AECbytes Product Review (May 10, 2011)
In this review, we will explore the latest versions of the two most commonly used electronic publishing solutions in the AEC industry, Adobe Acrobat and Bluebeam PDF Revu, both of which were recently released. In the case of Acrobat, the new version, Acrobat X (where the X is the Roman numeral for the number 10 rather than the alphabet X) was actually released towards the end of last year. It therefore comes almost two and a half years after the release of the Acrobat 9 product line, which was reviewed in AECbytes in July 2008. For that review, we actually looked at Acrobat 9 Pro Extended, which had many features making it relevant to model publishing and collaboration in AEC: the capability to import, view, and navigate 3D models, add 3D comments to the model, as well as import IFC files.
Since then, Adobe has outsourced further 3D PDF development of Acrobat to a third party vendor (Tech Soft 3D), although some 3D PDF capabilities continue to remain part of Acrobat’s core functionality. In contrast, Bluebeam PDF Revu 9, which was released last month, now includes 3D PDF capability for the first time. Let’s take a closer look at both these applications and compare their capabilities to determine if one solution seems to be more compelling than the other for addressing the electronic publishing needs of AEC firms.
Now that Acrobat has outsourced further development of its 3D PDF capability, the product family has been simplified—there is no longer an Acrobat Extended Pro application as there was in version 9. The Acrobat X family includes Adobe Reader X, Acrobat X Standard, and Acrobat X Pro, in increasing order of functionality and capability. There is also an Acrobat X Suite available, which includes Acrobat X Pro and additional Adobe applications such as Photoshop CS5, Captivate 5, Presenter 7, LiveCycle Designer ES2, and Media Encoder CS5. A comparative chart of all the versions is illustrated in Figure 1. This review will focus on the new and enhanced features in Acrobat X Pro, which would now be the application that AEC and other specialized users would adopt if they upgraded from the last version targeted towards them, Acrobat 9 Pro Extended. It is important to note that while Figure 1 does not refer to 3D PDF capability at all and Adobe also does mention it in its product documentation, I found that that capability to work with 3D PDF files was still very much there in Acrobat X Pro. It has, however, lost the ability to directly import IFC files, which is probably one of the tasks outsourced to Tech Soft 3D and available as part of their third-party plug-in for Acrobat.
Figure 1. Feature comparison of the new Acrobat X product family. (Courtesy: Adobe)
There were some key themes in the development of the Acrobat X product line. Documents are no longer static but dynamic, and Acrobat X includes several enhancements in its PDF portfolios (which were introduced in the last release) to better accommodate this shift. The experience of working with Acrobat has been further simplified with interface enhancements that make it easier to use. In addition to general functionality and productivity improvements, special attention was paid to reducing repetitive tasks and streamlining document workflows across a team or organization. And finally, Acrobat X integrates better with other business applications including Windows 7, Office 2010, and SharePoint.
Recall from the last review that Acrobat 9 introduced the ability to assemble multiple documents in varied formats into a single, compressed PDF portfolio—the individual documents did not even have to be in the PDF format. 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 (also introduced in the last release). Different layout and navigation options for the portfolio were provided, along with the ability to add a color scheme, a welcome screen and header, and descriptions for the individual files. Acrobat X Pro includes additional layouts, visual themes, and color palettes with which to further customize PDF portfolios. Figure 2 shows a sample PDF portfolio that contains a Powerpoint presentation, a PDF file, and a link to a related web page created by using the new Add Web Content option. A panel on the right now consolidates all the various portfolio customization options, several of which are new: for example, the Click-Through layout and all of the Visual Themes options, which can be used to quickly change the look and feel of the portfolio. Additional custom visual themes can be created using other applications such as those in the Adobe Creative Suite. The Background option is also new, and in the PDF portfolio of the BIM Evaluation Study Report shown in Figure 2, one of the case study images from the report was selected as the background image, with the opacity reduced to 15%. Once the portfolio has been created, most of the individual files in it can be opened and navigated within Acrobat X Pro itself by simply double-clicking on it. The lower image of Figure 2 shows how the entire web page included in the portfolio can be viewed within Acrobat.
Figure 2. Enhancements in creating and working with PDF portfolios in Acrobat X Pro. The top image shows a sample PDF portfolio containing three documents of different formats, with newly available layout, visual theme, and background options applied to it. The lower image shows how a web page included in the portfolio can be accessed within Acrobat X itself.
Another key new feature in Acrobat X Pro is the ability to automate multi-step tasks using an Action Wizard, similar to the one that is available in Photoshop to speed up repetitive tasks. However, unlike in Photoshop where you have the ability to record a series of actions while you are performing them and reapply them once you stop the recording, in Acrobat X Pro, you have to actually define the sequence of steps by selecting them in a dialog. Figure 3 shows a new action being created by selecting the tasks that are to be applied in the required sequence. Once the action is created, it can be executed or edited using the Action Wizard options in the right panel, which is also shown in Figure 3. With this new capability, routine multi-step tasks can be automated, not just to save time but also to standardize processes across a firm—in addition to the built-in actions that come installed with Acrobat X Pro, new actions can be created and shared between users. These actions can be applied to single PDF files or batches of files.
Figure 3. Creating an action combining multiple steps using the new Action Wizard.
Other highlights of Acrobat X Pro include a new Reading Mode that optimizes the screen for reading and presentation of PDF files by turning off the display of menus and panels with only a transparent floating toolbar visible for navigation; enhanced search functionality which can be used to search for all instances of a search term in a document or multiple documents, display them all in the search window for easy navigation, and even export the search results to a PDF file or a spreadsheet if required (shown in Figure 4); enhanced optical character recognition (OCR) for easier search within scanned documents and reuse of their content; and the ability to more easily create fillable electronic PDF forms from scanned paper, existing PDF documents, Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets.
Figure 4. Improved search in Acrobat Pro X displays all instances of a search term in a large document for easy navigation and also allows the search results to be saved as a PDF or CSV file.
On the integration front, a new feature in Acrobat X Pro is the ability to work with Microsoft SharePoint if a firm has deployed it for document management and collaboration. SharePoint can now be accessed from any Acrobat X Pro Open or Save dialog, enabling PDF files from SharePoint to be opened for viewing, checked out for editing, and checked back in after edits are made. Also new is the ability to work with Windows 7 and Office 2010 applications, enabling PDF files to be created with a single click from within popular Office 2010 applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher, and Access, as well as specialized applications such as Microsoft Project and Visio. This integration also works the other way, enabling conversion of PDF files (or portions of them) into Word or Excel files while preserving graphics, text formatting, paragraphs, headers and footers, text boxes, columns, tables, and so on. An example is shown in Figure 5. Prior to this version, it would have been impossible to export a PDF document into a Word document with this level of fidelity using Acrobat.
Figure 5. Conversion of a PDF document, shown on the left, to a Word document, shown on the right, which now preserves most of its look and feel.
While the markup and annotation tools remain the same as in the previous version, what is new in Acrobat X Pro is that they can be accessed more easily from a single, unified tool pane, as shown in Figure 6. These tools are also available to those with the free Adobe Reader, allowing anyone to participate in document reviews. Comments can be viewed in a searchable list that can be filtered and sorted by page, author, and date, allowing comments from multiple reviewers to be more easily reconciled and appropriate changes made to the source document. Changes in the PDF file can be checked off as they are made, and a new read/unread indicator shows which comments have been read and which have not. All of these enhancements are very relevant to AEC users of Acrobat.
Figure 6. The unified panel for easy access to all annotation and markup tools, as well as comment review.
It would be remiss to not point out a new feature in Acrobat X Pro which can prove to be extremely helpful—the ability to make simple changes to text or images directly in a PDF file without going back and editing the original source document and recreating the PDF. As shown in Figure 7, the tool for this is easily accessible from the new Tools pane. This capability is extremely helpful in those cases where you don’t have the original source document or the change is so minor that being able to make the edit directly in the PDF is a big time-saver. Of course, when creating the PDF, the author of the document can set the necessary permissions to avoid the document being edited, if required. Another related enhancement, which is more related to document security and sensitivity rather than productivity, is the ability to find and remove confidential information from a document before distributing to a wide audience. A new Sanitize Document function finds hidden information such as metadata, annotations, attachments, form fields, layers, and bookmarks, and removes it as needed in a single click. There are also redaction tools to permanently delete sensitive information, including specific text or illustrations.
Figure 7. The new ability to make a simple text edit directly within a PDF The lower image shows the edits made to the highlighted text in the top image.
As mentioned earlier, Acrobat X Pro still includes the ability to create 3D PDF files from the U3D file format, which is supported by several CAD and BIM applications including ArchiCAD, Nemetschek Allplan, and Bentley’s MicroStation and BIM applications. You can view the model in different angles with different display modes and lighting conditions, create cross-sectional views, see a hierarchical listing of the model components which can be selected and hidden or isolated, and add 3D comments and measurements to the model. All of these capabilities work as described in detail in previous reviews, including Acrobat 9 Pro Extended, Adobe Acrobat 3D Version 8, and the first release with 3D PDF support, Adobe Acrobat 3D. Figure 8 shows an ArchiCAD model that was exported in the U3D format and was subsequently imported into Acrobat X Pro as a 3D PDF file.
Figure 8. Importing a model from ArchiCAD (top image) in U3D format and importing into Acrobat X Pro as a 3D PDF file (lower image).
In addition to the enhancements in the desktop version of Acrobat, Adobe has expanded the suite of web services at Acrobat.com, which it launched in beta at the time of the last release for sharing and storing files and communicating in real time. (See the review of Acrobat 9 Pro Extended for more details on Acrobat.com.) The collaboration services on Acrobat.com have been expanded to include ConvertPDF, which can be used to convert files to Adobe PDF online; SendNow , which can be used to send, receive and track large files; Workspaces, which can be used to collaborate with multiple people using multiple files; and ConnectNow, which can be used to set up live meetings online. There is also an Acrobat.com Premium offering, which bundles all these services together. It is a helpful alternative for AEC firms to explore for collaborating on design documents published as PDF files with an extended design team, including those outside the firm.
Bluebeam first introduced Revu at Autodesk University 2005; prior to that, it was best known for its for its Pushbutton Plus application, an electronic publishing add-on to AutoCAD that could convert batches of DWG files into eleven different file formats including PDF, DWF, and TIFF. Revu started off as a PDF viewing, editing, and markup application especially targeted towards large drawing files, making it more AEC-specific than the general version of Acrobat available at that time for professional users in different industries. Since then, Bluebeam has kept adding additional functionality to Revu in each release, with the latest version finally including the 3D PDF viewing capability that Adobe had developed in Acrobat earlier on. Revu now has a rich feature set and comes in three versions: Standard, CAD and eXtreme. With Revu Standard, users have access to the complete set of markup, editing and collaboration features ,as well as PDF creation using plug-ins for Microsoft Office and a Bluebeam PDF printer driver. Revu CAD includes everything in the Standard edition plus additional plug-ins for creating PDF files from AutoCAD, Revit and SolidWorks. Revu eXtreme includes everything in the CAD edition plus additional advanced features such as scripting, forms creation, OCR and redaction.
Bluebeam has also continued to add to its product family. Last year, it launched Bluebeam Studio, which enables digital collaboration on PDF drawings and documents in real-time, at the AIA 2010 National Convention. Subsequently, at Autodesk University 2010, Bluebeam introduced two new advanced solutions enabling project teams to take electronic publishing and paperless workflows to the next level: Bluebeam Q, an enterprise server-based solution for companies that want to centrally control and automate PDF publishing and processing; and bFX, which extends the power of Bluebeam’s PDF markup tools to files stored in remote locations such as online project management systems, plan rooms, and websites. Bluebeam Studio comes integrated with PDF Revu, and includes most of the functionality of Acrobat.com with the additional capability of enabling not just “real-time” collaboration but “any-time” collaboration— it allows project team members to go in at different times to review the comments that have been made and add their own markups and follow-up comments. (More details on Bluebeam Studio can be seen in the article, New Technology Solutions Exhibited at AIA 2010 Expo.)
Let’s take a closer look at some of the core functionality of Bluebeam PDF Revu and the new features introduced in the latest release, including the support for 3D PDF which should be of special interest to AEC users. The interface of the application, as shown in the following images, is distinctly different from that of Acrobat—it is much more visual and graphic, and is designed to be intuitive and user-friendly. It starts with letting you choose from six different profiles and three different interface looks, as shown in Figure 9.
Figure 9. Choosing a profile and a look for Bluebeam PDF Revu the first time the application is launched. These options can also be changed later if required.
Once the required options are chosen, the application opens with a Start file that allows you to review videos and tutorials; import additional tool sets, stamps, and profiles; read the latest Bluebeam news on its Insider website; or simply start working with PDF files (see Figure 10). This provides a new user with a quick and easy way to learn different aspects of the application while, at the same time, allowing experienced users to just go ahead and get started with the various options in the Begin tab.
Figure 10. The Start file that opens up by default, providing new users with an easy way to learn the application while allowing experienced users to just go ahead and get started.
The interface of Bluebeam PDF Revu with a large document open is shown in Figure 11. It includes toolbars at the top and panels at the left, right, and bottom that can be opened and closed to expose tools such as File Access, Bookmarks, Thumbnails, Tool Chest, Markups, Properties, Search etc. All the toolbars and toolsets can be customized as required. Multiple documents are opened in different tabs in the main workspace window, making it easy to switch between them. One very innovative aspect of the interface is the ability to split up a single document into multiple views, as shown in Figure 10, in which five different pages of a 160 page document are shown simultaneously, along with its Table of Contents shown on the left as Bookmarks. It is possible to open up to sixteen such tabbed views simultaneously, showing the same document or different documents. They can even be synchronized so that all views pan and zoom in unison, making it easy to compare document revisions. You can even open up multiple instances of Revu at the same time, if required. It is possible to move pages from one document to the other by dragging and dropping the thumbnail from one instance to the other. Another unique feature of Revu is that in addition to keeping track of recently opened files, like many applications do, it also keeps track of the files opened in the last session and provides the option to re-open them. It is a simple feature to implement, but indicates additional thought paid to interface design that is not always evident in software applications.
Figure 11. Splitting a large document into multiple views in order to view different pages at the same time.
AEC users would typically use Bluebeam PDF Revu for marking up drawings, for which they would find an extensive set of markup tools including text, notes, highlighter, lines, clouds, callouts, stamps, arcs and curves, images, and hatch patterns. The markup properties such as color, fill, line type and thickness, opacity, font, etc., can be easily changed from the style toolbars at the top or the Properties pane on the right. Figure 12 shows a callout being added to a drawing, similar to that shown for Acrobat in Figure 6. The text in markups can be spell-checked, and can even be translated into different languages, a feature that is new to Revu 9. (For the translation, Google’s translation engine has been used, and like any other automatic translation, a review of it is recommended.) Alternatively, you could even use the new Unicode support to directly type the markups in foreign languages, even ones that don't use Roman characters. There is also an option to add voice markups by using a microphone. You can add hyperlinks to markups that open websites, local files, or jump to a page in the PDF, making it easier to provide access to related data. Another handy feature, introduced in version 7 (covered in AECbytes Newsletter #40), is the ability to place PDF flags as visual markers on pages to designate important content, which can greatly help to speed up the document review process.
Figure 12. Adding a callout to a drawing and viewing its properties. The extensive set of callout tools and options on the left, right, and top of the workspace window can also be seen.
Additional markup capabilities include a comprehensive Markups list that allows all comments and markups to be tracked and managed, facilitating the review and approval process between project team members or clients. Revu also includes an extensive suite of tools for measurement and takeoff, including counting and measuring lengths, areas, volumes, perimeters, angles and radii. Despite the move to BIM which would allow most, if not all, of the takeoff information to be derived directly from the model, current AEC practice still relies heavily on 2D drawings, and the need to measure and count information from PDF drawings still exists, which is well served by Revu. Recent improvements allow improved accuracy when taking measurements off curved drawings. Also, Revu 9 allows area measurement tools to work with a cutout, which is often important for accurate values, as shown in Figure 13.
Figure 13. The area measurement tool in Revu 9 now works with a cutout.
As mentioned earlier, the most exciting new feature in Revu 9 from an AEC perspective is the support for 3D PDFs. As with Acrobat, Revu is supposed to open up U3D files and convert them to 3D PDF. However, this did not work for me for the U3D files I exported from ArchiCAD, such as the one shown earlier in Figure 8. (I received an error message saying that no converter was found to convert from .u3d to .ps, and I could not figure out what the exact problem was.) Therefore, in order to test the 3D PDF capability of Revu 9, I had to use the 3D PDF file saved from Acrobat, which was also shown in Figure 8. As shown in Figure 14, the 3D PDF viewing and navigation capabilities of Revu are almost identical to those in Acrobat, accessible from a 3D Hover toolbar. The model tree shown in the left pane lets you control the visibility of different components of the model, just like in Acrobat. Revu, however, does not yet have the cross-sectioning capability of Acrobat, or the ability to add 3D comments to the model.
Figure 14. Viewing the same 3D PDF file created earlier in Acrobat, and shown in Figure 8, in Bluebeam PDF Revu. The model tree and the 3D Hover toolbar with options for navigating, displaying, and lighting the model are also shown.
While there are many more features in Bluebeam PDF Revu 9 that are beyond the scope of this review to cover in detail, most of its other functionality is similar to what Acrobat offers: ability to add, delete, subtract, and replace pages; batch processing to convert several documents to PDF at once; options to reduce the PDF file size; PDF forms; redaction options; the ability to secure documents with digital signatures; automatic file recovery; advanced keyword search across multiple documents; creation of bookmarks and thumbnails; support for scanning paper documents or camera images to PDF, with optical character recognition (OCR) capability in the eXtreme edition; the ability to view web pages within the application; support for scripts that automate repetitive tasks, similar to the new Actions feature in Acrobat; and the ability to modify or delete existing text in the document, which, like Acrobat, is a new feature in the latest release. Revu also has the same capability to quickly create PDFs from Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, as well as vice versa while preserving their layout and formatting. I tested the Word export from Revu for the same PDF file shown in Figure 5 and obtained identical results to those I got with Acrobat. Revu does not have Acrobat’s sophisticated PDF Portfolio capability, but it does allow you to organize multiple files and file types into one PDF package. Capabilities unique to Revu are support for 2D PDF from Revit; integration with Bentley’s ProjectWise in addition to the SharePoint integration that Acrobat provides; batch comparison of PDF files against an original document; and a new Visual Search feature that allows you to search for a graphical symbol in a PDF document instead of just text (see Figure 15).
Figure 15. Using Revu’s new Visual Search option to search for a specified graphical symbol in a document. The selection of the symbol is shown in the top image, while the lower image shows the search results.
Adobe is the original inventor of the PDF file format and has a long history of developing the Acrobat product, making it the most popular application for PDF publishing across industries. The AEC industry, in particular, benefitted tremendously when Adobe, in 2006, developed a specialized version of Acrobat that was better suited to the needs of AEC users. It also pioneered the 3D PDF concept, foreseeing the need of the industry to communicate with 3D models and not just 2D drawings once BIM had gained momentum. It continues to develop the free Adobe Reader, which allows anyone to access PDF files. The Adobe Reader is now available in 30 languages and is installed on 90% of computers around the world, helping to make PDF one of the most ubiquitous formats for any kind of document publishing.
Given the long history of Adobe’s work with PDFs and its Acrobat product, it has been very sad to see Adobe retreating from the AEC electronic publishing space that it once helped to revolutionize. It is no longer developing an AEC-focused version of Acrobat, and is instead focused on addressing the needs of businesses in general and their document publishing and collaboration needs. No doubt, this is the area where Acrobat has achieved the most success in the past, and Adobe’s economic struggles in today’s tough economy makes its decision understandable—it likely had to make some tough decisions about which product developments to discontinue. Adobe no longer exhibits at the annual AIA show (the 2011 convention is coming up later this week), and the outsourcing of its 3D PDF development to a third party vendor is a further sign that AEC is no longer one of its key target markets. Thankfully, the 3D PDF viewing and commenting capabilities still seem to available in Acrobat X Pro, which, combined with the several new features described in this review, still help to make it a compelling PDF solution for AEC firms. But the application has definitely lost some of its earlier “luster.”
But as they say, “one person’s loss is another person’s gain,” and this has certainly been true for Bluebeam, which has nicely stepped in to fill the void in the AEC industry left behind by Adobe. Bluebeam was always focused on the PDF needs of AEC firms, but until now, it was missing a critical component—the ability to work with 3D PDF files created from models that the AEC industry is increasingly relying on for design and construction. As shown in this review, this capability is still far from perfect in Revu 9, which was not able to create a 3D PDF file from a U3D file like it was supposed it. But it could view a 3D model in a 3D PDF file and provided most of the capabilities for viewing and navigating it that Acrobat had. The fact that the model navigation interface of Revu is almost identical to that of Acrobat does not give Bluebeam many points for originality—hopefully, it can come up with better and more innovative ways of working with 3D models as it further develops its 3D PDF capabilities.
In addition to the new 3D PDF support, Revu has many more things going for it to recommend it to AEC users—Revit support, ProjectWise integration, Visual Search, an extensive set of markup and measurement tools, and the ability for multiple project team members to collaborate on a document, in real time as well as offline. Its interface is much more visual than Acrobat’s and is likely to appeal to architects, although some could also find it too “busy.” From a pricing perspective, Revu is slightly less expensive than Acrobat, but the price difference is too small to necessarily be a deal-breaker. It must be pointed out that there is no free version of Revu for viewing PDF files; thus, it is relying on the vast installed base of Adobe Reader to leverage its own solution. However, this is unlikely to impact the business decision AEC firms have to make about the respective merits of Acrobot versus Bluebeam and which solution to adopt. Hopefully, this comparative review will help to provide some insights to make that decision easier.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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