Keynote takes on PowerPoint

Despite typical initial-release bugs, Apple Computer's presentation software appears ready to take on the standard set by Microsoft

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).

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