Microsoft PowerPoint 2008

Franklin N. Tessler
8 February, 2008
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Few products enjoy the market dominance that PowerPoint for Windows does — for most of the world, the words “PowerPoint” and “presentation” are interchangeable. But Mac presenters have had an alternative since January of 2003, when Apple unveiled Keynote. Although the initial release lagged in a few critical respects, three subsequent updates addressed most of Keynote’s shortcomings and established it as the clear presentation leader for the Mac. Sporting an improved interface and beefed-up graphics capabilities, PowerPoint 2008 catches up to Keynote in a few areas and even exceeds it in some. While it’s still not Keynote’s equal, PowerPoint is sometimes a better practical choice.

PowerPoint’s new look.
Many changes to PowerPoint’s user interface are recognisable instantly. The standard toolbar is now built in, and you can opt to display all the toolbars docked or undocked — except the Drawing toolbar, which cannot be docked. When docked, the toolbars are integrated into the main window, resulting in a much cleaner appearance than in PowerPoint 2004. You can also customise any of the toolbars to suit your workflow by dragging commands into or out of them.

In PowerPoint 2008, the dedicated Slide and Outline views are gone, replaced by a three-part Normal View that shows the current slide on a light grey backdrop and speaker’s notes on the bottom. A new pane on the left replaces the old Outline view with a more versatile one that lets you toggle between outline and thumbnail representations of the presentation. Like Keynote’s Navigator, the Slide pane makes it easy to see the current slide in the context of the ones around it, and you can duplicate, delete, or rearrange selected slides. However, there’s no way to arrange the slides hierarchically or hide subgroups of slides the way you can with Keynote.

The Elements Gallery, another new feature, augments PowerPoint more than it does either of the other two Office applications that feature it. Gallery tabs let you insert or make changes to slide themes, layouts, transitions, table styles, charts, SmartArt Graphics, and WordArt. The Layouts gallery is especially helpful, since you can use it to either change the layout of an existing slide or add a new slide with the selected layout. SmartArt Graphics, which convert text bullets to eye-catching graphics, are an effective way to explain complex relationships, although they can detract from a presentation if they’re overused.

Your master’s slides. Nowhere is the difference in design philosophy between PowerPoint and Keynote more apparent than in each program’s implementation of themes, master slides, and layouts. Instead of separate title and slide masters, PowerPoint 2008 supports a single master slide that determines the appearance of background elements and placeholders on all the slide layouts. Set the title text on the master slide to Arial yellow bold, say, and the corresponding text on all of the individual slide layouts changes too. Themes, on the other hand, let you specify the background and attributes of all the placeholders on any subset of slides, and provide a way to maintain design consistency.

Keynote, by contrast, doesn’t separate masters and layouts. You can have as many masters as you wish, each with its own background and arrangement of text, graphics elements, and placeholders. (As in PowerPoint, you can apply themes to change the look of an entire presentation in one step.) Although PowerPoint 2008’s model provides considerable flexibility, it’s not as straightforward as Keynote’s approach, and will probably confuse novices and experienced users alike.

A better Toolbox.
PowerPoint 2004’s Formatting Palette simplified PowerPoint’s interface by consolidating many commands in one accessible location. In PowerPoint 2008, the revamped Toolbox continues along the same path by further centralizing functions and grouping them more logically. In addition to a Formatting palette with sections that change to let you adjust the attributes of the currently selected object, the Toolbox sports a separate Object palette that lets you insert shapes, symbols, clip art, or pictures onto a slide.
PowerPoint 2008’s clip art library includes the cheesy drawings that are a staple of bad presentations everywhere, but thankfully adds more than 100 photographs with transparent backgrounds. Animation controls get their own Toolbox palette, as do Reference Tools, which let you look up dictionary definitions, thesaurus entries, translations, and more. The remaining palettes let you access PowerPoint’s Scrapbook and Compatibility Report, which were housed separately in PowerPoint 2004’s Toolbox.

Microsoft’s attempt to pack so many different commands into a relatively compact window results in an ever-changing interface, and the dynamic resizing that occurs as you switch between tabs is sometimes jarring. In addition, many Toolbox buttons — picture formatting and animation effects, for example — open separate dialog boxes with their own varied interfaces and quirks. In comparison, Keynote’s Inspector windows encompass a narrower range of functions but have a more consistent user interface, so they’re easier to deal with. And, in contrast with the Toolbox, you can open multiple instances of Keynote’s Inspector to work with different object attributes at the same time.

The Keynote look.
It’s always been easy to spot Keynote slideshows — even if they don’t use Apple themes, presentations crafted with Keynote often have a distinctive look. PowerPoint 2008 narrows the gap by adopting more of the graphics capabilities built into OS X. In addition to adjustable soft drop shadows and object transparency, first introduced in Office 2004, PowerPoint 2008 supports reflections. Unlike Keynote’s reflection feature, which only works with images, PowerPoint lets you reflect any picture, shape, or text object onto whatever lies behind it on the slide. You can even alter the reflection’s vertical extent and adjust the separation between it and the original object.

PowerPoint also sports a greatly expanded repertoire of picture formatting options and special effects that go beyond Keynote’s image adjustments. The roster of 34 effects range from artistic (such as stained glass and bump distortion) to practical (unsharp mask and gamma correction). But, although it’s helpful to adjust images without having to launch an image editor, doing so can significantly increase the size of the presentation file, as is also true in Keynote.

Missed opportunities and glitches. Noteworthy additions in Keynote ‘08 included Smart Builds, which let you display a series of images using one of ten animation effects, and path motion, which lets you move slide objects from one point to another along defined paths. Alas, similar features are absent from PowerPoint 2008. Its lack of support for path animation is particularly disappointing, since this feature has been available in the last two versions of PowerPoint for Windows. I was especially surprised when I created a presentation that contained motion paths in PowerPoint 2007 and then tried to open it in PowerPoint 2008 on my Mac. I expected some sort of compatibility error, but the animations played perfectly, meaning that the engine for displaying path motion exists in the program.

Some PowerPoint 2008 omissions are especially odd: for example, you can interact with QuickTime VR movies in a slideshow (something that Keynote still doesn’t let you do), but you can’t pause and then scrub back and forth through a movie during a presentation the way you can with Keynote. Unfortunately, that limits PowerPoint’s suitability for some educational applications.

PowerPoint’s continued reliance on external applications (Microsoft Graph in PowerPoint 2004 and Excel in PowerPoint 2008) to create charts and graphs is also a bit of a letdown. While PowerPoint and Excel together provide a more comprehensive library of styles and options than Keynote’s integrated chart editor does, editing the source data in a separate program still feels awkward.

As if to prove that they’re not above borrowing a good idea when they see one, Microsoft’s programmers have implemented a few tricks from Keynote’s playbook. For example, in addition to fixed guides, PowerPoint now provides Dynamic Guides that pop up as you move objects around, making it easier to centre them on the slide or position them in relation to neighbouring items. But PowerPoint’s guides are finicky, sometimes not appearing when you expect them to or forcing you to move objects very slowly to make them come into view.

Despite many improvements, PowerPoint 2008 doesn’t feel as well thought out as Keynote, a legacy of its long heritage and its close ties to other Office applications. While you can duplicate almost all of Keynote’s dazzling effects in PowerPoint, it’s still faster to whip up a top-notch slideshow in Keynote. But that doesn’t mean that Keynote is always the best choice, especially if you can’t use a Mac to deliver your presentations. In many corporate, educational, and scientific venues, presenters have no choice but to use PowerPoint. (You can create a slideshow in Keynote and export it in PowerPoint format, but many of Keynote’s best effects are lost in translation.) When you factor in the common requirement to exchange presentations with PowerPoint for Windows users, it often makes more sense to just use PowerPoint.

Whether you’re using PowerPoint by necessity or choice, the latest version’s new additions are useful, and produce attractive results. Unfortunately, Mac users still miss out on capabilities available to Windows users and the intuitive interface of Keynote.

Microsoft Entourage 2008

RRP $649 as part of Office 2008; $229 as part of Home and Student Edition
OS X 10.4, 10.5
Processor Universal
Cons No way to create path animations; confusing master and layout scheme; no QuickTime movie scrubbing; clunky implementation of guides; separate applications for charts and graphs still necessary
Pros Improved toolbars; more functions centralised in Toolbox; enhanced graphics capabilities
Rating 4
Type Presentation application
Publisher Microsoft 132058

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