Test lab. (presentation software and computer screen shows) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by William Harrell
Presentation software and computer screen shows have changed the face of business presentations. When presentation software appeared, prospective clients, boards of directors, bosses--audiences of all types--were awestruck by fancy screen wipes, fades, and glittering transitions. After that came slides with automatic build capabilities and, with the release of Microsoft PowerPoint 3.0 flying bullets. Undoubtedly, Windows' Media Control Interface (MCI) is rapidly changing the scope of business presentations.
With a sound board, speakers, microphone, and one of these 13 multimedia packages, you can really bring your presentations to life. No longer are you relegated to narrating silent, still scenes and making important points with a stick (or your finger). The right presentation software turns your PC into a motion-picture studio. Which is more effective: the presenter describing how a product works as the audience stares at a still picture, or a narrated animation of the product in action? Instead of the presenter's moving from one bar chart to the next to show trends, it's much more dramatic if trhe bars grow and shrink onscreen.
Most of these programs approach creating presentations in the same traditional, presentation-program manner: Tables, charts, and graphs are plotted on spreadsheetlike data forms and then pasted into slides. A presentation is made up of several slides. (Slide is acutally a catchall term or every output media type available, including 35-mm slides, transparencies, computer monitors, paper, and anything else Windows prints on.) In most cases, the presentation itself is managed with some form of outliner.
However, the ability to create simple slide shows is no longer enough. Even the traditional presentation packages--such as PowerPoint, Harvard Graphics, and Freelance Graphics--now support sound, animation, and fullmotion video.
The full-blown multimedia programs--Action! HSC Interactive, and Q-Media--use different types of metphors for putting together a presentation. Action!, for example, uses a VCR-like interface that allows you to combine media clips and otehr presentation elements on a time line. HSC Interactive uses flow-chart-like icons that let you create a presentation simply you dragging and connecting objects along a continuum.
Interactive presentations are possible, to one degree or another, with most of the packages in this month's lineup. In interactive presentations, either the presenter or the viewer can control certain aspects of the presentation by clicking on a defined area of the screen (such as a button) or by using the keyboard. Interactivity can include, for example, playing a sound or animation file (or both simultaneously) or jumping to different scenes or parts of the presentation.
The trck to picking a presentation package from this group is finding the one with the features that fit your needs.
Keep in mind that the computer system you use with these programs is important for two reasons. First, since these applications are graphics-intensive (and they ause Windows' color capabilities to their fullest), you should have at least a 256-color display system. Second, often output is to a screen show on your monitor; to run the screen show smoothly, you'll need a reasonably fast computer and a good chunk of RAM. Two years ago, I tested some of these progrms on a 386/16 SX with 4MB RAM; it was not powerful enough to run most of the screen shows without performance lags. Noting can ruin a good presentation faster than a long delay or an application error--just when you're about to make a crucial point.
The programs in this month's Test Lab were tested on a 486/33 with 20MB RAM, which is much more muscle than any of them should need. Though some ran better than others, they all performed well enough. Output was tested using transparency film on an IBM 4029 at 600 dpi. Screen shows were tested with a Radius MultiView 24 true-color graphics adapter on a 19-inch, high-resolution monitor. Used with the 486 and the high-end display, most of these programs turned out dazzling onscreen presentations.
ACTION! 2.5 FOR WINDOWS
Action! is by no means a conventional program. Though designed to make users of the more typical slide-generating software feel at home, this program is geared more to creating presentations made up of path-based moving objects, animation clips, and sound. Its versatility makes it somewhat more difficult to master than, say, Lotus's Freelance Graphics.
Action! presentations consist of components the program calls scenes, which are similar to slides in Microsoft PowerPoint, Aldus persuasion, or one of the many other traditional programs. It's easy to place multimedai clips in an Action! scene. Simply select the appropriate icon and then click in the portion of the editing area where the clip should appear. A dialog box opens to let you choose the file, set the duration and speed, and select whether to loop the clip, carry it into the next scene, and so on. A VCR-like player allows you to play back all or sections of your work to see how it's coming together.
Action! provides several ways to manipulate and keep track of events in your scenes. There's Content List, a feature that displays a visual tally of scene components and lets you drag and drop names to rearrange the flow. A time line shows the evetns in your presentation as bars on a graph. You can drag and drop events to change their sequence, and you can increase or decrease durations interactively by stretching them with your mouse. A scene sorter, similar to other programs' slide sorters, lets you move scenes to different locations in the presentation.
As versatile as Action! is, it still has some rough edges. In complicated scenes with a number of animated objects, movement is sometimes jerky. I found the manual somewhat disorganized and not always easy to follow. For example, it describes tools and the application window before it gives installation instructions. (It's much better to have the program loaed and open so you can compare what you see onscreen to the illustrations in the manual.)
A good videotape tutorial covering the basics comes with the program. However, it's short and does little more than get you excited about the possibilities, rather than show you howto use the software. Action! comes with several fine templates. However, they are not used in the traditional sense. Instead, you must copy all or part of them into your presentation, rather than use the template as a shell that you flesh out with your own text and graphics.
Technical support answered quickly. I called twice and got through immediately; each time the technician wa courteous and knew the answers to all of my questions.
If you're looking for a full-featured multimedia presentation program that's relatively easy to use and gives you a wide range of presentation options, look no further than Action!
ALDUS PERSUASION FOR WINDOWS 2.1
Persuasion remains one of the stalwart performers in the graphics software business.
Persuasion's tutorial and manuals are flawles, and there's a beautiful, full-color desk reference with easy-to-find command descriptions and guidelines for using the program's templates. Persuasion runs smoothly and does what it's designed to do without a hitch. However, like a few other Aldus applications, it hasn't had a major upgrade in a while and it's lagging behind in the features race. The good news is that a new version is in the works, but it has not been announced as of this writing.
Users of other Aldus programs should find Persuasion especially easy to use. It sports the famous Aldus pasteboard metaphor, which allows you to place objects outside the page area. The right mouse button causes the display to zoom in and out, and you can even invoke the Grabber Hand feature by holding down Shift as you drag the mouse. Persuasion's slide templates are some of the best in the business, rivaled only by PowerPoint's. DDE and OLE are supported but not during the screen show, which means that you can forget sound and animation.
You won't find a toolbar in Persuasion; instead, there's a toolbox resembling PageMaker's with limited text and graphics options. To take advantage of most options for text, graphics, and chart-formatting, you must wade (sometimes deeply) inbto the menu and dialog box system. Other limitations are that you can open only one presentation at a time and that each presentation can contain only 13 slides. Yet another drawback is Aldus's 90-day free support policy. After the first 90 days, you must either use a 900 number at $15 a call or join a support program with fee and bneefit options ranging between $99 and $149 per year. However, Aldus technicians are extremely well trained. Not once have I called and not had my question answered.
While Persuasion has fallen a little behind the times, it is still a solid performer. If you use other Aldus products, you'll like this one.
At about half the price of the other full-featured presentation programs reviewed here, Alpha Software's Bravo! certainly deserves consideration. Since it is newer than many of the others, many of its options take up where other programs' options leave off.
A good example of Bravo!'s improvement over the conpetition is its collapsible outliner. Highend word processors can collaspse or expand an outline, or hide or show subtopics and notes. This capability is handy in Bravo! because it allows you to prepare slides and speaker notes at the same time. Simply use the collapsed outline in your slides and print the expanded outline for notes.
Unlike most of the other programs reviewed here, Bravo! has organization charts can be essential to a presentation; I've always wondered why presentation programs tend to leave them out.
An interesting feature is called DataPictures. The smart clip art--pencils, clocks, computers, and so on--adjusts itself according to the data in your data sheet to create attractive pictorgrams quickly and efficiently. The program ships with several examples of DataPictures, and the manual contains information about creating your own. Pictograms aren't always appropriate, but sometimes they can really spruce up a presentation.
Bravo! also supports a wealth of graphics, data, and clip media from other programs, such as data from all the leading spread-sheets and database formats, several graphics formats, and even outlines from Word for Windows. FLI, FLC, and MMM animation files are supported, as well s Microsoft Video for Windows AVI files and most common sound formats. For file formats not supported, you can create OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) links to run clips in other programs.
Like some of the more expensive packages, such as PowerPoint and Harvard Graphics, this one lets you create hypertext links between slides; this capability allows you to jump around in an electronic presentation. You'll find this handy for illuminating points and responding to audience questions. With a feature called Electronic Chalk (similar to PowerPoint's John Madden tool), you can draw on slides.
And if all this isn't enought, the program ships with several templates and an electronic tutorial to help get you started. Technical support is free. I had trouble getting through a few times, but when I did, the help I received was topnotch.
CA-CRICKET PRESENTS 1.5 FOR WINDOWS
Presents is part of Computer Associates' suite of economical progrms in the CA-Cricket line. At $92, it costs considerably less than most of the other programs reviewed here. While not as powerful as some of the others, it is one of the easiest to use and has enough features to get mose presentation tasks done admirably.
This program provides eight different chart types and some interesting 3-D effects. There are several professionally done templates you can use to set up your presentations quickly, and ten object-oriented drawing tools--squares, rectangles, ellipses, and so on--let you add interesting touches to your slides.
The program supports a wide range of graphics files; however, its multimedia support is lacking. It does not support sound and animation, which means that you will be stuck having to narrate and to add your own sound effects. However, if you're on a budget and have limited time, you may not care about multimedia: It takes time to use and to master, and it requires enormous system resources.
If you don't need much power and want to save a few hundred dollars, Presents runs well and is easy to learn. Technical support is easy to reach, and the staff seems well trained. Though expensive for the features it offers, this presentation package is uncomplicated and easy to use.
Compel is a full-featured presentation package that excels at multimedia. You can easily create interactive presentations that can be run by a presenter or navigated by a viewer. Some of the key features include hyperlinking, hotwords, automatic build options, and multiple output formats.
Hyperlinking allows you to create links between graphics, such as buttons, and multimedia events or other Windows applications. You can then Jump between linked objects simply by clicking on them. Hotwords and bullets allow you to create similar links between words and events or bullets and events. This extensive hyperlinking capability lets you create highly flexible interactive presentations.
Automatic build capabilities (found in several packages reviewed here) let you create bullet builds that automatically bring in new points and gray out, or fade, previous points. With Compel's ability to output to several different media types, you can print to slides, overheads, your monitor, or even videotape. However, one of the more versatile output options is Packaging, which allows you to compress and save the presentation to multiple floppies without losing OLE, DDE, and hyperlink pointers. In other words, when you decompress the presentation on another machine, the presentation file will know where to find all your sound, animation, and graphics files.
Compel comes with over 100MB of clip media, including over 100 sound files and 350 pieces of clip art, and it supports most multimedia and graphics formats, including AVI and Kodak Photo CD. There are also more than 100 presentation templates.
Asymetrix has some of the best-trained technical support people in the business. I've never been disappointed or left with unanswered questions. While this program is not necessarily any more capable than some of the others reviewed here, it's certainly a good one--and this is only a first version. It can only get better from here.
CorelDRAW! is not a dedicated presentation program. Instead, the package includes a suite of graphics applications that Corel calls a graphics toolkit. Two of the applications--CorelCHART! and CorelSHOW !--provide strong enough presentation capabilities to warrant inclusion in this roundup. In fact, CorelDRAW!'s wide range of options for graphics editing and handling makes it a better value for those who need only occasional presentations.
For $595, you get a full-featured vector draw porgram, a bitmap image editor, charting and onscreen presentations, graphics cataloging, a screen capture utility, an animation module, 755 True Type and Type 1 fonts, and 18,000 pieces of clip art and clip media. However, as with most programs that try to be everything to everybody, CorelDRAW! lacks a few important features. CorelDRAW!'s presentation features do not include outlining, speaker notes, or audience handouts.
With the graphics toolkit, you create charts in CorelCHART!, drawing in CorelDRAW!, and animation in CorelMOVE!; then you compile your presentation in CorelSHOW!'. The applications in the toolkit are tightly linked through OLE. CorelCHART! is a very respectable charting program that sports features missing in several of the others, such as data analysis and great mouse interactivity. With the Pop-Up Menu tool, for example, clicking on objects brings up a menu that lets you perform various formatting functions fro the selected object without wading through numberous dialog boxes. Clicking the right mouse button on chart elements, such as a bar or pie section, lets you reformat the chart in several ways, including reversing data and recoloring bars by series, group, face, and so on.
CorelSHOW! is a highly efficient OLE client. It also sports several transition effects and comes with a palette of predefined backgrounds. A supply of AutoDesk Animation FLI files is also included. CorelCHART! has a few buggy export filters, which Corel says it is working on. CorelDRAW! 4.0 hs had such a tremendous response that I found it practically impossible i to get through to technical support, even on the 24-hour line. Sometimes you have to wait for technicians to call you back.
These few problems aside, CorelDRAW! is a great value, no matter what type of graphics work you plan to do.
FREELANCE GRAPHICS FOR WINDOWS 2.0
Besides being a very powerful presentation program, Freelance Graphics is exceptionally easy to use. The idea behind the program is the most people don't do presentations often; they do them at the last minute and don't have time (and don't want) to learn and relearn a complicated program. For this market, Freelance Graphics is nearly perfect.
Presentations are created in Freelance Graphics with templates called SmartMasters. Each group of masters contians several predefined slides set up to receive text and graphics. To enter text or a chart, all you do is click on a predefined portion of the slide, and the appropriate dialog box opens. In other words, you select the look (a template), choose a page layout (one of 11 styles, including graph, bulleted list, and so on). and then fill in the blanks.
This system works well, and it is certainly easy. Freelance Graphics is great for gettin presentations out in a hurry. And a welcome option that nothing else has is the ability to run screen shows for the DOS prompt instead of from Windows. There is also a QuickStart tutorial that walks you through the basics of creating a presentation.
Users of other Lotus programs, such as Ami Pro and 1-2-3, will find the Freelance Graphics interface very comfortable. The program uses the same Smartlcons metaphor. You'll also find it easy to use Ami Pro outlines and 1-2-3 data to create your presentations. The three applications are integrated quite masterfully.
Lotus is a big company. You'd think that its support lines would be swamped, but I've never had trouble getting help. When I called technical support during this review, things were no different. I got through, and my questions were answered nimbly. This is a great presentation program,
HARVARD GRAPHICS 2.0 FOR WINDOWS
Harvard Graphics is another program that started in DOS. In fact, the people who developed Harvard Graphics for DOS wrote the book on presentation software.
The first Windows version was a little disappointing--it had a clumsy interface and lacked a few important features. Version 2.0 is a vast improvement over the previous version. It's much easier to use and sports plenty of interesting features.
Two of the most impressive features in Harvard Graphics are a new icon bar, similar to Feelance Graphics' Smartlcons, and the Harvard Graphics Advisor, which makes choosing the right chart easier and provides important advice for creating presentations. The icon bar is fully customizable--you can change options easily. The Harvard Graphics Advisor provides invaluable information about how to capture and keep an audience's attention and the differences between persuasive and informative presentations, as well as a wealth of other information that will be helpful to most occasional presenters.
Again, most people don't do presentations every day. Hence, it's easy to forget how to use the software. The 5-Minute Coach feature alleviates this problem. It's an interactive tutorial designed to give new and infrequent users a game plan (there are four different plans) for building a basic presentation. The 5-Minute Coach includes a presentation overview and three task-driven lessons. Yet another feature designed to shorten the learning curve, Advisor Quick Tips, helps you learn how to edit the appearance or content of your charts quickly.
Harvard Graphics is a strong application. It supports both sound and animation embedding. You can launch other applications during your screen shows and even jump from slide to slide. These last two features help you, as the speaker, to illuminate points in your presentation and jump ahead or back to answer audience questions. The ability to open other OLE-aware applications allows you to refer to spreadsheets, online documents, reports, and so forth without leaving or closing your presentation. When you finish your reference, your presentation begins where it left off.
The technician I talked to at SPC was friendly, and my questions were answered quickly and courteously.
HSC INTERACTIVE 1.0
HSC InterActive is a scaled-down version of AimTech's full-featured multimedia authoring software, IconAuthor. For a fraction of the price, HSC InterActive provides the same easy, icon-based authoring system, minus a few powerful (but perhaps superfluous) features, such as variable handling and other database-querying functions.
While IconAuthor works best for computer-based training, HSC InterActive is geared more to presenations--not presentations in the traditional sense, but interactive multimedia screen shows. This icon-based approach to creating presentations makes HSC InterActive unlike any other program in Test Lab.
Perhaps the best way to describe the process of creating presentations in HSC InterActive is icon-based programming. Instead of stringing a series of slides or scenes together, you compile presentation elements by linking icons along a flow chart. The icons provide a visual representation of the elements in your presentation and their relationships to one onother. Think of this process as programming with pictures, complete with loops, pauses, if-thens, and so on. There are icons for creating menus, playing sound and animated sequences, displaying bitmaps and every other function the program supports.
Elements are added to presentations by dragging icons and placing them into the flow chart at the desired locations. Icons are defined by double-clicking on them. At first this process seems strange, but the tutorial is very good and explains concepts and procedures quite well. Within just a few minutes, the interface makes perfect sense.
The technical support people seem to know their product inside and out. I called twice and spoke with a different technician each time; neither could be stumped. The product has limitations, though; there's no charting capability. You'll have to bring charts and graphs in as bitmaps from other sources. However, an upcoming version will have charting.
If you're looking for a simple way to author interactive, multimedia presentations, this iconbased solutions is easy to use and versatile. You'll have it up and running in not time. Usually, programs, this simple lack features, but this one doesn't lack much.
MICROGRAFX CHARISMA 4.0 FOR WINDOWS
The wait is over. Finally, Micrografx has upgraded Charisma. The previous version was lagging behind; however, this new version leaps out to take a well-deserved place in the front of the pack with the latest versions of PowerPoint and Harvard Graphics.
Designed for the high-end professional presenter and corporate user, this program provides 3-D charting with full rotation and light source adjustment capabilities. In other words, you can turn your 3-D chart in any direction and control the way simulated light shines on the various 3-D planes. There is also a feature called Visual Galleries that allows you to choose a chart style you like and then fill in your own data. This makes the somtimes-complicated task of choosing the right chart for the data much easier.
Charisma's multimedia support is quite extensive. Rather than depending on Windows' OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) for importing clip media, the program has built-in multimedia support. You can loop, clip, and adjust sound levels right in the program. For example, you can adjust the length and volume for any MIDI, WAV or AVI file from inside Charisma, without having to use another utility.
The program ships with several professionally designed templates, called Master Styles, that make creating effective presentating a snap. Simply open the template, type in your text, add your graphics and clip media, and let the presentation rip. You don't have to worry about color schemes, font collaboration, and all those other design elements we nonartists know nothing about.
Expanded transition effects, automatic build options, and other enhancements make onscreen presentations much easier than in previous versions of Charisma. Charisma 4.0 (like many recent Micrografx upgrades) has a beautiful, friendly interface that's easy and a joy to use. The program's power is reached through simple icons and well-designed menus.
Best of all, technical support is free and available 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday. The technicals are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
MICROSOFT POWERPOINT 3.0
A little a year ago, Microsoft redefined presentation software with the release of PowerPoint 3.0. Disappointed users of version 2.0 did a double-take--this vast improvement placed PowerPoint back on top of the huge presentation program market.
PowerPoint is th program of choice for Word for Windows and Excel users. Wherever possible, commands and menu structures are the same. Not only can you import outlines from Word for Windows, complete with text formatting and topic levels, but you can also launch screen shows from the Word for Windows outliner. And the PowerPoint outliner is WYSIWYG--you can format the text in your slides from the outliner.
The PowerPoint Viewer feature lets you see transitions before you assign them to slides. You can also jump from slide to slide to illuminate points. During screen shows, the mouse is active for pointing. However, if you need to, you can also draw on slides while the screen show is paused. Microsoft calls this feature the John Madden tool. If you make electronic presentations, you'll surely appreciate it.
PowerPoint also supports 45 transition effects, which is a great improvement over version 2.0. And you can take your presentations on the road with PowerPoint Viewer, which has no copyright restrictions and will run either Mac or PC PowerPoint presentations.
Another slicl new feature is the Shape tool. Clicking in it brings up a palette of common shapes, such as arrows, starbursts, and balloons. You can then place the shapes on your slides and edit them as desired. It's even possible to type text into the shapes and let PowerPoint automatically center it and lock it into place. In PowerPoint, not only can you change printers at any time, but you can also change templates in midstream, and the entire presentation reformats accordingly.
The only problem worth mentioning is that slides do not display properly in Slide Sorter view. The colors distort, often to the point that the slides look completely different. According to a technician at Microsoft, it has something to do with the removal of pixels during the reduction.
PowerPoint support is excellent. I called during the peak business hours and got through at once. My questions were answered promptly and efficiently. If you need a full-featured presentation package, you won't find one any more complete than PowerPoint. It is certainly the leader in the features race. A new version may be available by the time this review appears.
Q-Media looks similar to Macromedia's Action! and operates in a similar fashion; however, it costs several hundred dollars less. For the reduced price, you give up several features, such as a built-in charting module and royalty-free runtime. But Q-Media's multimedia prowess is second to none.
Q-Media is a scaled-down version of Q-Media Professional, a full-featured multimedia presentation package capable of creating interactive courses and presentations. If, after purchasing Q-Media, you decide the program is not powerful enough, you can upgrade to Q-Media Professional at a reudce rate.
This program really excels in its ability to accept slides from other presentation packages, such as PowerPoint and Persuasion. Just create one or more slides in another package and import them into your Q-Media presentations.
Like Action!, Q-Media controls presentation events on a time line, which allows you to manipulate the duration and sequence of events graphically. When you're placing sound and animation files in a presentation, this is a perfectly logical way to organize them.
Q-Media ships with over 10MB of clip media and an assortment of templates designed for business, training, and entertainment. However, since media clips are large--up to a megabyte for a few seconds of animation or film strip--this is not a lot. You can also use clip media from several other third-party vendors and those created by other packages, such as Auto-Desk Animator or Gold Disk's Animation Works Interactive. Additionally, you can use MIDI sound files, digital video (such as Microsoft Video for Windows AVI film strips), and CD audio.
While this program is not as sophisticated as some of the other full-featured packages reviewed here, it is inexpensive and easy to use. You should consider it as a multimedia starter kit, rather than as a one-stop presentation solution. Q-Media technical support is free, and I received friendly, informed responses to my questions.
WORDPERFECT PRESENTATIONS 2.0 FOR WINDOWS
WordPerfect Presentations is a state-of-heart art package that's ingeniously integrated with WordPerfect for Windows. If you're a WordPerfect user, this is probably the presentation package for you.
Moving text between WordPerfect documents and your presentations is a snap. Outlines created in WordPerfect import clanly into the WordPerfect Presentations outliner and automatically format into word slides.
This program provides an array of tools for working with graphics, including TWAIN-compliant scanning, which allows you to scan images directly into your presentations. You also get a paint program for working with bitmap images and a vector applet for editing vector, draw-type graphics. The program's Master Gallery provides an extensive collection of colorful slide backgrounds to set the right mood for your presentation, and you can easily adjust colors and other effects.
An exciting offer from WordPerfect is the incliusion of a Logitech ScanMan hand scanner. For $495 you get a great presentation package and a ScanMan. This is a great deal!
You also get free 800-number support, which isn't provided for any of the other packahes reviewed here. WordPerfect's support people are friendly, knowledgeable, and very helpful.
Since you also get WordPerfect quality, you really can't go wrong with this program.