Three paths to the perfect PDF

You have a choice of portable-document apps, from feature-rich to bare bones

Years ago, Adobe Systems went public with its PDF print driver, opening the door to competition in what had been an exclusive market but also helping ensure that the PDF would be the standard for document distribution on the Web and in the enterprise.

Two rival products came to market recently: Abbyy Software introduced PDF Transformer Version 2.0, and Nuance Communications released ScanSoft PDF Converter 4 Professional. And even more recently, Adobe launched Version 8 of Acrobat.

All three perform the basic tasks you would expect from PDF conversion software. They integrate into Microsoft Office applications, so you can generate a PDF from an Office document with a click. All three convert a variety of document types to PDF, which is readable in the Acrobat Reader. Conversely, each can also ' with varying degrees of accuracy ' convert PDF documents to editable Office documents.

Adobe and Nuance let you create a single PDF from multiple-source documents, but Adobe pulls ahead with advanced functionality, including the ability to create a single PDF package containing documents of various types, each with its own digital signatures. That's a big deal in the government market.

What's more, Adobe provides true redaction ' not simply covering up the redacted text ' and has added Acrobat Connect, formerly Macromedia Breeze,
a meeting tool for real-time collaboration. And Acrobat 8 still includes the LiveCycle forms design tool.

Be ready to pay for the additional Adobe functionality, however, because Acrobat is substantially more expensive than the competition in this roundup. You might want to consider mixing and matching licenses, getting Acrobat for employees who require the additional functionality and cheaper licenses for the others. Keep in mind, however, that Adobe also offers lower-end products not covered in this roundup.





Acrobat 8 Professional

Performance: B-

Ease of Use: B

Features: A

Value: C

Price: $449

Pros: Connect online meeting tool, new container tool maintains all document security, true redaction tool.

Cons: Expensive and has some performance issues.

Acrobat continues to differentiate itself from competitors by providing the most robust package with plenty of tools to make users happy. But you may want to mix lower-cost PDF products with the Acrobat Professional licenses you buy.

Adobe has made a couple of significant changes in this version. The new features are appealing, but whether they justify an upgrade will depend on your needs.

By far the most significant addition is Acrobat Connect, an online meeting program. License holders can invite any user, regardless of whether they own Acrobat, to an online meeting. The invitees don't have to download any software, because the meeting environment is built on Flash, as a result of Adobe's purchase of Macromedia, and works inside a Web browser using Flash technology likely already present.

You follow a fairly straightforward sign-up process the first time you host a meeting. You download a meeting-hosting feature that lets you share your screen with others to give a presentation or demonstration or collaborate on editing a document.

Acrobat Connect includes a chat feature in addition to integrated support for Web camera broadcasts. The leader can give participants control of the desktop, and a toll-free voice connection is also available. After an initial trial period, this new feature comes at an additional cost, but it may be worthwhile for users who frequently collaborate online.

Another key Acrobat 8 Pro feature is the ability to build a container to hold documents of many types, preserving the security, digital signature and other settings of each one. In previous versions, you could combine multiple document types into a single PDF with its own internal pagination. This was a powerful feature, but Acrobat 8 offers a choice. You can still create a single document, but you can also build a container with different document types ' all the files related to a particular case or project, for instance ' while preserving any document-specific features.

Adobe walks you through the creation of a package or a single, combined PDF. The wizard is a bit awkward, but it does what it's supposed to. The process is slow, so you'll want to allow plenty of time, especially if you are building a package of complex documents. Although it's a great feature, I would like to see faster build times.

Acrobat 8 Pro also includes what Adobe calls true redacting: Once you redact something, you will no longer under any circumstances see what's underneath. The redaction feature could benefit from a well-written wizard, but once you figure out how to use it, it's fairly straightforward.

This feature also prompts you to check for hidden information such as metadata, a step that should help protect users from accidentally including sensitive information with a PDF.

Adobe Systems, San Jose, Calif., (800) 833-6687, www.adobe.com





Abbyy PDF Transformer 2.0

Performance: A-

Ease of Use: A

Features: C

Value: B-

Price: $100

Pros: Provides small-footprint PDF tool without unneeded frills.

Cons: Does simple conversion tasks and not much else.

Abbyy provides a simple means of converting documents to or from PDF, but nothing more. Unless you are looking for a small-footprint product, you are probably better off with the additional functionality you get from ScanSoft.

Abbyy is by far the simplest of the three programs, providing a basic interface for configuring and converting a single document to or from PDF.

Just as with the other products, when you install Abbyy PDF Transformer 2.0, a button bar appears in Microsoft Office programs for easy conversion of files to PDF.

You open the Create PDF File or Transform PDF File utility, select the document and the output format, and click the Convert button. Then Abbyy converts the document to meet your specifications.

Abbyy doesn't offer a lot of functionality. The one advantage I can see is for employees who only need to perform simple PDF conversions and could be confused by other functions in competitors' more robust offerings.

Abbyy Software, Fremont, Calif., (510) 226-6717, www.abbyy.com





ScanSoft PDF Converter 4 Professional

Performance: B+

Ease of Use: A

Features: A-

Value: A+

Price: $100

Pros: Attractive price, batch conversion, competitive feature set.

Cons: Lack of some key Acrobat differentiators such as redaction and container tools.

For a fraction of the cost of Adobe's offering, Nuance delivers a feature-rich package and provides batch conversion to or from PDF, a capability you won't find in Acrobat. It doesn't do everything Acrobat does, but it is a competitive product for the price.

PDF Converter 4 Pro is a stand-alone program with a full set of tools, including mark-up and editing. You also can create a single PDF from multiple files, and the program can even act as a PDF reader. This last feature is, however, of limited value because the free Acrobat Reader is widely available and widely used.

This product shines at converting PDFs to other editable formats, even enabling you to batch-process multiple PDFs. The program converted a 40-page test document with graphics originally created in Adobe FrameMaker into an editable Word document. Acrobat, by the way, had a problem converting some of the graphics in the same document. It's worth noting that none of the products in this roundup could translate internal hyperlinks, although ScanSoft successfully translated external links to a Web site.

In tests, the program was not able to convert editing marks from the PDF to the Word file, something Acrobat can do.

This is a useful feature, especially when you're trying to create an enterprise workflow that ultimately produces a Word document.

Despite this, ScanSoft has come up with a competitive package, especially if you do a lot of conversions to or from PDF. For many departments and agencies, this product is a reasonably priced alternative and can work side by side with users of Adobe licenses. If you need to cut software costs without cutting core functionality, take a look at the ScanSoft PDF Converter 4 Professional.

Nuance Communications, Burlington, Mass., (781) 565-5000, www.nuance.com

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