Keynote takes on PowerPoint

Like Windows users, Mac users who need to make computer-based presentations have had little choice in recent years but to use Microsoft Corp.'s PowerPoint. It's become the industry standard, with no practical alternative available for either platform.

Until January that is, when Apple Computer Inc. surprised just about everyone with Keynote, a PowerPoint challenger designed to exploit Mac OS X's sophisticated graphics capabilities, such as transparency. (No, Keynote is not available for Mac OS 9.)

After watching Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrate Keynote's dramatic 3-D transitions between slides at the Macworld industry show in San Francisco, some observers declared it a "PowerPoint killer."

Jobs said the software had been created for him to aid in the construction of his frequent keynote presentations. Noting that he had been using unfinished versions of the program for about a year, Jobs said jokingly that he was Apple's "low-paid beta tester."

Though a compelling piece of software, particularly for a first version, the weeks since Keynote's introduction have revealed enough shortcomings to raise doubts about whether it's quite ready to completely displace the venerable PowerPoint.

But first, let's focus on Keynote's strengths. Keynote's graphics look far better than PowerPoint's. Keynote's crisp, photorealistic images make PowerPoint's traditional clip art look pathetic.

And then there's the "wow" factor in the transitions between slides. Sure, if you hunt through PowerPoint's menus, you'll find transitions like wipes and dissolves. But you won't find anything like Keynote's "Cube" transition, in which each slide appears to be on the face of a rotating cube.

Keynote also has practical features -- the automatic alignment guides that pop up when you're trying to center text or graphics on a slide, a tool that saves time and aggravation.

With a $99 price tag, Keynote also will save cash, if you already don't own PowerPoint for the Mac. PowerPoint costs $399 when purchased separately from the rest of the Office v.X suite. (The full Mac OS X Office package lists for only $100 more; the difference is less than $50 when purchased from a Mac catalog reseller.)

In a concession to PowerPoint's dominance, Keynote can import and export files in PowerPoint format. Of course, you lose the fancy 3-D transitions you may have added -- they get converted to "uncover," which pulls the currently displayed slide back to reveal the next slide -- but the essential elements of the presentation are preserved.

Keynote also exports presentations as QuickTime movies or PDF (Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat) files. Only the QuickTime format preserves all the whiz-bang eye candy. If a Windows user has Apple's QuickTime software installed, this is the best option for transferring a presentation from Keynote to a PC for viewing only.

Saving to PDF format converts each slide to a page, obliterating all the transitions. However, almost every computer today has the free Acrobat Reader software installed, so with PDF, you stand the best chance of the recipient being able to read the file.

Keynote's impressive file-exporting ability does have an Achilles' heel, however. Many of the first purchasers of Keynote have complained that it creates huge export files.

For example, I imported a 100-kilobyte PowerPoint file that my wife had received as part of an online class. After adding some fancy 3-D Keynote transitions, I exported the file back to PowerPoint and watched it swell to seven times its original size.

Then, I exported the file as a QuickTime movie, which produced a 17-megabyte file -- 170 times the size of the original!

Many Keynote users have complained about overly large PDF files, but that issue only seems to manifest when the presentation includes background images: The same test file used above exported as a 284-kilobyte PDF without background images but generated a 8.6-megabyte behemoth -- more than 30 times larger -- with background images placed on just seven of the 27 slides.

As for usability, Keynote doesn't have quite as many options as PowerPoint, but whether this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on the skill level of the user.

For example, advanced users accustomed to PowerPoint's extensive ability to create and manipulate flow charts and other diagrams will be disappointed by Keynote's limited abilities.

Keynote also lacks PowerPoint's ability to record narration and its ability to set the timing for slides. You can drop audio into a Keynote slide, but it stops playing when you move to the next slide (the audio can continue through multiple slides in PowerPoint).

Novice users, on the other hand, probably won't notice these shortcomings.

Since Keynote is not a member of the Office suite, PowerPoint has the advantage of superior integration with its fellow Office components -- Word, Excel and Entourage. However, many people don't need that level of integration, particularly in non-business settings.

Of greater concern to most users is Keynote's thin selection of themes, templates and clip art versus PowerPoint's. Keynote includes only 12 themes, compared with PowerPoint's 60; Keynote gives you 11 slide templates to PowerPoint's 24; and PowerPoint's hundreds of clip-art files dwarf Keynote's several dozen.

True, Keynote's offerings look much better, but veterans of PowerPoint are accustomed to plentiful options.

Intrepid Keynote users may want to investigate two Web sites that already have sprung up to address some of these deficiencies: www.keynotehq.com and www.keynoteuser.com.

KeynoteHQ features downloadable themes, articles and user forums; Keynote User also has downloadable themes, as well as helpful tips and troubleshooting advice.

Apart from those Web sites, Keynote allows users to create and save their own themes and slide templates. As for clip art, Keynote can import many common formats, such as JPEGs and TIFFs, and even native Adobe Illustrator files, but - - oddly -- not EPS files.

Some Keynote users have found they can compensate for Keynote's weak graphics- drawing capabilities by using the Omni Group Inc.'s $59.95 OmniGraffle program - - a free version is limited to 20 items per document -- to create a diagram, which then can be dragged and dropped onto a Keynote slide.

Keynote also has experienced setbacks because of typical initial-release bugs. The worst was a conflict with many Macs that use video cards from ATI Technologies Inc., which includes most models of Mac laptops.

Several slides into a presentation, the program would lock up, forcing a rebooting of the computer. Apple fixed this in its recent upgrade to Mac OS X itself, OS X 10.2.4, which Mac users can download via the Software Update control panel in the System Preferences.

Apple's quick response to this serious issue fosters hope that the company will listen to its users' other requests for improvements in Keynote, particularly more themes, templates and clip art.

For a new kid on the block, Keynote has a lot to offer. That it has a little catching up to do with PowerPoint should not be a surprise; the next version almost will certainly make up a lot of that ground.

But for now, Keynote offers Mac users an easy, inexpensive means to make professional, PowerPoint-compatible presentations that look better than those made in PowerPoint itself. Except for those who need PowerPoint's deeper feature set and integration with Office, Keynote is an excellent alternative to the Microsoft standard.

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