The vast majority of the apps that make up Adobe’s newly announced Creative Suite 4 won’t hit retail shelves until later this month. But one piece of the CS4 is already widely available. Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro—which is included in the Design Premium, Design Standard, Web Premium, and Mast Collection suites—made its debut this summer.
Macworld has already reviewed the latest version of Acrobat. But with so much attention focused on Adobe’s creative offerings this past week, I thought it appropriate to look at the state of Acrobat and the PDF format.
It goes without saying that Acrobat PDFs are a staple of the print and design industries. Thinking back to the time before PDFs were widely accepted as a way to submit files, I can’t imagine how I managed to get through the day fighting file format, font, color, and file corruption issues. PDFs saved the day, and my sanity when I was working in pre-press.
Adobe has continued the PDF tradition of being the “universal file format” for many industries, not just content creation. But over the years the PDF format— and Acrobat itself—as gone through some major changes, some of which have been great and others that leave me wondering just where Acrobat is going.
New look, new performance
Acrobat 9’s interface is very Mac-like. The icons are intuitive, and the polished appearance of toolbars, windows and dialog boxes is a welcome addition for Mac users. Acrobat is quite user-friendly for both the newbie and experienced user. But let’s face it, you wouldn’t buy a muscle-car—no matter how great it looked—if it featured a lawn-mower engine under the hood.
Acrobat 9 offers a significant power-boost over previous versions. Not only does the application launch much faster, but working with longer, more complex documents is nearly fluid. Virtually everything you do in Acrobat is fast and stable. This is particularly welcome with the much-improved file pre-flighting, file commenting, and advanced editing features in version 9.
Because the print design industry typically deals with large file sizes, performance remains a key factor for any application. Acrobat 9 definitely performs up to my expectations.
Back in the day, Acrobat PDFs were the perfect universal file format. Once a file was saved as a PDF, you pretty much had the options of reading, writing, or printing it—and nothing else. Looking back, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Over the years, Adobe has added feature-after-feature to Acrobat to make it more flexible and more widely adopted.
OCR (optical character recognition) features were added a while back, and I consider them a hidden gem in Acrobat. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve saved by scanning a printed sheet of text and letting Acrobat convert the image to editable text. Acrobat 9 seems to work a little better than previous versions in this area, which is always welcome.
Basic commenting/annotation features were added back in version 6 of Acrobat. Great, I thought. I can add simple notes to the file before sending it off to clients. Each update to Acrobat since then has brought more advanced commenting features, along with the ability digitally sign and encrypt documents. Acrobat 9 changes little in this area - most likely because it already did a more than acceptable job to begin with.
Because Adobe added the ability to edit text in a PDF file, each version of Acrobat has added more flexible editing capabilities. Adobe didn’t stop with text either: you can also add, delete, and make basic edits to images as well. I’ve used the text editing features more than a few times myself—they work quite well on a properly made PDF. Prior to Acrobat 9, editing PDFs was a slow and frustrating process. Acrobat 9 improves in this area, making editing your PDFs about as easy as editing a text file.
You’ll find pre-flight capabilities in Acrobat’s Advanced menu, under the Print Production sub-menu. I’ve used the tools provided several times over the years, and while they won’t replace stand-alone pre-flighting applications, I found them to be more than adequate for most knowledgeable designers. But with PDF/X-1a being the industry standard for providing files, it’s largely unnecessary to pre-flight the files if you’ve used the X-1a presets in Adobe InDesign or other creative applications. Of course, there are more PDF formats that don’t offer the lock-down of features that X-1a does, and this is where the pre-flighting tools can be of real value.
Acrobat 9’s PDF Portfolio feature, with its collection of pre-made templates, allows you to drop documents of any kind into your PDF Portfolio and save them as a PDF document which anyone can view with Acrobat 9 Reader. You can see the perfect example in this PC World sample PDF Portfolio document. Spreadsheets, text documents, Flash files, other PDFs, and videos can all be embedded in the PDF without the reader having the application used to create those files available in order to view them. This is especially useful for those wanting to share videos with a large audience. No dedicated media player is necessary, which means you don’t need to worry about which codec to use when saving the video file.
Acrobat 9 also added collaboration features were added into Acrobat 9, though Macworld’s review suggests that they’re not all they’re cracked-up to be. I’ve not come across anyone in the design business who actually uses these features, but it’s nice to see the ability to do so if the situation calls for it.
The PDF format: then, now and the future
At one time, PDFs were the perfect way to transfer files with no fuss. Over the years, Adobe has used the PDF format to make Acrobat a full-blown content creation and editing application for print and the Web. The features mentioned above, and the countless others stuffed into Acrobat all appeal to specific groups of users. Because Acrobat is one of the few applications used by many industries, and the PDF format so widely-accepted, I’m afraid that the “feature creep” will continue well beyond Acrobat 9.
While more features isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I fear that the original intention of Acrobat, or at least the original value of a file you couldn’t mess with, is long gone. Acrobat PDFs are no longer the perfectly-simple file format you could count on to look exactly as you intended. Not only do you have create your PDFs using a format version that everyone can read (newer PDF formats don’t open well in older Reader programs, if at all), but unless you use Acrobat’s security features to prevent it, anyone can edit the file. The idea of having to distribute and keep track of passwords to open, print or edit a PDF file just doesn’t appeal to me.
Whether or not you like the new features constantly being added, or you long for the days of the simple file format of yesteryear, Acrobat and the PDF format is here to stay. The only question is: will it remain the simple universal file format it started out as?
[James Dempsey runs The Graphic Mac, which offers tips, tricks and opinion on a variety of design and Mac OS X topics.]