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Making public documents

Opinion
Nov 20, 20033 mins
Enterprise Applications

* We test the new Acrobat 6.0, as well as two low-cost competitors

Time to upgrade your thinking about documents. Since they’re no longer just printed, but e-mailed, posted on Web sites and stored on servers, it doesn’t make sense to store them in an unsecured, virus-prone format such as Microsoft Word. You need a secure method to control who can change, print or attach new information, and the ability to display across multiple systems.

Adobe created its Portable Document Format (PDF) 20 years ago to avoid many of these problems. It offered Adobe Reader software free, and today it’s everywhere, including bundled with software so you can read the product’s electronic manual or send the file to a printer.

PDF readers are free, but not the programs to create PDF files. I tested Adobe’s new Acrobat 6.0 Standard Version ($299 Standard, $499 Professional), as well as two competitors offering products for $49. Bottom line? Acrobat gives you more flexibility and control, but cheaper versions offer the most popular features and might be all you need. 

Adobe Acrobat 6.0 Standard integrates deep into Microsoft Word, adding icons to the toolbar and a new menu heading. You can also start the Acrobat program separately and integrate files, images, tables and Web pages downloaded directly from the Web. The $499 version adds the ability to create electronic forms, handles large-scale printouts and long documents, and includes one-button AutoCAD support.

Acrobat shines above the rest with document workflow features such as comments, footnotes, reviews and secure signatures. Ever seen a Word document with Track Changes on after six different authors have contributed? It’s a giant mess, and a PDF file with attached comments will make it easier to see who added what. There’s also a feature that reads your document aloud by a fairly natural-sounding male computer voice, helpful to those who proofread text aurally.  

RoboPDF from eHelp also installs icons on the toolbar and a new menu heading in Word. It lacks Adobe’s separate document workspace, but includes a nice PDF file organizer. Aside from its $49 product, the company also offers a free, full-featured home version that puts an advertising footer on each page. (Macromedia recently purchased eHelp, but there’s no word on discontinuing products.)

Instead of putting an icon on the task bar or new menu heading in Word, PowerPDF from Xelerate Software relies on its special PDF printer it creates inside your Windows operating system during installation. The current (English) version of PowerPDF lacks security features, such as locking documents so they can’t be changed. The ability to restrict others from opening, viewing, printing or changing documents is one of the best advantages to using PDF. If document control is important, PowerPDF might not be for you.

All three products can create PDFs following a standard preset configuration (which you can modify any time) by choosing their PDF Printer instead of a physical printer. This allows you to make PDF files from anything you can print, which is sometimes quite handy. Each also offers one-click e-mailing during the PDF conversion process.

Another benefit they all offer is file compression. Pure text doesn’t gain much, but Adobe and the others let you set the compression level on enclosed figures and images. Vendors claim you can shrink files by up to 95%, but the best I was able to do was about 25% reduction.

At least four other vendors offer Adobe Acrobat file creation software, and all include trial versions: BCL easyPDF, Win2PDF Pro, pdfFactory and Jaws PDF Creator.