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Microsoft Office 2004

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PowerPoint 2004: Presentation Application Gets Its Strongest Upgrade in Years

by Franklin N. Tessler

Apart from adopting the Aqua interface and a handful of other new features, PowerPoint X didn't sport many compelling changes when it debuted over two years ago (   ; February 2002 ). In the meantime, Apple surprised us by releasing Keynote, a program with the power to turn out stunning presentations -- but limited animation options and other missing features hampered it (   ; April 2003). PowerPoint 2004, an excellent upgrade that delivers helpful tools for presenters, crisper graphics, and an improved workflow, should more than satisfy current users, and may even entice a few Keynote adopters to switch back.

Presentation Central

Whether you're a PowerPoint newbie or a seasoned pro, you'll love PowerPoint 2004's brilliant Presenter Tools feature. While your audience watches your presentation on a projector or other secondary display, you see three resizable panes on your monitor (see "Full Control"). The pane on the left shows numbered thumbnails of all your slides. A handy clock at the top displays the elapsed time to keep you from going over your allotted time.

Presenter Tools' Audience view shows you exactly what the audience members see. The cursor appears on their display whenever you mouse over the live view on your monitor, so you can get by without a separate laser pointer. The area immediately below contains your notes; you can read them from there, or even edit them during your presentation -- a practical way to note that half your audience fell asleep during the 28th slide.

A small, movable window shows you what your audience is about to see, whether it's the result of the next animation on the current frame or an upcoming slide. Keynote offers some of the same functionality when you're presenting in dual-display mode, but its slide thumbnails are too small to read, and you can't edit your notes.

Animation Options

PowerPoint 2004's expanded repertoire of animation effects widens its already considerable lead over Keynote. In addition to entry and exit animations, it offers new emphasis effects that let you change the display properties of text and graphics. For example, you can highlight a line of text by enlarging it temporarily or make a baseball look as if it's flying away by shrinking it.

For the first time, PowerPoint for Mac lets you define more than two animations for every object on a slide; coupled with PowerPoint's flexible options for triggering and timing animations, this allows you to add a dazzling array of effects. I also prefer PowerPoint 2004's revamped Custom Animation dialog box, which is easier to navigate than PowerPoint X's tabbed window.

Despite the attention Microsoft paid to animation, PowerPoint 2004 doesn't support path-based animation, a feature that's been a staple of PowerPoint for Windows for years.

Easy on the Eyes

Keynote still beats PowerPoint for rendering dazzling text and graphics, but a few welcome changes to PowerPoint 2004 narrow the gap. My favorite addition is support for soft drop shadows, a substantial improvement over the harsh shadows in PowerPoint X. (However, soft shadows created in the Mac version won't render properly on Windows PCs or in earlier Mac versions of PowerPoint, a limitation that Office 2004 will flag if you use the Compatibility Report feature in the Toolbox palette [see "Office's Common Ground"].)

PowerPoint 2004 benefits from enhanced transparency support -- the boundaries between opaque and transparent parts of objects, which sometimes appeared jagged in PowerPoint X, now render smoothly. And Microsoft has finally refreshed PowerPoint's aging collection of templates. Although they're less attractive than Keynote's limited selection of themes, the more than 100 new designs in PowerPoint 2004's library are a vast improvement. PowerPoint 2004 also sports an expanded inventory of slide transitions, which provide special effects that help hold the audience's attention between slides.

Smoother Workflow

Over the years, PowerPoint's increasingly cluttered interface has confused new users and spawned a cottage industry of self-help books. Thankfully, the Formatting Palette in PowerPoint simplifies things by gathering common tasks in one handy location. Tabs in the Formatting Palette's Add Objects panel let you add slides, symbols, shapes, lines, or text shapes to your slide with a click or two. The Change Slides panel at the bottom of the Formatting Palette makes it a snap to change the current slide's design, transition, or layout.

Unfortunately, PowerPoint still doesn't let you customize keyboard shortcuts, as Word and Excel do. And PowerPoint 2004's lack of security features is even more surprising -- for example, there's no way to distribute a read-only presentation, and you can't open password-protected files that were created in PowerPoint for Windows.

PowerPoint 2004 retains the previous version's approach to master slides. You can use multiple masters in a presentation, but only by inserting slides from another presentation or by applying a different design template to slides in the current one. I prefer Keynote's method, which lets you define as many masters as you like.

Aside from a few display glitches, I didn't encounter any critical bugs while running PowerPoint 2004 under Panther.

Macworld's Buying Advice

It's a safe bet that PowerPoint 2004 wouldn't be nearly as good as it is if Apple hadn't released Keynote when it did. PowerPoint still lags behind in producing tantalizing eye candy, but not by much -- for some speakers, PowerPoint 2004's Presenter Tools and its more comprehensive animation options will more than compensate for the difference. If you're already a PowerPoint user, I highly recommend the 2004 upgrade.

Full Control The Presenter Tools feature lets you control your slide show from your Mac.
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