Acrobat dazzles with new tricks

High-end PDF tool adds security, collaboration features to woo users

Other than perhaps Web browsers, no program has facilitated more cross-platform document sharing than Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat series of products. Whether you run Windows, Mac, Solaris, Linux, PocketPC, Palm OS'heck, even OS/2'as long as you have a free Acrobat Reader, you can read documents saved in the program's native Portable Document Format.

With the new Acrobat 7'including an updated Reader and Acrobat 7 Professional'Adobe looks to be taking file sharing to the next level. Adobe clearly hopes that by adding functionality to the reader component, which you can download now at, more people will choose to buy the $449 Professional 7, which lets users create the latest PDF files.

We tested Acrobat 7 Professional in the GCN Lab. The first thing we noticed about Acrobat 7 was its speed. The program loads a lot faster than Version 6, a nice enhancement, by the way, that also extends into the new Acrobat Reader. The interface has also been streamlined. For example, once you have Acrobat 7 Professional installed, you can simply right click on any supported file type, such as Word or Excel files, to convert them into PDF. And you can combine multiple documents into a single PDF. We used this handy feature to add a spreadsheet to the bottom of a word processor file. The resulting PDF looked great and could be read by Acrobat Reader users with a single click.

If you want, you can also add an attachment to your PDF document, which is one of the oddest new features, in our opinion. Say we didn't want to append that Excel spreadsheet to a Word document in our Acrobat file. We could instead choose to send the Excel file as an attachment to the PDF document. In practical terms, because we traffic a lot in PDF around here, this process means we're basically e-mailing an attachment attached to our attachment.

Getting organized

If you have a lot of PDF files on your system right now, a new organizer feature in Acrobat Professional 7 should help you make sense of them. The module lets you quickly see all the PDF files on your drive at once. You can manually organize them into collections or have the program automatically sort them in a variety of ways. For example, you could take all the files you created in the last month for a special project and put them together in one area.

But the biggest change, and the one that will likely affect the millions of us who use the free reader version of Acrobat, is the addition of collaboration functionality to PDF documents. Using Acrobat 7 Professional, a document's creator can add a capability that lets Reader users mark up and make comments in a PDF file. Previously, the free Reader did not support this feature.

By default, this functionality is turned off as a security precaution. When enabled, it triggers several tools in the Reader menu for users who have been given rights to modify the PDF file. With Acrobat 7, approved users can highlight sections of a document, strike through text, draw on the document with an electronic pen or add comments, which appear very much like sticky notes attached to a document.

If they want to get clever, document creators using Professional can set up a list of editors they know will be commenting on a document and then track each person's additions as the documents move back and forth. If you use this feature, comments are collected under a special tag heading and can be sorted by color or simply grouped together. That way, for example, you can give more weight to your boss's comments than your buddy's down the hall without having to sort through all the notes.

Anyone with Acrobat Reader 7 can use the collaboration features, if permitted. But only Acrobat 7 Professional users can enable the editing features and grant modification rights. The feature is not included in the less expensive Acrobat 7 Standard edition.

Additional access controls are also now built into Acrobat 7. Before, it took a third-party add-on for document creators to determine who is able to print, copy or alter PDF files. You can give someone permission to view your PDF file, for instance, but not print it. There are ways to get around these controls, of course, but they are time consuming, especially with larger files, and generally not worth the effort unless someone really wants to steal a document.

As before, you can also password-protect your document, but the ability to do so is now better integrated with the overall interface. Also, you can add a digital signature to the approval process under the program's editing tag. Then when your boss finishes with a document using Reader, it will prompt the person to type her name in order to approve it. Having done so, your boss' digital signature and the time she approved the document will appear at the bottom like a sticky tab. Along with password protection, this can be part of a secure approval process, and you'll know when your superiors have signed off on all your work.

Acrobat is already heavily used in government, but the new Professional version 7 will likely enhance its appeal. As users of the free Reader program start to experience the new editing tools, digital signatures, document tracking and integrated security features, they are going to want to start creating this functionality themselves, and for good reason. Acrobat 7 is one upgrade that's more than cosmetic. So much useful added functionality is packed inside, it's almost like a completely new program.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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