Adobe AcrobatReview

The Document Gymnast:
A Review of Adobe Acrobat 6

Adobe's Acrobat software and its PDF file format has somehow sneaked into drawing offices around the world, becoming the most popular nonCAD system document file format in engineering and architecture..

By Martyn Day, editor, CADserver, June 5, 2003

A company that has never been particularly “engineering-centric,” Adobe has given Acrobat and its PDF file format the first major update since the product was introduced to the market. And what's even better news is that Adobe has finally woken up to the ubiquity of PDF in the engineering, design and building industries and has addressed this with some of the new functionality.

Adobe Acrobat 6 can save an AutoCAD drawing as a PDF file, allowing almost universal viewing of AutoCAD files. Click image to enlarge.

Before delving into these new features, it's worth trying to work out just why PDF is a popular format. Acrobat and PDF were first developed as a means to produce platform- and application-independent electronic documentation that was true to the original look, feel and layout of the creator yet existed in a noneditable format. Acrobat essentially loads up a document and then distilled the essence of its contents (words, fonts, layout, images) into a compressed file, based on the Adobe's PostScript standard.

Adobe, coming from the print and pre-press desktop publishing market, mainly intended to offer solutions for text-based documents that contained graphical information, as opposed to the other way around. But the PDF format's immense flexibility to bundle up text and graphics from multiple application sources, combined with its built-in security (from the fact that the original document could not be edited as it was passed around) made it the engineering project conduit of choice. The free distribution of Acrobat Reader software and the popularity of PDF for manuals meant that most machines already had Acrobat Reader installed and could therefore open PDFs.

Added to that, 2D CAD software remains expensive; no wonder then that many professionals only needing to view a drawing would instead choose the free Adobe viewer.

Extended Family

With version 6, Adobe has expanded its PDF family. The free version, renamed Adobe Reader, is limited to viewing and printing PDFs. If you want to actually create PDF files, you now have three versions to choose from: Acrobat Standard, Acrobat Elements and Acrobat Professional. For the purpose of this review I am going to ignore Standard and Elements and focus on Professional, the only version that supports CAD and engineering tasks.

Size Matters

Although PDFs can be large, they are usually a fraction of the size of the original documents. Acrobat 6 features increased compression within PDF to take up less disk space and be lighter for Web downloads (compression ratios ranging from 1.4 to 1, to 4.6 to 1, depending on the type of content). PDF has been described as the “Switzerland” of file formats, being vendor neutral. In these times of vendor-encryption-scare, it's also worth noting that Adobe publicly documents the PDF file so it's an “open format”; a number of companies have utilized this to create PDF writers of their own.

One Button

Once installed, Acrobat Professional adds “one click” icons to a number of applications, as well as a mouse right-click option to quickly create PDF files. For example, in general applications such as Windows Explorer, you can simply click to save a Web page as a PDF. Likewise, in programs such as AutoCAD, just one click will save your drawing as a PDF, with access to layer information and view-filtering capabilities. It's also possible to add these PDF drawings with other related project documents (such as Microsoft Office files) into a single document.

View and Mark-up

There are also a host of query and mark-up tools within the application, making it possible to search for text within these drawing PDFs. There are some measurement tools (rulers) for real-world feedback from drawings, together with red-line text and mark-up revision-cloud tools to provide feedback on engineering documentation. A new split-view provides easy access to compare two documents side by side. Acrobat 6 also supports ARCH, ISO, JIS and ANSI page formats. The Zoom feature has also been beefed up to zoom dynamically and can enlarge documents up to 6,400%.

For Microsoft Word users, Acrobat 6 supports review tracking and merging of comments. So a user could open a PDF of a Word document and instigate a review and edit session. This PDF can be sent back to the originator, who could merge all these comments into Microsoft Word XP edition so that they would appear as tracking edits. This is a fantastic feature and stops multiple DOC files from flying about an engineering team, protecting your original document in the review process.

More Security

Acrobat 6 now offers enhanced document protection. It's possible to apply user-to-user encryption such as password protection. Digital Signatures are also supported, enhancing the control of up to date and signed-off documents. Adobe has set up a Signature Validation Service, which makes sure that documents which are signed are correct and up to date. This protects your intellectual property and prevents unauthorized access.

The new Acrobat Professional also makes possible stamping text and adding background images. Users can now apply them in batches by using the “Batch Processing” tool.

Forms and Archiving

The PDF format can be used to generate templates for commonly used forms. Standard documents can be generated with blank spaces left for users to fill in during a job. Here PDF replaces paper and becomes the digital replacement. When used in conjunction with a Tablet PC for instance, it could be taken on-site for data capture in a standardized PDF form.

Adobe is pushing PDF to become the standard archiving format. It's possible to save as XML, RTF and HTML, and to perform searches of PDF metadata. But I think there may be some fear about saving the original engineering data in anything other than the original CAD file. PDF, however, does offer a sound alternative method for storing completed, compiled and controlled project data, with all related engineering documents held in one “open” yet secure container.

Flash, animation, transitions

As an example of the increased richness of PDF, it's now possible to embed into a PDF document multimedia formats such as Flash animation, MP3 sound files, PowerPoint animation conversions and better control over Acrobat transitions.


There are alternatives to PDF - such as Autodesk's DWF and SolidWork's eDrawings - all of which have something unique to offer to the engineering community. As these formats come from CAD software developers it's not surprising that they offer more complex CAD interrogation capabilities. The power of PDF, however, is that as a generic format it's better suited to contain information from multiple Windows applications. With its latest release, Adobe is concentrating on adding more engineering-specific features. In short, PDF is the best “all-rounder.”

In short, Acrobat 6 Professional is a totally stunning bit of software. It took a great amount of foresight to come up with the idea of PDF ten years ago and the fact that it has become such a de facto standard is proof of what a great original idea it was. Acrobat 6 takes this success and embeds it into both key applications as well as the operating system. Creating a PDF is now easier than doing a screen-grab, it's even easier than doing a “Save As” to convert a file into another format. I think the new Acrobat turns an industry standard into an industry foundation, with PDF looking to be the secure “wrapper” of choice, in which single or amalgamated project documents will be exchanged.

About the Author

Martyn Day is group editor of MCAD Magazine and AEC Magazine. For more information, visit the CADserver website.