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AECbytes Product Review (July 31, 2008)

Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended

Product Summary

Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended is the top level version of the new Acrobat 9 product family, targeted towards business and technical professionals for creating, managing, reviewing, and sharing content, with several specialized features for AEC.

Pros: Visually pleasing interfaces enabled by Flash integration; ability to combine multiple file formats in a single PDF portfolio with a customized look and slick navigation; enhanced review capabilities with the ability to synchronize document views; ability to embed and play video within PDF; integration of Adobe Presenter  allows creation of presentations and interactive learning sessions; improvements in batch processing AutoCAD files; document compare capability makes it easy to review drawing revisions; IFC import capabilities provide support for BIM workflows; enhanced security and encryption; faster speed and file size reduction; all content can be viewed by anyone with the free Adobe 9 Reader.

Cons: The graphic display of 3D models is poor compared to the display quality in other 3D modeling and visualization applications.

Price: Acrobat 9 Pro Extended is $699, upgrade price is $229; Acrobat 9 Pro is $449, upgrade price is $159; Acrobat 9 Standard is $299, upgrade price is $99.

Last month, Adobe released the next version of its Acrobat family of products. Coming almost 18 months after the release of the Acrobat 8 product line (reviewed in February 2007), the new version packs a substantive number of new features and enhancements, both for general use as well as more AEC-specific tasks. Adobe has also simplified its product line by discontinuing its separate Acrobat 3D product (see the review of Acrobat 3D Version 8), and instead incorporating its capabilities in a new Pro Extended version of Acrobat. Thus, the product line now includes Acrobat 9 Standard, Acrobat 9 Pro, and Acrobat 9 Pro Extended, in addition to the free Adobe Reader which is also now available in version 9. A comparative overview of all the versions is illustrated in Figure 1.

Another noteworthy development for Acrobat users is the launch of Acrobat.com, a suite of hosted services available at www.acrobat.com. It allows a group of users to collaborate live on a PDF document, including real-time navigation to ensure that all of them are looking at the same page of the document. Acrobat 9 is also the first release that provides native support for the Flash technology that Adobe got from its Macromedia acquisition a few years ago, and which is being slowly integrated into all its applications. The Flash support enables users to include Flash compatible video and application files in PDF documents. It has also allowed Adobe to integrate its Presenter application with Acrobat in the Pro Extended version, enabling users to create rich, interactive, multimedia presentations that can exported in Flash format or published in PDF format. Let’s take a detailed look at these and the many additional capabilities of Acrobat 9 Pro Extended that will be critical to AEC users, including being able to collate content in varied formats into PDF portfolios, improved authoring and workflow for forms, enhanced document comparison that makes it easy to identify changes between revisions, and the ability to create 3D models from IFC files.


Figure 1. Feature comparison of the new Acrobat 9 product family. (Courtesy: Adobe)

Unifying Diverse Content in PDF Portfolios

Recall that Acrobat 8 had introduced the ability to assemble multiple PDF files into a PDF package, which retained their individual pagination, signatures, security settings, and so on. This was particularly useful for AEC users, as it allowed 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. Acrobat 9 takes this capability even further by allowing you to assemble multiple documents in varied formats into a single, compressed PDF portfolio—it does not even require the individual documents to be in PDF format. A sample PDF portfolio that was created by adding multiple files of different formats is shown in Figure 2. Various layout options are available, and while only the Basic Grid one is shown here, some of the other options such as Revolve make for a slick navigation interface. You can also customize the portfolio with a color scheme and a welcome screen and header that can contain text and images such as a logo, and add descriptions for the individual files. When the portfolio is saved, it is one file that fully contains all the individual embedded files and it can be shared with others by email, or through collaboration portals such as Acrobat.com.


Figure 2. A sample PDF portfolio created with multiple files of different formats.

The level of compression in a PDF portfolio varies for the different files types, but the average seems to be between 20-30%—which means that the portfolio is about 30% smaller than the sum of the individual file sizes. This is similar to the kind of compression you can get from bundling the documents together in a Zip file, so the compression alone would not be a compelling reason to assemble files into a portfolio. What is great about the portfolio is the ability to assemble documents together in a certain sequence, add descriptions, and include an introductory screen and company logo, making it possible to create a slick package out of any set of files. The added benefit is that several file types in addition to PDF such as DOC, XLS, PPT, JPG, and others can be opened and viewed within Acrobat itself, without the need to launch the corresponding applications. For example, see Figure 3, which shows the PPT file in the PDF portfolio being opened and viewed within Acrobat. This is also possible with the free Adobe Reader 9, so those receiving the PDF portfolios can access their content even if they don’t have a copy of Acrobat. For other file types such as Revit (RVT), DProfiler (SIM), and so on, opening the file within Acrobat will launch the corresponding application.


Figure 3. Opening the PPT file in the portfolio allows it to be viewed within Acrobat itself. To edit the file, you can choose to then open it in its native application.

Flash Integration

Video communications are becoming increasingly common as a means of communication, and in the AEC industry, this can take the form of animations generated from 3D models to better explain design concepts, videos capturing the site and surrounding context of a proposed building, site cams that capture construction progress, and so on. All of these can now be included in PDF documents and shared with others, who can play the movies right within the PDF document using the free Adobe Reader 9, without requiring any other movie player application to be installed on their computer. The video can be inserted into the PDF document within Acrobat, or directly within document authoring applications such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint before converting to PDF—the PDF toolbar in these applications now has an Embed Video option. Figure 4 shows an AVI file that has been inserted into a document saved in PDF format. The AVI file takes some time to get converted to the Flash format before being placed in the PDF. But subsequently, the movie can be played right within the PDF itself as shown. This also works for other popular movie formats such as QuickTime (MOV) and Windows Media Video (WMV). In fact, the conversion is a lot faster with these formats than with an AVI file, and the file sizes are also smaller. You don’t have to embed the whole movie—you can specify the starting and ending frames in the Settings dialog, and only that portion of the movie file will get converted into Flash and embedded within the PDF.


Figure 4. Inserting an AVI file into a PDF document and then subsequently playing it within the PDF itself.

An additional video capability that is very relevant to AEC is being able to pause the playback of video and add comments to any individual frame. The comments can be reviewed in the Comments list and clicking on a comment in the commenting pane transitions the video to show the relevant video frame, as shown in Figure 5. The video, however, can still be played in the normal way without being interrupted by the comments display.


Figure 5. Adding comments to different frames of an embedded video. (Courtesy: Adobe)

The integration of Flash technology into PDF has further enabled Adobe to allow presentations created using Adobe Presenter to be published into a PDF file that can be played back by anyone with the Adobe Reader. Adobe Presenter is included with Acrobat 9 Pro Extended and is a rich media-authoring tool for creating high-quality presentations that can include audio and video, and even interactive quizzes. Installing Adobe Presenter adds menu options to Microsoft PowerPoint (versions 2003 and higher) that can be used to publish a PowerPoint presentation to PDF. Figure 6 shows a PowerPoint presentation published as a PDF file that can now be easily distributed and viewed interactively. If the slides had included audio, that would have been automatically played as well, making this a great way to create presentations and training content for distribution. The file size of the PDF version of the presentation was almost half of that of the original PowerPoint file.


Figure 6. Viewing a PowerPoint presentation that was published as a PDF using the Adobe Presenter application included with Acrobat 9 Pro Extended.

Improvements in Collaboration and Review through Acrobat.com

Acrobat 9 continues to improve upon its document review capabilities­—which has been the focus of continued development for several releases—by introducing a new ability to synchronize document views between two or more collaborators. It works with the help of Acrobat.com (still in beta mode), a new site launched by Adobe, as mentioned earlier, that includes free hosted services for a variety of activities including sharing and storing files and communicating in real time. The user initiating the live collaboration session would need an Adobe ID, which can be created for free if they don’t already have one. The session can be launched from within Acrobat, and after signing in, the user can invite one or more people to collaborate on the document by entering their email addresses. The recipients will get the email along with the document as an attachment. The initiator could alternately store the file on Acrobat.com, in which case the hosted service will send an email to recipients with a link to the document. All they need to do is double-click on the attachment or URL to open it. They will be prompted to log into the file using an Adobe ID or as a guest. If they are using an older version of Adobe Reader or Acrobat, they will be prompted to update the application. Once they log in, the initiator of the review will see their names in their Acrobat window and can click on the Start Page Sharing option. Now any navigation of the document that is done by the initiator also happens automatically for all the reviewers, ensuring that they are always looking at the same portion of the document. When required, any of the reviewers can also take control of the document navigation. They can discuss the content of the document either over the phone or through a chat window, as shown in Figure 7.


Figure 7. Collaborating with others on a document in a live session with synchronized navigation, ensuring that everyone is looking at the same part of the document. (Courtesy: Adobe)

In addition to the new synchronized view capability, Acrobat 9 has also improved upon the overall process of shared document reviews. You can now use Acrobat.com to download and track comments. The review Tracker has been enhanced and works like a central dashboard for reviews, allowing you to see which participants have already reviewed the document, eliminating delays and confusion. Users can even send reminders to reviewers and receive alerts within Acrobat after each project team member has reviewed and edited a document.

CAD- and BIM-Specific Enhancements

Acrobat 9 features several improvements to the one-button PDFMaker that is installed within AutoCAD for producing PDF output that is more accurate than just printing to a PDF. It now supports AutoCAD 2008 and is faster than previous versions of Acrobat, particularly for files containing images. Additionally, files sizes have been reduced, most notably for documents containing blocks. Two new global options have been introduced that improve the one button workflow, make it possible to generate PDF documents from AutoCAD files with no intermediate dialogs. Batch conversion has also been improved, making it easier to generate PDFs from a batch of files. There are several new options in the Batch Conversion dialog that can be applied to all the files, including settings for page set-up and plot style, the inclusion or exclusion of model space, preserving embedded links between documents and document layers when reference files are included, and the ability to output the resulting PDF documents to a single PDF Portfolio. The batch conversion log file has also been improved to include additional information such as the total time taken for conversion, start time and end time of the batch process, and the settings used for conversion.

Another new feature that is very relevant to the drawing-based workflow is the ability to compare two versions of a document, whether those documents are delivered as PDF, scanned from paper-based originals, or converted from another file format. While the comparison can be applied to documents of any kind, it can be especially useful in AEC to identify the changes between drawing revisions, which happens on a regular basis. You can designate which is the older file and which is the newer file and start the comparison process. When the process is completed, the newer document is displayed with all the changed areas highlighted and color-coded to indicate whether content has been inserted, deleted, replaced, or moved. As shown in Figure 8, each change is listed as a comment in the Commenting pane, making it easier to get an overview of all the changes. An option to generate a summary of the changes in PDF format is also available, making it even more convenient to review the changes.


Figure 8. Comparing two versions of a drawing (top image) and generating a summary report of the changes (lower image).

An exciting new feature in Acrobat 9 Pro Extended is the ability to import IFC files, allowing intelligent 3D PDFs complete with object model information to be created from a variety of BIM (Building Information Modeling) applications. This addresses one of the main limitations of Acrobat 3D Version 8 that I had pointed out in my review and makes Acrobat 9 the first release that responds directly to the BIM movement in the AEC industry. Figure 9 shows an IFC file generated during my recent review of the BIM solution, DProfiler, imported as a PDF file into Acrobat. As you can see, it lists the hierarchical model tree on the left, allowing you to explore the different components of the model by manipulating their visibility. Selecting an object in the model displays the information about it that was captured in the IFC file. The IFC support adds one more avenue to the many ways in which 3D models can be brought into Acrobat, such as the Acrobat 3D Toolkit (replaced in Acrobat 9 Pro Extended by the new Adobe 3D Reviewer), the 3D Capture Utility, and direct conversion from DWG, DGN, and DWF, all of which have been described in detail in my reviews of the first version of Acrobat 3D and the subsequent Acrobat 3D Version 8.


Figure 9. Exploring the different components of a 3D model in the IFC format that was imported into Acrobat.

Another 3D-related improvement is the ability to add 3D comments to a model. Both measurements and comments can be added within the scene and maintain their context with the elements to which they are attached. As the model is manipulated, measurements and comments maintain perspective in relation to the other elements in the scene. An example of 3D comments added to a model is shown in Figure 10.


Figure 10. 3D comments and measurements added to a model. (Courtesy: Adobe)

In addition to providing support for the IFC format, Acrobat 9 also supports another standard important to the AEC industry—the PDF/E document standard maintained by ISO (the International Organization for Standardization). PDF/E is based on the general PDF specification, but focuses on support for engineering workflows. It addresses three primary areas: accurate printing of engineering drawings; incorporation of complex data into a compact PDF including 3D and object-level data; and support for the secure exchange of annotation and comments. More information about the PDF/E standard can be found here.

Rounding off the list of AEC-specific enhancements is PDF mapping, which is more directly relevant to the GIS field but can also be useful for site design and urban planning in AEC. The new PDF Map capabilities in Acrobat 9 enable users to create, view and interact with maps in PDF. In these maps, the geospatial coordinates remain intact, so users can find locations based on coordinates from multiple systems. They can also mark desired locations, measure mapping distances in kilometers or miles (see Figure 11), and markup PDF Maps with relevant geospatial attributes. These enhancements would be useful for any user needing to incorporate interactive maps into presentations or have offline access to digital maps in the field.


Figure 11. Measuring the distance on a geospatial PDF map.

Other Enhancements

Using forms for data collection has been one of the key application areas for Acrobat, with a host of new features that were added in Acrobat 8. Acrobat 9 continues to build upon this capability, providing all the tools required to create forms, distribute them, collect responses, and track, analyze, and export results. A new wizard allows forms to be easily created from existing documents by using a form field recognition capability. Other enhancements include new distribution options through Acrobat.com, an updated tracker to keep track of responses, and flexible new response files that allow you to sort or filter data like in a traditional spreadsheet application and better analyze the results. According to market research conducted by Adobe, the AEC industry has the highest usage of forms in any given market segment, so the continuing improvements to forms should make Acrobat even more compelling.

Other enhancements in Acrobat 9 include the ability to remove metadata and improved redaction, both of which help users to safeguard confidential information and control access to sensitive content. Security has been improved by support of the 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) as approved by the U.S. government. As in previous versions, Acrobat 9 enables ability to add two types of encryption to a document: password encryption or certification encryption. Password encryption lets users assign a password and specify security options to restrict opening, printing, and editing PDF files, while certification encryption encrypts a document so that only a specified set of users can access it.

Web capture functionality has been significantly enhanced in Acrobat 9 to support the latest web technologies, allowing users to reliably capture a website, including its links, images, and dynamic content. It even gives users the option to select only the content that interests them—and leave out portions of a web page, such as advertisements, that are not relevant to a task.

Last but not the least, Acrobat 9 and Adobe Reader 9 launch two-to-three times faster. Acrobat 9 also features 5-15% improvement both in speed as well as file size reduction relative to the conversion of CAD formats.

Analysis and Conclusions

In the new release of Acrobat, Adobe has focused on several areas that are becoming increasingly critical to all businesses including AEC, such as the diversity of the content that is created and needs to be shared, increasingly distributed work teams, and the need to work with rich interactive multimedia content. The ability to combine multiple file formats in a single PDF portfolio, while still retaining their original formats, is an impressive technological achievement. The improvements in collaboration and synchronized document views that are enabled by Acrobat.com allow project team participants to co-navigate and review a document, drawing, or 3D PDF file in real time, irrespective of where they are located. The ability to embed and play video within a PDF file, as well as create presentations and interactive learning sessions through the integration of Adobe Presenter add a whole new “Wow” factor to Acrobat as well as the PDF format, tremendously enhancing their scope and versatility. The best part is that most users can get the benefit of all these enhanced capabilities at no cost, as only the creator of the PDF file or portfolio needs to have a copy of Acrobat Pro Extended—all other users can access and review the rich, interactive content using the free Adobe Reader 9. And even Acrobat Pro Extended is relatively inexpensive, with a list price of $699.

The continued integration of the Flash technology has imbued Acrobat with lots of pizzazz, making for very visually pleasing interfaces. The Flash integration also allows any Flash application to be embedded within a PDF file, opening the door for third-party Flash developers to develop discipline-specific capabilities for PDF. This might lead to some very interesting PDF applications going forward—for example, including real-time links and content in PDF files which makes them dynamic rather than static.

From an AEC-specific perspective, Acrobat 9 has pretty much addressed most of the limitations I have pointed out in reviews of previous releases: the batch conversion settings for AutoCAD have been overhauled, making it much easier to generate PDFs with uniform settings from a batch of files; and the IFC support provides support for the BIM workflows that the AEC industry is gradually transitioning to. The IFC support, in particular, is a terrific step forward, and it should greatly appeal to the many interoperability proponents in the AEC industry. The other enhancements such as the ability to add 3D comments to a model, PDF geospatial maps, improvements in forms for data collection and analysis, enhanced security and encryption, faster speed, and file size reduction should also appeal to AEC users. While the drawing comparison capability can also be found in other applications, it is great to have this within a format that is as ubiquitous as PDF.

In conclusion, I found Adobe Acrobat 9 a very impressive release, packed with new features and capabilities that I had not anticipated and which I found quite amazing. It’s not that common to get the “Wow” feeling from an application that has been around for quite a while, but I would have to say that Acrobat has literally re-invented itself with this release.

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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