Product review: Web-savvy Acrobat 4.0 worth the upgrade

Adobe's portable-document technology has been a slow-burn success story. Although adoption lagged initially, Portable Document Format (PDF) viewers are now almost mandatory for Web surfing. From tax forms to white papers, PDF provides a way to create and distribute electronic publications that maintain an original document's look and feel without regard for the intended recipient's OS, applications, or fonts.

Version 4.0 of Acrobat, Adobe's tool for creating PDF documents, was released in April, and the company has taught this old dog some new tricks. Foremost among these are easier PDF conversion, a Web page capture tool, nifty annotation features, and the capability to create digital signatures. Acrobat 4.0's relatively high price means you will not want to deploy it on every client, but it is indispensable for users of Version 3.0 and those who regularly publish precisely formatted documents or share sensitive files electronically.

It could not be easier to convert documents to PDF: simply drag and drop a file onto the Acrobat icon. You can also convert Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for Windows files into PDF from within those applications via Adobe's PDF Maker utility, which adds an icon to the respective toolbars.

Acrobat 4.0 sports enhanced Office file-conversion capabilities as well. For instance, Acrobat can convert embedded comments in a Word file into sticky notes, create bookmarks from Word styles, and maintain a Word file's pagination formatting. Acrobat can also copy a table embedded in a PDF file (it does not matter what application was used to create it) into an Excel document. However, Acrobat does not work with Office 2000 yet.

Acrobat 4.0's most "gee-whiz" addition is the Web Capture tool, with which you can convert Web pages or entire Web sites into PDF files. Formatting, graphics, fonts, colors, and even live hyperlinks are preserved.

Selecting a hyperlink in a PDF file displays the linked page in either your Internet browser or a new Acrobat window, although using the latter was slow and offered relatively poor page resolution. But like many of the new features in Version 4.0, Web Capture is available only under Windows. I also had trouble printing complex PDF documents to my Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet 1150C. Adobe acknowledges incompatibilities between Acrobat 4.0 and several non-PostScript HP printers.

Acrobat has always had good annotation tools, and Version 4.0 ups the ante. The highlighter enables you to highlight, strike through, or underline text. Stamps with messages such as "Confidential" and "Draft" can add dramatic effect to a document. In all cases, because they are layered on top of a document rather than embedded, annotations do not affect layout or text flow.

Acrobat 4.0 supports digital signatures, allowing authors and key personnel to sign PDF files with a uniquely encrypted algorithm. Digital signatures authenticate and safeguard information, as well as verify that a document has not been altered since it was sent.

With the signature technology, Acrobat now has the security necessary to handle confidential material such as human resources paperwork or legal contracts. This could yield cost savings if companies are able to eliminate or reduce their commitment to paper documents. The digital-signature framework also means that you can securely integrate PDF forms into electronic-commerce applications.

I found the digital-signature tool easy to use, although it too is available only in the Windows version. The tool allowed me to add a text box to a document that displayed signature data, including my name and the date and time I signed it.

Acrobat 4.0 is a must-have upgrade for users of Version 3.0 and for those who need strong security features for their electronic documents. There are other PDF-creation tools, such as GhostScript, but none match the features, polish, and performance of Acrobat.

(Geoffrey Hollander (mpouch@teleport.com) owns and operates a direct-marketing database business in Lake Oswego, Oregon.)The bottom line: very goodAcrobat 4.0Summary: The latest version of venerable Adobe Acrobat is full of new and enhanced features, such as easier Portable Document Format creation, digital signatures, and a Web page capture tool.

Business Case: At $US250 per client, you won't want to deploy Acrobat 4.0 to everyone, but for users of Version 3.0 or those who have been awaiting enhanced security features, the upgrade is a must-have.

Pros

+ Digital-signature capability

+ Web page capture tool

+ Strong Microsoft Office integration

+ Versatile annotation tools

Cons

- Print problems with non-PostScript Hewlett-Packard printers- Not yet compatible with Office 2000- Key features available for Windows platforms onlyCost: $US249; $99 for upgrade for users of Acrobat Version 2.0 and laterPlatforms: Windows 95; Windows 98; Windows NT; Power Macintosh, including G3

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