Review: Keynote '08

In the four-and-a-half years since its launch, Keynote has matured from a promising but flawed program into a strong performer that outshines Microsoft PowerPoint 2004 (   ) in most areas. Even so, Keynote 3 (   ) suffered from a few surprising omissions, such as tiny thumbnails in the Light Table and lack of support for QuickTime VR. Although Keynote ’08 doesn’t address all my complaints, it’s a must-have for anyone who’s using an earlier version and more compelling than ever for new users.

Smoother workflow

The new version of Keynote retains an uncluttered interface that makes it easy to put together polished presentations with a minimum of fuss, while introducing features that boost efficiency. For example, the Format Bar, an optional ribbon that appears just below the toolbar, lets you adjust fonts, color, shadows, opacity, and more. It’s a simple addition (and one that spans all three iWork programs), but it means less shuffling through Inspector tabs to tweak the look of objects on a slide

The new Smart Build feature is another huge time-saver that lets you show a series of images without putting them on separate frames or using builds to display them one-by-one. When you set up a Smart Build, a resizable placeholder and a translucent overlay appear on the slide. The overlay, similar to Keynote’s image adjustment window, has a space for you to drag and drop the images that you want to present from the Media Browser or Finder, along with thumbnails of the ones that you’ve chosen so far. When you’re done, Keynote displays the pictures using one of ten special effects, including a turntable that rotates to bring succeeding images into view and another that shows pictures on a spinning cube.

Alas, although you can insert a Smart Build onto a master slide, it won’t function as a placeholder on slides that use that master—if you want to use the same Smart Build effect on several slides, you have to create the builds separately or design the first slide and then duplicate it.

New Auto Correction options, which you activate via Keynote’s preferences, also let you work more quickly by automatically capitalizing words at the beginning of sentences, building bulleted and numbered lists, and replacing text as you type. Although the last feature is mostly intended to perform character substitutions (such as replacing “(r)” with “®”), you can also customize the list of replacements to correct common mistakes (“the” for “hte”) or expand shortcuts into preferred phrases.

Another feature lets people with less than perfect vision choose from one of three magnification levels for the slide thumbnails in the Navigator and Light Table views. Although it’s not as flexible as the variable slider I would have preferred, it’s a welcome addition that saves time by letting you read slides without having to look at them in the Slide Only or Navigator view.

Objects in motion

Despite an impressive roster of motion builds and other effects, animation previously wasn’t Keynote’s strongest suit, requiring cumbersome workarounds or separate programs like Adobe Flash to simulate even simple actions like moving a ball across a floor. Keynote’s support for path-based animation puts an end to that by letting you define exactly how objects move. And that’s not all: in addition to controlling an object’s position, you can specify actions that change its size, rotation, or opacity at any point in time to, for example, simulate a spaceship that grows as it approaches the viewer from a distance.

You create animation paths by building them from straight lines or Bézier curves, one section at a time. Although this approach works well for many applications, plotting out motion along a circle or ellipse means stringing together several Bézier curves. It would be far simpler if you could designate circles and other graphic outlines as motion paths. And, because you have to use Keynote’s fixed-size build drawer to set up the order and timing of movements and other effects, it’s difficult to choreograph multiple objects. So, along with additional options for defining motion paths, a timeline for setting up builds and other effects tops my wish list for a future update to Keynote.

Picture perfect

Other enhancements build on Keynote’s considerable graphics prowess. Picture Frame, a new stroke option in the Graphic Inspector, draws a border around any text or graphic object. You have 12 frame styles to choose from, ranging from simple lines to shadowed borders that are similar to the picture cutouts in some of Keynote’s older themes. Unlike cutouts, which are challenging to produce, you can add or tweak frames with only a few mouse clicks. And, now that Keynote lets you define pictures on master slides as media placeholders, it’s easier than ever to design your own themes.

Another new feature, Instant Alpha, lets you make backgrounds transparent without having to use an external image editor, such as Photoshop. The process works best on pictures with foreground objects that stand out from the background, such as a red company logo set against a white backdrop. When you click on the background, contiguous pixels with similar colors turn purple. As you drag, the range of selected colors shrinks or grows. When you’re satisfied with your selection, press return and the background disappears, leaving the rest of the picture intact. Instant Alpha is no substitute for Photoshop masking, but it performs remarkably well with some images.

Of course, no Keynote update would be complete without a few cool themes and special effects. New build effects include Flame, which makes objects appear or disappear in a blaze, and Confetti, which makes objects self-assemble from or explode into a cloud of specks. (Confetti also makes an appearance as a new transition effect.) The new version also sports nine new themes.

Sight and sound: a mixed bag

Keynote’s support for video is improved, but it’s still imperfect. For example, Keynote no longer automatically begins to play movies the instant they appear, and you can adjust a movie’s start and stop points in the QuickTime Inspector. You can also publish Keynote presentations directly on YouTube. Another new export option lets you save your slideshow in an iPod- or iPhone-compatible format, but you’re limited to fixed or recorded timing, so it’s of limited value if you want to practice a presentation on the go. And Keynote still doesn’t let you interact with QuickTime VR movies during a presentation.

Keynote’s audio features, although better than before, also don’t go far enough. For the first time, you can record a narration for your presentation in Keynote as you watch the slideshow, and most audio remains intact when you export a presentation to Flash. But you still can’t add audio tracks that span only a subset of slides, a feature that makes it challenging to create background music tracks that include several songs.

Macworld’s buying advice

Despite a few rough edges, Keynote ’08 is more impressive than ever. With PowerPoint 2008 slated for release early next year, I’m hoping that the competition will compel Apple to address Keynote’s remaining shortcomings before then.

[ Franklin N. Tessler is a university professor and radiologist who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and frequently writes and lectures about presentations. ]

Path-based motion tools expand Keynote’s animation options.Smart Builds are preset animations that display a series of photographs. You tweak options, such as the viewer’s Perspective in this turntable effect, using the Build Inspector.

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