Feature-Packed Acrobat

Wednesday Feb 23rd 2005 by Gerry Blackwell

Adobe Acrobat junkies rejoice, the 7.0 upgrade comes jammed with features you're sure to love. Occasional dabblers or the uninitiated may fare better with earlier, less confusing versions.

For many small businesses, Acrobat, the document exchange tool from Adobe Systems Inc., is mission-critical. Lawyers, engineering consultants, architects and publishers, to name just a few, use it routinely to create PDF (Portable Document Format) files to secure documents for electronic distribution and collaborative editing.

With the release of Acrobat 7.0 Professional, Adobe has created a significant upgrade to the existing product. Those familiar with previous versions will welcome many of the changes and improvements. They include new document creation, usage rights, document security, forms authoring and management and print production options.

In fact, function bloat may soon be a problem. Anyone new to Acrobat will certainly find the range of options and features more bewildering than they would have with earlier versions. In our testing of the product, we found some other minor annoyances as well. On the whole, though, this is a very positive upgrade.

Acrobat Basics
Acrobat lets you create PDF files, including interactive forms, from documents created in a range of different programs — in many cases with a single click from a menu item or toolbar button within the originating program. The resulting file retains all the formatting, fonts and graphics of the original. Recipients can open and view it using free downloadable Adobe Reader software.

The main Acrobat program includes tools for creating PDFs from a variety of sources, commenting on and marking up PDFs, sending them out for review, preparing them for print production, electronically signing them and setting security policies for a range of documents or settings for individual files.

Once you create a PDF file, you can choose to lock a file so that it: cannot be changed by anyone, requires a password for viewing and/or editing, allows unauthenticated recipients to make only some changes using Acrobat or Acrobat Reader — add a signature or comments, for example — or allows anyone full editing privileges.

New and Powerful
Adobe Designer, one of the most powerful new features included with Version 7.0 Professional, provides sophisticated tools for designing interactive PDF forms from scratch. You can do this from a variety of templates or from an existing non-interactive form. Recipients can fill in Acrobat forms on a computer using Acrobat Reader and transmit them by e-mail, print them out, or print the form and fill it out by hand.

If you use Acrobat a lot, you'll likely be most impressed with the Adobe Designer's forms authoring and management functions and the new review/mark-up capabilities that facilitate online e-mail and browser review processes. But the addition that the widest range of people will find most useful is the new document creation features.

Acrobat provides plug-ins that let you create PDFs with a single click without leaving the program The list of programs that support the one-click feature now includes Autodesk AutoCAD, Microsoft Office, Project, Access, Internet Explorer, Visio and Publisher. Adobe says Word documents convert faster now as well, though in our tests it took well over 30 seconds to complete the conversion of a half-page document.

In Outlook, you can now convert single or multiple messages or complete folders. As with most of the other program plug-ins, the Acrobat install program adds a new toolbar at the top of the Outlook screen. It includes three buttons — for converting selected messages, converting the current folder or converting selected messages and adding them to an existing PDF.

When you click one of the buttons, a save-file-as dialog pops up. You enter a new file name, select a folder in which to save it, and Acrobat does the conversion. When the conversion is complete, the plug-in launches the Acrobat viewer and displays the new file. Simple.

Adobe Acrobat Professional 7.0
Pass It On — Merge and Comment features let you work collaboratively via e-mail. Mark up and edit documents and send the pdf on to the next person for comments. Track and Merge lets you incorporate the groups comments into the final document.

One of our quibbles with the install process is that it can be intrusive when adding those toolbars to programs. When I installed the program on my system, it unlocked the locked toolbars in Internet Explorer to add the Acrobat buttons and in the process changed the display settings on existing toolbars. This was an annoyance, however, not a significant flaw.

When creating PDFs from multiple files using the main Acrobat program (rather than from within another program), the software now lets you preview PDF files before combining them. This is a confusing point. You can create new PDFs from multiple files — Word documents, for example — but you cannot preview those Word files before combining and converting them. It's only when you're creating a new PDF by combining existing PDFs that Acrobat lets you preview the files.

This is a Test
The program seriously hogs processing power. On my test system, a 1.6GHz Pentium III with 1GB of RAM, working on other programs while Acrobat was in the process of converting files was almost impossible. This was a general problem. It was more pronounced when creating larger PDFs within Acrobat itself.

In our tests, creating a multiple-file PDF was slow and sometimes plagued with problems. If a Word file is already open, for example, Acrobat will not be able to include it in the PDF and will generate a confusing error message suggesting you may not have read privileges for the file. To include a file, Acrobat needs to open the originating programs. If Word is already open, it attempts to open a new instance, and then generates an error message because the Normal.dot settings file is already in use by the first instance. These are, again, minor flaws.

In a PDF created from multiple files, Acrobat now automatically creates bookmarks — links usually to headings or subheadings — that take you to the beginning of each file. The bookmarks — displayed in a panel in Acrobat Reader — make it easier for viewers to find specific content. The new version also lets you extract files combined in a PDF and save them back to their original format — useful if you've lost the original document.

The new version adds a bunch of features and functions related to working with engineering documents. Adobe added Microsoft Visio to the list of programs that let you create PDFs from within the program. A measuring toolbar within Acrobat lets you measure drawn objects in a PDF file. And, in a PDF from a converted Visio document, you can now view data about drawn objects — dimensions, specifications, etc.

Advanced features let you create fields calculated by scripts — to automatically insert the correct date, for example — using either FormCalc or Javascript. You can also include interactive fields that automatically encode your input into barcodes. You can also export the data they've filled in to use in other programs. Form data collected in XML, XDP or TXT format can be exported directly to a spreadsheet.

Functions related to viewing and commenting provide all the tools necessary for either browser- or e-mail-based review processes. You can add comments using Acrobat Reader — if the document specifies such usage rights. A comment bar with a set of clickable tools appears in Reader (or Acrobat), allowing the viewer to add bubble comments, highlight text, apply stamps — i.e., Void, Confidential, Final etc. — and attach text or even audio files as comments.

Acrobat 7.0 Professional sells for $450. If you're new to the program and have fairly simple needs or don't expect to use the program very often, look for a earlier, lower-priced version that's still in stores or online. If you use Acrobat frequently, consider holding off on the upgrade until you're ready to purchase new licenses. Depending on your needs, you may also want to upgrade existing licenses.

The upgrade includes a very long list of new features. Not many Adobe customers, and certainly not the occasional users, will find all or even many of the new features and capabilities particularly useful, but this is a product designed for a wide range of customers, including publishing professionals.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended for heavy and advanced users, overkill for most newbies and light users.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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