By Monte Ferguson
When Adobe first introduced Acrobat the computer promised to free us from paper forever. Acrobat was touted as the replacement for paper in the so called Paperless Office. There were all kinds of competing formats for everything, like spread sheets and word processing documents. It was a Tower of Babel. If you didn't have the right program, or even the right version, you couldn’t open documents from clients or satellite offices. What people wanted was to be able to compose a document and be able to send it to anyone without worrying if they could open it, or if it would look right. It was into this climate that Acrobat was born.
Over the years the marketing message and, to a degree, the program's focus have changed. Rather than replace paper in the office the portable document format, PDF, has supplemented it. When someone creates a PDF file they can be confident that anyone can read it, as long as they have the free Acrobat Reader program. The content will look the same no matter what operating system, or what fonts are installed on the recipients machine.
This has led to wide acceptance in the corporate, government, and even the publishing world. It's now commonplace to find PDF documents of all kinds. You can even download a PDF form to fill out your taxes.
Viewing PDF files has always been easy, thanks to the free Acrobat Reader. But, if you wanted to make a PDF file you needed to purchase a specialized program, Adobe Acrobat.
In the past Acrobat was comprised of three components, which made the task of making PDF files a tad cumbersome. Version 6 has winnowed that down to two components, Distiller and Acrobat. For most folks the main app, Acrobat, will do everything they ever need. But folks who need the utmost quality, such as graphics folks, will appreciate Distiller as it allows them to take Postscript Files and convert them to PDF files while retaining a host of details, such as fonts, in the final document.
(Note: Formerly Acrobat was a one size fits all product. With the 6.0 release Adobe has devised three different flavors of Acrobat. The entry level product, Acrobat Elements, is Windows only and can only be purchased in large licensing packages. We got a chance to review the mid level product, Acrobat Standard. There is also a high end version of Acrobat geared towards publishers and graphic artists, Adobe Acrobat Professional.)
Although creation of PDF files is Acrobat's main job it offers many more features. Acrobat allows you to create a single PDF document from multiple source files. You can instantly save screen captures, screen shots, as PDF's. Acrobat now integrates with Office for Mac. Acrobat installs commands in the Office tool bar that allows quick conversion of office documents to PDF's. Office workers, and writers, will appreciate the reviewing capabilities added to Acrobat.
Adobe has added a bunch group of features to Acrobat which allow for collaboration on documents. Owners of Acrobat can make editorial comments and markups on PDF files. Especially handy is the email based review. With the email based review system reviewers hit the send comments button, which sends an attachment back to you with their comments. You can automatically import their comments into PDF by opening the attached file. A built in Review Tracker manages reviews, both started by or one in which the user is participating in. If the user started the review process then they have the added ability to send reminders, and invite additional reviewers. There is even a Comment List which displays every comment made throughout the document. You can sort, or filter, by reviewer, change status of comments as well as import and export comments. Lastly, you can save out a comment summary, great for brainstorming sessions, which can be printed out or saved as a separate PDF file.
Additional features include beefed up security features. Acrobat now gains an easier way to add digital signatures. It also gains support for Windows Certificate Security and “third party security methods”. Acrobat's search capabilities have been improved. You can now search through multiple PDF for words or phrases, either locally or over a network, without first building an index. A Properties Tool Bar offers quick access to the settings of objects, such as bookmarks. Acrobat uses the built in speech to text capabilities of the MacOS. You can have it read back as much or as little of a document as you like. Acrobat also lets you create a PDF file directly from your scanner, i.e. you can scan directly into Acrobat.
This version of Acrobat is focused towards tasks. This makes it easy for novices to get up to speed. The electronic help section, which is available in a bar to the right in the main screen is very well organized and has just enough info to get you going. This help section excels as step by step instructions. Finally, Acrobat Distiller is a native MacOS X app! The integration with Office users will be very helpful for office workers daunted by trying to learn another program. In our testing the ability to convert a web page into a PDF worked well and seemed pretty quick. The ability to create a PDF and have Acrobat create a new email, and attach the resulting PDF to the outgoing message is also welcome. I was very impressed with the mark up and reviewing features. The review process was easy to master.
If you like to have a comprehensive manual then you're in for a disappointment. Our copy of Acrobat came with a thin Quick Start Guide. The electronic help files were satisfactory if not exemplary. Weighing in at a hefty 288 MB Acrobat takes up quite a bit of your hard drive. Heck even Acrobat reader 6 wants 56MB of your hard drive! I loved the review features but it's a darn shame that you have to shell out for the full Acrobat Standard to take advantage of them. In my tests the scan to PDF failed to do any OCR like functions. None of the text in my test document was converted to text. So don't give up your dedicated Optical Character Recognition program just yet. Acrobat, and Reader, also seem sluggish on our test system (a flat panel G4 iMac-700mhz w/640MB of RAM. From a UI stand point the interface can seem cluttered. The Help bar on the right takes up a lot of screen real estate. Thankfully it's easy to hide it and get that space back. But what ticks me off as a Mac user is that there are features mentioned in the help section which are not available to Mac users. I'd like to be able to Control-click on a file and have a menu option to convert it to a PDF, have a button added to my browser of choice to output a web page to a PDF file, or have the option to conduct a browser based document review.
Adobe has done a solid job with Acrobat over the years. They have done an even better job of making the PDF file format one of the universal file types of the internet. Adobe has done such a good job marketing the PDF file format that Apple made it the basis of their graphical display in MacOS X.
Acrobat does the job well enough, but is a sluggish app on MacOS X. If you send a lot of documents back and forth, for commenting and review, this versions review and comments features will be welcome indeed. If you want an easy way to add PDF creation capability to your Office apps, then Acrobat Standard will be a welcome addition to your toolkit. With the addition of a native version of Distiller professionals can now output complex, and high quality, PDF's with total control. This application definitely seems better suited to professionals, especially in office situations. If your PDF creation needs are modest, you can save yourself some bucks and just use the built in PDF creation capabilities of MacOS X.
Posted: Thursday, September 1st, 2005