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REVIEW: ARTS PDF's Aerialist Pro -- Big Bang for Big Bucks

April 12, 2005

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Introduction

For years now, ARTS PDF has carved a niche as a top-shelf Acrobat plug-in developer, augmenting the native capabilities of Adobe Systems' flagship desktop software with a broad array of tools to help professional Acrobat users get the most out of PDF technology.

Historically, ARTS PDF has tended to focus on desktop publishing and prepress needs. Many businesses, however, have often put ARTS PDF applications to work in content-management applications, and ARTS PDF has now clearly decided to target these users.

With the introduction of Aerialist (Standard) in Q3 of 2004, ARTS PDF combined and updated many of the desktop publishing features from their other products to produce a one-stop-shopping solution that fills many of the (remaining) gaps in Acrobat. With the release of Aerialist Professional, ARTS PDF has added depth to Aerialist's essentials, a variety of prepress (actually multi-function) tools and powerful batch automation. The overall effect is impressive: A cornucopia of well-considered, and in many cases unique, features that by-and-large work as advertised -- not as common a quality in the 3rd-party, PDF-software marketplace as one might prefer to expect.

Highlights

  • Watched Folder Engine

    Aerialist Pro Aerialist Professional delivers massive automation potential with this key addition to Aerialist. With a properly thought-through implementation, this tool alone promises revolutionary new workflows for organizations that produce and manage large-scale document sets. By daisy-chaining multiple sub-processes together, Watched Folders make it possible for workgroups to assemble, manage and update large volumes of documents with ease.

  • Advanced Table of Contents Generator

    Given its billing as a major new feature, it's odd to find the Table of Contents Generator buried in the Links section of the documentation at "7.4.7" -- it deserves its own menu-item and top-level status in the Help file as far as I am concerned. This tool is clearly a jumbo feature for those who spend their days assembling disparate collections of documents together. Especially impressive is the ability to create Master Tables of Contents from collections of PDF files. Combined with Bookmarks, this feature makes it unnecessary to produce a single, massive PDF file in order to have all necessary interactive navigation features in place across the whole collection.

  • Keyword and Page Linking

    To assist users with glossaries, to provide links to websites, and for many other purposes, keyword linking is a nifty feature that promises to solve a current problem or create a new opportunity for many interactive document developers. The Page-Linking feature is a great addition for making indexes and Tables of Contents interactive, notwithstanding the fact that as of this writing, the links produced can only target actual (as opposed to logical) pages in the document.

  • Layer Management

    Unaccountably, Adobe Systems has seen fit to keep PDF layers pretty quiet -- certainly, out of the hands of most Acrobat Professional users. The ability to add layers is still lacking in Acrobat 7.0. (Layers are available from the source application only with InDesign, Illustrator, AutoCAD and Visio.) ARTS PDF has combined their Lantana-originated Stratify product into Aerialist Pro, betting that once users become aware of layers, many other Acrobat Professional users outside the engineering and prepress worlds might begin to see the potential of this powerful capability as well.

  • Image Tools

    Especially for prepress use, but applicable elsewhere, Aerialist Pro includes a suite of Image Tools that facilitate last-minute corrections and changes to the raster content of PDF files. These tools may be added to batch sequences to make similar changes to images in large volumes of PDF files all at once.

  • Reports

    Link and other reports are available as CSV files (you'll need to check the box in Aerialist Professional's Preferences), which greatly assists with quality control, especially exception-handling.

Gripes

There are so many detailed features in Aerialist Pro that assessing (or bug sniffing) them all was beyond the scope of this review. However, the following points come to mind as calling out for improvement:

  • With everything else it can do, it seems odd that Aerialist does not better manage logical page numbering. Aerialist can paginate PDF files "physically" by adding text to the page, but PDFs are inherently capable of logical sectional pagination within the file itself, and Aerialist does not take advantage of this fact.
  • A related matter: The linking tools operate based on the actual page-number in the PDF, not the logical page number, either as printed (or added) to the page, or as defined in the PDF file itself. When logical and actual pagination do not agree (as often happens with complex or larger documents), the user is obligated to correct the links created with Aerialist to point to the proper destination. Fortunately, Aerialist's Find / Replace Destinations tool makes this quite easy to do.
  • The Image Tools, while permitting downsampling of images, do not include the ability to modify image compression, which is unfortunate. Also, I'd like to see support for color conversion to 1-bit (bitonal images) added.
  • While providing valuable detail on the hands-on usage of the product, the documentation does not offer much in the way of inspiration to Acrobat jockeys who may (correctly) smell solutions to their problems in this software, but have difficulty articulating their needs. In short, the Help documentation could benefit from the addition of examples demonstrating how the various tools in Aerialist Professional may be put to use in serving common business needs.

Conclusion

Overall, almost anyone who appreciates the power of Aerialist and the earlier generations of ARTS PDF tools will find it hard to deny the logic -- at least in purely functional terms -- of upgrading to Aerialist Professional. The cost is another matter. While Aerialist Standard is US$379, the pricetag for Aerialist Professional exceeds that of Acrobat Professional; buying the two together would set you back more than US$1,000. Aerialist Professional is, however, one of a relative handful of applications that can quickly and definitively recover dozens of hours from existing workflows. Perhaps more importantly, both versions of Aerialist can open one's eyes to the deep and rich possibilities inherent in PDF. Even if users have no immediate need for, say, Layer Management or the Watched Folders features, the mere awareness of these features will eventually lead many Acrobat users towards their own "Eureka!" moments. At the end of the day, that's what powerful software is really all about.

ARTS PDF Aerialist Professional (Ed note: now Debenu PDF Aerialist) is available to try or buy.

(ARTS PDF and Planet PDF are both divisions of Debenu)

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