First Look: Acrobat 5

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Adobe thinks the future of publishing will involve people sending material to anyone, anywhere, using any medium. And it sees Acrobat -- the most popular application for producing Portable Document Format (PDF) files -- as a key part of the network publishing model.

Whether graphics and business professionals adopt that point of view won't be known for a while. But it's clear that with the latest version of Acrobat, Adobe has added a number of time-saving tools aimed at making it easier to share PDF files.

Adobe isn't shy about touting Acrobat 5 -- it calls the new release the "best way to share documents online." Mac users can be forgiven for being somewhat skeptical. After all, the previous release of Acrobat lacked feature parity; several features were in the Windows version of Acrobat 4 long before they hit the Mac platform.

Adobe hasn't made that mistake this time. Acrobat 5 features only one tool that's unique to Windows -- Convert to Adobe PDF, which works within Microsoft Office applications to automatically convert documents. That tool won't make it to the Mac because the Mac OS simply doesn't allow it, says Adobe Senior Product Manager Rick Armstrong.

Whether OS X will change that is unclear. Adobe is working on an OS X version of Acrobat but won't discuss details or commit to a release date.

Office Interface

The first thing you'll notice is Acrobat 5's new look -- it sports an interface that smacks of Microsoft Office. Adobe conducted market research of Acrobat's core audience of business and graphics professionals. "The bulk were comfortable with the Word user interface," Armstrong says. Still, longtime Acrobat users who steer clear of word processing or spreadsheet programs may need a short period to orient themselves to the new look.

Graphics Goodies

Graphics pros get their due with other changes. Previous versions of Acrobat flattened transparent objects when you converted page layout or illustration documents to PDF. Acrobat 5 now creates transparent objects in Adobe Illustrator 9.0 and Photoshop 6.0 that retain transparency as PDF files. You can even open the PDF files in Illustrator and edit the transparent objects.

Adobe engineers clearly spent a lot of time making it easier for you to reuse elements in PDF files -- a boon for graphics pros with material that appears in print, on the Web, or in other media. You can now export images from PDF files, saving them as TIFF, JPEG, or PNG files. What's more, Acrobat should give users an impressive level of control over the extraction; you can specify factors such as resolution and compression level.

The downside? Acrobat 5 doesn't extend this ability for vector images. To snag a vector image, you'll have to save out the entire PDF file as an EPS, then open the appropriate page in Illustrator. The process is possible, but that doesn't make it any less tedious.

Graphics pros get another long-awaited development with the Save To Rich Text Format (RTF) option. This feature preserves formatting such as type size and style. Other export options let you save PDF files as PostScript Levels 1, 2, or 3, and convert TrueType fonts to Type 1 format.

High-End Help

Several improvements in Acrobat 5.0 will please the prepress crowd. You can preview overprints on screen or on a printout, print ICC colors as device colors, and emit halftones. Because Acrobat 5.0 now uses the Adobe Color Engine -- the same color-management technology in Photoshop 6 and Illustrator 9 -- the applications should handle CMYK and RGB color in the same way.

Sharing Is Good

Commenting tools, such as notes, have been a part of Acrobat for a while, but version 5 takes these capabilities to a new level. You can post PDF files, such as a design in progress or a comp for a client, to a local network server or to the Internet. Team members can then view the file in Web browsers, simultaneously writing notes and striking through and highlighting text.

However, this feature requires a WebDistributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) network server for people outside your network to participate in the simultaneous commenting and to store the comments for later reference.

Acrobat 5 offers another way to store your work with an enhanced Web Capture command, which converts one Web page or a complete site to PDF files. Web Capture retains all links and -- in a new twist to Acrobat 5 -- also retains Cascading Style Sheets and JavaScript. Unfortunately, GIF animations, Flash, and DHTML do not translate. For example, only one frame of a GIF animation appears in the PDF file.

Extend Acrobat

The Extended Markup Language (XML) is a hot buzz phrase in Web-development circles, and Adobe is determined that Acrobat won't be left behind. Version 5 includes built-in support for XML. The latest version recognizes and saves out XML metadata and structure. Because of the scarcity of programs that write XML, the support probably won't affect your workflow that much at this point. But that could change with future development by heavy hitters such as Quark and Adobe.

Batch It Up

Power users pressed for time will appreciate Acrobat's new batch-processing features. Version 5 includes several predefined actions, such as Remove File Attachments and Save All As RTF. If you're well-versed in JavaScript, you can even write your own actions.

You can combine batch processing with the new PDF Consultant tool to check and repair PDF files. Adobe appears to have designed the tool to strip out unnecessary elements, thus minimizing a PDF's file size. For instance, the Optimize Space option deletes invalid bookmarks and links.

System Requirements and Ship Dates

Acrobat runs on Mac OS 8.6 and higher, although some Web capabilities aren't supported on 8.6, Adobe's Armstrong says. The product will ship in early April, with an estimated street price of $249. Existing users can upgrade for $99.

As for an Acrobat Reader update, Adobe plans to make Acrobat 5 Reader available for download on April 17.

The new tool bars in Acrobat 5 are at the top of this screenshot. Users of previous versions of Acrobat may be surprised by their resemblance to Microsoft Office. Note also that the tabs in the left-hand windows are now sideways.Acrobat 5 has stronger reviewing tools than ever before. A workgroup can simultaneously comment on a PDF file and see other group members' comments, as long as you're on a network server or a WebDAV server.
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