By Dustin Sklavos
Reviewing a product like Adobe Acrobat X can be remarkably difficult because the product itself suffers the same problems that software like Photoshop or even Windows often do: if your program is already incredibly pervasive and basically the gold standard, just how important was that incremental update? It's true that Microsoft had a harsh reality check with Windows Vista, but Adobe hasn't had to deal with that kind of fear. It's what made the impressive jump with Photoshop CS5 so surprising.
In many ways Acrobat and Adobe's PDF format are even more insurmountable. Microsoft tried with their XPS format, which hasn't exactly set the world on fire. Despite the fact that security holes pop up in Adobe software -- especially in the PDF format -- at an alarming rate, it is nonetheless pervasive. PDF files are used for documentation for a broad range of software. PDF files are frequently a default format available for scanners, oftentimes without even needing to boot into an operating system. Unlike Photoshop -- which serves a specific user base -- and Windows -- which does have to contend with Mac OS X and Linux -- Adobe's PDF format is simply inescapable. It is on every platform. It is readable on smartphones.
You can see why one might wonder if Adobe even has the impetus to improve it, and you can see why updates have been...rarefied. Acrobat Pro belongs in Adobe's Creative Suite -- it's strange that it isn't included in CS5 -- but Acrobat X is more than a little late. What does it bring to the table?
ADOBE READER X
We'll start with the free one. Right off the bat, I can tell you that from the looks of things, the newest version of Adobe Reader is business as usual. New features compared to old Adobe Reader 9 seem spare; the same commenting and embedding is all accounted for. The user interface appears a little bit cleaned up; as we'll see, it's mostly falling in line with Acrobat X Pro, which in turn is falling in line with the rest of Adobe's Creative Suite 5.
There is one important difference I've noticed with Reader X against the venerable Reader 9: it at least feels a bit faster. When Reader X is launched it produces two processes, one of which hovers at around 6MB of memory usage -- hardly noteworthy -- and the other closer to 60-80MB. Scrolling through documents in Reader X seems quicker and as a whole the program feels lighter, and that's a good thing: Adobe Reader has traditionally felt very bloated, and scrolling has often felt like a chore. In Reader X, that's less of a problem.
ADOBE ACROBAT X PRO
The big boy is Acrobat X Pro, and I need to be clear on one incredibly important point: this software is definitely meant for enterprise use. Acrobat X Pro, possibly even more than its predecessors, is as corporate as the day is long. Unfortunately, that leaves some consumers out in the cold, as there are useful features here for anyone (PDF creation being the big one) despite the program being clearly marketed to businesses.
At this point I'd also like to bring up another unfortunate fact: we rounded up free PDF software not too long ago, and the conclusion was that while you can scrape most of Acrobat's functionality proper from various different programs, there's just no freeware or reasonably priced alternative to Adobe's Acrobat software. Acrobat really centralizes all of the useful features of those programs, and frankly it still handles them all the best. As a result, whether or not Acrobat X is even any good is of little consequence; like my review for iTunes 10, the quality of the software almost doesn't matter because there just isn't another choice.
With all that said, I'm at least comfortable declaring Adobe Acrobat X Pro is actually worthwhile beyond simply being the default PDF option. As I mentioned in the section about Reader, Adobe has brought over some of the styling of CS5 to Acrobat X Pro's user interface. The software is intuitive and easy to use, smartly nesting features where they're needed without creating too much clutter. While Reader just offers "Comment" and "Share" buttons that open tabs on the right-hand side of the window, Acrobat adds a "Tools" button which when clicked produces a series of subheadings that offer a healthy amount of control over the individual document. These functions should all be familiar to you, but the difference is that the overall interface is a lot cleaner than its predecessor's was.
The ability to create PDF forms hasn't changed, but unfortunately this functionality is still stifled by Reader's inability to save altered PDF forms: you can enter data, and you can print the PDF with your data entered, but you can't just save the changed PDF. It's a problem that's always seemed a little petty and unfortunately it's exacerbated by just how expensive Acrobat itself is.
Unfortunately the rest is really business as usual. Adobe seems to be pushing for tighter integration with Acrobat.com and, in fairness, we were pretty pleased with Acrobat.com when we tested its video conferencing features. The industry is moving towards computing in the cloud and Acrobat X Pro follows that trend. Beyond that, Acrobat X feels like an incremental upgrade.
What we're essentially dealing with are two different versions of the same piece of software. Whether or not you should upgrade from Acrobat 9 is, at least as far as Reader goes, a no-brainer: Adobe Reader X is cleaner and faster, and we're all for progress around here.
Acrobat X is a little trickier, and in many ways still feels like a big fat middle finger to the average consumer. If you want to be able to print to PDF or otherwise convert files -- functions that are likely to be both very useful and very common -- you're going to have to fork out a boatload of bread to do it Adobe's way. This isn't a slight just against Acrobat X; this has been true for every recent version of Acrobat.
Taken on its own terms, Acrobat X is a worthwhile upgrade to Acrobat 9 the same way Windows 7 is a worthwhile upgrade to Windows Vista: it's faster, cleaner, and easier to use. Adobe claims to bring improved integration with Microsoft Office 2010, but their new feature list isn't very exciting. This feels more like a maintenance update, but it's a good one. At the end of the day, the private user still gets shafted by the expense of Acrobat X Pro, but the corporate user will get a lot of mileage out of it.
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