REVIEW -- Adobe Acrobat 5.0: "Focus on the Document"
'The new 1.4 specification begins the long, slow transition to the complete XML enabling of PDF'

2 May 2001

By Duff Johnson, Planet PDF Contributing Editor and Susan Frank


Let's get one thing clear. This review discusses a new release of electronic document software as such, we reviewed only the Windows version. With no intention of slighting the Mac folks, we did not fret about transparency, trapping or ICC. In Acrobat 5.0, Adobe Systems has turned in many ways to the Document, and for almost every document-heavy organization, not just publishers and printers, that's actually pretty good news.

What do we mean by "the document?" PDF was originally conceived of as a tool to assist the process of accurately and consistently committing ink to paper. A document, however, is not just ink and paper! It's a pastiche of content, images, organization, layout, text attributes and packaging. The fact that PDF is good at retaining these irreducible qualities makes the format useful in business, publishing and academia far beyond facilitating the production of mere printed pages.

Minor quibbles aside, Acrobat 4.05 was already superb for many or most of the essential prepress and print workflow missions and only slightly less excellent for many (although not most) electronic document applications. Adobe's renewed attention to the form, method and execution of the electronic document is welcome both to the hundreds of millions of Acrobat users and Adobe shareholders alike, a happy coincidence.

There had to be a goof somewhere ...

Given the attention paid to the Document in this release, it's ironic that Adobe initially chose to remove the Paper Capture feature a simple, limited, yet functional OCR utility much appreciated by almost every Acrobat user at one time or another. Adobe had "replaced" Paper Capture with an ASP service upload your image file and receive an OCRed PDF in return. Users of the service reported a, er, wide variety of experiences.

Happily, Adobe has announced the imminent return of Paper Capture to Acrobat 5.0 (Windows) in June 2001. Occasional users do not fear, it seems that you won't have to upload your private documents to Adobe's servers after all.

Installation Issues

Plan your installation carefully. Attempting to load multiple versions of Acrobat on the same machine is frowned upon; on uninstall, Acrobat 5.0 tends to take out everything with the name "Acrobat" with it. As with Acrobat 4.05, you should carefully assess your needs with respect to Office, Photoshop and Illustrator integration, to name a couple of likely options. For MS Office integration, install Office first, then Acrobat. If Office is already on your machine ... oh, you figure it out. For the best results, install Acrobat after all applications you would consider integrating with Acrobat. Once you have your installation settled down (and, yes, you should reinstall ALL your plugins don't just copy the api files), you'll find that 5.0 is clearly faster and more stable than any earlier incarnation of Acrobat.

A Document-Centric Summary of Changes in Acrobat 5.0

Some of the changes in Acrobat operate only for the new 1.4 specification for PDF files. There's not a lot you can do in Acrobat 5.0 that will make your files unusable in Acrobat 4.05, but backwards compatibility is an issue every electronic document application must be sure to address.

Accessibility: Tags and XML

The new PDF specification allows tags for detailed formatting information to facilitate text reflow, the next conceptual level of the venerable (and often overlooked) Article Thread feature available since version 3.0. This feature may find intensive use with document applications where highly flexible document delivery is critical. Tagged PDF documents may be created through the Web Capture plugin, via the PDFMaker plugin to Word, with Adobe FrameMaker, or via the new Adobe "Make Accessible" plugin for Acrobat 5.0. Don't forget to proof your tags these engines (with the possible exception of well-structured Frame files) will not tag the way you want them to, and they don't respond to harsh language.

The only nods to XML throughout all of Acrobat 5.0 are the obvious first steps towards XML integration provision for XML metadata at the document level, and for the export of form data as XML. This move is significant because it truly enables document categorization, location and management in live metadata rather than via a database. Full XML integration - no, not yet, or at least, not with Adobe tools.
The "Make Accessible" plugin, available for download from Adobe's Web site, adds tags to existing PDFs; but like every other automation built to sniff unstructured data, must be quality-controlled for good results. Completely automated tagging via Distillation of PostScript from the source-file is still -- you guessed it -- subject to human validation as well.
The new Tags interface, while expressing great potential, is unusually clunky for an Adobe GUI.
Structured PDF is located between completely "dumb," or unstructured PDF, and tagged (ie, reliably reflowable) PDF. A Structured PDF may possess some minor benefits (as claimed) for RTF extraction, but we didn't see any. Reflow of structured PDF may well be better.


Image Conversion

Acrobat 5.0 now includes a decoder for the new JBIG format, currently up for final ISO review. JBIG promises dramatic file size reductions with a new lossless compression scheme for bi-tonal data. It's a real opportunity for Adobe, because adoption of JBIG in Acrobat would instantly create a new standard for lossless compression of the scanned page, and therefore a powerful argument for the wholesale replacement of G4 TIFF-based systems with PDF. Unfortunately, while supporting JBIG in the specification, Adobe has not provided a JBIG encoder in Acrobat 5.0 this avenue awaits exploration!

Acrobat 5.0 now permits easy and reliable conversion to PDF of more common image formats than JBIG, including single and multipage G4 TIFF page images. Of course, as previously noted, if you want Paper Capture, your image file will be taking a trip to the Adobe web site.
Imported image files were 2-3 percent larger on average than files imported using Acrobat Exchange 3.01 (Acrobat 4.05 does not retain G4 compression using its import image feature, so it's effectively broken as far as document images go). 2-3 percent may not seem like a lot, but drive space and bandwidth (especially in document imaging volumes) still cost money the last time I checked!


Integrated Document Security

There are new, sophisticated security features with Acrobat 5 compatibility only. Applying these powerful new options in real-world workflows remains neither easy nor intuitive. Careful planning, with particular attention to workflow exception handling, will reward the administrators of PDF's powerful new capacity for layered electronic document management at the document level.

128-bit, RC4 encryption, with sophisticated new security options delivering fingertip control over permitting various types of changes to the file and to form fields. Directed at enabling document routing workflows, these new features will reward those who truly seek to replace paper workflows with a comprehensible electronic equivalent. [SCREEN GRAB]
Another nice touch -- a security item was added to permit only low resolution printing of PDF files. Think HARD before enabling THAT option!

Integration with InterTrust. Users will have to make up their own mind about the new DocBox "feature". Certainly, format agnosticism is crucial to successful Digital Rights Management (DRM), but, IMHO, it's too early to be picking winners in this area.


Batch Processing

The all-new batch processing utility allows almost any command to be run in batch mode, including tiff conversion to PDF and saving PDF files to postscript. JavaScripts can also be run in batch. This feature alone is worth the price of admission! [SCREEN GRAB 1] [SCREEN GRAB 2] [SCREEN GRAB 3]
Batch Processing will process subdirectories, but in order to maintain the directory structure you have to replace the original files, which is a rather brave thing to do.



Now you can set the color of bookmarks and make them bold and/or italics.
The "edit destination" command in Acrobat 4.05 brought you to the current destination, the logical starting point for adjusting a link or bookmark. In Acrobat 5.0, this handy feature is gone, a pity.



Distiller may now be opened from within Acrobat, as well as separately. Adobe still doesn't recommend re-distilling your PDF to cure its ills; in fact, they specifically say NOT to do this! Our jury needs more time on this one
You can now Distill a page range
Anti-alias to gray is a new distiller feature that is supposed to smooth jagged edges in monochrome images. We played with this a bit and couldn't see any difference.
There is some increase in file size with jpeg med. and high compression of images. Distiller 4 compresses them slightly more than Distiller 5. Overall, we found a 6 percent increase in file size using jpeg med. compression over various collections of files.


File Conversion and Extraction

Acrobat 5.0 has the ability to save pages in various image formats, including JPEG, single-page TIFF and PostScript. Lots of people will be excited about this!
Acrobat 5.0 will also allow you to save a file in RTF format. While tagged files show some improvement in retaining the PDF page layout, this feature delivers approximately the same results as the Copy File to Clipboard command in Acrobat 4.05 (and still present in Acrobat 5.0 go figure). Just about any page thus extracted other than the test page will require clean-up before re-use it was ever thus. The results are better with 1.4 specification tagged PDF, but with 1.3 spec files, RTF cleanup is still RTF cleanup. Also, as with the 4.05 version of this feature, do note that the utility copies text, not images to the RTF file.
Save as optimized is now a preference to be set rather than a choice during the Save As process. The default is that all files are saved optimized.
In our experience, extracted JPEG images sometimes come out very dark.


Catalog and Index Information

A superb, albeit dated product, Catalog is now built directly into Acrobat, but the changes are modest. The interface and feature-set of this venerable Verity-based engine have barely changed in four years, although the functions once only available on the Mac version are now available under Windows. No, Search is still NOT web-enabled; but it works well, and it's free, so count yourself lucky! Back in the day, they used to charge a stand-alone license of over $500 per CD-master for the right to use this same product.
Catalog now indexes custom fields on both Mac and Windows. You still can't add custom fields to the Search interface, nor can you view them in the search window stop whining, it's free! You can search the custom fields via the full text search box. Nothing has changed, except that now a Windows Catalog run will include the contents of your custom document information fields.


Page Management

Thumbnails are much more powerful, permitting the user to select specific pages for deletion, cropping or rotation. The thumbnail images are created on the fly, eliminating the need to embed them in the document. They can be embedded to save drawing time, with an increase in file size
Page rotation: You can now opt to rotate only even or odd pages and/or only portrait or landscape pages.
The Crop tool now has a new "remove white margins" feature which functions almost exactly as did the "Crop bounded box" function in Acrobat 4.05. Unfortunately, you still can't set the size of the resulting margin.
The manual says (AcroHelp.pdf, page 111) that they fixed the drag and drop insert files feature so that the files insert in the same order as they are sorted in Explorer. This still doesn't work.


Form Fields

As important as forms are to business, so they are to this new version of Acrobat. Layout and print folks can skip this part.

Now you can set preferences to highlight form fields with a color box when selected and to "Show Focus Rectangle" for fields.
A new fields palette lists all fields to help locate and edit them. You can lock or unlock and set properties for multiple selected fields from the palette. [SCREEN GRAB]
Supports creation of multicell, formatted tables based on one row or column of fields.
Holding down the shift key when resizing a form field maintains the original aspect ratio of the form field.

Submit Form Export Format now includes XML
Dates can be exported in a single format

Form field text can now be in any font, not just the base 14.
Form field text orientation can be set to 0, 90, 180, 270 degrees. Fields thus adjusted DO, repeat DO function in Reader 4.05.
You can now select other image formats in addition to PDF files for use as button icons.
Spell check for form fields and Comments is a new and very welcome feature. Note that for fields, spell check is set as a form field property defaulting to Off. In order for the form field spell check to work, the "Do Not Spell Check" option in the field properties must be checked off.


File Creation and Management

The process of creating PDF files, as well as creating bookmarks, links, and form fields, is similar enough to the previous version that re-training should not present a major concern. Generating a quality PDF file is not yet reducible to a single click, even in MS Office applications. Users must still format files for the Distiller printer, as well as set Distiller and PDFMaker options, which are better integrated. Project managers will want to spend time thinking about the Batch options, which are far more powerful than before.


Other Little Things We Liked

Space Auditor [SCREEN GRAB]: A new tool that lists the size and percentage of the file that different objects take up, such as images, fonts, bookmarks, etc. Sobering.
The underline annotation tool makes a much better looking line than in Acrobat 4. It could be used for underlining text in the PDF file.
Snap to grid now works for links and annotations in addition to form fields. It only worked with form fields in Acrobat 4.
A new interface for setting Document Level JavaScript actions [SCREEN GRAB], and a new Edit All JavaScripts option listing all the document scripts in one window.
Toolbars are now completely modular, facilitating a customized tool setup.


The foundations and much of the superstructure for the final-form electronic document (epaper) were all in place with Acrobat 4.05. Acrobat and Acrobat Reader 5.0 represent meaningful progress in Acrobat application development, but are largely evolutionary steps for the core PDF applications. The customary debate over the value of a painful transition to accommodate the new features will be as pronounced as ever. The ground still shakes, even when the elephant moves only a little. It can't be helped.

The new 1.4 specification begins the long, slow transition to the complete XML enabling of PDF -- or the complete PDF-enabling of XML -- whichever way you want to look at it. This is the development to watch. The full power of the "Portable Document Format" concept comes ever more to life with electronic paper finding a mètier as both final reference and essential content source, whether "fully dressed" in its native "final form" or acknowledged within some far-flung XMLized iteration. Look to Acrobat to provide that platform in the future.

Susan Frank is the Chief Technical Officer of Document Solutions, Inc.


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