Acrobat performs new tricks

If you've used the World Wide Web lately, you've almost certainly clicked on a link that opens a PDF file.

The files have become a widely accepted standard for document delivery in situations where retaining the format of a document is important. In part, that's because Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat Reader, which enables users to view PDF files, is available at no cost.

Of course, if you want to create PDF (Portable Document Format) files, you'll need to spend some money on the full version of Adobe Acrobat. As software goes, the $250 street price of the full version of Acrobat is not exorbitant. And we've found that the new version Acrobat 5.0 adds a host of features that turn the product into a true workgroup tool for document creation and management.

Converting files to and from PDF is easier than before. Using Acrobat 5.0, you can quickly convert a PDF file to a Microsoft Corp. Rich Text Format file, although you will lose all images and most of the formatting. Images are extracted separately, and if you want to bring them into the RTF file, you must do so manually. Alternatively, you can convert whole PDF pages into image file formats, such as TIFF or JPEG.

Converting files to PDF format is also easy, thanks to the Distiller program. Upon installation, Acrobat places icons in Microsoft Office applications that enable you to quickly convert documents to PDF. (We did find, however, that Acrobat failed to install its icons to Office XP toolbars, a snag Adobe is working on. So if you're using Office XP, you'll need to convert by selecting Print, then choosing Distiller.)

What's more, with Acrobat 5.0 you can even capture Web pages and entire sites from the Internet as PDF files. That can be especially handy for archiving your site and for doing research online.

Another nifty new feature is Version 5.0's ability to let users view and add comments to PDF files while reading them within a Web browser. When you click on a link that opens a PDF file in your browser, you'll find a set of editing tools in the toolbar at the top of the window. The tools available will depend upon the security settings specified by the document's author. Authors can determine whether a PDF file can be edited by others, whether text can be selected for copying, whether comments can be added and whether the document can be printed, among other things.

Also, Acrobat has become a fairly powerful forms-creation tool that enables you to generate and distribute PDF documents with data fields that change dynamically depending on user input. Also, data from PDF forms is compatible with Extensible Markup Language, so you can move it directly into your back-end databases.

Adobe has also added spell checking for form fields to Version 5.0, which helps ensure that the data in your database is usable.

Acrobat 5.0 offers enhanced security for those sharing and collaborating on files via a network or the Internet. Version 5.0 supports password protections and encryption, as did earlier versions. But where earlier versions were limited to 40-bit encryption, Version 5.0 supports 128-bit encryption.

Version 5.0 supports third-party digital signature and public-key infrastructure solutions, such as those available from VeriSign Inc. and Entrust Inc. It also allows users to request and exchange certificates within Acrobat documents via e-mail, which means that you can ensure that only intended recipients can open and view PDF files.

We found Acrobat's security features to be robust and easy to implement, important considerations when documents are being shared for collaboration. And Acrobat's version-comparison tools also make it easy to track changes made in documents by various collaborators.

Agency users with Section 508 requirements of the Rehabilitation Act in mind will especially appreciate Acrobat's support for features that make documents more accessible to disabled users, such as high-contrast viewing modes and compatibility with third-party screen readers, such as JAWS (Job Access With Speech) from Freedom Scientific and Window-Eyes from GW Micro Inc.

The bottom line: We were impressed with Acrobat's new collaboration and security features. The product is quickly becoming a must-have tool for working on and delivering formatted materials, especially in cross-platform environments.

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