Review: Adobe Acrobat XI Pro advances the paperless office concept, but also highlights obstacles

At a Glance
  • Adobe Acrobat XI (Windows)

    PCWorld Rating

    Trees will find a lot to like in the new Acrobat, but Adobe's implementation of a paperless workflow may not make it easy enough for businesses to change their ways.

In addition to being a lethal enemy of trees, paper is the enemy of businesses' productivity, according to Adobe. Adobe's new Acrobat XI Pro portable document format software aims to do both parties a favor by making it easier to work without using paper. Of course, the trees are probably all for this, but Adobe's implementation of a paperless workflow may not make it easy enough for businesses to change their ways.

Acrobat XI Pro's default interface looks much the same as it did in the previous version, though now you can create and save custom tool sets, export them, and distribute them across an enterprise. You can download custom tool sets that others have created, too.

While the Pro version, which contains all program features, is available for both Mac and Windows, the Standard version which lacks certain high-end features, is available for Windows only.

Please eSign here

The ability to sign documents digitally isn't new, but now you can request, receive, and manage digital signatures using Adobe's recently acquired EchoSign website. Create your document in Acrobat XI Pro, then click the Sign button and then Send for Signature. Acrobat XI Pro uploads the document to EchoSign.com and then directs you to complete the transaction there.

John Hancock here, please: After Acrobat XI Pro sends your document to EchoSign, just enter your addressee, a document name, a message, and click Send.

You can send up to five documents a month with a free EchoSign account, or you can opt for account types that allow greater numbers of users and additional features—for example, corporate branding on all of your emails—at costs ranging from $15 per month to $400 per month.

If you're already logged in to EchoSign, you simply enter your recipient's email address, select a couple of options (email it back to you or fax it back to you), and click Send. Now the tracking, and the clock, begins: The website sends the document to your recipient and an email to you reporting that it has been sent, and then it sends you an email when the recipient either signs or refuses the document. Recipients do not need to have EchoSign accounts; they just have to click the link in the email sent by the system. You can see when documents were sent and the average time it took to receive them back.

Lots of signs on the wall: EchoSign shows you a dashboard of where documents are in the signature process.

The email that the system sends contains a general link and a link for mobile device users. Unfortunately, the link for mobile devices took me to a webpage with an image of my document that had been compressed so much that I couldn't read any body text, either on my Android-powered smartphone or on my Google Nexus 7 Android tablet. The page also contained links that allowed me to download the original PDF, and the PDF was quite readable in the mobile version of Acrobat Reader, but I could not sign my documents there; I had to return to the webpage to sign the document. You can digitally sign and forward documents in Adobe's EchoSign mobile app, but it is available only for iOS, not Android.

You are now leaving Acrobat: After you upload a document for signature to EchoSign, you're done with Acrobat XI Pro.

Furthermore, you don't need Acrobat XI Pro to use EchoSign. You can upload documents created with Microsoft Word, older versions of Acrobat, or other applications to EchoSign's website. The integration of the Acrobat XI Pro and EchoSign adds only minimal convenience; you can't send something out for signature directly from Acrobat XI Pro.

Signing my life away: Type your name into an EchoSign signature box, and the site converts it into pretty script.

Form a line here

For enhancing Acrobat's forms creation, Adobe took a different approach. Acrobat XI Pro comes bundled with FormsCentral, a separate desktop application that interacts with Adobe's FormsCentral.com website. FormsCentral.com isn't new, but its integration with Acrobat XI Pro—or rather, its integration with the FormsCentral application—is. Acrobat has long had stellar forms creation capabilities, but they were only for forms within PDFs; now with FormsCentral, you can create sophisticated, trackable Web-based forms.

You can create forms the old-fashioned way—staying in Acrobat XI Pro—but Adobe steers you toward FormsCentral. You can choose from 50 pre-formatted form templates, or you can build one from existing content or from scratch. You can customize any of these templates, of course, and save it as your own for future use, and when you're done, you can publish it either as a PDF or as a Web-based form.

Fully formed: FormsCentral's form builder is easy to use and creates PDF or web forms.

Previous versions of Acrobat allowed you to create forms that would interact with Acrobat.com to gather and tabulate form responses, but the forms could only be PDFs. With a Web form, you can link to your form on FormsCentral.com, or you can embed it on your own webpage or on a Facebook page. You can connect a PayPal account so that you accept payments, too.

But the most interesting part of FormsCentral is the data you get back. You can sort and filter submission results, add basic Excel-like functions (like Sum, Average, Count, Min and Max), and see a quick summary report complete with bar charts. You can export submissions data in Excel or .csv format so that you can import it into a CRM program or another application. You can make fields required, as I would expect, and require that input fields are text, numbers, currency, percents, dates, or email addresses, but unless you use drop-down menus, you cannot force formatting (such as dashes instead of parentheses in phone numbers), which means you may need to do some data cleanup before you import it into a database.

The results are in: FormsCentral gives you instantaneous results of forms submissions.

There are other ways to produce and manage Web-based forms, but most if not all come at a price. Some website content management system modules offer it, and some Web services—for example, Jotform—offer it, too. FormsCentral costs $15 a month for Basic service, which includes five forms per month and a maximum of 500 responses, or $144 a year for Plus service, which allows an unlimited number of forms and a maximum of 5000 responses per form.

But as with EchoSign, you don't need Acrobat XI Pro to use FormsCentral. For that matter, you don't need the FormsCentral application either, because the FormsCentral website looks and functions exactly like the app.

Editing PDFs

I admit that I often use Acrobat's rudimentary editing capabilities to modify a PDF rather than digging up the original document I used to create it. But Acrobat XI Pro allows much greater editing capability, so that you may not need to go back to those original documents, even for significant edits.

The creative director's worst nightmare: Now you can monkey with the text or images of a PDF without having to dig up the original document.

In addition to editing text in a line, as you could before, now, you can add, move, and resize text blocks and images, and you can change fonts attributes. Acrobat XI Pro does not have all of InDesign's precise text adjustments, but it does have vertical and horizontal line spacing and basic character spacing. You can find and replace text (but the application will not let you replace all instances in one swoop; you must click Replace as often as necessary).

On documents I created from Word, paragraphs stayed together, but on a document that had been created with Adobe InDesign, many of the lines of the document were seen as separate elements in Acrobat XI Pro, so to rearrange the page, I had to move and resize each line. Furthermore, if you move an image or text block to a spot where another element resides, the element won't move; they will overlap. Acrobat XI Pro does have an Arrange command to bring elements forward or send them backward, but it has no wrapping capabilities, so you must then resize or move the text so that it doesn't obscure the image. Acrobat XI Pro provides no tracking capabilities for the new editing features.

A new Action Wizard helps you create standardized groups of settings. You can use these settings for many different settings in Acrobat, including security; save the action to the Acrobat XI Pro's right-side toolbar, and then every time you click the button, the application steps you through the required settings. You can export the actions and distribute them organization-wide.

See what you're PDFing: Acrobat XI's revamped Combine Files box shows thumbnail previews of your documents and lets you omit pages within a document.

Acrobat XI Pro's merging capabilities have been enhanced, too. Now, not only can you see a preview of most documents, you can rearrange them around in a scalable icon view, see what every page of each document looks like, and you can set which pages of a document are included in the final exported file. You can also now transform PDFs into editable Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

Bottom line

Taken together, Adobe Acrobat XI Pro, EchoSign, and FormsCentral have impressive capabilities, but the links for EchoSign and FormsCentral are just that—links; that is the extent of their integration into Acrobat XI Pro. They are separate components with minimal integration, and I suspect that having to deal with three different components will make the paperless office concept look good only on...paper.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Trees will find a lot to like in the new Acrobat, but Adobe's implementation of a paperless workflow may not make it easy enough for businesses to change their ways.

    Pros

    • Useful new editing features
    • Better merging of documents
    • Excellent forms and signature support

    Cons

    • Forms and e-signing are accomplished by separate apps and sites
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