Provides: A very complete PDF creation package (and a lot more)
Requirements: Mac OS X v10.4.3 or later. Acrobat 8 is Universal
Retail Price: $449 ($159 upgrade)
Many years ago, you purchased Acrobat so you could create your own PDF documents. For a number of versions now, Acrobat has been so much more than "just a PDF creator" that it's hard to pin down what it is and/or should be called. I think that Acrobat 8 could be called Office 8, but that would be ignoring all of the print features built into Acrobat. And if you called it Print 8, you'd be ignoring all of the legal features within Acrobat. If you called it Legal 8, you'd be ignoring the document reviewing features, etc. But despite all of what Acrobat 8 Professional is called, the obvious question is "does Acrobat 8 provides what you don't have in Acrobat 7?" Acrobat 8 has some very nifty and great features, and there is a lot that Acrobat 8 offers if you can get past the new user interface...which is dreadful.
There are times where there seems to be change for change's sake. I am sure there are (were) reasons for the UI changes in Acrobat, but I'm not all that certain I understand them. For me, none of the changes are an improvement; some are at best a sidestep, and some of them are simply a major step backward.
Changes to the UI
When you first start up Acrobat 8, you meet the new "Getting Started" window, as seen below. (The regular size of this window is 835 pixels wide, so it should fit just fine in a screen set to 1024 pixel wide resolution. However, to fit in this review, I've decreased the size down to 600 pixels wide. There are several other screen shots where I've had to decrease the dimensions to fit within this review.)
The intent with the Getting Started window is to remind you of all the potential "things" you can do with Acrobat, or to give you wizards to guide you through the process. If you close this and want it back, you can find it in the Help menu (more on that later).
The biggest change can be seen when you dismiss this window and look at the screen. In the image below, on the top of the image, is a screen shot from Acrobat 7. The lower part is a screen shot from Acrobat 8. Notice the difference?
Yup, all of the icons and tools that seemed to fill up our screen real estate are now gone. Now, all you see are the menus. While this would normally have elicited bravos and cheers from many users far and wide, alas, these buttons have not gone away, they have just "moved."
To see where they've moved, let me again pass the view of how a document used to appear in Acrobat 7, as seen below. Note how the document was a fairly self-contained unit with tags on the side for the bookmarks, pages, attachments, etc., and on the bottom are the navigational controls along with viewing options. These included options for viewing one page-at-a-time viewing, scrolling, 4-by viewing, or facing page viewing. If you were running out of space, you could also click on the second from left icon on the bottom left that removed all of the screen clutter except the menus.
So, yes the buttons have moved, but they now moved onto each document. As seen below, each document carries all accessible tools and buttons. Note that across the top are eight icons. These duplicate the eight options provided in the "Getting Started" window. So, if you missed the option to export when you started Acrobat, you have another chance as soon as any document is opened. For some of these options, it kind of makes sense, but for others, well, not so much. For example, why have options to create a PDF when you are looking at a PDF? On the other hand, options to encrypt the document you are looking at does make a lot of sense. You can turn off each of the eight items, but you can only do this one-by-one. If you turn off all eight you will gain some vertical screen space. The good news is that you can get them all back in one step, but to remove them, alas, only one at a time.
The various tools show up below the Getting Started eight, and by right/Control-clicking you can open or close them. As you can see below, there are a lot of tool sets. When you open each tool set, it shows up as a floating palette. These can be dragged into the Tool region and will snap into place, or they can be left floating.
So let's say you went crazy and opened every tool set and placed them into the Tool region. Now you have a choice, do you want to look at tools or the document.
The good or bad news is that once you've created a Tool-heavy document, other documents you subsequently open will have the same set of tools. Look at the image below and try to figure out how you will work on multiple documents at one time.
And just in case you thought this was all there was, no, there's more. On the very bottom of the Toolbar's Contextual menu is an option of More Tools. This brings up a new window with tools that were not previously viewable in any given set but can be turned on. Notice that the controls on my tools above only display the "Next" and "Previous" pages, but do not show the "First" and "Last" page. That's because the default have those options turned off. As you can see, this window has a long list of selections, but, unfortunately, Adobe did not provide a resize option on the window to extend the length. A number of windows in Acrobat cannot be resized.
Admittedly, no one is likely to place every tool available on their document, but I did this to make two points. The first is that placing the tools on the documents removes screen real estateespecially as you have multiple windows open. The other issue is that you cannot save work sets. That is, you cannot create an "Editing" set, or a "Reviewing" set, or any other kind of set that can be recreated by selecting from a Saved Workspace like you can in all other of the Adobe programs.
The only good aspect about this system I can figure out is that if you have a multiple monitor system, all of the tools you may want will always be with the document. But, for the vast majority of computer users who are limited to one monitor, this has to be one of the worst "improvements" I've ever seen.
The biggest value to new MacTel owners is MacTel performance. From general operations to Distiller operations, you will see the speed.
[What may slow you down is finding Distiller. In Acrobat 7, one could find it under the Advanced menu. It still is, but now Distiller is hidden in a second tier under Advanced -> Print Production -> Distiller. Alas, another change for change's sake.]
Creating a Blank Page
This may seem like a strange "cool new feature," but trust me, it's pretty nifty. If you've ever compiled a bunch of PDF pages together and suddenly realized that a new section was going to start on an "even" page (and it should be odd) or you wanted padding between sections, what you had to do in the past was to keep a blank page turned into a PDF available on your computer to add to your compiled document as needed. Now, you can add these blank pages as needed on the fly. The only problem with this feature is how limited it is in implementation. To create a blank page, you go to File -> Create PDF -> From Blank Page. This will bring up a blank page (with a cursor that lets you start typing within (?)). At this point, if you want to (for example) place a blank page to force a chapter to start on an odd page, you need to save the blank page on your computer and then import the page into your document. It's a pity that there isn't an option to add a blank page directly in the Import dialog box.
And speaking of combining files...
Similar to Acrobat 7's "Attach a File," the Combine Files lets you place together any type of file that can be opened in Acrobat. This includes JPEG, GIF, and TIFF images, html pages (images and web pages are converted into PDFs on the fly), and other PDF documents. This means you cannot add Photoshop images, QuickTime movies or Windows Media, or any other type of object that can't be opened in Acrobat.
As seen below, one of the changes from Acrobat 7 is that you now can select separate pages from other documents (you can see a large thumbnail of any document and can select non-sequential pages (e.g., 3, 4, 6-10)) and change the order of any of the documents. (You cannot change the order of pages within the same document.) The other difference from what was available in Acrobat 7 is that previously you combined all of the documents into one document. Now, you also have the option to have each document as sort of a "chapter" in a "Package." The other advantage of not placing the items into one document is that this way each document can save any security settings it originally had. This means you can send both secure and non-secure documents together in a Package with no concerns about the wrong eyes observing any individual documents.
Once the package is opened, you can display the various documents on the left hand side or the top, or you can remove the list from sight. Each of these documents is a separate, but collected item.
As much of a nightmare the UI is, there are some wonderful improvements to Acrobat. For me, the biggest is the self-Form creation. In the past, if you wanted to create a form (and you are on a Mac so you do not have access to Designer), you'd create the original document in Word, InDesign or whatever, turn it into a PDF, and then, using the Form tools, you'd marquee out each field, name the field, identify what kind of field it is, the font, font size, etc. This was a long and tedious process. Now, if you do a good job in setup and design, most of the form creation is almost completely automated.
Consider the following potential form below and notice how I laid out the items for which I wanted. This was done on the fly in Word and converted into a PDF.
I then selected "Run Form Fields Recognition" from the Forms menu. This takes literally seconds to complete. On the right, you see your completed fields (I've turned on "Highlight Fields"), and on the left you see the Recognition Report data which lists the fields it detected, some general information, and hints on how to repair (if necessary). What this clearly shows is that how you set up and prepare your fields will considerably change the quality of your results. What Acrobat is looking for is clearly definable regions that will be one field. Thus, where I placed a long line and underneath told the user to place "name (first last)," was viewed by Acrobat to be only one field and Acrobat chose to name it "last name." However, when I divided up the line and placed the appropriate name under each part, Acrobat correctly determined the field and the name for each.
The one area where Acrobat is so flummoxed as to not even try to guess is wherever there is a check box or radio button. These have to be manually placed and can be done so by bringing up the Form Tool Bar. This can either be floating (as it is in the screen shot above), or placed in the infamous Tool Bars above each document.
Unfortunately, the placement of these extra fields is still somewhat clumsy and awkward. There is no way I could find how to set any box to be "x" inch wide and "y" inch tall or any other mechanism to accurately fine-tune the size of any box beyond eyeballing it. There is a contextual menu option available to align selected items.
Also, although you can Shift-click each field and do global changes of font or size decisions, there doesn't seem to be any way to globally set this ahead of time. Despite these limitations, the new Form Creation features are just simply wonderful.
Now, saving probably the best for last, before your Save and close a PDF form, go to the Advanced menu and select: Enable Usage Rights in Adobe Reader. That will bring up the following window, and it is pretty self-explanatory.
When sending PDF forms to those who do not have the full Acrobat program, they can now do a "Save As..." and save the document with the filled-in fields intact. They can also do a "Save text" operation so that just the filled in data is saved in a text document.
If there was any one thing that would make me put up with the dreadful UI, this whole Form creation feature is it.
For other people, there are more wonderful things:
Tools for Printers
New in Acrobat 8 is JDL, or Job Definition Format. This allows someone who knows the full printing process to define all of the rules for any given printing job so that someone less familiar with the process can get successful print results. (Obviously the big issue here is that how will this person learn how to do print processes correctly so they can perform the job when it's "their" turn. But I guess that's another issue.
One big loss in Acrobat 8 is the placement of the first page when looking at the facing pages view of long documents. With Acrobat 7 (and earlier), when you opened a long document in facing page view, the first page was properly shown on the right site. Now, the first page is shown on the left side and does not give the proper perspective as to how the document will print nor visually show which will be the odd (or even) pages. This is very, very bad. The image below shows an Acrobat 7 view on the left and Acrobat 8's view on the right.
Commenting and Mark Up
As can be seen in the "Enable Rights..." image above, one of the other new tools to the Free Acrobat Reader is that now you can send documents out to folks without the full Acrobat program for edits and comments. Now Acrobat Reader can make editorial comments and suggestions, do a "Save As...," and send their information to you. Note also that Acrobat Reader can now provide a digital signature.
One other new feature with Commenting and Mark Up is the ability to do this either across a network on from the web. This allows all participants to view and follow all comments simply by updating their document view as opposed to only seeing those comments on the document that were made prior to their seeing the document. Unfortunately, try as I might, I was unable to get this to work. I cannot necessarily blame Adobe for this as I do not have a very strong network background. It can be stated that they did not explain this adequately for those who do not have a strong network background. This might work great, I do not know.
Redacting is the process of hiding and/or removing text from sight. It is done when you do not want the recipient of a document to see specific sections of text. Before computers this was done with an Exacto knife. Now, in Acrobat, there is a formal Redaction tool.
As seen below, Redaction is a multistep process. First you select the text you want to Redact, and then, when you are ready, you redact the text. You can either select the text manually or you can use standard search functions. You have control as to whether any and/or all of the items from a search will be redacted. And yes, there is a toolbar with the Redaction tools that you can add to your toolbar set or just let float on your screen.
What once was MacroMedia Breeze is now known as Acrobat Connect, also seen in Acrobat as "Start Meeting Now." Starting at at $39 per month (or $395 per year starting in January 2007), you can host a meeting from your computer. Using Flash (the big carrot in the MacroMedia acquisition last year) as the driving mechanism, users should have no problem accessing Acrobat Connect since Flash is so predominant on so many computers. Others can log into the meeting and can hear your voice (if you have the ConnectPro Service, others will have to fall back on their telephone to listen) and watch you demonstrate activities on you computer as well as watch PowerPoint/Keynote presentations and ask questions in "iChat" like forums. This will be great news for many businesses who will find the value to not be traveling as much for meetings. Even small firms will find value. The big losers here are the small firms or private individuals who would really like to run an Acrobat Connect event 2-3 times per year. Unfortunately as there is no opportunity to purchase a limited amount of time as you need it, they will be left out. I've taken part in several of these meetings so far, and they are "almost" as good as being there.
To give you a better idea of how expansive Acrobat 8 Professional is, consider the Preferences as seen below (this image was decreased from about 750 pixels wide down to 600 to fit in this review).
Note how there wasn't room for all of the options, I Photoshopped the full list onto one image. Like too many other Acrobat windows, this also cannot be resized to accommodate all of the options.
Export to Word
Export to Word is not new, and I'm only mentioning it because it's still limited. While this does allow you to obtain fully editable text, if you do implement this feature, plan on an extensive amount of reformatting if necessary as seen below.
While using Acrobat 8, one will often find "help" and "guidance" windows popping up periodically. All of them have "Do Not Show Again" checkboxes, so if you don't need the guidance you can turn them off (individually), or if you are performing an action that you know you will not be doing often, and found the assistance helpful, you can just click the OK button so the next time you perform that action you will get the same assistance.
Most of these warnings and comments are helpful, but occasionally they direct you to do something where don't know how to do that action. For this, you might find using the online Help useful. Another change from Acrobat 7 is that there is now a formal Help Program (Adobe Help Viewer) as opposed to the PDF Help used previously. Like most on-line help from Adobe, there are good tidbits of information, but it's often difficult to find more than just sentences of information that tends to fall down when you are looking for full processes. Third party books will not be threatened by this help system.
The Big Picture
For those who are not sure they need the full power of Acrobat 8, there are different versions of the program. These include not only Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional (the subject of this review), but also Adobe Acrobat 3D Version 8, Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard, and Adobe Acrobat 8 Elements (not to mention the free Adobe Acrobat Reader). For a side by side comparison of all versions of Acrobat, see the Product Comparison, here.
Acrobat has always been the special kid in Adobe's product line. From the recently released beta of Photoshop CS3, we can see yet another change in Adobe palettes and workspaces that Acrobat would be wise to follow. But Acrobat is always on its own world and own schedule. To quote Mel Brooks, "It's good to be King."
There are some very good to excellent feature updates in Acrobat 8, but they are shrouded by an interface that gets in the way more than it welcomes you in. Most of the direction of the UI seems to be giving the PC user an easier experience as opposed to giving everyone a helpful experience.
If you need an Intel-Universal program, or if you need to do forms or redaction, send compilation of documents to others, or set up more functional documents for those using Acrobat Reader, or if you need to set up meetings, Acrobat 8 is a wonderful and worthy update. If none of these features fill you with lust, you are probably better off to stay with the better (and I do not mean good) interface of Acrobat 7.
Considering that much of what Acrobat 8 has to offer is aimed to the corporate user, and the corporate user generally uses PCs (and the minimum configuration for PCs is Windows XP) there are going to be some frustrated corporations out there. Maybe it's time for these corporations to get Macs?
___________ Gary Coyne has been a scientific glassblower for over 30 years. He's been using Macs since 1985 (his first was a fat Mac) and has been writing reviews of Mac software and hardware since 1995.
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