You don’t need to buy all of Microsoft Office 2013 if you only use one of its many apps. So if you spend your days building presentations, but you don’t need a spreadsheet or a full-featured word-processor, then visit Microsoft’s online store, scroll down to the foot of the page, and buy a copy of PowerPoint 2013 for the price of £110.
Even if you’re happy with the vastly enhanced graphics razzle-dazzle that Microsoft added to the previous version, PowerPoint 2010, you need PowerPoint 2013 because it’s the first version that’s fully at home in the twenty-first century.
The new version finally defaults to creating presentations that fill widescreen monitors, and web-based presentations are easier to manage than ever. PowerPoint also has Office 2013’s suite-wide support for tablet computing in addition to desktops and laptops. As with the rest of Office 2013, PowerPoint’s tablet-based features are a mixed success – more about that later – but all the other new features are impressively well executed, with the bonus that they require virtually no new learning to master.
As with the rest of Office 2013, PowerPoint’s opening screen is a spacious gallery of presentation templates, plus an icon that launches a video tour of the new version.
If you don’t find a template that matches what you need, an online search offers additional templates from Microsoft and other suppliers. The search box suggests categories such as “Charts and Diagrams” or “Medical,” but you can enter anything specific you need.
For example, a search for “Venn Diagram” produced four templates with multiple examples of the kind of diagram I wanted. All of Microsoft’s templates default to the widescreen 16:9 format. Many third-party templates default to the traditional 4:3 format, but all templates, from any source, can benefit from a Slide Size button on the Design tab that lets you switch between widescreen and conventional format – or you can create any custom format.
Presenting and sharing
The biggest improvements in the 2013 version of PowerPoint come with the Presenter View, the viewing mode that displays notes and other options on your own computer screen while your audience sees only your slides. Finally, you can rehearse with Presenter View on your laptop, without an external monitor – simply press Alt-F5 to enter Presenter View.
The Presenter View screen shows a small image of the next slide in addition to a large image of the current one, and a button lets you view all the slides in a presentation so that you can jump easily to any other slide. I was surprised by the slight delay before the all-slides screen appeared on one of my older Windows 7 laptops, so you may want to experiment with this feature before using it in an actual presentation. (I’ll compare PowerPoint’s Presenter View with the similar feature in Apple’s Keynote later in this review).
One major new convenience lets you transmit a presentation online to any browser. All you need is a Microsoft account, and the presentation gets transmitted from Microsoft’s servers. PowerPoint 2013 is the only desktop or tablet-based app that broadcasts presentations online. The only alternative is to use web-based presentation software like Google Docs or Prezi.
In Word 2013, Microsoft revamped the Comment feature that lets your co-workers exchange notes and suggestions about your document. PowerPoint 2013 now includes a comment feature that works like Word’s, complete with collapsible tree-structured comments that let you reduce a whole thread of commands to a small box.
Similar improvements to the interface include a revamped animation feature that (for example) shows you a motion path by displaying a normal view of the object in its starting position, plus a dotted line showing the path the object will follow, and a ghost image of the ending position. Of course, as in earlier versions, an Animation pane and preview feature lets you create and refine animations, but the new, more information display makes it faster and easier to see what you’re doing.
Other new conveniences include enhanced guidelines which let you snap multiple objects so that they are evenly spaced or the same size, or both at once. Arrows and lines appear on screen when the objects are correctly placed, and you merely click to make them stay there. If you like the way Word and Excel now move the cursor smoothly, rather than in a sudden leap from character to character, you’ll also like the way PowerPoint lets you “nudge” objects quickly by holding down the arrow key, or slowly by tapping on the arrow keys.
I like PowerPoint’s new eyedropper tool that lets the user select a colour from any point on a photo and apply that same colour to the shapes or background of the same slide or the master template. I admire – though I doubt I’ll ever use – PowerPoint’s most dazzling new transitions, including an Origami transition that folds up a slide into an origami bird that then flies off screen, revealing the next slide underneath it. Not even Apple’s Keynote has anything like this.
Not just tablet-focused
Like everything else in Office 2013 and Windows 8, PowerPoint is designed to be used on either a tablet or a traditional laptop or desktop. A toolbar icon lets you switch between a traditional layout, with tightly spaced icons on the Ribbon interface and other toolbars, and a tablet layout with wider spacing. In my informal tests, the tablet layout is still too tightly organised to be convenient, and like many other people, I think Microsoft made a mistake by trying to combine touchscreen and traditional interfaces in one program. Apple got this right by creating a simplified touchscreen interface for the iOS version of Keynote and reserving the full standard interface for OS X.
PowerPoint 2013 has two serious competitors, both running on Apple hardware: Microsoft’s own PowerPoint 2011 for OS X and Keynote for OS X and iOS. If you work under Windows, then PowerPoint 2013 is your only choice, unless you want to create cloud-based presentations using the barebones tools provided by Google Docs. But if you can choose between working on a Windows or OS X machine, the choice gets more complicated.
PowerPoint for the Mac has some dazzling features that you won’t find in the Windows version, particularly a Reorder Objects tool that displays a kind of exploded side view of your slide, showing how each object is stacked in front of or behind another, so you can drag objects forwards or backwards. Keynote doesn’t have a similar feature, but neither does PowerPoint for Windows.
What Keynote does have is a presenter’s view that’s even more convenient than PowerPoint 2013’s, because Keynote’s version lets you access thumbnail images without hiding the normal presenter view in the way PowerPoint does. Also, for me anyway, Apple’s lucid, minimal interface reduces the anxiety of searching for features, though PowerPoint 2013 improves its interface by adding hitherto obscure features to its right click menu, so Apple’s advantage is less than it was before.
PowerPoint for Windows offers at least one expert-level feature that Keynote can’t match – a graphic timeline for animations that lets you fine-tune animation effects more easily than you can anywhere else. Also, PowerPoint 2013 is the only presentation software that uses widescreen format by default.
If you use an older version of Powerpoint, I think you should upgrade immediately to get its new features, twenty-first century formats, and integration with Microsoft’s cloud-based SkyDrive. Like the rest of Office 2013, PowerPoint reaches a level of power and ease that was unimaginable only a few years ago, and when all things are considered, it’s the best app of its kind.