Review: Adobe Acrobat 9 Professional
Pros: PDF portfolio creation, Flash support, better color conversions, highly accurate document comparison feature, layers.
Cons: Out of cycle with Creative Suite upgrade, it's a big (almost 1 GB) application, and many new features will only be practical when Acrobat Readers are upgraded over time.
Score: 90 out of 100
The ultimate measure of success for an open standard such as PDF is that it becomes so pervasive you no longer need anything special to make it work. And it felt like we were reaching that point with PDF. Yes, print shops still need to fix or tweak customer PDFs, but for the most part the PDF files churned out by page-layout and other applications do what they're supposed to do.
With Acrobat 9 Professional, and the sister Acrobat Reader 9, Adobe has left well enough alone and modestly enhanced the basics of this 15-year-old workhorse product: enhanced color conversion, Overprint preview, better preflighting, layer control, etc. This isn’t to suggest that the changes to PDF file writing and evaluation are insignificant -- and I will cover those changes in the section below called "Enhanced and New Print-Production Features" -- but they don't turn heads.
Instead, the attention-getters in this version of Acrobat are about improving the way people work together on documents. I hate myself for resorting to terms like “collaboration” and “workflow,” but it must be done. Adobe has added tools to Acrobat 9 (and complimentary tools through Acrobat.com) that start to take us from a linear creation and approval process to a more dynamic and real-time model.
Acrobat 9 Pro costs $449; registered users of earlier versions of Acrobat can upgrade for $159. Acrobat 9 also comes in Pro Extended ($699) and Standard ($299) versions, but Acrobat Pro is the best version for creative professionals.
Pieces Coming Together
Acrobat 9 Professional is also the latest Adobe release to make good on some of the promise inherent when Macromedia and Adobe merged a few years back. The addition of native Flash support allows for even more interactivity inside PDF pages, and with Acrobat 9 we see the evolution of Adobe toward an online, hosted-services model.
And that’s where I’ll start talking about the specifics of Acrobat 9 Professional. Acrobat 9 is the best window to a new set of online tools at Acrobat.com. After a pretty simple registration process, these tools are free and integrate reasonably well into both the Acrobat 9 software and the newest version of Acrobat Reader. But membership and use of the tools in Acrobat.com doesn't require Acrobat 9 Professional.
First up is Adobe’s Web-conferencing system, ConnectNow. Once you register on Acrobat.com, you get a permanent URL (which you can customize with your name or company name) for a “personal meeting room.” You also get a phone number and participant code to use for teleconferencing. If you’ve ever used WebEx or similar service then Connect Now will be familiar to you. You can invite two people (plus yourself) to participate in a conference. You share your screen and, with participants’ permission, can access their screens as well. From there you can review a proof, show PowerPoint presentations, or whatever.
Using Acrobat.com, you can collaborate on a PDF document by simply inviting someone to log into a special URL. Then you can chat in a live window, navigate through the document together and if needed, even share screens, video conference, and use VOIP to talk with each other.
Conference participants can either use the call-in number to connect via phone, or can use a computer’s built-in microphone for VOIP connection, and can also connect visually via webcams. The participants don't have to register at Adobe.com -- they only need your URL to join the meeting. Plus, no special software or browser is required. The Web-conferencing system is pretty sophisticated and includes a white board pane and chat between participants.
Adobe also offers a paid upgrade service called Connect Pro that allows for up to 1,500 participants.
Share and Share Alike
Membership in Acrobat.com includes up to 5GB of storage space. You can post documents and individually or as groups make them accessible to others. You manage access by inviting people to view documents, which they can review online or download. This is a great way to share large files that may not be suitable for email, and you can track who has viewed or downloaded the file.
You can also embed documents stored at Acrobat.com into Websites, Wikis, or blogs through a simple HTML copy-and-paste process. Each document has a unique URL you can link to. It's like having your own public server for documents. Adobe allows most text document formats to be shared, but not video or audio files. Again, the person coming to view or download your document needn't register on the site if you make your documents “open access.” If you want to control specific individuals' access, they do have to sign up for a free account.
Joint Word Processing
Acrobat.com also includes a free online word-processing program called Buzzword. is a clean and capable word-processor supports tables, headers and footers, automatic lists, and the more common formatting you can do in Microsoft Word.
You can create, import, and save documents, of course, but more importantly, you can very easily share Buzzword documents with others and work on them together in real time. Simply add an email address to a pop-up window and designate each participant as either co-author (full access to the document), reviewer (read and comment), or reader (read-only access). The site sends an email to the invited participant with a URL link, and within minutes you can all be working on the same file, and communicating by phone or text.
As part of the new Acrobat.com, Adobe provides hosted services that include Buzzword, a capable word processor.
You can save Buzzword documents (and many other document types) in your personal space on Acrobat.com, and you can export them in PDF, Word, XML, RTF, HTML, or plain text (TXT). So if you're tired of emailing Word documents back and forth for review, this option could be very useful. You can see who is accessing the document and what they're doing to it, add pop-up notes, and even review document history.
Making PDF Documents Online
Here’s where it pays to buy Acrobat 9. As part of the free services at Acrobat.com, you're allowed to submit five documents for automatic conversion to PDF. After that you have to pay for an additional ongoing conversion service unless, of course, you have Acrobat 9 on your computer. And from within Acrobat 9 Professional you can directly access features of Acrobat.com, so the free services become more useful and integrated.
Software Enhancements and New Features
Admittedly, I’m most excited about the free services of Acrobat.com, but that doesn’t mean the changes in Acrobat 9 Professional itself aren’t worthwhile. There are quite a few, both on the technical side of high-end print production, and the more creative side, such as with the new Portfolio feature.
In Acrobat terms, a portfolio is any collection of files that are then automatically displayed in portfolio-like templates. Thanks to the new Flash support in PDF, a designer can assemble a group of PDF, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, InDesign, JPEG, and Flash media files into the Portfolio window of Acrobat. You choose various layouts and preferences for how these files will be displayed, and then save the portfolio as a PDF file. Clients or colleagues can view your portfolio (including videos) with the latest Acrobat Reader.
You can easily make a PDF portfolio from numerous file types in Acrobat 9. This is then hosted in your Acrobat.com folder, or you can send it as a PDF file viewable in Acrobat Reader. You can customize the look, add a cover page with messaging, and select from several ways to display your files.
PDF Portfolios are a great way to make presentations that include multiple media items. You can customize colors and layouts as well as add text and images to the cover page. The initial templates are a bit crude, and I don’t care for the fact that the thumbnail images presented for each item don't fill the window by default, but it is an easy way to send sample layouts, designs, or show off prior work.
When someone reviews your portfolio, they simply click on the thumbnail to get the full image or to play a video file.
Synchronizing Document Views
In addition to the collaboration tools in Connect Now (which are based on screen sharing), Acrobat 9 offers something called Page Synchronization, an interesting new way to assure that everyone is looking at the right material.
When synchronization is on, you can email a PDF file to someone, inviting him or her to view it. On their end, a Collaborate Live Pane opens next to the PDF file, and as long as you're both connected to the Internet, you can chat directly in the Collaborate Live Pane and both see the same view of the document, even as you scroll through it. In this instance, one party is designated the “initiator” and one the “reviewer.” The initiator controls the view of the document.
Better Tracking, Better Forms
Adobe has also enhanced the Tracker function so you can see who has reviewed documents, send reminders to those whose reviews are pending, and automatically alert you when someone reviews the file.
And tracking is no longer limited to the review process. Much-enhanced form capabilities include the ability to map form data back to a spreadsheet for tracking. So, for example, if you publish a PDF form and people come to your site to fill it out, all the information captured can be tracked directly into a database, or to another form.
Form set-up is a lot smarter in Acrobat 9. If you import a Word, Excel, InDesign, or text document, Acrobat looks at all the areas that could be interpreted as form fields, analyses the surrounding text for clues, and attempts to turn those fields into live form fields in the PDF. A new Form Editing Mode dialog box prompts you to check Acrobat’s efforts and allows you to quickly modify the results. You can also use Form Editing to add new fields that Acrobat may have missed.
When you use the automatic form generating feature of Acrobat 9, you get the opportunity to validate that the fields captured by Acrobat are correct.
Also new in Acrobat 9 is the ability to reorder the tab order of form fields by dragging and dropping fields in the left-side Fields Panel.
Once you design a form in Acrobat, you can now easily mine the information in each field and map it back to a database, which is part of the PDF form file. If you post the form on Acrobat.com or your own server, each time someone fills it out the information from each form field is captured and saved into a master file -- you can even check and see who has filled it out and who is still pending. And if you email the form to someone and he or she sends it back to you, when you open it the information is also captured and added to the compiled data for that form. An Acrobat form essentially becomes a self-contained data collection program. You can also export the data into an Excel or another spreadsheet program.
These enhanced and new form capabilities make it pretty simple to set up a quick survey, send it to a number of people, and collect the results. For designers this may become a great way to get feedback on a project, which can accompany the form as an attachment or link. Sometimes reviewers are more likely to answer a few quick questions than take the time to respond from scratch.
Brutally Honest Document Comparisons
One of the more useful features of Acrobat 9 may turn out to be its ability to compare documents. Simply open two documents and, depending on the setting you choose in a dialog box, the documents are compared down to the pixel level. You can see the changes (text, line weight, colors, cropping, etc.) in list view, but also visually, highlighted directly in the document.
Let’s say a client made a text change to one PDF file. Mouse over the change and you’ll see what text was there previously and what type of change was made (replace, insert, delete or move). Even a small image edit will show up in comparisons, and you can instruct Acrobat to optimize documents or scans for image comparison. (It converts them to bitmap and compares pixel-by-pixel.)
This comparison feature has wide application, not only in innocent circumstances where you may have lost track of which version is which, but as a security tool in determining if any tampering or unwanted revisions have occurred in a document or image. Acrobat 9 seems almost uncanny in its ability to find even the smallest change, but of course that’s what computers do best.
Enhanced and New Print-Production Features
I’ve focused more on the collaboration tools in Acrobat 9 simply because they're new and unexpected. But there are a number of enhancements and new features that will appeal to printers and the designers who get involved in trouble shooting their own files.
Better Overprint Preview: In prior versions of Acrobat, you had to turn on overprint preview manually. In Acrobat 9, Overprint Preview is, by default, applied intelligently whenever a PDF/X file is opened. You can also choose to have Overprint Preview intelligently apply itself on any PDF file, not just PDF/X.
Enhanced Output Preview with Object Inspector: There are new options for viewing different types of objects and colors in Acrobat 9 (Registration Color, Text, Line Art, Not DeviceCMYK or Spot, CMYK, DeviceRGB, and Device Grey). And the new Object Inspector provides details about an asset’s resolution, sizing, color space, and other attributes.
Output Preview contains more options in this version of Acrobat, and an object viewer provides specific information for any page element such as resolution, sizing, color space and other attributes.
Improved Color Conversion: Acrobat 9 can now do much better color conversions between color spaces, and it handles black conversions from rich to solid. You can apply these changes universally to a file or to selected elements within a file. You can also save and load color-conversion setting so it's easy to apply them to future jobs.
New Compliance to Standards: As you might expect from Adobe, Acrobat 9 complies with all the latest Ghent Workgroup standards, including PDF/X-4p, PDF/X-5g, and new versions of PDF/A and PDF/E (among many others). A new standards pane shows the details on a files compliance (which is determined on opening now, so no need to preflight just to see if a file meets a specific standard).
Greatly Expanded Preflighting: Acrobat has had decent preflighting capabilities for a while, but in version 9 they're re-designed with a simpler interface and easier way to make corrections automatically. This is done primarily through a list of common file problems printers would encounter, and then Acrobat applies the logical fixes (often with several choices). For example, you can choose between details such as “convert color to Japan Color Coated 2001 (convert spot colors to CMYK)” and “convert color to Japan Color Coated 2001 (keep spot colors)."
Acrobat 9 takes preflight to a new level and provides a slew of pre-selected actions based on common prepress file problems. In most cases you can not only identify the problems, but also have Acrobat automatically fix them as they're discovered. You can also select various elements and create new layers, which can then be modified individually.
You can also review any preflighting problems one-by-one and make appropriate fixes manually.
Splitting Into Layers: Acrobat 9 can now split a document into individual layers for fonts, images, and vector images -- virtually any object types can be assigned their own layer. This opens possibilities for document versions and preflight changes specific to only certain elements.
Embedded Audit Trail: When you run a full preflight check, that information is added to the Standards Pane, along with the results. So a printer can quickly determine whether a file has already been put through the paces.
To Buy or Not to Buy?
The good part about Adobe’s Suite strategy is that eventually you’re likely to end up with this version of Acrobat, even if you wait to upgrade to Creative Suite 4 (or whatever they end up calling it). If you use Acrobat more than a couple times a month, I’d say it’s worth jumping on board sooner rather than later. And if you want to share and review PDF documents with clients, it’s definitely worth a look.
But even if you don’t upgrade right away to Acrobat 9, sign up now for an account at Acrobat.com and start taking advantage of that service. The day is coming soon when all the various server-based file sharing/collaboration schemes will gel and actually be useful. Adobe’s take on that challenge isn’t bad -- it doesn’t require a lot of special software or registration schemes (though just enough to not feel completely transparent). But I think if you want to start working remotely with clients or collaborators in real time, the system Adobe has put together is “comfortable” enough to work. Most of the other solutions I’ve seen end up getting in the way and not being very practical.