Review: Adobe Acrobat X Pro

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Pros: Actions and the Action Wizard, improved customization for PDF Portfolios, simplified user interface that promotes efficiency.

Cons: Unclear method for creating PDF Portfolio custom layouts, lack of Read Mode as an initial view, Acrobat X Suite is Windows only.

Rating: 90/100

Adobe's new Acrobat X Pro, like previous versions of Acrobat, delivers new features designed to serve its large market of creative and corporate customers. While some past features (such as redaction) haven't targeted creative professionals, Acrobat X Pro steps up with cool new things creative professionals will embrace.

To watch a video overview of most of what I'll cover in this review, click the screenshot below:

Actions for Better Workflows
Acrobat X Pro brings Actions -- automated multi-step tasks -- to PDF workflows, and I think it will provide a big benefit to creative professionals. Even though creative applications such as InDesign and QuarkXPress have made PDF generation fairly easy, some situations call for further refinement in Acrobat. Optimizing PDFs beyond InDesign's Smallest File Size preset is something I have to do regularly when distributing PDFs online or via email. This can now be automated with Actions, and Acrobat X Pro includes a "Prepare for Web Publishing" Action that does exactly this (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Action Wizard helps users create new automated Actions for Acrobat X Pro. Here the user is adding an instructional step for other users when reducing PDF file sizes for online distribution. Click the image to open a larger version in a separate window.

Acrobat X Pro's Action Wizard simplifies the Action creation process. You can drag and drop functions to build Actions and include informational dialogs to guide the end user. You can perform Actions on files opened in Acrobat X Pro and on files on your computer. You can also run Actions on a folder, making batch operations easy to perform from the application. You can import and export Actions, which helps to standardize workflows among a team and between vendors.

Acrobat X Pro ships with seven Actions that perform a variety of tasks, including redaction, document archiving, review preparation, and accessibility improvements. However, none of them are designed to prepare and test a PDF for printing on a press, which layout designers will surely want. This is something that users can prepare themselves or probably find online once other designers start sharing their Actions online.

Improvements to PDF Portfolios
One of the most newsworthy additions to Acrobat 9 was the PDF Portfolio, a PDF format that combines multiple files and presents a user interface for previewing and accessing them. This was an exciting feature for designers and artists who wanted to showcase their work in an electronic multimedia format without turning to complex tools.

Acrobat X Pro offers several improvements to PDF Portfolio functions that make it easier to customize a PDF Portfolio experience. You can now add Web content to a PDF Portfolio, making it a suitable launchpad to online portfolio content (Figure 2). Acrobat X Pro can include both URLs and embedded video from a website like YouTube, and you can preview both within a PDF Portfolio, though neither are rendered in the general layout interface. This also applies to SWFs and Flash Video.

Figure 2. You can add online content such as Web pages to PDF Portfolios and preview them.

One more welcome addition to the user interface is the cards' Show Info icon, which flips the card and shows the metadata associated with the object. This was also available in Acrobat 9 Pro under an obscure Properties menu item, but in Acrobat X Pro it also shows editable tags for easier indexing and searching. Note that some layouts do not show the Show Info icons when the card size is set to Small or Medium; you must right-click the card and select Show Information. This is analogous to the Properties menu item in Acrobat 9 Pro.

The new PDF Portfolio layouts are more dynamic and less grid-based than those in Acrobat 9 Pro. For example, the Freeform layout has scattered icons and a rotating Wave layout that's similar to Acrobat 9 Pro's Revolve layout but has a beautifully animated, though slow, interface. A major downside is that Acrobat 9 Pro can't read Acrobat X Pro's layouts -- it converts them to a simple default layout -- and Acrobat X Pro converts Acrobat 9 Pro layouts when the you save file.

Acrobat X Pro also supports custom layouts created with Creative Suite applications such as Flash Professional. I think this is what will make the PDF Portfolio format much more useful for creative professionals, who need full control over how their work is presented.

Acrobat X Pro includes a new layout element: Visual Themes, which control color, background images, card design, and more. Acrobat X Pro ships with five Visual Themes -- Clean, Spring, Tech Office, Modern and Translucent -- and can import also your or other people's custom themes.

Three more additions to the PDF Portfolio toolset allow for further customization (Figure 3). The Portfolio Properties panel lets you select a font and a card size. The panel changes to the Header Properties panel when you click the PDF Portfolio's header, at which point you can add text, images, and a background to the header bar. The new Background panel provides several settings for adding a background image or colored gradient. The Color Schemes are now called Color Palettes and have the same five points of customization as in Acrobat 9 Pro, but you can now save your custom palettes.

Figure 3. Acrobat X Pro provides greater control over a PDF Portfolio's design, making it more useful for designers who need to match a brand's look and feel. Click the image to open a larger version in a separate window.

Designers take portfolios very seriously and want to control the full experience, including color, typography and layout. The tools in Acrobat X Pro provide much greater control over all these elements of design. If Adobe provides a clear and easy way to produce Custom Themes and custom layouts with the Creative Suite, they will make the PDF Portfolio an obvious choice for multimedia portfolio design.

Simplifying the User Interface
Acrobat's user interface has been bloated for the past several years as the sheer number of buttons and features have overwhelmed the program's multiple toolbars. My Acrobat 9 Pro toolbar layout had a lot of visible toolbars that spanned multiple rows. It didn't work well on anything smaller than a 24" widescreen monitor.

Acrobat X introduces a radically simplified user interface (Figure 4). The items in the menu bar dropped from ten to five, andthe toolbar area that previously hosted multiple toolbars has been replaced by a Quick Tools bar with unlabeled, compact icons. The default set is small but useful, and you can customize it, too.

Figure 4. Even on a small screen, Acrobat X Pro's efficient user interface is a big improvement over the plethora of toolbars in previous versions.

Many menu and toolbar functions have migrated to new panes on the right side of the document window. There are three panes -- Tools, Comment, and Share -- and each pane has several panels that list most of Acrobat X Pro's functions. The Tools pane alone has almost 100 buttons in 12 panels. You can opt to allow multiple panels open at one time, but I prefer to let Acrobat X Pro close panels when not in use.

When I heard Adobe was revamping the Acrobat user interface, I hoped the new interface would align with the toolbars and panels that have been successful in the Creative Suite products. I was disappointed to learn that Acrobat X Pro was moving toward a list-based user interface stored in panes and panels.

However, I got used to the new user interface quickly and have come to appreciate it. The panel titles help me find tools faster, and the labeled icons in these panels are helpful. What I appreciate most is Acrobat X Pro's simplicity and emphasis on the content over the tools and buttons that surround it.

Another addition to the user experience is the new Read Mode, which optimizes the user interface for reading and presenting PDF files (Figure 5). When in Read Mode, Acrobat X Pro hides its user interface and replaces it with a transparent floating toolbar that appears at the bottom of the page when moused over.

Figure 5. Acrobat X Pro's new Read Mode emphasizes content and reduces navigation to a small heads-up display at the bottom of the page.

This minimalist approach is similar to what Mac OS X's Preview mode does. Read Mode is a welcome improvement but I wish it were available as an initial view mode in the Document Properties. The next best thing is to check "Hide tool bars" and "Hide window controls" in Document Properties, but this doesn't invoke the Read Mode toolbar.

Two More Additions
Acrobat X Pro has a few more notable new features. In an effort to improve security features, Acrobat X Pro now tests password strength and displays a meter to provide feedback to the user. (The Acrobat team did not make strong passwords a requirement, so even a weak password is accepted.) This addition will be more beneficial to government and corporate users than to creative professionals, who often distribute PDFs that are meant to be shared and used without restrictions or encryption.

The other feature, which will be of far more interest to creative professionals, is the inclusion of two ISO-certified PDF/X standards:

* PDF/X-4:2010, which is identical to the previous PDF/X-4:2008 except for small improvements to font and color definitions. This standard allows for all print-related color spaces, including RGB, and color management and transparency.
* PDF/X-5: 2010, which improves upon a previous PDF/X-5 published in 2008. PDF/X-5 extends PDF/X-4 and allows for external graphic content and profiles.

I use PDF/X-4 to certify the PDFs I sent to printers, and I don't expect to see a difference between the 2008 and 2010 specs. PDF/X-5 is interesting because linking to external graphics (as opposed to including them in the PDF) can reduce file size and the amount of data that's sent to printers. However, high-speed Internet bandwidth and CDs and DVDs may serve your distribution needs well without resorting to external assets.

Products in the Acrobat Family
Like Acrobat 9, the Acrobat X product family includes three versions: Standard ($299, upgrade $139), Pro ($449; upgrade $199), and the Acrobat X Suite ($1,199; upgrade $799). Acrobat X Pro has all the new features and is the version most creative professionals will be interested in.

Acrobat X Standard is similar to Acrobat X Pro but lacks several new and existing features, including:

* Flash Video, audio and other rich media insertion
* PDF Portfolio capabilities
* Actions and the Action Wizard
* PDF version comparison
* Ability to enable Reader users to digitally sign PDF forms
* All Adobe LiveCycle Designer ES2 features. Note that LiveCycle Designer ES2 is included only with the Windows version of Acrobat X Pro.
* Data collection from QuickBooks and export back to QuickBooks
* Redaction tools
* Accessibility validation
* Print production tools, including the Object Inspector, color conversion, preflight and validation with certified PDF standards (PDF/X-1a, PDF/X4, PDF/X-5, etc.)

The Acrobat X Suite includes six applications:

* Acrobat X Pro
* Adobe Presenter 7
* Adobe Captivate 5
* Adobe Photoshop CS5
* Adobe Media Encoder CS5
* LiveCycle Designer ES2

This suite is designed to give PDF creators the means to create a wide variety of content, such as images, video, forms, PowerPoint, and multimedia for online learning. Unfortunately, Presenter and LiveCycle Designer are for Windows only and so the full Acrobat X Suite is also for Windows only. Adobe has recently been releasing Windows products such as Captivate and Premiere Elements on the Mac platform, and I hope Acrobat users on the Mac will gain access to this suite in the coming years.

Acrobat.com Adds New Services, Integrates with Acrobat X Pro
Acrobat.com, Adobe's online document portal, has a new service that integrates with Acrobat X Pro. SendNow, which can store and distribute large files to other users, is available from within Acrobat X Pro through its Share pane. This service is comparable to YouSendIt, a Web-based digital file delivery service that has existed since 2003.

Another new Acrobat.com service, CreatePDF, is an online tool for converting files to PDF and is available to users of the free Reader X. Until now, Reader users have not been able to create PDFs so CreatePDF represents a handy addition to Reader's usefulness. However, you can generate only five PDFs with a free Acrobat.com account, and many applications can export to PDF, so I'm not sure how many Reader users will pay for the service after they use their five freebies.

The Bottom Line
I wouldn't call Acrobat X Pro an immediate must-buy for most creative pros. However, if your PDF workflow could be improved by automation, or you distribute digital portfolios, or you simply spend a lot of time in the app and are frustrated by the crowded interface of previous versions, Acrobat X Pro is worth the money.

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