Acrobat Gets a New Face

Adobe also has revved up the PDF engine under its hood, making 6.0 a must-have upgrade.

Adobe Systems Inc.s Acrobat—the pre-eminent tool for generating documents in the popular PDF file format—is now easier to use and is more tightly integrated into commonly used applications. Its also not just a single product anymore.

With Version 6.0, Adobe splits its PDF publishing software into three separate tools. Acrobat Elements is a simple Windows-only tool used for quickly generating PDFs from Microsoft Office applications. Not to be confused with Adobes other "Elements" tools, such as Photoshop Elements, this Acrobat version is not for end-user consumers but is instead aimed at enterprises and sold in volume licenses only, starting at $29 a pop.

Acrobat Standard, which will cost $299, targets business professionals and includes similar features to its predecessor, Acrobat 5.0. Acrobat Standard includes the ability to import data from scanners via a TWAIN interface, can handle digital signatures and includes modest form design features, and also has greatly enhanced commenting and revision-tracking capabilities.

eWEEK Labs tested a beta edition of Acrobat Professional—a superset of Acrobat Standard that includes support for CAD packages, Visio and electronic forms. Acrobat Professional will cost $449 when its released next month.

All the Acrobat versions include a much-needed interface makeover that speeds PDF creation without obscuring Acrobats many features.

The biggest interface improvement is that Acrobat now attempts to expose only the relevant features on a document. In the past, Acrobat exposed all its features, but hid them behind the menuing system.

In tests, Acrobat 6.0 was far easier to use than previous versions. It wont create retraining issues because its interface is close enough to Version 5.0 that end users will figure out the differences in one sitting.

We tested Acrobat Professional with Office XP and with Office 11 to see if we could find potential issues with Microsofts updated office suite. We encountered several kinks with Word 11, all stemming from adding multiple signatures to a Word 11 document that itself had multiple revisions. However, we believe this is a minor issue because Acrobat 6.0 worked well on other Word documents, and we expect that Adobe will have these fixed when the product is released in mid-May.

We encountered no problems with Word 2002, and found Acrobat Professional 6.0 to be a must-have upgrade to Acrobat 5.0. The only snag we found was that converting even simple documents from Word or the Web seemed to take longer in 6.0 than in Acrobat 5.0. We expect Adobe left in its optimization and debugging code in the test beta.

The feature that will get the most attention is the one-touch integration with Office, AutoCAD and Visio, although Acrobats embedded tools in Internet Explorer are also impressive. We found it extraordinarily easy to save documents directly from within documents, which is a useful capability for any organization that needs to protect formatting and implement signatures and security rights on the file.

Most people may think this is appropriate only for the health-care and legal fields, but saving documents in PDF format can be an easy, cost-effective way for any business to manage and secure documents. Likewise, we could convert Web pages from Internet Explorer with a single click. We especially liked Acrobat 6s background PDF creation capability. By clicking on Web pages on a history bar, we could easily add pages to a PDF file without having to navigate away from our main document.

In Acrobat 5.0, the only way to import Web pages was through Acrobat, which meant that secure sites could not be easily saved into PDF. Version 6.0 works from within the browser, so users can save electronic statements, receipts and Web orders directly to PDFs.

With Acrobat 6, Adobe has done some work under the covers as well. Adobe has upgraded the PDF format to Version 1.5, which includes better compression (which Adobe calls "object stream optimization"). Adobe claims that there is a significant file size reduction over PDF Version 1.4. In Version 1.4, tagged PDFs became bloated because the tags were not compressed along with the PDF files. In Version 1.5, those tags are compressed.

The actual reduction of normal, untagged PDFs depends on the content. One notable feature of PDF 1.5 is its ability to embed QuickTime, MP3 and other multimedia formats into the documents. This is a great feature, but it minimizes the compression advantages of the new file format.

PDF 1.5 also includes a layering feature that dramatically improves complex document capabilities. The layers, which Adobe calls Optional Content Groups, allow content to be overlaid onto existing PDFs without affecting the underpinning document.

With Acrobat 6, Adobe is one step closer to turning the Acrobat line into a high-powered forms tool that will be at once a forms designer and a dynamic forms reader. Acrobat 6 handles forms quite easily, but gains real power when used in conjunction with Document Server (see Labs review of Adobes Document Server).

For now, Adobe has taken a great product and improved it just enough for it to be a must-have upgrade.

Separately, Adobe is dropping the Acrobat Reader line and renaming it Adobe Reader. The reasons are obvious. Adobe wants to make Reader a universal file format reader that handles more than just Acrobat.

The Adobe Reader that ships in mid-May will read PDF, Adobe Forms, eBooks and Photoshop Albums. Like its predecessors, Adobe Reader will be free of charge. ´

eWEEK Labs Director John Taschek can be reached at