December 7, 2004

Microsoft PowerPoint versus OpenOffice.org Impress

Author: Bruce Byfield

By now, anyone who has researched replacing Microsoft Office with OpenOffice.org knows that Writer is an acceptable, even superior substitute for Word. But word processing is only part of what the average user needs in an office program. What if you need to design a slide show in OOo Impress? Coming from PowerPoint, what can you expect?

For starters, expect to feel nearly at home. Like the rest of OpenOffice.org, Impress is designed for an easy transition from Microsoft Office. Most of the same tools are available as in PowerPoint, and in the same places. This similarity means that, for most people, learning Impress is quicker than learning, for example, KPresenter. You may notice a slight change in name, and one or two features may be in different places, but you can count on locating basic functions without major problems. Now and then you may need to hunt for a feature, but if you assume that it's around somewhere, you'll be right more often than not.

Yet, despite the basic similarities, there are some inevitable differences in key areas such as:

  • Starting a slide show
  • Navigating the editing windows
  • Working with graphics, charts, and diagrams
  • Adding special effects
  • Preparing the slide show

In many areas, the differences are ones of detail rather than function. In others, a comparison of the two products might help you decide whether you came make a transition.

Starting a slide show

Impress and PowerPoint divide the honors equally when it comes to tools to get you up and running. Both allow you to structure slide shows from the heading styles of a text document, starting a new slide for every Heading 1 style. The command is Tools > Autosummarize in Microsoft Word, and File > Send > Autoabstract to Presentation in OpenOffice.org Writer, but the result is the same. Personally, after reading about the role that this type of tool played in the making of the satirical Gettysburg PowerPoint Address, I have grave doubts about them, but they're mostly harmless, so long as you exercise some judgment.

Both PowerPoint and Impress start with a tutorial for setting up a slide show. In PowerPoint, the tutorial is called a Wizard, while in Impress it's an AutoPilot. It's the same thing, but the implementation isn't. In PowerPoint, the Wizard helps you select a slide background, a structure for the slide show, the type of output, and nothing more. By contrast, the Impress AutoPilot not only guides you through these selections, but also the slide transition type and timing, and the title page. You can tweak these choices later if you choose, but what gives the AutoPilot the edge is that you don't have to. For rushed or first time users, it's that rarest of apps: An online tutorial that's actually useful.

However, as a former PowerPoint user, you'll be disappointed by the number of templates that come with Impress. In contrast to PowerPoint's several dozen templates, Impress offers only two. Neither is very useful, except perhaps as example of how not to.

People see the same templates over and over, so, from one perspective, the lack of templates is no great loss. Still, if you want a template library, you can quickly add one to Impress by downloading from the OOo Extras site. Once you've downloaded, follow these steps:

  1. Open any OpenOffice application, and select File > Templates > Organize. The Template Management window opens.
  2. Do one or both of the following:
  • If you want to make the template available as a design for slides, click the Presentations Background folder in the left pane.
  • If you want to make the template available as a structural guide for other slide shows, click the Presentations folder.

From the Commands drop-down list, select Import Templates.Navigate to the downloaded templates. Then click on the Open button to import them into Impress.

The next time you start a slide show, the new templates will be available.

PowerPoint templates can be imported via the same steps. Either way, problem solved -- although OpenOffice.org could make the solution easier for you to find.

If you prefer to design your own slides, the judgment remains divided. Both applications use master slides -- views from which common elements of all slides are inserted, including backgrounds and logos -- but there is little to distinguish either implementation. Although PowerPoint's automatic insertion of footer information is quicker, Impress' range of options is wider, allowing for either header or footers as well as variable fields. Which you prefer depends on whether convenience or choice is more important to your work habits.

Verdict: Tie. Impress's lack of templates is a nuisance but correctable, and is counterbalanced by its AutoPilot.

Navigating the editing windows

When you open Impress for the first time, you'll notice immediate differences from PowerPoint in the editing window. In Impress, the default or Drawing View doesn't have a pane for Notes. That's in a separate view, available from View > Workspace. The same is true for the Outline View, although that's due to change in version 2.0 for OpenOffice.org, to judge from the developer builds. Another change due in version 2.0 is the removal of the tabs at the bottom of the page for managing slides. Meanwhile, the tabs are a handy way of maximizing the display space for your slides. Mostly, though, these differences are neither improvements nor deficiencies; they're simply variations.

The major difference from PowerPoint (unless you're using Microsoft Office 2003, which seems to have imitated the OpenOffice.org interface in several ways) is the number of floating windows. The first time you open Impress, you'll see the Presentation Tasks, a quick reference for common tasks; the Navigator, designed for jumping around the slide show and rearranging slides; and the Stylist, a quick tool for applying, editing, and managing styles. Each of these floating windows can be docked by pressing the Ctrl key as you drag it towards one side of the editing window. None add functionality that is missing from PowerPoint, but they make functions easier to access.

This increased ease of use is particularly important for the Stylist. PowerPoint does have styles, but they can be changed only from View > Master > Slide Master in PowerPoint. This positioning underemphasizes them so much that most users are not even aware of them. In contrast, the Stylist makes Impress's styles known and available. Your habits and work speed will benefit as a result.

Other than the floating windows, little in the Impress editing window should confound a PowerPoint user. Although in Impress, a slide can have a name that's different from its title -- a feature that's handy for the tabs -- in general the mechanics of editing slides is identical in PowerPoint and Impress. Adding, removing, redesigning, rearranging slides -- none differ in anything except minor variations on names. Non-graphical text, too, is added by clicking on a frame and starting to type. Since presentation software is much simpler than word processing or spreadsheet applications, the similarities mean you start to become productive in Impress almost immediately.

Verdict: Impress, for its floating windows and greater accessibility of advanced features.

Working with drawing objects, charts, and diagrams

If you start OpenOffice.org Draw, you'll notice that Impress shares most of its interface and functionality. This similarity is Impress's greatest strength. Unlike PowerPoint, it's not just a presentation program; it's a presentation program overlaid with a graphics program. That's why its default view is called the Drawing View.

This difference barely shows if all you do is add basic shapes. The drawing tool bars of Impress and PowerPoint differ in only minor details, If PowerPoint has a larger variety of predefined callouts, then Impress's Fontworks allows for a far greater range of effects with graphical text than PowerPoint's WordArt. The largest difference in the basic drawing tools is that, in PowerPoint, you have to drill down deep into the menu structure to find advanced features that are readily available in Impress. The same is true with charts. Aside from the fact that Impress's formatting options for chart elements are more accessible and perhaps slightly more extensive, for most users, there is little difference to choose between the two program's charting tools.

Where the difference really shows is in the advanced editing of graphics. Neither Impress nor Draw is a match for PhotoShop or the GIMP. Still, the difference is less than you might imagine. Both Draw and Impress include not only tools for precise positioning of objects, but also ones to adjust color resolution, and to select a color in either RGB or CMYK format. You can even apply one of half a dozen common filters to a graphic, or enter a group of objects to edit one of them without going through the tedious process of ungrouping then regrouping the objects when you are finished. You can also create a slide using layers, making complicated diagrams far easier to develop.

Yet perhaps the greatest advantage that Impress has over PowerPoint is the extension of the concept of styles to images. Each style contains a wide variety of options, including ones for fill, outline, and text. If an object to which a style is applied doesn't need a setting -- for example, if a square is tagged with a style in which a type of arrow is defined -- then it is simply ignored. Once a style is formatted, then applying it to a drawing object is much faster than copying and pasting an existing object then modifying it, which is what you have to do in PowerPoint. Just as importantly, if you edit a diagram, then changing the style immediately updates all objects tagged with it. For teachers or anyone else for whom diagrams are important, Impress's drawing capabilities are a major draw.

Verdict: Impress. PowerPoint is barely in the running in this category.

Adding special effects

Unhappily, the same cannot be said for Impress's abilities to include special effects. Impress and PowerPoint have similar transitions for slides, outline text, and objects, but, in almost every other way, the current version of Impress lags behind PowerPoint when it comes to special effects. Movies in Impress run in a sub-window, which is functional but less elegant than running them in the frame to which they are linked, as you do in PowerPoint. Similarly, although you can use Slide Show > Interactions to create navigational buttons, in PowerPoint they come ready made. The differences are small, but they soon add up to the impression of less sophistication.

The gap is widest with sound. Impress supports only .wav, .aif, and .au formats. Unlike PowerPoint, it supports neither MP3, the ubiquitous low-end format, or MIDI, the most common format for professional digitally generated sound. Nor does Impress support the playing of any format across an entire slide-show -- only on a slide by slide basis. Unlike PowerPoint, Impress has no tools for recording sounds or narration, nor for playing CD tracks.

The only type of special effect in which Impress has an edge is its ability to record animated .GIFs from objects created or inserted on a slide.

Happily, most of Impress's shortcomings seem to be addressed in version 2.0. Yet, for now, Impress's special effects almost make me believe the rumor that Sun Microsystems, the one-time owner of the OpenOffice.org code and still the main source of its developers, once banned slide shows from its meeting rooms. Sun purchased OpenOffice.org in 1999, and its ability to handle special effects is about what you would expect in a program several years older than that. Admittedly, third-party tools for converting sound formats are readily available, and clever editing can conceal the fact that sounds are limited to a single slide, but if sound is a major part of your slide shows, Impress will disappoint.

Verdict: PowerPoint. In sound especially, Impress is far outclassed.

Preparing a slide-show

In both programs, most of the tools for putting the final touches on a presentation are available from the Slide Show menu. In both cases, they include tools for rehearsing timings, producing a custom show by selecting which slides to use, and using the mouse cursor as a pointer. Impress lacks PowerPoint's projector wizard that helps establish the connection with a projector , but, given the simplicity of the connections, that hardly seems a problem.

In the same way, Impress might benefit from PowerPoint's Pack and Go (a.k.a. Package for CD) tool, which under either name is found in the File menu. Yet, since several font foundries have objected to this tool as a means for illegally redistributing proprietary fonts, maybe it is just as well not to have the tool -- although using free fonts would avoid any difficulty. Anyway, call me compulsive, but if I'm preparing for a slide show using strange equipment, I'm going to check and double-check everything for myself no matter what software I'm using. Moreover, because the tool is not completely reliable, you need to check it, too. So why bother?

Anyway, few users ever notice the feature. You don't miss what you never knew.

Verdict: Tie. Although some might give the point to PowerPoint, its advantages seem more apparent than real.

Conclusion

The ideal presentation program would include aspects of both PowerPoint and Impress. As things are, neither has an objective advantage, especially for beginning or intermediate users. Neither has a significant advantage in tools to help beginners or users in a hurry, nor in navigation. Nor are the useful tools for assembling a slide show significantly different.

For advanced users, the differences are more profound. On the one hand, if you're a teacher, an engineer, or anyone else for whom slide shows replace handout or overhead projectors, you'll find Impress's graphical capabilities a major advance over PowerPoint's.

On the other hand, users today are far more comfortable using sound than they were five years ago, and, if you're musically inclined, or want to include movies, then Impress will seem a step backward from PowerPoint. The convenience you find in PowerPoint now won't be in Impress until version 2.0. That release isn't due for another six months, but it already exists in a functional alpha build that corrects most of the problems.

With the new version, the differences between Impress and PowerPoint will be even smaller than they are now. For now, Impress matches PowerPoint in the basics, outclasses it in graphics, and is outclassed itself in special effects. Not a bad tally for an upstart program that hardly anyone had heard about five years ago.

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