Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The forest of filetypes

We've had a rise recently in the number of questions about how to open one kind of file in other kinds of software. Most commonly, we've had people who are using OpenOffice (or LibreOffice, or related programs) at home, and who come in to use our library computers, which have Microsoft Office on them. These files usually have file extensions of .odf, .odt, .odp, or .ops .

So, this seems like a good time for a quick post about different file types, translators, and some other useful tricks.

A quick guide to file formats: Different software programs store their files in different ways. Sometimes these are easily read by other programs. Other times, not so much. There are also some generic file types (like .txt or plain text files) which will keep most of your content (the text) but not the formatting (bold, italic, etc.)

If you use OpenOffice/LibreOffice and want to come and print or work on a file on our computers, we've just done something to make this easier for you. Basically, we've added a plug-in that should open these file types. Just open Word, Excel, or Powerpoint, find the file in the OpenOffice/LibreOffice format (download it from your email, open your USB/thumb drive), and it should open.

Note that fonts, margins, spacing, and other details may not translate perfectly - you'll want to look through your file and double check. If the exact layout matters to you, there's more help below.

If the formatting of your file really matters (like for a flyer) but you want to print it on one of our printers, not yours, the best way is to save it as a PDF. This format will preserve all of your formatting, layout, etc. (But you won't be able to edit it or make changes in that version, unless you have special software.)

Macintosh computers build this into the system software. For Windows computers, there are a variety of plug-ins and add-ons that will do this for you, and more recent computers also make it easier. You can also (if you have email access from your starting computer) use the translator I describe below.

You can use an online translation tool to change formats. One of the best known of these is called Zamzar. You upload the file, indicate what you want to translate it to (they have dozens of options for everything from audio to image to word processing and more), enter your email address, and a short while later, you get an email with your translated file attached.

How fast the email comes through depends on how busy their service is - when I've used it, sometimes it's a minute or two, sometimes it's been a couple of hours. (There are subscription choices if you use it a lot, and want your documents faster, as well.)

If you're not sure about the format or it's critical you have access to the content of a file, it's a good habit to save your file as something that most other computers can read. Some programs will let you save a word processing file in a Microsoft Word format (.doc or .docx).
  • .txt is a generic text file. It won't save italics, bold, headers, or other things like that, but if you want to make absolutely sure you have the text of your paper, this is a good backup to have.
  • .rtf is also a great option for word processing files. It stands for Rich Text Format, and it should preserve all those formatting choices (bold, italics, headings). Again, check your entire document before printing or submitting it just to be sure. 
  • Also, most modern computers will easily let you read a PDF, though again, you won't be able to edit the content without specific software.

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