Adobe Acrobat 6 (Elements/Standard/ Professional)


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A major overhaul of the creation and review of PDF files and new high-end design capabilities add to Acrobat's existing strengths.

 "Acrobat" is the name Adobe has given to its technology built around the PDF (Portable Document Format) file format. What makes PDF unique is that it can provide an exact electronic replica of any document from any application on all major platforms including all text, graphics and fonts. It's an amazingly flexible format with myriad uses ranging from electronic manuals and e-books through secure document exchange and archiving to multimedia presentation and high-end commercial print.

In many ways Acrobat's flexibility is its problem as much as its strength. In particular it can be difficult for users to get their head around just what Acrobat can do for them. That's why, with this latest release, Adobe has chosen to split the technology into a family of four different and increasingly powerful applications: Adobe Reader, Acrobat Elements, Acrobat Standard and Acrobat Professional. Unfortunately, in its wisdom, Adobe has only released the Professional version to the press so it's impossible to be precise about every individual feature that each version will offer - but the target audiences and dividing lines are clear.

The first rung on the ladder is the PDF viewer application previously known as "Acrobat Reader" and now renamed "Adobe Reader". This is the version of Acrobat that you are almost certain to use even if you aren't interested in creating your own PDFs, as it is both free and free to distribute which means that authors can bundle it with their PDFs to ensure universal access. So what's new apart from the ability to open files created with Acrobat 6's new PDF 1.5 format?

It's safe to assume that Adobe Reader will share the new-look Acrobat interface. There's nothing too drastic to report here, but there are changes such as the new How To window which runs down the right of the screen providing access to task-based HTML help. This side panel is also used for the new Microsoft-style Search feature which now lets you search through multiple PDFs without needing a pre-created index. The toolbars have also changed with new friendlier icons, most of which have text labels next to them while more advanced features are accessed via dropdowns.

Acrobat 6 offers better help and viewing capabilities.

New navigation and viewing features which might or might not filter down to Adobe Reader include a Split view for viewing different parts of your document simultaneously and a Layers navigation pane for hiding and showing layered content. Zoom levels up to 6400% (!) are now supported and there's greater viewing control available via a Pan and Zoom window which lets you set up the current zoom area interactively, and a Loupe tool that magnifies the area under the cursor (great for tiny captions). Most eye-catching or, rather, ear-catching is the new Read Out Loud command available on supporting operating systems - though Microsoft Sam's flat voice and intonation soon grate.

Adobe Reader caters for the free consumption of PDFs; the rest of the Acrobat family is where you start paying. Acrobat Elements is the cheapest option available based on volume licensing for corporates. The dividing line is that Acrobat Elements enables the user to create their own PDFs. Traditionally this has been taken care of by the bundled Acrobat Distiller application that converts PostScript print-to-disk files to PDF and which can be brought into play from any application via the Adobe PDF printer driver.

However Adobe has recognized that the use of Distiller and the whole idea of "printing" to PDF was little understood and off-putting and so has done everything it can to push it into the background. The emphasis instead is on the one-click automatic creation of PDFs from all the major Office applications. Macro-based Convert to PDF icons are automatically added to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and now Outlook too. You can even right-click on a supported file in Windows Explorer and convert from there.

Moving up the ladder, Acrobat 6.0 Standard lets you combine files from different applications into a single document. Using the new Add Headers and Footers command you can then add consistent page numbering while the Add Watermark and Background command lets you set up a shared look-and-feel. If you combine multiple JPEG images into a single PDF you can use the new Picture Tasks commands to export, edit and print your photos based on imposition layouts.

As well as converting file formats to PDF, Acrobat Standard also offers the ability to capture to PDF. The simplest version of capturing is the ability to convert a clipboard image to PDF. In a different league is Paper Capture which scans and converts existing documents. The scan is automatically OCRed so that the resulting text is searchable and the PDF size is kept to a minimum - ideal for archiving (especially if security is important thanks to Acrobat's 128-bit encryption).

Even better is Acrobat's Web Capture. This lets you automatically convert web pages and entire web sites to a single, easily archived PDF. Now the capability is built right in to Internet Explorer which also supports in-browser viewing (this is promised for Netscape 7) so that you can browse as normal and then switch to PDF to automatically store pages that you want to keep. With its integrated Explorer Bar side panel you can quickly target different PDFs so that you can organize your permanent web archives by subject. Excellent.

Acrobat Standard offers one-click PDF creation from the main Office applications including Internet Explorer.

Creating the PDF is only part of the story. With Acrobat 6.0 Standard Adobe wants to make PDF part of your everyday workflow which means targeting workgroup collaboration. Acrobat has always offered commenting tools with which to annotate your PDFs, but their use has been pretty crude - the digital equivalent of plastering your document with sticky notes and then passing it on to the next user to do the same. Now the whole process has been overhauled.

The first sign of this is a revamp of the commenting tools. These have been rationalized with the less common options, such as Text Box, File Attachment and new Drawing options, moved to a new Advanced Commenting toolbar.     Meanwhile the basic tools have been rethought. With the Text Edits tool you can now automatically mark up insertions, deletions and replacements while the ubiquitous pop-up Note windows now offer colour-coding, roll-over connector lines, background spell-checking, basic text formatting and even customizable semi-transparency!

Adding your comments is only part of an efficient workflow: someone needs to initiate and control the whole process. This is simple to do with the new Send by Email for Review command with which you can send the PDF and instructions to all interested parties. When users have added their annotations, they simply hit the Send Comments command to respond. Rather than resending the edited PDF this actually sends a FDF (Form Data Format) file to the originator and opening it automatically incorporates all comments into the single master file. Even more efficient for networked users or those with a WebDAV-enabled server is the Upload for Browser-based Review as all comments are automatically added to the single master PDF and are browsable and editable by all (you can also now reply to existing notes to create comment threads).

Acrobat Standard introduces a revamp of reviewing capabilities.

That's not the end of Acrobat Standard's review capabilities. To manage the collaboration process it offers the Review Tracker side panel so that the initiator can check on who has responded and remind those who haven't. When all comments have been gathered you can print out side-by-side pages and comments with connector lines, though much the easiest way to work your way through them is with the reworked Comments navigation pane. Here you can filter and sort all comments and set their status to accepted or rejected. If the original document was a Word XP file you can even export all comments back into it as text mark-ups and comment bubbles to eliminate retyping - though of course in this case it might well be simpler to use Word's own review capabilities.

With Acrobat Standard the PDF file acts as a useful business tool, a means to an end; with Acrobat Professional it takes centre-stage as the designed end product itself. As such the emphasis is on PDF authoring. Acrobat Professional offers a number of features to add value to PDF documents such as the ability to set-up advanced forms (these can be filled in with the free Adobe Reader) and to manage XML-based tagging (this is used to improve the accessibility of PDFs through screen-reflow on handheld devices and through text synthesis for screen reading).

Another seriously under-appreciated way of adding value to PDFs is through the Movie and Sound tools. In the past these were limited to adding linked AVI and MOV video and AIFF or WAV audio files. Now, thanks to its support for QuickTime, RealOne, Windows Built-in Player, Windows Media Player and Shockwave Flash you can also link or embed mpeg, mp3, swf, animated GIF and so on! And in case the end user doesn't have the necessary player installed you can set up alternatives.

A new area that Acrobat Professional targets is users involved in technical design. The one-click PDFMaker macro is automatically added to Windows versions of AutoCAD, Visio and Microsoft Project and large ARCH, ISO, JIS and ANSI page formats are supported. The new drawing tools for annotating files will also help technical designers as will the rulers, guides and grids and the new Distance, Perimeter and Area tools for taking scaled measurements directly from the PDF. Most important of all, Acrobat 6's new PDF 1.5 format now supports layers which is essential to CAD-based technical drawings and will no doubt also come in handy for the next versions of InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop.

Those involved in print-oriented graphical design do even better. PDF has long been promoted as the natural single-file, PostScript-based format for producing colour-separated commercial print, but in practice it has left a lot to be desired forcing professionals to turn to third-party plug-ins or Adobe's own Mac-only InProduction tools to ensure that their press work goes smoothly. Now the most important pre-press tools are built-in.

The new Preflight command lets you check your document against a range of profiles to help you spot potential problems such as mixed colour spaces or low-resolution images. You can also create files that are compliant with the PDF/X standards for pre-press document exchange. Acrobat's colour management system now follows the same ICC profile-based model pioneered by Photoshop allowing soft-proofing onscreen. Most important of all you can finally output colour separations directly from Acrobat. Even better, you can preview your individual CMYK plates onscreen and also preview transparency flattening and overprinting.

Acrobat Professional offers in-built colour separation and preflighting tools.

Overall there's a lot to take in and different users will benefit to different extents. Initially there's comparatively little to persuade current users of Acrobat Reader to upgrade to Adobe Reader though that should change when authors begin producing work that takes advantage of the new layer and multimedia capabilities. And of course it's free, so why not? For potential Acrobat Elements and Acrobat Standard users, the easy creation and integration of PDF into their everyday workflows could prove compelling and, for those who currently collaborate via PDF, Acrobat Standard's new review capabilities should seriously boost productivity. For designers and high-end users there's no question: Acrobat Professional is a must-have.

System requirements: (for Standard/Professional versions) Pentium, 64/128MB of RAM, 245MB of hard disk space, Windows 98 SE (Standard only), NT (SP6), 2000 (SP2) or XP, CD-ROM, 800x600 display (Professional 1024x768)

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System Requirements: (for Standard/Professional versions) Pentium, 64/128MB of RAM, 245MB of hard disk space, Windows 98 SE (Standard only), NT (SP6), 2000 (SP2) or XP, CD-ROM, 800x600 display (Professional 1024x768)

Tom Arah

June 2003

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