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Whenever you download and print event registration forms, large reports, books, or sleek brochures from the Web, you usually wind up dealing with a file in Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). Adobe Acrobat is the standard-bearer for creating and editing complex PDF files. But why do you even need Acrobat when dozens of competing applications and free, Web-based services also can create PDF files?
While the price remains the same from Acrobat 7, we think the $449 Acrobat is unnecessary if you merely need to create little PDFs. However, version 8.1's enhancements make it richer than its predecessors if you require additional security and data-sharing that the little PDF makers can't provide. The additions to Acrobat 8.1 should appeal to those working in fields that deal with sensitive data--especially legal, medical, and financial professionals.
The download took us about 10 minutes on Windows XP. We chose the Typical installation, but you can select individual features with Complete or Custom setup, too. Acrobat version 8.1 now works with Windows Vista, too; you can visit Adobe's Web site to update from version 8 to 8.1. During setup, Acrobat adds Create PDF buttons into other software you may have, including Microsoft Office applications from 2000 to 2007.
Once Acrobat is running, the Getting Started screen presents big buttons for the major features: Create PDF, Combine Files, Export, and so on. The Start Meeting and Review & Comment buttons take you to Adobe Connect, which replaces Macromedia Breeze for hosting virtual meeting spaces. Acrobat 8.1 Professional offers tighter ease of use, with wizards to take you through PDF creation and management step by step if you need some hand-holding. The drop-down menus from the refreshed toolbar are also pretty easy to figure out, and you can customize the toolbars. Also, there's more control over redactions to keep your top-secret documents snoop-proof.
Finally, you can fill out Acrobat forms digitally instead of having to download a form from the free Acrobat Reader, print it, then turn it in by hand, via snail mail, or by fax; this is long overdue. Now your company or block club can send out a questionnaire or a party invitation via e-mail, collect the completed forms, and pool the data paperlessly in one place. The Acrobat Professional 8.1 edition can detect form fields in a PDF document automatically, enabling you to convert those flat lines to live fields ready for data input.
The Combine Files wizard steps you through packaging varied file types, such as a Microsoft Word letter, an Excel spreadsheet, and a variety of JPEG and GIF images to make one print-ready, PDF file. You can grab selected page ranges from within a Word document or pick individual worksheets from an XLS file, leaving the unnecessary stuff out of your final PDF. It's easy to optimize file sizes and to drag and drop the components to put them in the order you want. In about four minutes, we bundled more than five Word, Excel, JPEG, and PDF files totaling 227KB into a nine-page PDF of 101KB. You can export your PDF files to JPEG, TIFF, HTML, XML, text, and other formats. In addition, a "Send to FedEx Kinko's" option within the File menu allows remote, paid printing at that brand's stores around the country.
Acrobat 8.1 also adds new integration with Microsoft Office 2007, such as the capability to create a PDF file by right-clicking the mouse from within supported applications. Microsoft Outlook 2007 can now preview multipage PDF files within e-mail messages, just as it already displays Office documents. And Mac users will be able to view Flash movies within Adobe Acrobat and Reader 8.1 instead of using QuickTime.
What if your intelligence report contains the name of an undercover operative? In the past, people suffered when text they had blacked out in Microsoft Word was wrapped into a PDF file that unpeeled the highlighting and revealed sensitive sentences underneath. Now, Acrobat lets you black out text permanently, even letting you search for keywords to erase so that you won't miss one. Alas, as more people adopt this feature, it may not bode well for investigators and journalists hoping to dig up data that used to be sloppily buried.
After you Apply Redactions, Acrobat 8.1 forces you to inspect metadata, annotations and comments, bookmarks, and so on for other tidbits you might want to keep under wraps. Once you're ready for other eyes to see your new PDF file, the Secure and Sign drop-downs from Acrobat 8.1's toolbar help you to add 128-bit encryption and a digital signature to protect your intellectual property.
Adobe provides many support resources at its Web site, such as Flash tutorials, user forums, FAQs, and a searchable knowledge base. Acrobat's online resources are well-organized and thorough. However, Adobe's four support plans, from Bronze to Platinum, are costly. Installation help by phone is available only via a toll telephone number, for instance. You'll need to sign in to get customized help online.
So far, we find Acrobat 8.1 to be a more useful and intuitive tool than its ancestor, although you don't need to plunk down hundreds of dollars unless you're really craving the security features.