Acrobat 8.0 Professional

Adobe has just started shipping version 8.0 of its PDF program, Acrobat Professional. The Portable Document Format was originally developed as a format that people could save documents into, safe in the knowledge that they could be viewed on any machine, regardless of whether or not it had the original creating software. And Acrobat was the program that delivered this ability to create PDFs, to view them, and even to edit them. Nowadays most programs can read and write PDFs natively, and Adobe is struggling to redefine exactly what Acrobat’s role is.

Part of the difficulty is that the PDF format itself appeals to two very distinct markets: the corporate world of documents, which prizes features such as security and form filling; and the graphic arts, which values the format as a stable container for fonts, colour spaces, and so on for printing. So each new version tries to balance these disparate groups, with varying degrees of success.

The most immediate change for Acrobat 8.0 is a much tidier interface. The huge list of buttons for various features covering everything from opening and printing files to launching the preflight engine has all gone. Instead Adobe has grouped everything together into eight main tasks, which makes for a much tidier look to the program. These eight tasks – Create PDF, Combine Files, Export, Start Meeting, Secure, Sign, Forms and Review and Comment – also appear in a separate window when the program starts up so that users can go straight to the task they want to do.

Adobe has put a separate set of icons down the left-hand side, which expand when clicked on to show page thumbnails, bookmarks, signatures and a search window, with attachments and comments at the bottom. All this makes for a much neater interface, which will undoubtedly make the program more attractive for those less familiar with it.

Adobe has also streamlined the process of creating PDFs. There’s still a separate program, Distiller, which is installed alongside Acrobat, but few will realise it’s there. Instead, when you click on Create PDF there is the option to create a PDF from a single file, or from multiple files. Selecting multiple files pulls up the Combine Files menu which lets you select individual files or folders from anywhere on your hard disk or even across a network. You can pick virtually any type of file – Acrobat supports BMP, GIF, HTML, JPEG, PostScript, EPS, TIFF and Text formats – and can open Excel, PowerPoint and most other programs to convert those formats as PDFs. You can also save PDFs as Word files complete with fonts, formatting and tables. However, production specialists can still fire up Distiller from the Print Production Command to select PDF/X and high-quality settings.

You can choose to merge multiple files into a single PDF, or there’s a new option to assemble those files into a PDF Package. A PDF Package is a single file, but it preserves the individual documents complete with their original page numbers, a particularly useful feature in some legal applications.

Commenting
There’s a much-improved commenting ability, including the option to share comments across a server in real time. The idea is that you add comments to a file, upload those comments to a shared folder, and download any comments from other people whenever you’re ready.

Anyone with a copy of Acrobat Professional, Standard, or even the free Acrobat Reader 8.0 can share comments, but you need the Professional version to set the process up and decide who can share comments about the document in question. You can also export comments back to a Word or AutoCAD file obviating the need to edit the original document.

This will be extremely useful for a lot of content proofing, allowing multiple staff, say ad agencies, art directors and printers, to pass comments back and forth on a file.

One other useful feature is a new Redaction command, which overwrites sensitive information so that it is genuinely deleted and cannot be retrieved.

With this version you can export data from forms that have been completed, either as comma-separated text for use with a spreadsheet such as Excel, or as XML data for use in a database – a very useful feature if you want to compile the results of a survey.

Somewhat annoyingly, it’s still the case that if somebody sends you a form to sign, and sets the security to prevent you editing the form, you can’t actually sign it, unless they have remembered to create a blank digital signature field.

Acrobat Connect
Adobe has introduced a new member to the Acrobat family, Acrobat Connect. In reality, this is Macromedia’s Breeze, with a new name. Connect isn’t really a PDF tool, rather it’s about setting up online meetings which can make use of a variety of different media, including audio and video, all powered by Flash technology, which is now included as standard with many web browsers.

Essentially Connect can be used to set up and host a virtual meeting room for up to 15 people. It’s going to be a boon for online training, and should allow a lot of people to work together from home.

There’s both a Pro and a standard version of Connect. The Pro version includes content and meeting management capabilities and VoIP.

Large corporations can host Connect sites from within their own servers, but the vast majority of people will license it as a hosted service from Adobe. Connect is a separate program, due to launch in the US first, with a UK release unlikely before February. Adobe has yet to confirm pricing.

The XPS format
The new version of Microsoft Windows, Vista, includes the document and print format XPS, which some have seen as a possible alternative to the PDF format. Adobe is undoubtedly a little miffed about this, though it remains to be seen whether or not XPS can actually give Acrobat and PDF a run for its money.

XPS isn’t really aimed at the graphics market, and few people expect it to replace PDF as the preferred format for sending files to printers. But a very large chunk of Adobe’s market for Acrobat comes from corporate and enterprise users, so many of the features in this release are aimed at those kinds of users, rather than print production. Consequently, there’s little to recommend Acrobat 8.0 to graphic arts users other than the preflighting engine, and there are already a number of alternative preflighting methods.

There isn’t an XPS reader for the Mac yet. Then again, Adobe has dropped the Mac version of Acrobat 8.0 Standard, which lacks a number of features, including most of the more advance forms capabilities.

As with previous upgrades to Acrobat, there’s also a new version of the PDF file format, now at PDF1.7. There’s also a new version of PDF/X, in PDF/X-4, which is based on PDF1.4 and supports native transparency in files, thus negating the need to flatten transparencies.

A new version of Acrobat also signals a new edition of the Creative Suite, now at version 2.3 with the inclusion of Acrobat 8. The premium edition of Creative Suite 2.3 also gains Dreamweaver. However, it’s worth noting that Creative Suite 3 should be out in the spring, and that Dreamweaver is likely to replace GoLive at that point.

OUR VERDICT

The interface is much tidier and it is easier to get to grips with. There are some nice features, particularly in terms of commenting and forms, and this will be welcome for corporate users. The preflighting has been much improved with the ability to fix some problems, though there are a number of cheaper alternatives around. Overall there’s little to recommend this in itself to graphic arts users, most of whom will be better off waiting for the next Creative Suite release.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This review has been modified to correct an inaccurate statement. The Mac version of Acrobat 8 does not include Adobe's form-filling technology, LiveCycle. This is only present in the Windows version of Acrobat 8.

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