Adobe may have invented the PDF format, but it's by no means the only supplier of PDF tools. Mac OS X has basic PDF functionality built in, for example, while Microsoft has a simple, stripped-down PDF Reader; there are also plenty of other PDF options, from Nitro, Nuance, Foxit and others.
Over the years, both the free Acrobat Reader and the paid-for Acrobat Pro have become awkward to use: the tool you want might be there, but you may have to hunt through half-a-dozen toolbars and decipher the icons. Adobe Acrobat DC and Adobe Document Cloud is a mix of new PDF tools for Windows, Mac OS, iOS and Android that are designed be much simpler to use. There are tools for form-filling and signing with your finger that make PDFs more useful on mobile devices, plus a basket of useful services like workflow and digital signatures that are designed to appeal to businesses, all synced via cloud storage.
The first thing you notice is that the clutter is gone. The look of all of the applications is very similar across different platforms, although they're also quite well adapted to different devices. So Acrobat Reader DC and Acrobat Pro DC look identical on Windows with a single toolbar and tabs for Home (file navigation), Tools and your open document. The only difference is that many of the tools listed in Acrobat Reader take you to pages on the Acrobat website where you pay extra to get that tool, rather than actually launching the tool and putting controls in a pane at the side of the screen, as happens in Acrobat Pro.
The most common tools also show up in a list you can open at the side of your documents, and you can customise which tools are presented here. The controls are small enough to make sense with a mouse but big enough to work well with touch on a Windows tablet. If you use a mouse, the zoom controls don't appear till you hover your mouse at the bottom of the screen (if you find that annoying you can dock them in the toolbar), but if you have a touchscreen you can just pinch-to-zoom in the normal way.
The iPad Acrobat app has a similar clean look and the same icons, but the tools are arranged in a hamburger-style menu rather than on a tab, and you navigate between recent, local and cloud-stored files using a drop-down at the top of the screen rather than a list at the side. But when you create a PDF, the interface looks the same on every device: you can start with one or more existing documents, scan something or grab content from a web page or your clipboard (or make a blank PDF).
On the iPad some tools are also split out into different apps -- notably the Fill & Sign tool (which is just part of Acrobat on Windows, both the free and Pro versions). This lets you take a photo of a paper form, snap it into the right perspective by grabbing the corners of the form if you didn't get the photo straight (it automatically corrects the lighting and sharpens text to make it easier to work with) and then fill out the form. Tap a field on the form and Acrobat will try to work out what kind of information it wants -- if it's your name, address or phone number that you've saved in your Adobe profile, it will fill in the details for you.
If you just need to sign the form, you can do that with your finger. Oddly, you get a much smoother signature with your finger on the iPad than you do using either your finger or the digital pen on a Surface Pro 3 in Acrobat Pro, so Adobe needs to do some extra work to handle touch on Windows smoothly. You can get a nice smooth signature by drawing with your finger in Paint, so there's no excuse for jagged lines here.
One of the extra tools in Acrobat Pro lets you mark up a form you want other people to use, from an existing PDF or a scanned document. Again, this will intelligently work out which fields are dates, names, phone numbers and the like -- you can change the fields or mark up others as required. This is where the workflow comes in: you can also send the marked-up form and track when it gets filled out, or ask people to use what was previously the EchoSign digital signature service. That arrives as an email with a link to sign the form in the browser, so Acrobat isn't required to deal with it.
Acrobat Pro has an 'enhance scan' tool that fixes up images and recognises text in them. Slightly confusingly, there's also a separate Camera-to-PDF tool for the iPad that you can use to create PDFs from photos as well as Word and Excel files, but you have to pay for that as part of a Document Cloud subscription.
Harnessing the cloud
As the name suggests, these new versions of Acrobat are closely tied to Adobe's Document Cloud service. You need a free Adobe account to use them, and some of the features require a monthly subscription. But even the free account gives you cloud storage that you can use to transfer documents seamlessly from device to device.
In fact, the document roaming might be a bit more seamless than some IT departments are bargaining for: you have to turn on mobile roaming in one of the apps, but once you've done that you see a list of recent files that doesn't just include files you save onto the Adobe Document Cloud deliberately. Any PDF you open, even from a local file server, will then be available to work with on other devices. That's an excellent way to carry on working when you're out of the office, but administrators will want to look into Adobe's tools for managing this if there are sensitive documents that need to stay on the network. Currently the cloud choices are Acrobat's own cloud and SharePoint in the Windows apps.
Another useful feature is how much better Acrobat has become at letting you edit PDFs. You can also move pages around if the order is wrong and rotate them if they're the wrong way up; you've always been able to do that, but you can now do it with touch. And if you need to update a brochure or presentation that only exists as a PDF, you can edit the text as full paragraphs and text boxes that reflow as you type (even on an iPad), rather than as fragments of lines that have to fit in the same space as in previous Acrobat versions. You can edit lists, which even get renumbered correctly, including nested lists, and you can edit tables, move text around and change images, which means you can use this for a substantial edit rather than just for fixing text or changing a date. You can also export a document back to its original format, so you can recreate a PowerPoint, complete with master pages, headers and footers.
Acrobat Pro still has all the usual PDF-handling tools like comments, redaction and preparation for professional printing. These haven't changed much, but are definitely easier to use in the new interface. There are still a few rough edges, but as long as you find the cloud integration useful rather than intrusive (and you don't have to use it if you don't want to), this is a much-improved version of Acrobat with much better access to its powerful tools.
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