PowerPoint has long set the standard in presentation software, ubiquitous as it is through Microsoft’s Office productivity suite. Numerous alternatives have emerged in recent years, however, many of them priced far below the $280 cost of Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Business–or even free.
We’ve zeroed in on five of the most compelling online alternatives to Microsoft PowerPoint, and held them up together to compare features and examine compatibility. If you’re in the market for a new presentation maker, you’d be wise to keep your wallet in your pocket until you’ve read what we found.
Google Docs Presentations
Since Google Docs is arguably the most commonly used name in cloud-based office software, let’s start there. Users of the free service can import existing presentations or create new ones from scratch and then access, edit, and share them from anywhere using just a Web browser.
Google Docs is well known for its excellent sharing and collaboration capabilities, which include simultaneous editing by up to 10 people and sharing with as many as 200 people. You can publish presentations to a unique URL or embed them in a Website (including in LinkedIn profiles). Although you can’t edit the presentations on a smartphone, you can view them on a mobile OS that supports HTML.
Export capabilities include PowerPoint, PDF, and text formats, though not all characteristics will be preserved. Presentations you create in Google Docs can be up to 10MB, or about 200 slides in size.
For businesses, Google Presentations is part of the paid Google Apps service, which includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and more.
Hands-on: Google Presentations has a fairly basic, spartan interface, and you must first select and convert presentations imported from elsewhere. When we imported a PowerPoint presentation, transitions weren’t preserved but everything else seemed to make the move intact.
A fairly limited selection of themes and backgrounds is available for presentations, but the Google Docs Templates Gallery makes up for that somewhat with a variety of user-created options. One nice touch is that when you indicate that you’d like to insert a video, Google Docs automatically presents a list of options from YouTube featuring keywords similar to those on the slide you’re working on. You can then preview those options by clicking on them.
Most options on Google Docs feel pretty basic but solid. Google Docs offers no support for transitions, which is too bad, though it does have an option for incrementally revealing text and objects. Audio files are not accepted. We also aren’t crazy about the fact that even in full-screen mode, presentations don’t actually play full-screen; a toolbar remains at the bottom.
Price: Free, or $50 per user per year as part of Google Apps for businesses
Import/export: Import from PowerPoint, export to PDF and PowerPoint
Good for collaboration and sharing
Integrates with other Google tools, including Picasa and YouTube
Support for multiple languages
Competing offerings have more interface niceties
Support for audio
Support for transitions
Offline presentation access
Metrics and analytics
Best use for Google Docs: Frequent travelers and groups working together will appreciate the great collaboration capabilities in Google Docs, but its presentation functionality is fairly limited. We’d recommend it for those who do not make heavy use of presentations, and who don’t need elaborate features.
Next page: A presentation tool that doesn’t use slides
Working on the premise that presentations haven’t changed enough in the 50 or so years since the slide was first invented, Prezi takes a radically different approach. Rather than structuring presentations as a linear sequence of slides, it treats them as a unified whole that you can zoom in and out of at will.
To begin, you place ideas, images, and videos on a blank “canvas” in a way that naturally tells your story. Next, you connect these elements by creating a deliberate, linear path that designates the order in which the elements will appear during your presentation. You can zoom in the focus of the presentation to explain a detail, or zoom it out to emphasize the big picture. Due to the completely different paradigm it uses, however, Prezi can’t import or export files from other presentation packages.
A free version permits online-only presentation creation. That edition comes with 100MB of storage but adds a small Prezi watermark to the resulting presentations, which are included on the site’s public exploration area. A version with 2000MB of storage and additional privacy, branding, and offline capabilities costs $159 per year.
Prezi Desktop software is available for PC, Mac, and Linux users with paid accounts, offering a way to create and save zooming presentations offline. With Prezi Meeting, meanwhile, as many as ten people can access and edit presentations. A Prezi app for the iPad is also available.
Hands-on: For anyone accustomed to traditional presentation software, working with Prezi takes some mental reprogramming. We had a lot of fun playing around with the service, but we soon realized that it was going to be very difficult to compare with our other contenders.
Much as the vast emptiness of a blank word processing screen can paralyze writers, the initial emptiness of the Prezi canvas felt intimidating at first. The absence of the enforced linear sequence also meant that we had to think a little more purposefully about what kinds of elements should be included, and where. In many ways, Prezi feels more like mind-mapping software than a presentation tool.
Prezi is an exciting and powerful tool for people seeking freedom from the restraints that traditional presentation software imposes, and for whom compatibility and exchange with PowerPoint or other tools isn’t necessary. If you prefer an imposed linear structure or need compatibility with existing formats, however, you may prefer a more traditional route.
Price: Free for 100MB of storage and the ability to create, share, show, and download presentations; $59 per year for 500MB of storage and additional privacy and branding capabilities; $159 per year for 2000MB of storage and additional offline capabilities
Zooming model allows nonlinear presentations
Capability to focus in and out on different levels of information
Desktop software enables offline capabilities for paying users
Prezi Meeting for collaboration
Fun to use
Familiarity: Absence of an enforced, slide-based structure makes using Prezi feel very different
Import/export capabilities with other presentation tools
Support for multiple languages
Metrics and analytics
Best use for Prezi: Representing an exciting new paradigm for creating presentations, Prezi in many ways seems a lot more logical than the linear structure that most applications enforce today. It’s certainly a good choice if you’re a free thinker frustrated with the linear format in other software, as well as if exchanging traditional presentation files with other people isn’t a concern. If you give it a try, the results can be intriguing.
Next page: A feature-packed option with many themes and platform options
SlideRocket is a secure and fully integrated suite of online tools offered on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) basis from any Internet-enabled laptop, PC, or handheld device.
You can create slides with either your own content or material gathered from a comprehensive online marketplace that offers themes, cartoons, photographs, data feeds, video and audio clips, illustrations, and other elements. You can import existing PowerPoint slides and include them in SlideRocket, and insert plug-ins as well.
You can also include dynamic data from Google Spreadsheets, Twitter, and other Web sources to keep presentations current and up-to-date. Collaboration tools let colleagues work in sync. In addition, SlideRocket provides a raft of extra services such as graphic design, copywriting and editing, coaching, printing, and binding.
When you finish a presentation, you can share slides securely by hosting a Web meeting, publishing them to a URL, embedding them in a Web page or blog, giving users permission to forward them to other people, or printing them for distribution. You can export presentations both to PowerPoint and PDF, though SlideRocket warns that some features may not be preserved. You’ll also find an offline presentation player.
Particularly notable is the fact that SlideRocket offers metrics for you to measure the effectiveness of presentations. On top of adding polls to presentations, you can track who viewed them and where, how much time a person spent on each slide, and what follow-up actions they took, such as click-throughs, form submissions, or forwarding to other users. Viewers can leave virtual comments, too.
In the mobile realm, SlideRocket allows iPhone and Android users to attend remote meetings, play presentations, and view embedded presentations. Videos, audio, transitions, and builds work with HTML5-compliant Web browsers.
Hands-on: SlideRocket has a beautiful interface for getting a new user up and running quickly. Importing presentations from PowerPoint was no trouble, though existing slide transitions were not preserved.
SlideRocket is an extremely powerful service, and everything felt intuitive while we worked on a presentation. We encountered a few very small lags–as seems to be typical with online software–but the option to incorporate dynamic content from sites such as Twitter is great, as is the built-in ability to look for images and videos quickly and easily on Flickr and YouTube. Both features feel like a natural reflection of the way Web-enabled users work today.
The new library of free, premade presentations is impressive and can be a nice source of inspiration, while the metrics capabilities could be a real asset for anyone using the software for business purposes.
All in all, SlideRocket stood out as the most comprehensive, full-featured package we looked at. Note, though, that the free version lacks a significant portion of the functionality of the two paid versions, including many of the collaboration, analytics, offline presentation, and export capabilities. Most business users will probably want to go with a paid version.
Price: Free for a Lite version with up to five multiseat accounts; $24 per user per month for a Pro version with up to 25 accounts; enterprise pricing for unlimited users is set separately
Import/export: Import from PowerPoint and Google Presentations, export to PDF and PowerPoint
Metrics to let users track the impact of presentations
Excellent collaboration and security features
Content gallery includes customizable, ready-to-use presentations
Plug-ins for Flickr and YouTube
Capability to include dynamic content, such as from Twitter
Offline presentation player
Some mobile viewing capabilities
SlideRocket app is available in the Chrome Web Store
Support for languages other than English
Best use for SlideRocket: A flexible offering packed with features for even the most demanding users, SlideRocket is our favorite of all the contenders we tried. We can’t imagine any user being dissatisfied. If anything, it might be overkill for some users.
Next page: A presentation maker that belongs to a full productivity package
More than 20 different applications for collaboration, business, and productivity are included in Zoho’s cloud-based suite, among them its Zoho Show 2.0 presentation module.
Zoho Show can import files of 30MB or less from PowerPoint and OpenOffice.org, and it can export files in PowerPoint, OpenOffice.org, PDF, and HTML formats. You can import Google Docs presentations directly. For offline presentations, you simply save presentations as HTML files, which play without requiring Internet connectivity.
Zoho Show recently added real-time collaboration capabilities, making it suitable for group work. The service can use images on your desktop or link directly to pictures online at Flickr and Picasa.
A variety of transitional effects are available, as is a large library of ready-made clip art. You can embed videos and other material via HTML code from a select list of Websites, and you can embed Zoho presentations in other Websites. As of Zoho Show 2.0, live chat accompanies remote presentation capabilities.
An iPhone app–available in both English and Japanese–offers read-only access to Zoho Show presentations. A Zoho Show app is available in Google’s Chrome Web Store as well.
In short, while Zoho concedes that its offering doesn’t include everything Microsoft PowerPoint does, it has designed the product to be a strong contender for most purposes.
Hands-on: Zoho Show ranks far above Google Docs when it comes to presentations, providing a much more attractive interface and more sophisticated feature delivery. The service simply offers more, too, beginning with support for transitions.
Our Microsoft PowerPoint presentation imported with no trouble whatsoever; even original transitions were preserved. The nice selection of backgrounds and templates surpasses what Google Docs offers by far, and navigating through the toolbars and menus feels pretty intuitive.
Although Zoho was our favorite online contender overall in a recent look at Microsoft Office alternatives, it’s definitely less feature-rich than PowerPoint in the presentation realm, and it also doesn’t quite match up with SlideRocket. Still, it feels like a much better tool than Google Docs, and it’s a solid choice for most presentation purposes.
Price: Free for individuals; business pricing ranges from free for up to 1GB of storage and one workspace to $5 per user per month for 20 workspaces
Import/export: Import from PowerPoint, OpenOffice.org, and Google Docs; export to PowerPoint, OpenOffice.org, HTML, and PDF
Offline presentations via HTML format
Support for multiple languages
Attractive, intuitive interface
A variety of templates and backgrounds
App available in the Chrome Web Store
iPhone app with read-only access
Metrics and analytics
Best use for Zoho Show: Though we liked SlideRocket a bit better, Zoho Show is a great choice for most business users. It offers just about all of the capabilities a typical user might want, and its interface is a pleasure to use.
Next page: A free, fledgling service. Plus, which presentation tool should you choose?
Like the other contenders, 280 Slides is a cloud-based presentation maker that lets you create, access, and share presentations anywhere in the world. Now in beta, the service allows you to import existing presentations with the .pptx format as well as to create them from scratch on the site, and to export them back into that format as well.
280 Slides offers a limited selection of templates, and you can add images and movies from your own collections or directly from Web services including Flickr, Vimeo, and YouTube. To share presentations, you can put them on SlideShare, send them via e-mail, or embed them directly on a Website.
It’s not clear how much storage users of 280 Slides are allowed, or if it imposes any maximum presentation size. The service is currently free.
Hands-on: Trying to import an older PowerPoint file in .ppt format, we learned that 280 Slides accepts only .pptx files. After we attempted to resave that older file in .pptx format and upload it again, it showed up garbled in 280 Slides.
On the other hand, when we used a brand-new .pptx presentation from Office 2010, the slides and theme translated nicely, though the transitions didn’t make it. 280 Slides did preserve the existing theme used in that presentation when we added new slides to it, however, which was particularly nice since the service offers only nine templates of its own.
In general, 280 Slides is rudimentary and rough around the edges. Features felt extremely basic–even more so than Google Docs in many ways, despite a more attractive interface.
Import/export: Import .pptx only from PowerPoint; export to PowerPoint 2007 in .pptx format only
An attractive interface
Compatibility with older PowerPoint files or other formats
Capability to export to PDF or other formats
Offline presentation capabilities
Transition and animation capabilities
Support for other languages
Metrics and analytics
Best use for 280 Slides: We weren’t very impressed with 280 Slides. It’s free, but so is Google Docs, and that’s better. 280 Slides needs some work before it will be competitive.
Which Presentation Maker Should You Choose?
All five of these Microsoft PowerPoint alternatives have pros and cons, but SlideRocket clearly steals the show. Zoho is a close second, but SlideRocket really seems to have every single detail covered. Its interface, compatibility, features, and collaboration tools are particularly stellar.
While Prezi is an extremely interesting contender, it didn’t grab the top spot for this review mostly because it’s still so different as to require a whole new way of thinking–and to make imports and exports impossible. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t gain ground in the future.
Google Docs remains a good, solid offering–particularly given its price–though it’s certainly not as feature-rich as SlideRocket and Zoho. Finally, 280 Slides feels like an incomplete effort–which, in all fairness, it may well be, given that it’s still in beta testing.
Which of these offerings is best for your work? That depends on many factors, including how heavy a user you are, the kinds of features you need, and how much collaboration you do. Most companies would be happy with Zoho, as it’s part of a larger productivity suite. The higher-end SlideRocket is sure to please even the most demanding heavy user. If you’re in the market for a new presentation package, you’d do well to check out both.
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