Monday, October 25, 2010

Bluebeam's PDF Creation Tool Suite

I use a variety of PDF tools in my editorial work. I frequently create, mark up, manipulate, and combine PDFs. In addition, I contribute to the open source Platpus typesetting project, whose major output format is PDFs. And the PDF plugin is my specific bailiwick. So, over the years, I've come to know a thing or two about PDFs, as well as the limitations of PDF tools.

The standard for PDF tools has been Adobe's Acrobat suite. But this suite is expensive, somewhat quirky, and at times works poorly with other tools. Acrobat plugins to Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer are especially unreliable, and they frequently make their host programs behave erratically. I always uninstall them.

This means I need to use other options to convert Word documents to PDF. There are several common solutions out there, none but one of them is completely satisfactory. For example, the Microsoft Office PDF plugin does not embed all fonts, nor does it give you the option to do so. It does not embed the Base14 fonts.

This is a design error (that is common). Here is its history. For many years, Adobe guaranteed that Adobe Acrobat Reader would provide 14 fonts (the so-called Base14 fonts) in all implementations. These fonts were Times Roman, Courier, and Helvetica typefaces (each in regular, bold, italic, and bold italic—so 12 fonts) plus a Symbol and a Dingbat font. The rule was you did not need to embed these fonts in PDF documents, because Acrobat Reader would supply them. This scheme never worked very well. Its first limitation was that not all Times Roman fonts looked the same, so the same document could look strikingly different on two different computers. A few years ago, Adobe quietly discontinued supporting Base14 fonts in Acrobat Reader. The result is that if you're creating a PDF for distribution, you must embed all fonts, even the old Base14 fonts, if you want it to maintain your original format and layout.

The Microsoft Office plugin does not have this option, so as a result PDFs you generate with it are not guaranteed to look correct on other systems. And, in fact, they frequently do not.

The PDF generator that come with Adobe Acrobat (not the Reader, but the paid tools) works better. It does offer an option to embed all fonts. However, in Word documents with many links, it fails to identify all links. And so rather than be clickable, the links show up as pure text.

To remedy this, I tested various Word-to-PDF tools and found none that consistently met all requirements until I ran into Bluebeam PDF Revu, a tool I had not previously heard of.

The first thing I noticed was that Bluebeam's plugins were stable and they worked correctly. The second thing I discovered was that Revu found all links in documents and by default, it embedded all fonts. So far, so good. The attention to small details in its PDFs are part of Bluebeam's DNA—it was designed as a tool for CAD users, so correctly rendering every detail of a document is a specialty.

Like the Adobe Acrobat toolbox, Revu provides editing capabilities, with better text mark-up tools than Acrobat. It also enables you to construct your own menu of tools for faster access to frequently performed operations. Form handling, digital signatures, etc. work exactly as expected. Multi-document processing can also be automated with the product. Adobe Acrobat Pro—the comparable offering from Adobe—retails at $449 list, and $350 at Amazon. The academic version of Acrobat can be found for the same price as the full Bluebeam Revu ($149) product. So, if you want the full range of options, better implemented than in Adobe's offering, and at a lower price, have a look at Bluebeam PDF Revu. (They offer a 30-day free trial.)