PowerPoint 2008…back in the game?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

I finally got my copy of Office 2008 a few days ago and have been messing with PowerPoint and Word a bit to see what all the fuss is about. My first thoughts? Powerpoint is back in the game.

(I apologize now for not putting any screens shots in here, but I may add them this week just to spice up the story)

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why the heck the owner of Keynoteuser.com would even take a glance at PowerPoint, and I can understand your concern. But I first jumped on Keynote because it seemed to inspire me, even though I wasn’t a presenter or even a presentation builder at the time. I just had to have the app and just had to play with it. PowerPoint never did that to me, and in fact usually made me curse at it every time I had to use it. The way text boxes seemed to have a mind of their own, forcing you to click on and off them any number of times to actually select JUST the box and not inside it. The annoying tool bar that just seemed to never be friendly and other little things.

PowerPoint 2004 brought some help, with soft drop shadows and better tools, but even then it had issues with PDF’s, and the only transparent image format supported was PNG (that may still be the case, I haven’t tested PPT 2008’s image import fully). The template system was still archaic and the whole app still pretty much looked like the same old PowerPoint it had always been.

Meanwhile, Keynote was growing and adding more features, with Keynote 4 adding motion path animation and other cool goodies (something, by the way, PowerPoint 2008 still doesn’t appear to have). But all the while, I’ve had this love/hate relationship with Keynote. There are still some things that Apple hasn’t addressed in it, like better audio support, cast shadows, perspective skewing with reflections that hold with it among others. Each version of Keynote gets closer to my “perfect” app, but it just seems like for every 2 or 3 new features Apple added that no one asked for, they forget another one that everyone DID ask for. With every release I hear myself saying, “cool, now the NEXT release will probably be perfect!” and of course each release always leaves me asking for more.

Enter PowerPoint 2008. No, it’s not perfect by any stretch. Heck, I fully expect to find a LONG list of gripes with it as I start to really dig into the app. But Keynote has pushed Microsoft to pay attention finally. PPT 2008 feels like a completely new app. The interface looks like it was ripped off of Keynote and modified slightly (with a few improvements I might add) but there are little things that are finally in PowerPoint that have been ignored for years before Keynote came along. A few of them are actually BETTER than Keynote.

Take shadows for example. Not only do you get soft drop shadows, but you can have shadows inside a shape, or the real kicker, CAST SHADOWS (PPT calls it Perspective shadow). That’s right, you can make an object appear to be floating over a floor with the shadow cast down onto the floor. Try that in Keynote. Earlier I mentioned the skew thing. You can click on several presets in the Formatting Palette that let you skew an image in perspective (I’m still trying to figure out if there’s a manual skew too though). I tested this and added a reflection on the skewed image…and it honored the perspective. In Keynote, even if you manage to skew an image and THEN import it into Keynote, when you add a reflection, it always reflects straight down and does NOT honor a perspective angle, because it doesn’t understand it (having not been skewed inside Keynote). If you’re trying to get depth on a slide, PowerPoint 2008 makes it easy (finally!). And of course, there are the old standards like the slide sorter, which unlike Keynote can be resized to more than just two sizes. And the template system has been overhauled, which brings with it some good and bad news.

As a Keynote theme builder, I often get e-mails asking me if my themes can be recolored. The newer ones actually CAN be recolored, but it’s not an obvious feature because of the way Keynote works. You have to manually change the background of a slide to an image or color of your liking for each master. In PowerPoint 2008 most themes come with a whole series of optional background treatments that show up in the Formatting Palette. Choose a grey theme and change the whole thing to blue. On top of that, there are some preset color/font schemes that you can apply to themes. These don’t always change the background of a theme, depending on if the slidee uses images or just color info as the background. In one sense, PowerPoint now takes a cue from Apple in that you can choose a theme, and then choose a “layout” from that theme. Layouts work like the Master slides in Keynote, but with the combination of the aforementioned background treatments, any given theme can now come in a series of colors but still show up only once in the theme selector ribbon.

So what’s the drawback? Complexity. Because there are so many variations and options, I felt lost sometimes. If it were just themes and background options, it would be one thing, but having also the option to choose the preset color and font sets, one can really get lost in all the options. As a theme maker the sea of options makes my head hurt, and I know that with some of my own larger themes, people have actually said I give too many options. I quickly found that if I picked a theme and then changed the color scheme, it changed the background options and I couldn’t get back to the original color scheme because I didn’t know what it had been before. I had to reapply the theme to my slides and start over. On top of that, if you want to apply one theme to one slide and another theme to another slide, you MUST select at least two slides and then apply the theme in order to just affect those slides. If you have only one slide selected it will be applied to all of your slides. This is an important tip that PowerPoint 2008 users will want to remember.

Another issue I found was with the transitions. It almost feels like the programmers forgot to deal with them this time around. They nailed the shadows and other goodies, but the transitions are still pretty lousy, and on my MacBook Pro, selecting one makes my screen flash black but does nothing in the way of a preview on screen most of the time. And there are a total of TWO 3D transitions, cube and flip (along with their various direction choices). Also notable is that transitions are applied upward through your slide list not downward, meaning if you select slide two and apply a transition, it’s applied between slides one and two and not between slides two and three as Keynote does. Animation effects fare no better and most are cheesy at best (most of the effects under the “Exciting” heading are far from it). It appears also that there’s no path animation, something PowerPoint for Windows has had since I believe 2003, and Keynote gained in version 4.

As I’m writing this I realized I have so far only touched on one small section of the new ribbon tool bar. In addition to Themes, Slide Layouts and Transitions, the ribbon also contains Table Styles, Charts, SmartArt Graphics and WordArt. Whereas Keynote themes give you ONE table style per master, PowerPoint gives you any number of table styles which appear when you click the Table Styles tab in the ribbon. I have to do a bit of experimenting here, but the basics are, each theme comes with a set of table styles, and PowerPoint itself has a long list of table styles. You can click on a table style that’s part of the theme and you’ll be asked how many rows and columns you want. Once you’ve okayed that PowerPoint will place a table on your slide. If you use the table tool from the top tool bar instead, PowerPoint will place a table on your slide that may not match it. I found if I did this, I had to then choose the table tab on the ribbon and then the Best Match for Document subtab and choose a style that matched. A bit confusing, but again, more flexible than Keynote (for better or worse).

The next tab is Charts. This one showed promise until I actually used it. For power users, you’re likely going to LOVE that when you click a chart icon, Excel launches and your chart is linked to an excel spreadsheet. Personally, I hardly ever use spreadsheets and the last thing I want is a complicated spreadsheet app to launch just so I can show some bars on my slide. At the least the user should be given the option of using a small grid inside PowerPoint (the way Keynote does) or to use the full blown Excel. Thankfully, even though you’re forced to use Excel, some sample data is placed there so you have a starting point for your chart. Another problem was that there’s no real notice of what you are supposed to do once you’re in Excel. I took a chance that it was all fully automatic and simply closed the Excel document, which turned out to be exactly what you do when you’re done. Once you’re back in PowerPoint, you’ll find a very simple text button on the Formatting Palette that says “Edit in Excel…” that will reopen the chart in Excel if you need to edit it. Again, power users will eat this up, basic users will run screaming in terror. On the plus side, PowerPoints sheer number of chart types makes Keynote look like a charting toy. Exploded Doughnut? Stacked Pyramid? Radar? If you find yourself complaining that Keynote can’t do the kind of charts you want, you’ll likely find one here that works for you.

The styles for charts a are a bit different in that they only show up in the Formatting Palette and not in the ribbon, probably because with Tables there’s really only one kind of table, but with charts you’ve many different types that need to appear in the ribbon.

The next tab is something that Keynote has no real comparison to. SmartArt Graphics are like pre-made illustration or object sets for conveying an idea. Think of them as a group of objects that all match and go together in a group. Because they could get complicated, PowerPoint actually gives each graphic its own little outline palette that can be hidden by a little icon on the top right edge of the group. Since I haven’t had too much time to play with this, I am assuming that each theme has a specific color and font style set for these, and again, you can mess with that only in the Formatting Palette and not the ribbon. You can also completely mess with the grouping (removing objects, moving objects around) and if you totally screw it up, there’s a reset option for the whole group or “graphic.” Overall, it’s once again one of those features that is both powerful and complex. It adds some serious time saving stuff that Keynote doesn’t have, but could cause basic users some confusion if they don’t understand how it works. Overall though, I think this type of thing is really needed in Keynote.

The last tab is one I’ve often used along side the word abomination, and that’s WordArt. I’ve actually said more than once that I’m glad WordArt isn’t in Keynote, but I know that there can be a time and a place for fancy text. Thankfully, most of the presets aren’t that bad, and again, there are some Theme matching color sets on the Formatting palette.. I suspect that theme makers can probably include their own WordArt styles, but I don’t know for sure yet.

One other big difference I wanted to make sure to mention that I found between Keynote and PowerPoint is in how they deal with images and “masks.” In Keynote you can drag an image onto a shape, or select both an image and a shape and mask them (the effect is pretty much the same either way). You then have the ability to resize the mask or the shape independently to get the effect you want. In PowerPoint, you can still drag an image onto a shape (if the shape is selected) but it’s not treated like a mask. You must use the crop tool along with resizing the object to get the effect you want, something that seems more complicated to me than Keynotes masking feature. By the way, I should also mention that PowerPoint continues to come with some decent clip art (and photo objects) and that Keynote ships with only the demo presentation (which does contain some usable clip art). One really interesting tip I discovered is that with both apps open I found I could drag clip art from the Palette in PowerPoint onto a slide in Keynote and it worked fine there.

So, there you have it. My little story turned into a sort of rambling mini review slash Keynote user’s take on PowerPoint 2008. Overall, I think Microsoft really stepped up to the plate and released an incredible upgrade. Some of the reviews I’ve seen for Office seem to infer that the new Office isn’t really that big of an upgrade. I’d have to disagree. The entire interface has been overhauled, and in the case of PowerPoint, it’s got LOTS of new features, and many of the old features have been enhanced. The fact that Word took a cue from Pages and added the layout view (and a bunch of very Pages like templates) is a pretty bold move too, but I won’t go into that for this story. For years Microsoft simply piled on the extra (sometimes unwanted) features and continued to clutter up the interface to the point of it almost being debilitating. What better way to save the brand then to completely gut the interface and start over. Office 2008 really does feel like a Mac app and not something ported over (though 2004 did feel a bit more Mac like than previous versions).

Will I switch over to PowerPoint? Well, I’m actually not a professional presenter, so in that sense, no I won’t switch (and even when I do present in the future I’ll still use Keynote). Will I stop making Keynote themes? Nope, I love Keynote and I’ll continue to run this site and be a huge Keynote fan. Will I stop making fun of PowerPoint? Yeah, I think so. While there are still some annoyances in this new version, it really did catch up on a LOT of visual things that Keynote can do, and it surpassed Keynote in a few places. My biggest complaints at this point are the lack of decent transitions and effects, and the boring/cheesy animation effects. Oh, and I may try my hand at creating PowerPoint themes down the road, but don’t worry, my Keynote themes aren’t going anywhere.

I’ll try to post more reviews/thoughts in the future, but I wanted to get my early thoughts out there for you all.