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AECbytes Product Review (February 8, 2007)

Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional

Product Summary

Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional is the new version of Adobe's application for creating, managing, reviewing, and sharing documents in the Adobe PDF format, which also includes specialized features for creative and engineering professionals.

Pros: New polished user interface with more screen real estate available for the document area; expanded set of PDF creation options, including a new "blank page" authoring interface for creating new PDF files directly within Acrobat; ability to assemble a diverse array of documents into a PDF package instead of combining them into a single PDF file; new "shared review" capability stores comments in a central location, increasing the efficiency of the review process; one-click Acrobat Connect launch allows the collaboration to easily extend to real-time, interactive web conferencing; several CAD-specific enhancements including batch conversion capability from within AutoCAD, vastly improved conversion speeds, reduced file sizes, and commenting and markup enhancements.

Cons: No settings or controls for overriding the individual page setups when an AutoCAD document set is being batch processed, making the setup very tedious for a large project set if uniformity in output is required; no direct support for the lines merge feature that makes overlapping colors slightly transparent to maintain drawing fidelity; geared to work with drawings rather than models in AEC, so could lose ground once the industry has fully transitioned to model-based processes.

Price: $449 for the full version; $159 for upgrade from earlier versions of Acrobat.

A lot has been happening for Adobe in relation to its Acrobat product line recently. To start with, in November Adobe released Version 8 of Acrobat Professional, Acrobat Standard, and the free Adobe Reader. New versions of the other Acrobat products, Acrobat Elements and Acrobat 3D, are expected to be released soon. At the same time, Adobe expanded the Acrobat family to include two new web conferencing and collaboration solutions, Acrobat Connect and Acrobat Connect Professional, which are based on the Breeze product that came with its acquisition of Macromedia in 2005.

Subsequently in January, Adobe and the Nemetschek Group—which was already in the limelight from its recent acquisition of Graphisoft—announced a strategic partnership that involves the integration of Adobe PDF creation capabilities directly into its various software applications. This integration has already been completed for AllPlan, is underway for VectorWorks (see the recent AECbytes Newsletter #29), and will likely be initiated for ArchiCAD once the Graphisoft acquisition has been completed. With Bentley already committed to the PDF file format for electronic publishing and collaboration (see AECbytes Newsletter #20 on the BE 2005 conference), that makes two of the top three AEC technology vendors solidly behind PDF, posing a significant challenge to Autodesk's competing DWF format (see AECbytes Newsletter #24 on Autodesk University 2005).

And finally, Adobe just announced last week that it intends to release the full PDF specification to AIIM, the Enterprise Content Management Association, for the purpose of publication by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). While PDF has already become the de facto standard for document exchange, this move would make it a more formal and fully open standard and serve to further expand its use, cement its leading position for electronic publishing, and counteract a potential threat from Microsoft's new XPS file format.

Against the backdrop of all these interesting developments, let's take a detailed look to find out what benefits the new version of Acrobat Professional has to offer to professionals working in the AEC industry. We will first explore the general enhancements relevant to any user, and then move on to look at the more CAD-specific functionality improvements. We will also briefly see how Acrobat 8 integrates with the new Acrobat Connect product line to facilitate document sharing and real-time collaboration.

General Enhancements

Acrobat 8 Professional sports a sleek new user interface that has been inspired by the Macromedia applications, now part of Adobe's product portfolio. Most of the screen real estate is now devoted to the work area displaying the PDF document, and the navigation pane displaying different navigation panels such as Bookmarks, Pages, Layers, etc., is closed by default (see Figure 1). Buttons located on the left side of the work area provide easy access to the corresponding navigation panels, enabling them to be opened only when required. The toolbars are customizable, allowing the user to eliminate clutter by hiding tools that are not frequently used. A new Getting Started window is designed to make the application easier to learn and use. Launched automatically at start-up, it provides a visual overview of the main features and includes click links to start desired tasks or learn more about them (see Figure 2).


Figure 1. The new interface of Acrobat 8 Professional is visually pleasing and devotes most of the screen real estate to the document area.

 


Figure 2. The new Getting Started window directs users to the most frequently used tasks and help sections. The Create PDF section of the Getting started interface is also shown.

For creating PDF files, Acrobat 8 Professional now includes a "blank page" authoring interface with basic formatting options to directly create new PDF files within the application itself—very useful, for example, in creating a cover sheet or divider pages in a long document. This is in addition to the other direct PDF creation options it provides, including from a scanned document, clipboard image, or web page, as well as from a wide variety of authoring applications including all the Microsoft Office applications, Microsoft Project, Microsoft Access, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Visio, Lotus Notes, and AutoCAD. (The PDF creation capability from AutoCAD will be discussed in more detail in the next section.) For applications that are not directly supported with a PDF creation button, the Print command can be used with the Adobe PDF printer to convert a file to the PDF format.

For combining multiple PDF files, there are now two options: they can be merged into a single sequentially numbered PDF file; or they can be assembled into one PDF package, which retains their individual pagination, signatures, security settings, and so on (see Figure 3). The second option is particularly useful for AEC users, as it allows them to collate the varied documents, drawings, spreadsheets, and reports related to a project into one package while still retaining their separate identity and format. You can add to or delete PDF files from a package at any time. A new Examine Document feature allows content such as hidden text, metadata, comments, attachments, and other information to be detected and removed from a PDF document. Also, existing headers, footers, watermarks, and backgrounds can be removed or updated. The search capability has been enhanced by allowing both simple and advanced searches to be conducted from the same interface. It is also possible to embed a search index of words in a PDF document to make subsequent searches faster for anyone using that document.


Figure 3. Multiple PDF files can now be assembled into a PDF package instead of being merged into a single PDF document. The PDF package that was created is also shown.

Document review is one of Acrobat's key tasks, and it has been the focus of continued development for several releases. Recall from my earlier reviews that Acrobat 6 Professional had introduced an expanded set of features for initiating, participating in, and tracking PDF document reviews, and in Acrobat 7, the reviewing capabilities were extended even to those who had only the free Adobe Reader 7, allowing a wider variety of people to fully participate in a review. Acrobat 8 further expands the review capability with the concept of a "shared review," where comments added to an Adobe PDF document are automatically stored on a file server, Web server, network directory, or any other central server or workspace used by an organization. This allows reviewers to view and respond to comments as soon as they become available, reducing redundancies and speeding up the process. Also new to Acrobat 8 is a Review Tracker, which provides an interface for managing all active reviews, and includes details such as when a document was sent for review, the list of invited reviewers, the comments they submitted, and so on.

Acrobat 8 Professional includes a number of enhancements for the task of data collection using Adobe PDF forms, including a wizard for creating forms from templates, existing electronic documents, paper forms, or spreadsheet data; automatic recognition of form fields on non-interactive PDF documents and converting them to interactive fields that can be filled electronically; the ability to customize forms with logos and backgrounds; the ability to enable Adobe Reader 8 users to electronically fill out, digitally sign, and locally save an electronic form and its data; a Form Tracker for collecting, tracking, and reviewing the data collected with forms; and the ability to aggregate returned forms automatically into a PDF package and export the data to a spreadsheet. Enhancements related to document security and access control include the ability to enable Adobe Reader 8 users to add a digital signature to a document and the setting up of document permissions to help restrict who can print, save, copy, or modify a document. Additional security and access options continue to be offered though integration with Adobe LiveCycle Policy Server, which allows users to change permissions, access, and security settings of Adobe PDF documents, as well as Microsoft Word and Excel files, even after those documents have been distributed. While this is designed for enterprises to allow them to create server-managed document security policies, Adobe recently also introduced a web-based service called Adobe Document Center that provides a similar functionality to individual users and small businesses.

CAD-Specific Enhancements

Most of the AEC-specific enhancements in Acrobat 8 Professional are related to improvements in PDF creation from AutoCAD, which has been the focus of development in several releases. Acrobat 6 Professional had introduced the one-button PDF creation from AutoCAD, along with searchable text in the PDF and the ability to preserve layers. Acrobat 7 Professional expanded this functionality with the ability to publish multiple layouts in AutoCAD as a multi-page PDF, the automatic embedding of the scale from each viewport when converting the file, and the ability to export PDF comments and markups back into the original authoring AutoCAD file. Acrobat 8 Professional takes AutoCAD integration a step further by addressing a critical limitation I had pointed out in my review of Acrobat 7 Professional—the lack of support for batch processing AutoCAD files that is important for executing large production jobs. The installation of Acrobat 8 Professional now adds a Batch Conversion command to the Adobe PDF menu in AutoCAD. Selecting this opens up the interface shown in Figure 4, allowing you to select the DWG files that need to be converted. You can restrict the conversion only to specific layouts or the model space in the files, if necessary. The list of selected files, models, and layouts can be saved for future conversions. Additional options include the ability to specify if layers should be included, whether a single PDF should be created for each drawing or for each layout, the file destination options, the sequence in which the conversion will happen, and access to the Settings dialog to specify other PDF options related to scale, bookmarks, links, and so on (see Figure 4).


Figure 4. The new Batch Conversion utility that Acrobat 8 Professional enables within AutoCAD, and the associated Settings dialog.

While the new Batch Conversion functionality will be welcomed by those using Acrobat to generate PDFs from AutoCAD, it still falls short of the batch conversion capabilities of CAD-specific PDF applications such as AcroPlot Pro, described briefly in my recent article on the products exhibited at Autodesk University 2006. The most critical limitation is that there are no settings or controls for overriding the individual page setups in Acrobat 8 when a document set is being batch processed. So, for example, if the different layouts and models have different plot styles tables associated with them, there is no way to override them and apply a single plot style table—color, monochrome, grayscale, etc.—to the entire set for a uniform appearance. The user has to ensure that all the individual files, layouts, and models have the desired page setups in advance, which would be a very tedious process for a large project set. If the document set needs to be republished with only a slight change in page setup, the user would again have to painstakingly make that change for every individual file. I also noticed that if the file that is currently open in AutoCAD is included in the Batch Conversion list, all the other files in the list are also opened if you span them out to see the layouts they contain, slowing down the file selection process. Hopefully, these limitations can be addressed in a future release.

In addition to the new batch conversion capability, the conversion of AutoCAD files to Adobe PDF using Acrobat 8 Professional is significantly faster and with smaller file sizes compared to the previous versions. There is also a new direct DWG conversion capability, which allows a DWG file to be converted to Adobe PDF even if AutoCAD is not installed—the user simply has to drag and drop the DWG onto Acrobat 8 Professional for the conversion to happen. However, it is not possible to choose specific layouts or the model in this kind of conversion—the resulting PDF will include all the layouts and the model. The user also cannot make any changes to the plot styles, paper size, etc., and has to stick with the page settings of the AutoCAD file as it was created.

Acrobat 8 Professional includes some drawing-related commenting and markup enhancements as well. Callouts are easier to position as the Callout tool leader line rotates automatically after the anchor point is set, and the text box is automatically resized to accommodate the text that is input. Selected comments are highlighted for easier visibility when zoomed out. Stamps placed in Acrobat can now be easily rotated. On the measuring front, the separate Dimension tool that was introduced in Acrobat 7 has been merged into the main Distance tool to avoid confusion. The Distance tool can now be used to place dimensions on the PDF by selecting the Measurement Markup option, as shown in Figure 5. You can also associate a label with the markup, which will be displayed along with the dimension. Measurements from the drawing can be obtained without placing dimension markups by simply deactivating the Measurement Markup option for the Distance tool. Measurements have been enhanced by automatic snapping to lines and intersections; also, they are recalculated if the start or end point is moved.


Figure 5. Using the Distance tool for placing a dimension, along with an associated label, on a drawing.

Integration with Acrobat Connect

Acrobat Connect, formerly known as Macromedia Breeze, is a web conferencing and collaboration solution built on Macromedia's Flash technology. Anyone with a Flash software-enabled web browser can join a Connect web meeting, without having to download and install software. There are two versions of Acrobat Connect. The basic version is a hosted service that provides users with essential collaboration tools, such as screen sharing, whiteboarding, chat, video conferencing, and audio conferencing (see Figure 6). The advanced version, Acrobat Connect Professional, is designed to provide power users and larger organizations with a full-featured web conferencing solution, including online meetings with multiple presenters, online events, and live virtual classrooms.


Figure 6. Adobe's new web conferencing and collaboration solution, Acrobat Connect. (Courtesy: Adobe)

The entire Acrobat 8 product line, including Adobe Reader 8, now includes a "Start Meeting" button, which, when clicked, launches Acrobat Connect, allowing users to immediately access their personal meeting rooms and start real-time web conferencing. Thus, the offline document review capability of Acrobat can be effectively complemented by real-time document exchange and review, further facilitating the collaboration process. It should be noted that Acrobat Connect does not come bundled with Adobe Acrobat, but is sold separately.

Analysis and Conclusions

Coming close to two years after its last release, Acrobat 8 Professional features an extensive set of improvements that are relevant to users from all fields. The new interface is visually pleasing and devotes most of the screen real estate to where it is most needed—the document area. The ease with which PDFs can be quickly created from a wide variety of applications remains unmatched. The ability to assemble a diverse array of documents into a PDF package instead of combining them into a single PDF file is going to be very useful for fields such as AEC, where project sets typically bring together a plethora of varied content created in many different applications. A PDF package can be an effective organizational tool for a project set, and with the new PDF authoring capability within Acrobat, cover pages and divider pages can be added to it without using an external application. The ability to remove or update existing headers, footers, watermarks, and backgrounds further enhances Acrobat's ability to collate and organize different types of content into a larger whole. The "shared review" feature should be useful to larger organizations for making their document review process more efficient and manageable, while the one-click Acrobat Connect launch allows the collaboration to extend to real-time, interactive web conferencing. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Acrobat Connect can unseat the more established players in the web conference space such as WebEx, Microsoft, Citrix, and Raindance, but the integration with Acrobat, particularly with the free Reader, certainly gives it a shot in the arm.

With regard to the CAD-specific functionality of Acrobat 8 Professional, the introduction of the batch conversion capability from within AutoCAD is a significant development. Along with vastly improved conversion speeds and reduced file sizes, it makes Acrobat 8 Professional distinctly superior compared to previous versions. At the same time, in this arena, Acrobat is playing catch-up to CAD-specific PDF applications from vendors such as CADzation and Bluebeam, which have had batch processing for a while. They also have advanced features such as "lines merge" (described in my review of Acrobat 7 Professional) and the ability to specify new page settings for batch conversions, which Acrobat Professional has yet to offer. This "playing catch-up" scenario has been in evidence for all the Acrobat Professional releases so far, and it serves to highlight the fact that the core strength and appeal of the application—even in the AEC market—lies in its general-purpose PDF creation, management, and review capabilities and the ubiquity of the free Adobe Reader, rather than in its CAD-specific functionalities.

On deeper reflection, this is actually a good thing for Acrobat, as it might not negatively impact its use in the AEC industry once the shift away from a drawing-based workflow towards a model-based workflow—which is just starting to happen—has been completed. Project sets then will still have to include a wide variety of documents in addition to models, such as reports, spreadsheets, emails, presentations, and so on, and Acrobat's document creation, management, and review capabilities should still be as relevant then as they are today. Also, by then, Adobe Acrobat 3D (see my review of its first release last February) may have evolved to the point where it is well equipped to work with the BIM-based processes expected to be in place at that time. The new version of Adobe Acrobat 3D, expected to ship this spring, should give us some good pointers towards its future functionality in this regard. Stay tuned for a detailed review of it later on this summer.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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