Thanks to big advancements in monitor technology, software development, Internet connectivity speeds and customer interest, soft proofing has celebrated a significant uptake in the last few years as an extension and/or alternative to traditional paper-based proofing methods. One doesn’t have to look too hard to find articles and literature heralding the colour accuracy and competency of soft proofing systems.
A quick look at the IDEAlliance website shows a list of certified monitor-based proofing systems that includes all the usual suspects: CGS ORIS, DALiM DiALOGUE, Kodak Matchprint Virtual Proofing System, ICS Remote Director, and, yes, even EIZO has certification using Adobe Acrobat and Remote Director. I personally have had experience using both the Matchprint Virtual and Remote Director, and both are quite good at reproducing colour to represent specified colour targets such as SWOP C3, SWOP C5 and GRACoL within the gamut limitations of current LCD monitor technology. I understand the value of colour accurate soft proofing, and I understand why so many people write about it and discuss it. And I have to admit that when I was asked to write this article the temptation to go down that road was great. After some thought, however, I decided to take a different approach and focus on some of the other advantages that soft proofing has to offer. I also thought it would be worthwhile to talk about alternatives to the big soft proofing names that we can use for real-time collaboration, file sharing, records management, centralized document storage, flexibility and ease-of-use for the printer and client alike.
There is no doubt that we are in an era of cloud computing; and many monitor-based proofing systems are phenomenal tools that take advantage of this, offering printers and their clients fast, easy access to content wherever and whenever.
I have focused on three solutions that I believe offer unique options and value to soft proofing above and beyond the usual colour accuracy spin. Each of these systems varies in function, usability and price-point, which makes them contrast and compliment nicely with each other.
Solution One: Kodak’s Matchprint Virtual Proofing System
Kodak’s Matchprint Virtual proofing system can be utilized as a standalone product; however, for the purpose of this article, I am referring to Matchprint Virtual as an integrated product with other Kodak solutions. In particular, if your company uses a Prinergy Connect workflow and/or any of the Insite line of Web portals from Kodak, the Matchprint Virtual Proofing System (MVP) is most certainly worth looking into. The seamless integration with both Insite Creative and Insite Prepress Portal make this a sleek addition to the workflow, regardless of whether or not you use it for colour. To make things simple, I will discuss MVP as it relates to print production jobs using Prinergy and Insite Prepress Portal (IPP), not Insite Creative/Asset Library.
The premise is quite simple. Create a customer and customer users within Insite Prepress Portal. Then either create a Prinergy job like you would normally do and Web-enable it for the customer you just created, or upload a job and process it through the Web portal. In either case, the result is a Prinergy job that has been created, with a live connection via Insite Prepress Portal.
One of the big benefits to this system is that the end user doesn’t need to install any third-party software to use if he or she doesn’t need to assess colour. Insite Prepress Portal is accessed via any Web browser, and proof reviewing is done through the Java-based Smart Review application. This is a great selling feature for any clients who have restrictions on third-party software installs on their computers. Also, being browser- and Java-based eliminates many of the traditional OS compatibility issues that have been so problematic in the past.
The proof listed in the job mentioned can be marked for “Request Approval.” When this is done, the administrator (or someone else with the right privileges) can select users from a list of authorized users, and then assign them with a task, such as final approval or review.
As soon as a user is selected for approval, he or she is sent an automatically generated e-mail notification that will link to the job and proof in question. When the user selects the proof to review, it opens in Smart Review. This is where the proofing happens.
Smart Review is a powerful program with an interface built for individual or collaborative proofing. As the image shows, there is a lot of information being shared in this environment:
There is a lot going on here, and it is worth taking the time to explain a few things. First, note that the proof is not being evaluated for colour. I can see this because down in the bottom right-hand corner of the window it shows me that my monitor is not calibrated. Second, there is more than one person viewing this proof simultaneously (as shown by the number two in the top right-hand corner), and that the two reviewers are logged into the same session (as shown in the Group Manager window). Every user logged into a session can freely annotate and interact with the proof. Every few seconds, each user’s environment is synchronized with the server, and when the synchronization is complete, edits made by each user become visible to the others. For all intents and purposes this is a real-time proofing environment that allows multi-user interaction; however, issues can arise if the synchronization timing begins to lag. In some cases, it may be possible for duplicate or contradicting edits to be indicated by different users.
Through Smart Review, there are all the tools you would expect to have for an online proofing tool such as annotation features, densitometers, separations, page information, and so on. In addition, there are a couple unique features that stand out to me. One is the built-in chat feature. This is a great tool for real-time, multi-user collaborative proofing. The nice thing about the chat tool is, unlike a conference call, everything done in the chat window is recorded and documented. This can save a lot of headaches and problems down the road that can sometimes result from verbal instructions that are not recorded.
Similarly, all annotations made on the proof are recorded and documented. And remember, this is all tied into Prinergy. If a job is rejected in Smart Review, that is indicated quite clearly within the Prinergy job. Prepress operators don’t have to log into Insite Prepress Portal to get that information.
All this information is tracked and stored by the system. What I like is the ease in which the information can be processed and used in a meaningful way as a record to be kept with a paper docket, or for itemizing billing. With a single click of a button, a PDF report can be generated which includes a picture of the proof and all the important information that goes a long with it, such as who contributed to the proof, the annotations and even the recorded chat sessions.
There are other great features that make this proofing system quite powerful. You can pre-configure client-specific annotation stamps to increase productivity and automate redundant annotations. The compare tool is a great way to visually identify changes to documents to make sure corrections have been properly executed.
Kodak’s Matchprint Virtual offers more than just accurate colour proofing on screen. It offers companies that use Kodak Unified Workflow products an easy, integrated and reliable way to collaborate with clients in a centralized, online environment. This product makes proofing easier and faster for the service provider as well as the end user and assists with record management and billing.
Solution Two: ICS Remote Director
ICS remote Director is a standalone proofing model with flexible pricing strategies, including a pay-per-use billing model that can make it an attractive option for low volume users or companies wanting to experiment with soft proofing. That is not to say that Remote Director is not suited for large-scale production – if you are a high volume shop, Remote Director has options for you, too.
Like Matchprint Virtual, Remote Director is server-based. The software requires one or more image servers to be configured to store the proofs being generated. You can choose to have your own internal image server(s), and/or use one provided by ICS. Administration of your ICS account is Web-based: here you can create users (called Seats), track usage, group users into “buddy lists” and more.
ICS has chosen a different approach to its solution than Kodak. Instead of using a Java-based applet for the software, ICS has a dedicated client program that must be installed locally on the user computer. Like all software, this client has to be periodically updated. The client is used to create proofs, and collaborate/annotate. Overall, the Remote Director environment is well thought out and easy to navigate.
A quick look at the user tab reveals some important information, such as whether or not a user’s monitor is calibrated (for colour accurate proofing), who is online and who is offline, and who has control of the proof. This last point is interesting. Unlike Matchprint Virtual, Remote Director is a true real-time proofing solution. Every user is seeing and interacting with a live view. Because of this, only one user can be interacting with the proof at a time. The other users are observers (indicated by the icon of an eye beside their name in the user’s tab). If an observer wants to make an annotation, he or she must request control. Once control is granted, he or she can interact with the proof until someone else asks for control, and so on. It can be a little awkward to get used to at first, but this model does compensate for the issues that can arise with the synchronization model.
Remote Director has a similar tool set to that of Matchprint Virtual, and provides a nice report of the proof and the annotations as seen here:
Remote Director has other useful tools that can make the proofing process easier. By using simple check box toggles, Remote Director will highlight areas of the proof that are out of gamut (based on your profile) by turning those areas green, as well as highlight areas of the proof that exceed total ink coverage allowance by turning them bright yellow as seen in the image (right). Interestingly, Remote Director does not have a built-in chat feature for enhanced collaboration.
When a proof is completed on the Remote Director system, it must be signed off. Once a proof is signed off, it can be archived to a local machine. These archives can be easily restored for re-run jobs if needed.
Solution Three: Adobe Acrobat 9 Professional and/or Acrobat.com
When we look at high-end solutions like ICS Remote Director and Kodak Matchprint Virtual, there is no doubt that there is an extended feature set that makes both of these systems ideal for online collaborative proofing, with or without the need to accurately match colour. Either of these systems, under certain conditions, could replace or supplement hard copy proofing for print. Both of these systems, however, have some disadvantages, whether it be cost, or software installations that could cause problems with IT, or just extra steps involved in setting up jobs and users, and proofs. Some clients may not want to learn these systems, their interfaces, and the way they manage files. Some companies just want a simple, fast and economical soft proofing option for non-critical colour proofing, and Adobe has picked up on that vibe and provided tools that take Acrobat to the next level.
Collaborative Soft Proofing with Acrobat 9 Professional
Acrobat 9 Professional is a viable soft proofing solution for non-critical colour proofing for two very important reasons. First, almost all files that go a RIP are PDF files, and you would be pretty hard pressed to find a graphic communications company that does not own Acrobat Pro in some version or other. Second, if you set up collaborative/shared proofing in Acrobat 9 Pro, the participants (aka clients) only need Acrobat 9 Reader to participate, which is a free download.
There are two features of Acrobat 9 that I think are very relevant to soft proofing: Send and Collaborate Live, and Send for Shared Review. There are other features, like Send for Email Review and so on, but these two are the most similar to what we have discussed so far.
Send and Collaborate live is a quick and easy way for two or more people to collaborate on a single PDF file. The initiator invites participants via e-mail, at which point those participants are sent a special copy of the PDF to open.
There is screen sharing, page sharing and a chat window that can be used to evaluate and collaborate on the file. Unfortunately, it does not support collaborative annotating, which is the main focus of Send for Shared Review.
Send for Shared Review takes advantage of Adobe’s Acrobat.com site and uses it as a centralized server to upload a PDF file, and then collaboratively annotate that file. To use this feature, all participants must have a valid Adobe user ID, which is free to create and use. The same Adobe ID gets you into many other free services (like Acrobat.com and Adobe TV), so it is worth signing up if you haven’t already. The premise of Send for Shared Review is straightforward: Upload a file to share, set some due dates and invite participants. Any participant who can access the file can use the standard set of Acrobat annotation tools to mark up the PDF. Each individual must then publish his or her comments in order to push them to the Acrobat server to be accessible to the other reviewers. Conversely, the Check for New Comments feature will make comments published by other reviewers visible. This image shows a file that has been configured for Shared Review. Note the yellow bar across the top of the proof that has options specific to Shared Review.
What I really like about Shared Review is that it has some managerial reporting capability. Take a look at this screen shot:
This is the Track Reviews window. From here, the initiator of the review can set or change deadlines, track usage, add or remove reviewers, and even end the review. In addition, the annotations can be collected and saved as a PDF file similar to the ones created by Remote Director and Matchprint Virtual that shows a thumbnail of the page and the annotations that were made.
These Acrobat 9 proofing tools are easy to use, extremely cost effective, and create very little disruption on existing workflows. If this interests you, then it is worth noting that these features have been even further expanded in Acrobat X. There is even more control over options and security, the choice to use your own servers instead of Acrobat.com, and the Send for Shared Review in Acrobat X has page sharing and chat capabilities, making it an even more powerful tool than what we see in Acrobat 9. I am also excited to see Adobe’s SendNow file sharing feature built into Acrobat X. This allows you to share large files with clients using Acrobat and Acrobat.com similar to YouSendIt, only this service is free (and not restricted to PDF files).
In summary, I am very impressed at how well Adobe has integrated these proofing collaboration features into Acrobat. If the improvements from Acrobat 9 to Acrobat X are any indication of where Adobe is heading with this, then I think we can expect to see some great things. And since Eizo has already set a precedent in certifying a colour proofing system for use with Acrobat 8, it is not too far of a stretch to think that Acrobat X, with the right monitor, could be used to accurately proof colour as well in the near future.
Collaborative Soft Proofing with Acrobat.com (Standalone)
I must admit that I am a proponent of Adobe’s online services. I was an early adopter of Acrobat Connect and have been touting its use in my fourth year advanced technology class for quite a few years now. I jumped on Acrobat.com when it was still in beta, and have been hooked ever since.
Acrobat.com has become an integral part of Acrobat 9 and will be even more prevalent as we expand capabilities with Acrobat X. Even so, Acrobat.com has a lot of use as a standalone product. One of the great features in Acrobat.com is the free meeting room sessions you can set up. To me, this is the ultimate in collaborative online proofing for many reasons. For one, collaboration is about communication, and these meeting rooms have built-in chat, shared meeting notes, video conferencing and either telephone conferencing or VoIP conferencing. You can share windows, applications, files, or desktops; you can also annotate and even exchange files.
The features and capabilities of an online meeting done with Acrobat.com are amazing given the fact that it is all free. And remember, this is not limited to PDF files, which means I could be showing and editing live application files. I could have an InDesign file open and be making live edits to the text while the client comments and guides the changes. Or, I could have an image open in Photoshop and be retouching it under my client’s guidance. There is a lot of potential to save time by drastically shortening correction loop times. And if you outgrow the free service, you can always try Acrobat Connect. It costs money, but you can record sessions and even let people take control of your computer (for clients who would rather do it themselves).
With a variety of price points, feature sets and compatibilities, there is likely a soft proofing alternative to meet almost every need. Whether you use soft proofing for colour matching, or just for content proofing, there is no doubt that these systems have truly come of age. And with big changes like OLED monitors that can achieve really dense blacks, the current work being done to ICC.2 (dot two) and the resulting v5 specifications and profiles that will follow, I think there is a lot of potential for soft proofing to get even better in the near future.