After slogging away for several years, Adobe Acrobat is now the undisputed standard for electronic document production, whether on the Web, via CD-ROM, or in print publishing. Version 4.0’s new interface masks a variety of small and moderate improvements. Few of the changes will make you say “Wow!” but some will make your life a little easier.
A Few Big Changes
The biggest change is under the skin: Acrobat 4.0 uses a new version of the Portable Document Format (PDF) that’s based on the PostScript 3 language. This will have little effect on most users, but it should be a boon in prepress operations as PostScript 3 output devices come to be used more widely. PostScript 3 makes color output more predictable, speeds printing of some graphics formats, and offers better handling of gradients than previous versions.
The most visible effect of the new PostScript 3 engine is the new Prepress Options dialog box, which lets you implement color trapping when producing film. You can also preserve the original CMYK values in a PDF file, bypassing any modifications made by color-management software installed in your system.
Experienced users will also see a revised interface that alters most menus and keyboard shortcuts, part of Adobe’s long-standing effort to impose a similar look-and-feel in each of its programs. Expect to lose time getting used to the new design, although you’ll adapt quickly if you frequently use other Adobe software. To this reviewer, the new interface reflects an Adobe conceit more than a user need. It makes sense for Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to have similar interfaces, but this is less true of products such as PageMaker, Acrobat, and the forthcoming InDesign; the conventions that make sense in graphics programs don’t always work well in these latter packages.
Fortunately, Acrobat’s revised interface doesn’t usually get in the way. Our biggest problem was figuring out how to create thumbnail previews of images, which in Acrobat 3 was an option in the main menu. In version 4.0, you access the feature through an easily overlooked palette menu in the Thumbnails pane or by control-clicking on the same pane. Control-clicking is an action few Mac users have adopted, unlike right-click-savvy Windows users.
Some features have been renamed but are otherwise the same: Notes are now
, and the Scan OCR function, for converting scanned documents to editable text files, is now
. Acrobat Exchange, the core application in the package, is now simply Acrobat. The other key applications are Acrobat Distiller, for converting PostScript files to PDF, and Acrobat Reader, for viewing PDF files.
Beyond these changes, Acrobat 4.0 feels like a minor upgrade. Sure, there are many nice touches, but you won’t find any “Wow, I’ve gotta have it” additions. However, several moderate enhancements stand out.
One of the most powerful features of Acrobat technology is its ability to simulate the appearance of fonts that are not installed in your system. If the PDF document includes Gill Sans but that font is not on your Mac, Acrobat can still display a reasonably good approximation. The new Use Local Fonts command lets you choose whether Acrobat 4.0 displays a document with the fonts installed in your system or with the simulations that others will see. In previous versions of Acrobat, you had to open the PDF file on a system without the original fonts to see how the simulations would look.
Acrobat Distiller 4.0 also makes it easier to create PDF files for specific purposes by adding canned settings optimized for screen display, printer output, and prepress output. You simply pick the setting from a pop-up menu, and the program generates a PDF file with the appropriate options. You can also create your own settings and associate them with a folder so any documents dropped in automatically convert to PDF files. That’s handy.
When editing text, you can now change the font and type size, although you’re still limited to working on one line of text at a time. You can also edit embedded bitmap and EPS files by double-clicking on them; Acrobat launches an appropriate program such as Photoshop or Illustrator if you have it on your Mac.
Also handy is the new Filter Manager, which finds all annotations and editing marks from one or more selected users. It’s a great tool if you have many people annotating your PDF files. The new version also lets you print annotations through an option in the Print dialog box, a function we’ve long wished for.
If you want to place your PDF files on the Web, Acrobat 4.0 lets you set a base URL, a useful feature if most of your links from a document are to a single site. For example, if you use www.macworld.com as your base URL, then you can enter /1999/08/reviews/ for a link to August 1999 reviews, rather than the whole URL, www.macworld.com/1999/08/reviews/.
If you create a lot of forms, a new forms grid helps you align the various fields to make data entry easier. The new Go Back Doc and Go Forward Doc commands are nice touches, letting you move among documents in the same way you move from page to page.
A Few Flaws
Despite the improvements, there are some flaws. For example, the ability to renumber pages would seem handy when you’re merging several PDF documents. Unfortunately, these page numbers display only within the Thumbnails view, not on the actual pages, so they’re not very useful for the recipient.
You can also use non-Arabic numeralssuch as i, ii, and iiito number pages in the table of contents or in other front or back material. However, you cannot print pages numbered in this manner unless you print the entire document. For example, if the document begins with page i, followed by page 1, you cannot print just the first page. If you use the Print dialog box to print page 1, Acrobat prints the page numbered 1, not the first page of the document. This is a serious oversight.
Acrobat’s Fit Text To Selection option, a good idea introduced in Acrobat 3.0, still works awkwardly. This feature squeezes or stretches revised text to fill the space the original text occupied. But you must select this option before entering textthere’s no way to use it once you’ve started typing, even if you’re replacing an entire line.
The Windows Advantage
The biggest flaw in Acrobat 4.0 is what’s lacking: the Windows version includes several useful features that aren’t currently available for the Mac, including the ability to import Web pages, add secure digital signatures, and extract formatted text and tables. Adobe says it will eventually offer these features to Mac users as free plug-ins, most likely beginning with the Web-capture utility. The same thing happened with Acrobat 3.0, and it took a year in some cases for Mac users to get feature parity. The Mac is still the preferred environment for creative work, so it should be the preeminent platform for Acrobat.
Fortunately, if you use the PC-only digital-signature featurethe only one that affects PDF files internallyyou won’t lose the signature if you later modify the PDF file with the Mac version of Acrobat. You’ll even get a note added to the Signatures pane that an unidentified person (the Mac user) has modified the file.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Acrobat is priced to sell: $249 for a new copy and $99 for an upgrade. That will make it easy for most users to consider an upgrade, even given the moderate enhancements. If you’re a Web, CD-ROM, or print publisher using Acrobat files, there’s no compelling reason not to upgrade. But if you’re happy with Acrobat 3.0, there’s little reason to jump quickly to version 4.0, at least not until the Mac version adds what Windows users are getting. Take your time, since the gratification in making the switch is not tremendous.