Is Apple’s iWork a viable alternative to Microsoft Office? To find out, we asked Franklin N. Tessler—our go-to expert on presentation programs—to use PowerPoint 2008 and Keynote ‘08 to create the same project, progressing from the basics (data entry and formatting) to more-advanced features. Our questions: Which program is better at each stage of the job? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Which jobs (and which users) require which tool?
To compare Microsoft PowerPoint 2008 () and Keynote ‘08 (), I used both programs to create a presentation on space exploration, starting with built-in templates and then adding some special effects.
While both programs provide templates that help beginners—or anyone who’s racing to meet a deadline—cook up a presentation quickly, Keynote’s approach to starting a new presentation is more straightforward.
By default, when you open a new document, Keynote lets you choose from an ample collection of themes. These consist of sets of color-coordinated master slides, with each master specifying the appearance and layout of slide elements, and with placeholders for titles, subtitles, pictures, and other content. Pick a theme, and you’re good to go.
In contrast, PowerPoint forces you to choose themes and layouts separately. Slide Themes, the first button in the Elements Gallery, lets you specify the presentation’s colors, fonts, and backgrounds; Slide Layouts, the second button, lets you determine the composition of elements on each slide. Although PowerPoint’s separation of themes and layouts is more flexible and lets you make global changes more readily, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the huge number of possible combinations.
To create a title slide, I chose appropriate layouts from Keynote’s drop-down Masters menu and PowerPoint’s Slide Layouts gallery.
Next, I added an introductory slide by choosing a master with placeholders for a title and bullets. When I’m showing a series of bullet points, I like to highlight each item as I’m talking about it, dimming the others. Both programs let me do so easily: PowerPoint’s Toolbox and Keynote’s Inspector consolidate formatting and other functions in tabbed floating windows. The Toolbox provides a wider gamut of features than the Inspector—it lets you insert shapes and special text symbols, for example—but it’s a bit busy, with vertically stacked sections that change to accommodate the selected object. Keynote’s Inspector windows are less cluttered, and I could open as many as I needed.
I finished off my basic presentation with a series of text and picture slides, starting with a layout that had a title placeholder at the top. I added pictures to slides by dragging them directly from the Finder. Then I switched to the slide-sorter view—which displayed the entire presentation in thumbnail format—to review my work and rearrange the slides. Although PowerPoint provided extra magnification levels (six to Keynote’s three), Keynote’s largest thumbnails were bigger than PowerPoint’s, so they were easier to read. I also preferred Keynote’s transitions (the special effects that play between slides): PowerPoint offered more choices, but Keynote’s were more appealing and ran more smoothly.
Overall, for getting a basic presentation up and running quickly, I give Keynote the edge.
PowerPoint took that edge back when it came time to kick the presentation up a notch. I decided to apply some special effects to the pictures that I’d already placed. PowerPoint has a more extensive library of effects, including lens distortions and other transformations. I also appreciated its broader range of shadowing options, including perspective shadows that I used to make one of the pictures look as though it were standing on a solid floor.
I also elected to add some visual punch by showing our home planet against a starry sky. I began by importing pictures of a star field and of Earth from another project onto a new slide. Unfortunately, the shot of Earth had a black background, and I was too lazy to fire up Adobe Photoshop to erase it. Both PowerPoint and Keynote can delete unwanted backgrounds, but Keynote’s Alpha tool is more versatile. (It works only on contiguous pixels and lets you adjust its sensitivity by dragging; PowerPoint renders every pixel of a selected color transparent, so it works well only if the foreground object doesn’t have any colors that match the background.)
Next, to illustrate milestones in manned spaceflight, I imported a QuickTime movie of the launch of Apollo 11. Inserting movies is simple in both applications, but Keynote provides finer control over movies as they’re playing. Although you can start and stop playback during PowerPoint slide shows, you can’t pause and scroll through clips the way you can with Keynote. And the QuickTime Inspector in Keynote allows you to loop movies in either direction, something you can’t do in PowerPoint. (Amazingly, though, Keynote doesn’t support QuickTime VR, which PowerPoint does.)
To provide a summary of all the Apollo launches, I decided to add a table—often more effective than bulleted text for presenting numeric information. Both Keynote and PowerPoint let you build tables without invoking a separate application, but PowerPoint makes it easier. In Keynote, tables adopt colors and other attributes that complement the current theme, but you can’t tell what they’ll look like in advance. Like Keynote, PowerPoint matches tables with themes, but its Table Styles gallery lets you pick the style you like.
For sprucing up a basic presentation, both programs have their strengths. I’d have to call this phase of the comparison a tie.
Last, to illustrate the concept of an interplanetary voyage, I needed to simulate a spacecraft traveling from Earth to Mars. Keynote was the clear winner here, since its Action Build feature let me define a precise trajectory. Although you can move objects in PowerPoint too, you can’t specify the path that they will follow; that’s a glaring omission, especially since this ability has been available in PowerPoint for Windows for years.
I used another clever Keynote feature, Smart Builds, to show Earth and some of the other planets in our solar system with a turntable effect. With each mouse click, the next planet rotated into view as the others dimmed and receded into the background, an effective way to show more pictures than I could fit comfortably on one slide.
Of course, the real test of a presentation is how effectively it works for an audience. Both PowerPoint and Keynote let me keep tabs on my progress and see what was coming up before everyone else did. I also created handouts with both programs, although neither supported as many formatting options as I would have wished.
But there are other considerations, too. It’s not uncommon for speakers to collaborate on presentations or deliver them via someone else’s computer, potentially a gigantic headache for Keynote users living in a PowerPoint-dominated world. Since its inception, Keynote has supported exporting presentations in PowerPoint format, but the results are usually less than ideal without manual cleanup.
Microsoft’s adoption of XML-based file formats in PowerPoint 2008 only adds to the complication, especially if you have to share presentations with colleagues who use only PowerPoint for Windows; despite Microsoft’s claims of interoperability, cross-platform sharing is not seamless. Keynote lets you export slide shows in QuickTime format with transparency, movies, and other dazzling graphics intact, but that works only if QuickTime is installed on the computer you’re using to present.
For advanced presentation tools, I think Keynote is better than PowerPoint. When it comes to sharing presentations with colleagues using other tools, neither one is entirely effective.
The final word
PowerPoint has caught up to Keynote in many areas and surpassed it in some. But Keynote’s workflow and overall feature set remain superior. Practically speaking, your choice of software probably depends more on the hardware you’ll be using to deliver your presentation (and the software installed on it) than on the features of your authoring program. For that reason, unless Apple releases a Keynote player application for Windows, which isn’t likely, PowerPoint may be a more sensible choice for many speakers.
The two open-source office suites—OpenOffice and NeoOffice—include presentation modules that are compatible with PowerPoint. I put both through their paces by opening slide shows created with various Mac and Windows versions of PowerPoint, including the space presentation that I created for this article. Both applications handled older PowerPoint files (with a .ppt suffix) with varying success. Neither was able to open PowerPoint 2008 files (in the new .pptx format). If you’re collaborating on complex presentations with other Mac or Windows users, you may run into problems as you transfer files back and forth.
If you’re building presentations from scratch, both OpenOffice and NeoOffice will work, as long as you’re willing to live with some limitations. Because of its dependence on the Unix X11 graphic interface, OpenOffice feels decidedly kludgy and un-Mac-like. NeoOffice feels more familiar, and it’s easier to work with. But its lack of support for sounds and movies is a significant drawback for now (QuickTime support is promised soon), and you won’t have PowerPoint 2008’s extensive library of themes and slide layouts at your fingertips. Still, it’s worth checking out if your presentation needs are modest.
Google Docs is an enticing newcomer that lets you create, collaborate on, and display presentations over the Web. In its current incarnation, however, Google Docs’ presentation features are much too limited: you can’t work on documents larger than 10MB, for example, nor can you work with movies, sounds, or any type of animation. The program’s reliance on the Web also means that you need to be online to access your presentations.
Finally, if your presentations include pictures with only a smattering of text, consider iPhoto for your slide shows. You can use Adobe Photoshop or any other graphics program to create text slides, and then import them into iPhoto for display.
[Franklin N. Tessler is a university professor and radiologist who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and frequently writes and lectures about presentations.]
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