for printing.
  2. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get): PDLs enable WYSIWYG rendering, which means that the on-screen representation of a document closely matches the final printed output. This feature ensures that users can accurately preview how the document will appear before printing.
  3. High-Quality Printing: PDLs like PostScript are designed to handle complex graphics and fonts, resulting in high-quality printed output with sharp text and accurate graphics rendering.
  4. Layout Flexibility: PDLs allow for precise control over the layout of documents. They support features like multi-column text, advanced positioning, and layering of graphics, enabling sophisticated document designs.
  5. Vector Graphics Support: PDLs commonly include support for vector graphics, which ensures that graphics and images maintain their quality regardless of the output resolution. This results in sharp and clear graphics on printed materials.
  6. Font Handling: PDLs can describe fonts and their attributes, allowing documents to be rendered with the correct typefaces, sizes, and styles, even if the fonts are not installed on the printing device.
  7. Efficient Data Transfer: PDLs are typically compact and optimized for efficient data transfer. This is crucial for printing large documents or in networked printing scenarios where minimizing data size helps in faster printing.
  8. Document Manipulation: PDLs enable document manipulation through editing or combining documents at the page level. Software can merge multiple documents or extract pages from a document using PDLs as an intermediate format.
  9. Cross-Platform Compatibility: PDLs are platform-independent, ensuring that documents created on one platform can be viewed and printed on another platform without compatibility issues.
  10. Wide Industry Adoption: PDLs like PostScript and PDF (which is based on PostScript) have achieved widespread adoption, making them compatible with a wide range of software and printing devices.
  11. Versioning and Archiving: PDL-based documents can be archived without losing formatting or visual fidelity. This ensures that the original layout and appearance of documents can be preserved over time.
  12. Secure Printing: PDLs support security features like encryption and password protection, providing a level of security for sensitive documents during printing and rendering.

Overall, the use of PDLs in document rendering and manipulation enhances document handling capabilities, ensures consistent output across devices, and provides a powerful foundation for creating and managing professional documents in various industries.

What is the typical features found in most PDLs?

Most Page Description Languages (PDLs) share a set of typical features that allow them to accurately describe document layouts and contents for printing and rendering purposes. Here are some of the key features commonly found in most PDLs:

  1. Color Management: PDLs support color management, allowing documents to specify color spaces, color profiles, and color rendering intents. This feature ensures consistent color reproduction across different devices, such as printers and monitors.
  2. Font Embedding: PDLs can embed fonts within the document, ensuring that the intended fonts are available during rendering, even if the fonts are not installed on the output device. This is particularly important for maintaining consistent typography and layout across different systems.
  3. Compression Techniques: PDLs often employ various compression techniques to reduce the file size of documents without compromising quality. This is beneficial for efficient data transfer, especially in networked printing environments.
  4. Support for Vector Graphics: PDLs provide support for vector graphics, allowing the description of geometric shapes, lines, curves, and text as mathematical equations. This ensures that graphics and text remain sharp and scalable regardless of the output resolution.
  5. Image Compression: PDLs may include image compression algorithms to efficiently store and render raster graphics like photographs and images, reducing the overall file size while preserving image quality.
  6. Page Layout and Positioning: PDLs enable precise control over page layout and positioning, allowing software to define the placement of text, graphics, and other elements on the page.
  7. Transparency and Layering: PDLs may support transparency and layering features, allowing different graphical elements to be stacked on top of each other and blended seamlessly.
  8. Image Masks: PDLs can utilize image masks to control the transparency of specific parts of an image, enabling complex image compositions.
  9. Clipping Paths: PDLs may include support for clipping paths, which allow specific areas of a page to be masked or cropped, restricting the rendering of content to certain regions.
  10. Halftoning: PDLs often include halftoning techniques to accurately reproduce continuous-tone images using limited ink or toner colors available in printers.
  11. Text Formatting and Kerning: PDLs provide control over text formatting, allowing the adjustment of font size, line spacing, and character spacing (kerning) to achieve the desired visual appearance.
  12. Page-Level Metadata: PDLs can include page-level metadata, such as author information, creation date, and document properties, facilitating document management and identification.
  13. Encryption and Security: Some PDLs offer encryption and security features to protect sensitive documents during transmission and rendering.

The presence of these features in most PDLs ensures that documents can be accurately rendered, efficiently processed, and faithfully reproduced on a variety of output devices, while maintaining visual consistency and preserving document integrity.

The standardization of PDLs by organizations like ISO.

The standardization of Page Description Languages (PDLs) by organizations like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is crucial for ensuring interoperability, compatibility, and long-term viability of document processing technologies. ISO has played a significant role in developing and maintaining standards for various PDLs, such as PDF (Portable Document Format) and PostScript. Here’s how ISO’s involvement in PDL standardization benefits the industry:

  1. Cross-Platform Compatibility: ISO’s standardized PDLs ensure that documents can be reliably created, rendered, and printed across different hardware platforms, operating systems, and software applications. This fosters seamless collaboration and communication among users and organizations with diverse technology ecosystems.
  2. Vendor Independence: With standardized PDLs, organizations are not locked into specific vendors’ proprietary formats. This reduces dependence on particular software or hardware providers, promoting healthy competition and innovation within the industry.
  3. Long-Term Support: ISO’s involvement in standardization provides confidence that PDL specifications will be maintained and updated over time. This is crucial for preserving the accessibility and usability of archived documents for years to come.
  4. International Adoption: ISO is a globally recognized standard-setting organization. The adoption of ISO standards for PDLs ensures consistency and uniformity in document processing practices worldwide.
  5. Technical Expertise: ISO’s working groups and committees comprise experts from various domains, including document processing, printing, and graphics. Their collaborative efforts result in well-thought-out and comprehensive PDL specifications.
  6. User Trust: ISO’s involvement in PDL standardization instills trust and confidence among users and organizations when dealing with document-related technologies. ISO standards are considered reliable and authoritative references in the industry.
  7. Interoperability: ISO standards for PDLs promote interoperability among different software applications and hardware devices. This means that users can freely exchange documents and collaborate without compatibility issues.
  8. Regular Updates: ISO standards are subject to periodic reviews and updates, ensuring that the standards remain relevant and up-to-date with evolving technologies and requirements.
  9. Legal and Regulatory Compliance: In some cases, adherence to ISO standards is mandated by laws and regulations, especially in industries where document accuracy, preservation, and security are critical (e.g., healthcare, finance).
  10. Industry Best Practices: ISO standards often represent the culmination of best practices and collective expertise in the field of document processing. Following these standards ensures that the documents produced are of high quality and meet established criteria.

ISO’s involvement in PDL standardization has led to the success and widespread adoption of formats like PDF, which has become a de facto standard for document exchange and archiving. The collaboration between industry stakeholders, technology experts, and ISO’s standardization processes contributes to the continuous improvement and innovation in document processing technologies.

What is the role of PDLs in digital publishing platforms and e-readers?

Page Description Languages play a vital role in digital publishing platforms and e-readers, facilitating the rendering and presentation of content to users. Here’s an examination of their role in these contexts:

  1. Content Rendering: PDLs are responsible for rendering digital content, including text, images, and graphics, in a structured and visually appealing manner. They ensure that content is displayed accurately on digital publishing platforms and e-readers, maintaining the intended layout and formatting.
  2. Page Layout: PDLs enable precise page layout control, ensuring that the content is appropriately organized and presented to users. This is particularly important in e-books and digital magazines where the original print layout needs to be preserved for a better reading experience.
  3. Text Formatting: PDLs handle text formatting, including font styles, sizes, and spacing. They ensure that the text appears as intended by the content creator, providing a consistent reading experience across devices.
  4. Font Handling: PDLs allow e-readers and digital publishing platforms to support a wide range of fonts and font embedding, ensuring that the chosen fonts are displayed correctly even if they are not available on the user’s device.
  5. Graphics and Images: PDLs provide support for rendering graphics and images in digital publications. They ensure that images are displayed with proper resolution and color fidelity, enhancing the visual appeal of the content.
  6. Responsive Design: PDLs can be utilized to implement responsive design principles, adapting the layout and formatting of the content based on the screen size and orientation of the user’s device. This ensures that the content remains readable and user-friendly on various screen sizes, such as smartphones, tablets, and e-readers.
  7. Compression Techniques: PDLs often incorporate compression techniques to reduce the file size of digital publications, allowing for faster downloads and efficient storage on devices.
  8. Metadata Support: PDLs can include metadata, such as author information, publication date, and copyright details, providing important contextual information about the digital publication.
  9. Interactive Elements: Some PDLs, like PDF, support interactive elements such as hyperlinks, annotations, and multimedia content, enabling enhanced interactivity in digital publications.
  10. DRM (Digital Rights Management): PDLs can be used in conjunction with DRM technologies to protect copyrighted content from unauthorized distribution and access.
  11. Device Compatibility: PDLs ensure compatibility with various e-reader devices and digital publishing platforms, enabling content to be accessed by users on different devices and operating systems.
  12. Printing Support: PDLs designed for digital publishing platforms often include printing support, allowing users to print digital content in a format that matches the on-screen representation.

Summary, PDLs are instrumental in digital publishing and e-readers by providing a standardized format for content rendering, preserving layout and formatting, and enabling a consistent reading experience across different devices and platforms. They form the backbone of modern digital publishing, contributing to the popularity and usability of e-books, online magazines, and other digital publications.

Classification of Page Description Languages.

To be precise there is no actual classification of PDLs, but they are divided into two groups. They can be static and dynamic.

Static languages, such as PDF or XPS, store only static data structure but allow to efficiently access its elements via navigational information. Files that contain page descriptions in static language can be called “documents”.

In contrast to static languages, dynamic languages create page appearance on the fly using procedures for repetitive actions and calculation of positions, changing used operators and resources in dependence on device conditions. A set of dynamic Page Description Languages compose Adobe PostScript (PS) and Encapsulated PostScript (EPS) as a subset of PS. HP’s PCL5 with macroses also can be referred to as dynamic PDLs.

PDL set

What is the difference between page description language and a markup language?

Page description languages and markup languages are different classifications of computer languages. While markup languages are used just for separation of content and marks that define a way to process content, PDLs are used for documents where pages are strictly separated, and it doesn’t separate marks and content. At least such an idea wasn’t considered when the PDL concept was developed. So markup language can describe pages if the content of a file is a page content, and it will be at the same PDL, but can also describe some data that doesn’t relate to pages. PDL always describes page.

To strictly separate marks and content at the page, marks are represented by tags, which are some keywords enclosed with “<” and “>” or “/>”. This way markup language file is much more ordered and human-readable. It is the second main difference between markup and page description languages.

The main intention of page description languages is a rendering of a page to a printing or display device, while markup languages can be used without a rendering at all. For example, Extensible Markup language (XML), one of the most popular markup languages, is often used only for storing and transferring data.

Another example of popular markup language is HTML. It marks content that are not separated on pages. So now you have the answer to the frequently asked question, if HTML is a page description language or not.

XPS is a page description language and, at the first sight, can be also treated as markup language because has XML-based interior. But if we stare at this XML we can see that a content of the pages is inserted directly into elements (tags), that is not separated from rules for processing it. It breaks the main property of markup languages. Though Microsoft actively uses term “markup” in XPS specification, it is not actually markup in a sense of Markup languages, such as XML or HTML.

Page Description Language examples

Here are a few examples of Page Description Languages: PS, EPS, AI, XPS, OXPS and PDF.


Not only did we try to tell you about the page description languages here, but also explained the difference between PDLs and markup languages. It is also worth mentioning that in Aspose.Page family, we now have a big kit of tools to make it easier to manage files of PDL format. Among the solutions, we have apps to view, convert, merge to pdf XPS, EPS, and PS files.

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