Adobe Acrobat 4

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With new office, web and pre-press features Acrobat sees the PDF beginning to fulfil its true potential.

Adobe Acrobat 4

Opinions are almost always divided about Acrobat. Producers love the way that Acrobat enables them to turn publications from any platform and any application into a universally accessible electronic format straddling paper, the web and CD-ROM - and all at little or no cost. End users on the other hand tend to be aggravated by the way that long publications designed for paper must be read onscreen or printed locally. Acrobat 4 is a major upgrade designed to make life easier throughout the document workflow from production through to consumption.

The central Acrobat program has dropped its previous title, Exchange, and is now just called Acrobat. Essentially it acts a value-added version of the freely available Reader program (which has itself now been upgraded to version 4). On first loading the interface seems very familiar, but closer inspection reveals a number of changes. The navigation panel down the left-hand side of the page view is now tabbed so that it's simple to swap between viewing bookmarks, thumbnails or annotations. These palettes can now also be floated off to be viewed simultaneously. Another major improvement is the enhanced use of right-click context-sensitive menus. The biggest change though is in the toolbar which has been moved to the left hand of the screen and now offers a number of additional tools such as the new Crop tool for interactively changing page size.

The biggest addition to the Acrobat toolset is the number of annotation tools. These now include a Notes tool for adding stick-on notes, a Text tool for writing directly on the page, an Audio tool for recording comments, various Highlighter options and the ability to draw simple lines, circles and rectangles. Using the new Annotations panel these can automatically be pulled out into a list for easy navigation or can be saved into their own PDF for easy review. In addition there are new Compare commands which compare versions of a PDF and automatically highlight changes. Finally, when the review process is complete the document can be given a clear seal of approval with the new Stamp tool.

With their small size, Acrobat files are in many ways an ideal format for such group working especially when used with the new integrated Send Mail command. However, it's important not to get carried away. Adobe claims that PDFs are ideal for Office collaboration because the annotations have no knock-on effect on page layout. That's true and enormously important when marking up work designed for print. During the actual writing process though it's much more important that suggested changes can be easily and instantly incorporated as they can in a program like Word or FrameMaker. Acrobat's annotation features are useful, but really only make sense during final review rather than original collaboration.

Of course things would be very different if it was possible to incorporate changes directly in the Acrobat PDF file and Adobe is working hard on editability. In addition to the existing TouchUp Text tool, there's now a TouchUp Object tool which can be used for moving graphics and entire text blocks. For more extensive changes you can now load images into Photoshop 5 and even individual pages into Illustrator 8 assuming you have them on your system. Even so the process is slow, fraught with potential problems, especially regarding fonts, and even then only allows text editing on a line-by-line basis. Ultimately PDF editability is still restricted to changing the odd typo before sending files off to print.

One of the major uses of the Acrobat program that is often missed entirely is its ability to convert print-based documents into multimedia interactive publications. This can be achieved through the use of just two tools. The first of these is the Movie tool which allows either AVI or MOV files to be imported though Adobe is now strongly pushing the latter through its new QuickTime 3 support. The second is the Forms tool which is used for setting up data input forms but can also be used for adding navigation and command buttons. Acrobat 4 now offers Javascript support which, with the use of mouseover and mousedown events, means it is possible to set up web-style rollovers. The underlying power is impressive, but Adobe hasn't done enough to ensure that it is appreciated and made the most of.

The final new addition to the Acrobat toolset is the Digital Signature tool which is designed to address the whole question of security by allowing users to effectively sign a PDF just as they would sign a document with a pen. The first time you use the tool you are asked to fill in your name and to provide a password and this information is then encoded as a 512-bit RSA encrypted key certificate. In future you can sign and authenticate the current PDF simply by filling out your password and, if you share your certificate with your workgroup, they will be able to check that you have authorised the current document. For wider use, for example between legal firms, it is possible to extend the idea by using third-party digital signature formats.

With its new improved toolset it's clear that Acrobat's main function is enhancing the use of existing PDFs, but the program can also be used for creating PDFs in the first place. The Paper Capture plug-in, for example, is used for scanning existing publications and turning them into PDF format ready for archiving and electronic distribution. The process is relatively slow, but surprisingly effective. When allied with the new ability to export all the text in a document as formatted RTF it means that Acrobat 4 can even add basic OCR to its list of uses.

Completely new and just as impressive is the new Web Capture command. Select the Open Web Page command, type in a URL and Acrobat will automatically download and save the web page as a PDF ready for print or future browsing. All links in the page are retained so that you can click on them and the relevant pages will be added to the current PDF complete with navigable bookmarks. Even better, you can tell Web Capture to automatically fetch all links from the given page or view a list of links and select just the ones that you are interested in. In the future you can even get Web Capture to Refresh your PDF and it will automatically download just those pages that have been changed.

The process isn't foolproof so that you have to be careful, for example, that you're not trying to download the entire Microsoft site which would take days. Formatting isn't perfect either. Web Capture copes with saving multiple frames and graphics, for example, but it ignores CSS formatting entirely with text formatted based on customisable settings for HTML tags. With Internet Explorer 5 now offering the capability of storing and printing complete web pages it could be argued that Web Capture has missed the boat, but I still love the feature. By saving all pages in a single, small, easily searchable and printable file format, Web Capture acts as your own intelligent Web spider.

The Paper and Web Capture features are great bonuses but still the most likely way you are going to create PDFs is from your own applications. This can be done in one of two ways. The simplest way is through the PDF Writer which installs itself as a printer driver and so is universally and directly accessible. The second way is less direct and involves printing to a Postscript file and then running this through the Distiller program. This opens up far more options and capabilities such as the ability to automatically set up bookmarks or to minutely control compression settings.

The main drawback to using Distiller in the past, apart from adding an extra step to the workflow, has always been its complexity. In some ways this has been increased with more control, for example, over which fonts should be embedded and at what point the entire font rather than a subset of individual characters should be embedded. Crucially though Adobe has simplified the choice by offering three basic job options - ScreenOptimised, PrintOptimised and PressOptimised - which take care of individual settings and range from the smallest RGB-based filesize for internet distribution through to the maximum CMYK information for commercial print.

Acrobat 4 also brings Distiller more into the mainstream by integrating its use with the major Microsoft applications and Word in particular. A new Create Adobe PDF command is added to Word's File menu which calls up a dialog from where you can choose between PDF Writer and Distiller output. If you choose the latter, you can automatically have Word's headings or styles converted to bookmarks, annotations turned to notes and you can also control the appearance of links. The same process can be run from within Acrobat so that if you open a Word document it is automatically distilled and converted to PDF. Alternatively you can convert all directly supported documents - TXT, HTML, DOC, PPT, XLS and WPD - by dropping them onto the Acrobat 4 icon on the Windows desktop.

In many ways Acrobat 4 turns Word into a dedicated PDF creator and so extends the program's capabilities into electronic document distribution. Acrobat could also open up the previously closed world of commercial print - a capability that many users have been crying out for - thanks to the many new pre-press features. The most important of these are the new Postscript Level 3 support for features such as smooth shading and hi-fi colour, the ability to embed and manage embedded ICC profiles for consistent colour management, and the support for OPI and trapping information. Throw in the ability to export pages as EPS files with previews and the ability to embed Portable Job Tickets and it's clear that Adobe is targetting commercial print both as direct digital output for shorter print runs and as full colour-separated print for the most demanding work.

It's difficult to over-estimate the potential impact that Acrobat could have on commercial print. By acting as a universal middle man and removing all the problems of missing fonts, RGB colours and so on, Acrobat has the potential to revolutionize professional design making it truly accessible to everyone. From the service bureau side of things they'll no longer need to have every application and every font that their customers use and can just concentrate on ensuring that the Acrobat workflow is optimised. The advantages are just too enormous for the Acrobat system to be allowed to fail, but be warned - a whole industry can't change overnight. There are bound to be teething problems and pieces of the jigsaw, such as Quark and Corel Draw support and the post-processing of PDFs with reliable in-RIP trapping and separation, are still being developed.

In the long term, though, Acrobat 4 looks set to be a seminal product which sees the PDF taking over from Postscript as the foundation of the entire publishing industry. As such it might seem slightly churlish to pick holes, but there are areas in which the program disappoints. The main one is the question of compatibility. Acrobat depends for its success on its cross-platform support but the full Acrobat program is no longer available for Windows 3.1 and the Mac version doesn't support a huge number of important features such as digital signatures and Web Capture. Perhaps more importantly the free Reader program no longer supports searching of indexes created with the Acrobat suite's Catalog program. This searching capability was the reason many developers chose to use Acrobat for their projects and it's completely unreasonable to now move the goalposts to say that that functionality is now only available for users with the commercial version.

Hopefully Adobe will see sense on this and release an updated Reader program, preferably with digital signature support built in. Even if not, most Acrobat producers will still decide to upgrade. The advantages that Acrobat offers are just so large and the production process so painless that it's really a must-have program. Ultimately everyone working with information is a publisher in the widest sense of the word and, with its new annotation, editing, security and prepress and office integration features, there's no doubt that Acrobat 4 provides the ideal electronic publishing format.

Now if only my heart didn't sink when I saw that the Acrobat manual was only provided in Acrobat format.

Features

5

Ease Of Use

5

Value For Money

6

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Acrobat
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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 24MB of RAM, 75MB of disk space, Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

May 1999


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