Adobe Acrobat and PDF Format

Most of us are familiar with the Adobe Reader software, which is a product from Adobe Systems Incorporated that you can download free from the Adobe Web site. You can also acquire the Adobe Reader from all the installation CD-ROMs for other Adobe software.

You can even acquire Adobe Reader from other sources, as long as the Adobe licensing requirements are distributed with the installer program. The Adobe Reader, however, is not Adobe Acrobat. Adobe Reader is a component of a much larger product family that has evolved through several iterations over more than a decade.

You’re probably a little more sophisticated and realize there is a major difference between the applications noted previously and you may wonder why I even spend any time discussing the difference between Acrobat and Adobe Reader. Unfortunately, many people still believe that Adobe Acrobat is the free Adobe Reader program.

To add a little more confusion, Adobe continues to market several Acrobat products in the Acrobat family. While Adobe Reader remains a free download from Adobe Systems, there are three additional commercial viewers—Acrobat Standard, Acrobat Professional, and Acrobat 3D.

With the release of Acrobat 8, Acrobat Standard is now offered only to Windows users, and has been dropped from the Macintosh version. As I talk about Adobe Acrobat, I’m referring to Acrobat Professional for both Windows and Macintosh and Acrobat Standard for Windows users only.

Where the two programs differ in features, I point them out. I also mention when a feature is only available in Acrobat Professional. There are distinctions between the Acrobat Standard product (Windows) and the Acrobat Professional product in terms of tools and commands.

Most editing tasks can be handled in either viewer; however, Acrobat Professional does provide more editing features than Acrobat Standard. I delineate the differences and point out when an Acrobat Professional feature cannot be accomplished in Acrobat Standard.

Adobe Acrobat (either Standard or Professional) in version 8 is the upgrade from Adobe Acrobat 7 (Standard or Professional) and both viewers are the subject of the remaining articles. Acrobat is the authoring application that provides you tools and commands for a host of features.

If you haven’t yet purchased a copy of Acrobat, either the Standard version (Windows only) or the Professional version (Windows and Macintosh), you might want to look over and observe some of the comparisons between the viewers.

If fewer tools and features suit your purpose, you might find the Standard version satisfactory—but remember, Acrobat Standard is available only on Windows in version 8. Although some of the features differ between the viewers, they both provide many features for editing, enhancing, printing, and working with PDF documents.

Acrobat is an authoring application but it has one little feature that distinguishes it from almost any other authoring program. Rather than starting from scratch and creating a new document in Acrobat, your workflow usually involves converting a document, created in just about any program, to a Portable Document Format (PDF) file.

Once converted to PDF you use Acrobat to edit and refine the document, add bells and whistles and interactivity, or prepare it for professional printing.

In addition to the Acrobat program, Acrobat Professional ships with companion programs such as Adobe Acrobat Distiller and Adobe Acrobat Catalog, and Adobe LiveCycle Designer (Windows only). Acrobat Standard ships only with Acrobat Distiller. These companion products are used to convert PostScript files to PDF, create search indexes, and author XML-based forms.

Acrobat solutions are greatly extended with other supporting programs from Adobe Systems and many different third-party vendors. If Acrobat can’t do the job, chances are you can find a plug-in or companion program to handle all you want to do with a PDF file.

PDF, short for Portable Document Format, was developed by Adobe Systems as a unique format to be viewed through Acrobat viewers. As the name implies, it is portable, which means the file you create on one computer can be viewed with an Acrobat viewer on other computers, handheld devices, and on other platforms.

For example, you can create a page layout on a Macintosh computer and convert it to a PDF file. After the conversion, this PDF document can be viewed on a Linux or Windows machine. Multiplatform compliance (to enable the exchange of files across different computers, for example) is one of the great values of PDF documents.

So what’s special about PDF and its multiplatform compliance? It’s not so much an issue of viewing a page on one computer created from another computer that is impressive about PDF. After all, such popular programs as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe FrameMaker, and Adobe Illustrator all have counterparts for multiplatform usage.

You can create a layout on one computer system and view the file on another system with the same software installed. For example, if you have Adobe InDesign installed on a Macintosh computer and you create an InDesign document, that same file can be viewed on a PC with InDesign running under Windows.

In a perfect world, you may think the capability to view documents across platforms is not so special. Document viewing, however, is secondary to document integrity. The preservation of the contents of a page is what makes the PDF so extraordinary.

To illustrate, suppose you have an InDesign document created in Windows using fonts generic to Windows applications. After it’s converted to PDF, the document, complete with graphics and fonts intact, can be displayed and printed on other computer platforms.

And the other computer platforms don’t need the fonts, graphics, or original authoring application to print the file with complete integrity. This level of document integrity can come in handy in business environments, where software purchases often reach quantum costs.

PDF documents eliminate the need to install all applications used within a particular company on all the computers in that company. For example, art department employees can use a layout application to create display ads and then convert them to PDF so that other departments can use the free Adobe Reader software to view and print those ads for approval.

The benefits of PDF viewing were initially recognized by workgroups in local office environments for electronic paper exchanges. Today users have much more opportunity for global exchange of documents in many different ways.

As you look at Acrobat and discover some of the features available for document comment and markup, comparing documents, support for layered files (which adds much more functionality to Adobe Reader), and preparing PDFs for screen readers, you’ll see how Acrobat and the PDF have evolved with new technologies.

Document Repurposing

The computer revolution has left extraordinary volumes of data that were originally designed to be printed on paper on computer systems. Going all the way back to UNIVAC, the number crunching was handled by the computer and the expression was the printed piece.

Today, forms of expression have evolved to many different media. No longer do people want to confine themselves to printed material. Now, in addition to publishing information on paper, we use CD-ROMs, the Internet, file exchanges, and meeting sessions via the Internet between computers.

Sometimes we use motion video, television, and satellite broadcasts. As high-speed access evolves, we’ll see much larger bandwidths, so real-time communication will eventually become commonplace. Technology will advance, bringing many improvements to bandwidth, performance, and speed.

To enable the public to access the mountains of digital data held on computer systems in a true information superhighway world, files need to be converted to a common format. A common file format would also enable new documents to be more easily repurposed, to exploit the many forms of communication that we use today and expect to use tomorrow.

Acrobat Professional has added more tools for helping users repurpose documents. Tools for repairing problem files, downsizing file sizes, porting files to a range of different devices, and eliminating unnecessary data are part of the many features found in Acrobat Professional.

In addition, the new PDF/A format available in Acrobat 8 is designed specifically for archiving documents. A standards committee has developed this format so documents viewed on computer systems 100 years from now will be compatible with future operating systems.

PDF and Adobe PostScript

The de facto standard for nearly all printing in the graphics industry has been Adobe PostScript. While PostScript is still the dominant printing language, this will slowly change because Adobe has recently announced support for PDF as the new print standard. Okay, so how does PostScript relate to PDF?

In the initial release of Acrobat, all PDF conversion began with a file that was created as a PostScript file. Users selected the Print command in an authoring program and printed the file to disk—thus creating a PostScript file. This file was then opened in the Acrobat Distiller program and Distiller converted the PostScript to a PDF.

Distiller is still a part of Acrobat. In some cases, creating a PDF from a PostScript file rather than through any of the many other means available may be preferable.

It could be that you have a problem with exporting to PDF from a program, such as fonts not appearing embedded, or you may need to create a PDF for a special purpose such as printing and prepress. In such circumstances using Acrobat Distiller may be your best solution for generating a PDF document to properly suit the purpose.

Printing to PostScript and opening PostScript files in Distiller is used much less today because now so many programs support PDF creation through one-button clicks or using the Save As command. However, many of these one-button clicks still use the Distiller application in the background to create the PDF file.

You may not see Distiller launched when PDFs are created in the background, but the program is working away to convert your authoring application document to a PDF file. PostScript can be a problem solver for you, and you may have an occasional need to use it even if your workflow does not require its use all the time.

The more you know about PostScript and Acrobat Distiller, the more often you might be able to rescue problem files that don’t seem to properly convert to PDF.

PDF Versions

Acrobat is now in version 8. The version number indicates the number of releases of the product. PDF is a file format and with it you’ll also find a version number.

The PDF version relates to the specifications of the file format; for the end user it’s usually not so important to understand all the specifications as much as it is to know what it does for you or what you can expect from it.

If you create PDF documents for users of older Acrobat viewers and use the newer PDF format, your users may not be able to view your PDF files. Conversely, creating PDF files with the older version might prohibit you from using some newer features in the recent release.

PDF versions are typically referred to as Acrobat Compatibility. A PDF version 1.7 file, for example, is an Acrobat 8 compatible file. To understand how the PDF version relates to the Acrobat version, simply add the digits of the PDF version together.

For example, PDF version 1.4 is Acrobat 5–compatible (1 + 4 = 5). PDF version 1.5 is Acrobat 6–compatible, and so on. Each PDF version provides support for additional features. It’s not as important to know all the features enabled by one version as it is to know which PDF version you need to use.

For example, to optimize a PDF file for printing, you may need to use PDF version 1.3 (Acrobat 4–compatible). Or, if you want to embed movie files in a PDF, then you need to use an Acrobat 6–compatible file (PDF version 1.5).

Or, you may want to add password security to a PDF that requires a newer Acrobat viewer to open a file using a password. Rather than try to remember a long list of compatible features, you are generally informed when one PDF version is needed over another as you work through editing PDFs in Acrobat.

In addition, when you know your user audience and the version of Adobe Reader or Acrobat that users have installed on computers, you’ll know which Acrobat-compatible version of a PDF to create.

PDF Standards

PDF has been adopted as a standard file format in many industries, including engineering, legal, manufacturing, and prepress and printing. Even the United States Federal Government, has embraced PDF as a standard file format. So what are standards? Without regulation and approved standards, the computer industry would be chaotic.

Fortunately, an international committee known as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) develops and approves standards for the technical industry. This international committee, an entity apart from Adobe Systems, has approved and developed substandards of the PDF format.

The PDF standards available now include the following:

  • PDF/X. This standard is a subset of the PDF format used in the printing industry. PDFs meeting PDF/X compliance are typically reliable and, theoretically, can be accurately printed on almost any kind of PostScript device.
  • PDF/E. This standard is a subset of the PDF format designed for engineers to insure that industrial designs and drawings comply with a PDF standard.
  • PDF/A. This standard is a subset of the PDF format used for archiving documents. The standards committee wants to insure that the files you create today and save as PDF can be viewed by computers many years in the future. To do so, the PDFs you create for archival purposes can be saved as PDF/A documents.
  • PDF/UA. Although, as of this writing, this subset of the PDF format is in an early draft stage, you may be hearing more about it in the near future—about one to two years from this writing. The goal of this proposed new standard is to provide universal access (UA) to all users including those persons working with assistive devices.

The proposed new format is in the hands of the AIIMS Standards Board Committee that also proposed the PDF/X and PDF/A standards and submitted them to the ISO. People interested in participating on the committee can find more information at

Adobe Acrobat Products

Adobe Reader, Acrobat Standard (Windows only in version 8), Acrobat Professional, Acrobat 3D, and Acrobat Elements are designed to serve different users with different purposes. It should be obvious to you that Adobe Reader, as a free download from Adobe’s Web site, is much more limited in features and performance than the products you purchase.

It should also be obvious that because of the low cost of Acrobat Elements, it is much more limited in features than Acrobat Standard, Acrobat Professional, and Acrobat 3D. For a general overview, take a look at the following descriptions of the Acrobat products.

Adobe Reader

Adobe Reader is available for download from Adobe’s Web site free of charge. The Adobe Reader software is distributed for the purpose of viewing, printing, and searching, on PDF files created by users of Acrobat Elements, Acrobat Standard, Acrobat Professional or Acrobat 3D.

Additionally, Adobe Reader is used for filling in forms on PDFs created with Acrobat Professional. The major features of Adobe Reader include:

  • Viewing and printing. These features are common across all Acrobat viewers. You can view, navigate, and print PDF documents with Adobe Reader.
  • Forms completion and submission. Adobe Reader enables you to complete forms but not save the form field data unless the forms carry special usage rights for Adobe Reader users. Forms are submitted through the use of buttons created on forms for e-mailing or submitting data to Web servers.
  • Comment and Review. PDFs can be enabled with usage rights for commenting and review in Acrobat Professional and Acrobat 3D only. Once enabled, Reader users can participate in a review workflow and save PDFs locally with comments and markups.
  • Reader Extensions Server. If an organization uses the Adobe LiveCycle Reader Extensions Server product available from Adobe Systems to enhance PDF files, Adobe Reader users can digitally sign documents and save form data.

A distinction exists between enabling PDFs with usage rights from within Acrobat Professional/Acrobat 3D and using the Adobe Reader Extensions Server. Licensing restrictions do apply when enabling documents and you should be aware of these restrictions.

In addition to the preceding, Adobe Reader provides support for eBook services and searching PDF documents, as well as extended support for working with accessible documents.

Acrobat Elements

Acrobat Elements is available for site license purchasing of 100 or more copies on Windows only. The unit costs are very aggressive and are lowered with higher volume purchases. This product is intended to offer large companies and enterprises a means for employees to create PDF files.

The primary features of Acrobat Elements include:

  • Viewing and printing. For viewing PDFs, the Adobe Reader software is used as the viewer. Elements in and of itself is not an Acrobat viewer.
  • PDF creation. The PDF creation capability available from Elements is limited to creating PDF documents from Microsoft Office products or printing files to the Adobe PDF printer.

Acrobat Standard v.s. Professional

Acrobat Standard is available only on Windows in version 8 of Acrobat. The Macintosh version has been discontinued. Adobe Systems is a company that tries hard to respond to user needs, but there are limitations. If a product does not support the development costs, then it is likely to be discontinued.

This is the case with Acrobat Standard on the Macintosh. Many users of Acrobat on the Mac acquire Acrobat Professional in a bundled purchase with the Adobe Creative Suite. Independent sales of Acrobat Standard were minimal on the Mac during the Acrobat 7 life cycle.

Therefore, Adobe could not justify the development costs for continuing the product. On Windows, sales of Acrobat Standard were much greater, and therefore you see Acrobat Standard still available. Acrobat Standard is the lightweight of the authoring programs.

However, Acrobat Standard still offers many tools for PDF creation and authoring. Without going into every tool that differs between Acrobat Standard and Acrobat Professional, the major differences include the following limitations:

  • Form field authoring. No form tools or form field authoring is available with Acrobat Standard. JavaScripts on form fields cannot be created in Acrobat Standard. However, if a JavaScript is contained in an area accessible to Acrobat Standard (such as Bookmark Properties or Link Properties), the JavaScript can be edited. You can also write JavaScripts on Page Actions in Acrobat Standard.
  • Professional printing. Acrobat Standard does not provide options for soft proofing color, preflighting jobs, or commercial printing using such features as color separations, frequency control, transparency flattening, and so on. All these print controls are contained only in Acrobat Professional.
  • Adding Adobe Reader usage rights. You can add usage rights enabling Adobe Reader users to add comments, extract file attachments to PDF documents, and in Acrobat 8 add usage rights for saving form field data and digital signatures in Acrobat Professional. Acrobat Standard does not support adding usage rights to PDF files for Reader users.
  • Redaction. The new tools for redacting documents are not available to Acrobat Standard users.
  • Batch processing. Acrobat Standard does not support batch processing and running batch commands.
  • Creating index files. Acrobat Catalog is not part of Acrobat Standard. You can create index files only with Acrobat Professional through a menu command that launches Acrobat Catalog.
  • Creating PDFs. Acrobat Standard offers support for an impressive range of file types that can be converted to PDF. However, Acrobat Standard doesn’t support creating PDFs from certain file types such as AutoCAD, Microsoft Visio, and Microsoft Project. Acrobat Standard does use Acrobat Distiller, but the Acrobat Standard Distiller does not support PDF/X, PDF/E, and PDF/A compliance.
  • Engineering tools. Acrobat Standard does not support some features used by engineers and technical illustrators, such as merging and flattening layers.

The preceding items are some of the major differences between these two commercial viewers. You will discover subtle differences as you work with the programs.

For example, Acrobat Standard doesn’t support comparing documents, migrating comments, Bates numbering, show and snap to grids, convert .dwg and .indd files, does not contain the PDF Optimizer for repurposing files, and so on.

If your mission is to recommend the product for purchase or make the decision for your own use, be aware of the four primary distinctions between the products: Acrobat Standard does not support forms authoring, professional printing, engineering tools, or adding Adobe Reader usage rights for review and comment and forms data saving and digital signatures. If your work is in one of these areas, you need to purchase Acrobat Professional.

Acrobat 3D

Acrobat 3D is a commercial Acrobat product with all the features of Acrobat Professional. Its main focus is on the manufacturing segment and aimed at Engineering Design and Technical Publication workflows.

Acrobat 3D additionally adds support for the Acrobat 3D Toolkit, 3D Capture for UNIX, and a conversion framework for converting and placing major CAD file formats into PDF files. This is a separate Acrobat product you can purchase for use with 3D drawings created in almost all major CAD formats.

Among some of the features you find with Acrobat 3D are the following:

  • File conversion. Acrobat 3D supports 3D drawing translations from all major 3D drawing programs including AutoCAD. These drawings can be imported directly into Acrobat 3D where comments, reviews, and markups can be applied and then shared with anyone using the free Adobe Reader.
  • Capture 3D files. Acrobat 3D includes Acrobat 3D Capture so that you can convert any 3D drawing to PDF for use in Acrobat 3D.
  • Optimize, enhance, and animate. Features in Acrobat 3D enable you to optimize drawings for faster display. You can add multiple views and materials and textures, multiple types of lighting and create animations such as exploded views, and more.
  • File compression. 3D drawing files can be optimized for smaller file sizes.
  • 3D drawing creation. You can create simple 3D drawings directly in Acrobat 3D.
  • Photorealistic rendering. You can render photorealistic images and create 2D raster and vector images.

There’s much more to Acrobat 3D. If you’re an engineer or technical artist working with CAD applications, you might want to check out some of the benefits of working with Acrobat 3D.