A freely accessible ISO standard since 2008, the Portable Document Format (PDF) will forever be associated with original developer Adobe. Moreover, despite a plethora of imitators, Adobe Acrobat remains the gold standard as far as PDF creation, manipulation and distribution tools are concerned, making the release of a new version—Acrobat X—a significant event.
What is it and who is it for?
At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that Acrobat X was, perhaps, an adult version of the popular Adobe PDF application. However, that’s not the case. Rather the product has finally reached number ten in its version numbering sequence, hence the ‘X’—ten in roman numerals.
A catch-all name that applies to a whole family of products, three ‘X’ implementations have been released in the last few months. One is Adobe Reader, the free tool which just about everyone uses to open and read PDF documents, in addition to which there are two versions of the full Acrobat application—Standard and Pro—to create, manipulate and manage PDFs.
The Standard edition is the one most consumers and small business users will buy, providing tools to both create and share PDFs and extract data back to Word, Excel and other applications. The Pro edition, meanwhile features extra tools aimed at users in the corporate market to, for example, build portfolios made up of multiple PDFs and other files and automate document creation and sharing tasks, with Office 2010 and enhanced SharePoint integration other features of this release.
Lastly an Acrobat X Suite is available which, as well as the Pro edition of Acrobat X, includes copies of Adobe Photoshop, Captivate and Presenter, the main audience here being design, print and other creative professionals.
Pricing & setup
As with previous versions of Adobe Reader, the latest X implementation can be downloaded for free. The other editions, however, are commercial products, the Standard edition being the lowest cost at £278 (ex. VAT), or £132 (ex. VAT) for existing users looking to upgrade from Acrobat 9, 8 or 7.
The Pro edition we tested is quite a bit more expensive, retailing for £444 (ex. VAT) or £190 (ex. VAT) for upgraders, including those with the Standard edition who want to move up. The suite, meanwhile, is a hefty £953 (ex. VAT) or £635 (ex. VAT) to upgrade—a fair chunk of money, but still a good buy compared to sourcing each of the applications separately. Special deals are also available to students and teachers with discounts, too, for corporate buyers looking for volume purchases.
Windows versions of both Standard and Pro editions of Acrobat X are available. Minimum requirements are a 1.3GHz processor or faster with 1GB of RAM recommended, although in practice the faster the processor and the more RAM you have the better. Any version of Windows can be employed from XP Pro onwards with support for both 32-bit and 64-bit implementations. Acrobat itself, however, is a 32-bit application. On Macs only the Pro edition is available, requiring an Intel processor and 1GB of RAM, plus 10.5.8 or later of the Mac OS.
Installation is straightforward on both platforms, taking around 15 minutes on our Windows 7 PC. A fully functional 30-day trial is available for those wanting to check out the product, but only for Windows not Mac, for some reason.
Does it do it well?
One of the most obvious differences in the ‘X’ products is a much cleaner, less cluttered, interface with most of the functionality condensed into just two toolbars. With the previous release you had to navigate through multiple toolbars and menus to perform common tasks—the new interface makes Acrobat X a lot easier to get to grips with as well as bringing it into line with other recent Adobe product updates.
As with previous versions PDFs can be created from any application that prints, with a one-button option to convert documents direct from Microsoft Office that works well with the latest 2010 release.
Unfortunately, exporting data has never been a strong point, but this is much improved in both Standard and Pro editions. Converting PDFs to Word or Excel documents isn’t perfect but worked well enough on our tests. Best results were obtained when exporting from PDFs created using a text editor, such as Word, while scanned documents, reliant on OCR to extract content, were more error prone. Parts of PDF can also be exported in this release, which is a really useful option.
A new feature specific to the Pro version is a tool to build macros—Adobe calls them ‘Actions’—to automate common document management tasks. This we found very easy to use thanks to an Action wizard and seven ready-made sample Actions to, for example, archive paper documents or prepare sensitive documents for publishing by redacting (blanking out) the sensitive bits, removing hidden information and reducing the file size.
New Actions can be created by choosing from a list of available steps to achieve the desired results, with a simple interface that we found very easy to follow.
Acrobat X Pro also improves on the Portfolio option, designed to let you bundle together multiple PDFs and other files for easier sharing and distribution. In the new version Portfolio PDFs are a lot simpler to build and manage, with five layouts and five visual themes to choose from plus the option of importing custom themes and including Flash SWF files, embedded YouTube videos and general HTML content in a portfolio, with a previewer also built in as standard.
Another key selling point of Acrobat X Pro is its ability to convert paper forms into editable PDFs, which can filled in using the free Adobe Reader. Plus it can unlock additional functionality in the Reader application, for example, allowing comments to be added to PDF documents when opened in Reader X.
Lastly, performance is enhanced across the ‘X’ portfolio and security improved with a secure ‘sandbox’ to isolate PDF documents when viewing online.
Where does it disappoint?
Partly because of its popularity, the PDF format and Adobe’s Acrobat in particular have long been the target of Internet threats, with regular patches required to maintain security. This still applies to Acrobat X, although Adobe is working to reduce the frequency of its updates. Elsewhere, the OCR capabilities are improved but still don’t quite measure up to what’s possible with dedicated best of breed tools, plus some document formats can’t be previewed in portfolios, .wmv video files being the most notable.
Would we recommend it?
If all you want to do is turn documents into PDFs there are plenty of tools available that are equally as good as those from Adobe. Indeed, users of recent versions of Microsoft Office will find the functionality built in, with plenty of freeware or low cost tools available to do the job for other document types and applications.
When it comes to doing more with PDFs, however, Adobe Acrobat is still the pack leader and the functionality in Acrobat X hard to beat. Existing users may question the value of what looks like a relatively expensive upgrade but, overall, there’s enough in the new release to make it worth it, while for new users looking for a comprehensive set of PDF creation, manipulation and publishing tools, Acrobat X is a no-brainier.