Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Getting Work Done Online - Presentation

Editor's note: This weeks article is brought to you by Wesley Allen. Wes is an expert in presentation technologies and the creator of a technique called "Sermon Painting" which gives pastors more effective tools to integrate media into their teaching ministries.

In this article I'll be comparing three web-based presentation applications — Google Presentations, PowerPoint on SkyDrive, and the beta of Apple's Keynote in the cloud. Yes, Keynote is a beta, but this series is including it because Apple is more than fashionably late to idea of cloud-base office suites. There are other options out on the web, including ZoHo office and Prezi, but we're limiting ourselves to the threes suites compared throughout this series.

User Interface

User Interfaces in web-apps has come a long way over the years. As the web has matured web apps have begun feel like applications, instead of forms forced into a browser interface. As such, the three presentation applications I tested all have their own feel, each with strengths and weaknesses.

The newest of the three, iWork in the Cloud, has the most minimalist design. A dark toolbar runs along the top of the UI, containing some very basic features. From this toolbar a presentation can be "played," different objects can be inserted, and various tools (such as sharing) can be accessed. Along the right of the screen is a persistent inspector, which changes it's content depending on which slide object is selected. The bulk of the screen contains the slide editor, with thumbnails of slides appearing on the left edge of the screen. It's simple, and it works. There is a noticeable amount of empty space on the toolbar, which may lead one to assume Apple is planning on adding more features in the future. This may be true, but the layout echoes the layout of desktop Keynote, so I wouldn't hold my breath. Given the resolutions of today's screens, the empty space actually makes the UI look clean.

Google Presentations are laid out in a similar fashion to Keynote, minus the persistent inspector on the right side of the screen. A huge slide palette takes up the most space, and a toolbar runs along the top edge of the UI, containing many more buttons than Keynote. Google's toolbar adds separate buttons for drawing lines, background, layout, and theme. It also has a button to add comments to the presentation. The layout is clean, but it does feel a bit dated, harkening back to the grey toolbars filled with the simple icons of yesteryear. Even so, the single-click access to multiple features makes Google Presentations a great option.

If the first two applications try for simplicity when it comes to UI design, Office Live seems to take the "let's see how much we can put on the screen at once" approach. The result is a cluttered mess. It's basic layout is similar to the first two applications — consisting of a toolbar on top, a slide editing palette taking up the bulk of the screen, as well as slide thumbnails along the left edge. The toolbar is where PowerPoint fails. Office has, for some time, used a "ribbon" interface which changes the toolbar completely depending on what task you want to accomplish, it's a UI design which they bring into the Office Live version of PowerPoint. Some people enjoy the ribbon, I am not one of them. The sheer amount of options crammed into each ribbon section is absurd. There simply is no reason to squeeze that many buttons all over the top edge of the screen. It makes it difficult to find features, and painful to use the ones you are able to find. Office Live fixes some of the more terrible design flaws of the ribbon's desktop version (such as changing a slide layout or adding effects to an image), but the layout remains a cluttered mess.

Of the three applications, I think Keynote nailed the User Interface. It's clean, fast, and uncluttered. Google Presentations is a very close second, as it makes finding options one click away, and the toolbar never changes as you change tasks (PowerPoint) or objects (the Keynote inspector).

Slide Layout and Theming

Each of the applications comes with the ability to theme a presentation. The themes in both PowerPoint and Google Presentations, however, are rather simple and less than eye-catching. Keynote's presentations are stunning, actually the same batch which are available in it's iOS offering, and can make for some attention grabbing presentations when used. Once a theme is chosen in Keynote, however, the presentation cannot be shifted to another theme – this is a significant drawback.

Each application comes with the basic pre-set slide layouts — title, title and bullets, title an image/object, etc. It's a simple matter to create a slide with a new layout in each application, though in Keynote right clicking a slide preview and select "new slide" will create a slide with the same layout as the currently selected slide. Changing a slide layout is not currently possible in Keynote, but is a relatively simple matter in the other two applications. Google Presentations is the easiest tool with which to master this feature simply because it's UI is easier to navigate.

Customizing themes isn't possible in any of the offerings, though customizing slides with custom backgrounds is available in Google Presentations (custom backgrounds may then be applied to every slide in the presentation). Additionally, presentations cannot change aspect ratios. PowerPoint is stuck in a forward-thinking 16:9 ratio, while the others sport the classic 4:3.

If you are a custom designer, none of these applications is really going to appeal to you. Both SkyDrive and Keynote can import their native file-types and Keynote, at least, will retain custom theme-ing information (including aspect ratio and slide layouts) when imported, though fonts will be limited to those used in iOS.

Being a custom designer, the limitations in these applications make them less appealing to me, though as I'm evaluating web-applications on their own merits I have to give the nod to Google Presentations.

Object Handling

Text is handled pretty much the same way in each application. The fonts differ, but the practice is the same — draw a box, click in it, and type. The difference shows when the time comes to format text objects. Here PowerPoint Web App falls flat. It's able to set a background and line color, as well as line weight — that's it. Google one ups them by enabling transparency for it's objects, though it's buried in the "custom color" dialog so most normal users probably won't find it.

Keynote, in sharp contrast, shines. Fill options include color (though no transparency can be set for the colors, which is an odd omission), gradient, and image (from a list set by the template). Borders can be set between various line styles and "picture frames" which give objects extra presence. Objects may also be given drop shadows, reflection, and object-level opacity (not so helpful with text boxes).

Moving objects in both Keynote and Google Presentations will give feedback in the way of snap-lines which show when objects are centered, aligned, etc. It's a killer feature which PowerPoint lacks.
While Keynote has many "luxury" features for formatting text, Google has the ability to set the opacity of it's background fill, which is an essential tool for me. While I can work around this issue by creating transparent objects behind text, I shouldn't have to. Google's object palette is also vastly more robust than the other applications (though PowerPoint Web App does have "smart objects" to create simple charts). When it comes to handling objects, and text objects in-particular, I have to give the nod to Google Presentations. Keynote's luxury features are compelling, but the inability to set background opacity makes them fall to a very close second.

Image Handling

Each application allows users to upload images to presentations and keep them stored in the cloud. Oddly enough, only Google leverages it's cloud storage for inserting images into presentations. While this is not a terrible thing, it is an odd oversight — especially given that Keynote doesn't even grant access to a user's Photostream. Keep in mind that in both Keynote and PowerPoint, inserting an image first means uploading it to the application server.

Formatting images in Keynote gives the same options which are available for text objects, minus fill-color. Images can have borders, reflection, drop shadows, and opacity - or can be formatted with "picture frames" to give it more eye appeal. Interestingly, PowerPoint Web App adds many more formatting options for images than for other objects. By selecting "Picture Tools" in the Ribbon, images can have pre-formatted styles applied to them, and may also be cropped from within the application. Google Presentations, on the other hand, isn't able to format images at all. PNG's uploaded to each application retain their transparency.

Google scores with its integration of cloud storage to their Presentations, but the utter lack of formatting features prevents it from scoring a point here. Both Keynote and PowerPoint Web App  have some great formatting options, though PowerPoint Web App's ability to crop inserted images wins out over custom beautification. It pains me to say it, given how much I dislike PowerPoint's interface, but they get the win in this category.

Animations

Keynote's slide transitions are unmatched among the three applications. Google Presentations does put up a good fight, but Keynote has too many options for it to win out. PowerPoint Web App has only fade and push as options, with a few options to provide variety.  PowerPoint Web App's lack of options may be a good decision, given how people have a tendency to go "transition crazy," but some more options would be nice.

Build effects for objects, are a different matter. PowerPoint Web App has three options — appear, fade in, and fly in — with some variations on each. Google has several with build in/out varieties listed — fade, fly, zoom, and spin. Timing may also be set to activate with a click, alongside another animation, or following an animation (though no timing delay can be set for this latter option). Keynote has no animations at all, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I understand Keynote is a beta application, but animating objects in a presentation is one of the core features of presentation software! I'm shocked Keynote even made it to beta without build animations included in some fashion, I hope they are added soon.

Google wins this round, it's animations are more flexible and easier to access.

Collaboration

Keynote is out of the running here, it has no collaboration features.

PowerPoint Web App does have collaboration, and even allows for multiple people to be editing the same document at one time while changes show up in real-time. Unfortunately, there is no indication when another user is editing an object, so it seems as though objects are suddenly being edited by ghosts in the machine. Google, on the other hand, has absolutely nailed real-time collaboration. When other users open the same document, they are assigned a color to indicate their actions. Whatever they do in the presentation is marked by their color - right down to which slide they are currently viewing. When a user selects an object it's bordered by there color, leaving no doubt who is editing what. The included chat feature makes it a a near-perfect solution. Google wins; no one else is even close.

Presenting

Presenting with any of these applications is going to be a headache if you depend on some of the more subtle presentation features like a presenter-screen and speaker notes, both of which depend on utilizing a dual-screen setup. Of the three, Google manages to create the most desktop-like experience, but setting it up requires some mental gymnastics in order to get the presentation on the audience screen, and the notes and thumbnails on the primary display (it involves detaching tabs). Even then, for me, Mountain Lion's full-screen mode hides the user notes completely – making presenting impossible for this application (at least until Mavericks is released). Microsoft includes speaker notes, and smartly begins a presentation in a separate window, but there doesn't seem to be any way to access speaker notes while presenting which makes them useless. Keynote, in what I can only hope is a feature still not ready for beta, has no speaker notes feature at all.

In the end, if you present from one screen and don't require access to your presentation's notes you could probably get away with mirroring your desktop screen to a projector and running through your slides. If you are a power-user then these applications shouldn't even be considered for "going live" to your audience.

Google Presentations used to include a way to present to others on the web, which was a wonderful  and forward-thinking experience. The current iteration of Presentations sadly seems to lack this feature, I hope they bring it back soon. Displaying to individual screens is likely going to be common in the future.

No one wins this round, the significant limitations of each applications makes the lot a terrible option to use while presenting.

Conclusion

Of the three applications I have to say Google Presentations is the best all-round. The other applications have their strengths, but fall significantly short in far too many other areas. Google Presentations lacks image editing features and a robust presentation mode, which keeps me from whole-heartedly recommending it, but it's still the best all-round option currently in the "free" market. Keynote will also need to be watched closely to see if Apple is really intent on creating a functioning web-app, or just another way sucking users into the Apple eco-system. We've come a long way with web-based presentation applications, but we have yet to "arrive."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Getting Work Done Online - Document

Document

In this edition of Getting Work Done Online we'll be taking a look at the workhorse of any office suite, the word processor. Online text editing has been around in some fashion for many years, but it's never really been captured effectively until recently. The ubiquitous 'Word doc' has been the gold standard for text documents for over two decades. Now, with the advent of some on-line competitors, as well as it's own attempt, writing your term paper can maybe be done in the cloud. 

Again, I used a personal document as my test. Just like last week there were some issues with the file, but this time it was my own fault. The file I used was from many years ago when I had decided to work with OpenOffice for my word processor of choice, while I was in graduate school. Thankfully Google Drive was able to import it, but the result was less than ideal. So I took the imported document, exported it to Word, cleaned it up, and re-imported it into each of the three services.

As far as complexity goes, this document was moderately complex. It was a large block of text with endnotes, a header, and some basic formatting. I did test each service's image manipulation capabilities by adding an image to the document using the tools that each service provided.

Google Drive

Google Drive is once again proving to be the cream of the crop when it comes to online office suites. Not only was it able to read my OpenOffice document format, it re-imported the Word doc without issue, and maintained most of the formatting of the original document.

All the basic text formatting capabilities worked as advertised, and were accessible in an intuitive manner. The header came through from the Word doc, but it did have some issue with the table that was embedded in it. In the original Word doc, the header consisted of a two cell table with only a bottom border. Google Drive imported the text, and formatted it correctly with both portions of text justified on opposite sides, but it left the table behind. Google Drive does do tables, but in this case, it didn't quite know how to convert one from Word. 

Google Drive also does not do endnotes, so all of those were converted to links (that didn't work, so not sure of the point). However, Google Drive does do footnotes, so with a little work you can convert endnotes to footnotes, and they work perfectly. If you're starting a document from scratch it shouldn't be an issue. 

Finally, I imported an image and I was able to re-size and drag-n-drop it around the text. It worked as advertised, but your options are very limited. You can choose to have the image inline with the text, or with the text wrapped around it. That's it. 

Sharing is suburb, as it is in all of the Google apps suite. You can share your document and edit it in real-time with with collaborators.

Google Drive performed quite well with this test document, and should be quite adequate for most people's word processing needs. 

Microsoft SkyDrive

This time around, Microsoft's Word Web App was a huge disappointment. It was very lacking in features beyond basic text formatting. First off, it completely ignores any headers in the document you're working with. The headers aren't removed from the document, but they don't appear in the Word Web App, and aren't editable in any fashion. This bothered me a lot, since I had no idea if the header was gone for good until I re-opened the doc in Word on the desktop. 

SkyDrive is able to do tables, however, you have no control over cell coloration or borders. For basic work it seems to suffice, but more complex tables require the full version of Word. Word also does not have any semblance of notes, footnote or endnote. 

Image manipulation is very basic. You can insert an image and apply a 'style'. The text won't wrap around it, and you can't drag the image to a new location. That's pretty much it. 

Sharing is basic, but does function. You can collaborate on a document and see the edits that people make, but like in Excel Web App you can't tell where they are typing.

Overall, I have to say I'm quite disappointed with this attempt by Microsoft for a Word Web App. With the fact that online word processors have been around for a long time, I was expecting a lot more from them. Like with other documents, you can open them through your SkyDrive desktop integration and work with them, but I don't think I'd rely on the Word Web App for day to day use. 

Apple iCloud iWork Beta

Despite being in beta, I was pleasantly surprised by iCloud Pages. It imported the document without error, and everything seemed to survive the conversion mostly intact. Pages does have the capability to do headers, and the header on my document imported correctly. However, it does not have any table capability, so I wasn't able to manipulate the header it imported. The header that was visible seemed intact however.

Other basic formatting options were available and worked as advertised. However, the selection of options were very limited. Mostly some text changes like bold and italic, and justification of text. Like the Word Web App, iCloud Pages doesn't do notes, so you would need to manually format these. 

Pages on the desktop has been a favorite word processor of mine for a long time, and the iPad version of it is a joy to work with. Especially when working with images alongside your text. Image manipulation works really well on touch screens. Even though this is Beta, iCould Pages already shows many of the same strengths of the desktop and tablet version. I was able to import my image, scale it and place it with ease, and even rotate it, which is something even Google Drive can't do. I was also able to place the image with pixel precision, add some basic effects and even mess with opacity.

Frankly, I was amazed at the image functionality in iCloud Pages. I'm hoping that if they can pull that off, that many other features won't be too far behind. I was very impressed with Apple's offering in this space this time around, and feel like it shows the promise of something greater in the future to make it a real competitor. 

Wrap up

This time around Google was still the king of the hill, but second place went to Apple iCould. I found it simply more accessible and functional even in it's un-finished state than the Word Web App. At the end of the day, all three of these tools can help you draft a simple document, or write a letter. If you need more than basic usage however, Google or the desktop is probably your best option.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Getting Work Done Online - Spreadsheet

Spreadsheet

In this installment of Getting Things Done Online we're going to look at the spreadsheet component of our big three offerings. As with many of these posts, I'm going to use a real-life example as a way to show the differences and similarities between the products. In this case, I fired up my personal budget spreadsheet. It's a semi-complicated spreadsheet with multiple cross-sheet references, a pie chart, and a multi-nested 'IF' formula to do paycheck withholding for both Federal and State (Minnesota) taxes. There are plenty of other features I could also review, but I wanted this to be a real-life example, and not just a mock-up stress test.

First, some background on the file that I used to perform this review, and how I got it imported into each of the services. My budget spreadsheet was originally done using an old version of Excel many, many years ago. When Apple's iWork Numbers came out, I converted it to that, and was mostly happy with it for many years. However, the lack of cloud accessibility and being locked into to OS X to use it, made me decide to try something different. So a few months ago I converted it to a Google Drive spreadsheet. Interestingly, I had to convert it to an excel spreadsheet first before importing it to Google Drive. For the past few months the spreadsheet has been performing fine in Google Drive, and I haven't had any issues accessing it wherever I needed to.

For this test I needed to get the spreadsheet back out of Google Drive and import it into SkyDrive and iCloud Numbers Beta. This posed my first challenge, as when I took the exported Excel document and tried to import it into SkyDrive I was told that the file was corrupt. After a bit of research I discovered the solution, which was to first open the exported spreadsheet in Excel on my desktop, which prompted me to "Repair" the file. Once the repair was done, SkyDrive and iCloud were both able to read it, and import it, just fine.

Google Drive

So the export issue is my first problem with Google Drive. The export to Excel can be somewhat flaky, causing the file to need to be repaired before it can be used on the desktop or other services. Despite needing to be 'repaired', the spreadsheet appeared to be complete and functional. So I'm not sure exactly what was fixed. 

Despite this issue, Google Drive is really the star of the show when it comes to online office suites. Google choose to forgo creating desktop versions of their suite, and instead focused on creating robust online applications. Spreadsheets is no exception. In my budget spreadsheet I was able to reference secondary sheets with ease, in exactly the same way I have done it with desktop clients (point-and-click). Formulas behave just like in Excel, including nested IF's. I didn't have a chance to test the limit of 7 nested IF's like in Excel, but I presume that they kept that limit in to preserve compatibility. 

Inserting a pie chart was straightforward, and I had a few different design options to choose from. I've also done various line graphs n other spreadsheets, and all of them have behaved properly. Because Drive exists only online, all the features to manipulate charts are available online. 

Formatting was functional, albeit simplified from desktop clients, but it gets the job mostly done. One issue I've had however, is that unlike in my Numbers spreadsheet, when typing a long string of text I can't get the text to flow over the next cell. Instead it gets cut off unless I merge the two cells into one. Not quite the ideal formatting I was looking for, but overall it's the only issue with formatting I've had. 

Overall, Google Drive spreadsheets perform as advertised, and are a very robust alternative to a desktop application. In addition, the live sharing capabilities of all the Drive products make this an incredible collaboration tool for teams of people working together. I've worked on many shared spreadsheets in Google Drive and the experience is exemplary. 

Microsoft SkyDrive

Next up is Microsoft's Excel web app that is included with SkyDrive. SkyDrive tries to maintain a similar look and feel as desktop Excel, and for the most part succeeds in 'looking the part'. Although it creates a familiarity for people who are used to working with the latest Office product, for people who may not like the large ribbon style menus at the top of their applications, it can be less than ideal.

From a functional standpoint, SkyDrive works as advertised. All of my formulas worked as expected, including across spreadsheets. However, you need to manually type in a reference to another sheet, you can't just click onto the other sheet and select the cell you want to use.

One unexpected bonus was that chart editing was quite full featured. I was able to do almost everything I've ever done in Excel with charts, within the web app. It also has some chart styles that Google Drive didn't have, such as Radar style. Manipulating the charts was easy and intuitive and operated just like Excel on the desktop.

Although sharing wasn't as full featured as Google Drive, it was functional and managed to get the job done. One thing that I missed from Google Drive was the ability to see which cell other people were manipulating in real time.

An additional bonus with SkyDrive is that any Office documents that are in your SkyDrive can be opened in either the web app, or in Excel, meaning you can work on a document using the desktop client, save it, then open it up on the web from another location and pick right back up where you left off. This is the type of integration that many people have been waiting for from Microsoft, and I'm happy to report it doesn't disappoint. Overall, if you're a big Office user, SkyDrive should probably fit the bill quite nicely for your online needs as well.

Apple iCloud iWork BETA

Although some might question including Apple's iCloud iWork BETA in this review, as it isn't fully released yet, I think it's important to see where Apple is in it's process. Realistically, Apple is way behind in this arena, and it needs to hit a home run with this release to catch up to Google and Microsoft.

So how does this first iteration hold up? Overall, not bad. iCloud Numbers was able to load up my spreadsheet just fine, and everything was displayed properly. All of my formulas worked as expected, and even my pie chart imported identically to the desktop version. I was able to work with the spreadsheet as normal, and didn't even encounter any bugs or crashes.

However, I did encounter a lot of missing functionality. I'm sure that many of these features will be addressed in coming beta versions, but I did want to highlight what you'll be missing if you try to use iWork Numbers right now. First, although the pie chart imported fine, it was not editable at all online. Second, the formatting of cells is limited; you can't change the background color of a cell for example. Third, as with SkyDrive, you need to enter references to other sheets manually, no clicking and selecting. Finally, something that is less a bug, and more a design issue, is that the sheet titles don't expand, so if you have a sheet with a long title it gets cut off and there's no way to see the full title. Sharing has also not been enabled in iWork online, and I'm doubting it will be anytime soon, since Apple hasn't really included any sharing features in other parts of their iCloud experience. 

Like SkyDrive, spreadsheets that are saved in iCloud will be accessible from your OS X desktop and can be opened by Numbers on your desktop or on your iOS device. This last piece is perhaps one of the strongest parts of Apple's offering, it's integration with their iPhone and iPad devices. The iWork apps on these devices are beautiful, and a joy to work with. Having an online component to them is a huge bonus. For people who are embedded in the Apple ecosystem, iCloud will allow you to get work done online, although not quite to the level of it's competitors. As a first start, it's impressive enough to keep me hopeful. 

Wrap up

Although I don't want to declare a "winner" for each of these segments, I do feel like I can say that Google Drive is the current front-runner of the pack for spreadsheets. Because it's completely focused on being online, it has to be fully functional online. SkyDrive and iCloud both have legacy desktop clients that they can ask users to fall back on for more complex operations if needed. Having said that however, even my complex budget spreadsheet was able to be handled by all the apps just fine with only small limitations. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Blog domain name

Just a real quick update that this blog now has it's own domain name. You can get to it at http://www.libarttech.net/. The old blogger address will continue to work as well, but wanted to share the new custom DNS name.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Getting Work Done Online - Introduction

I'm a huge fan of cloud based computing, especially for productivity applications. With the advent of the iCloud Beta, there are now three major players in this space, and I'm going to take some time over the next few weeks to give an overview of each offering.

The three leading companies (in the U.S.) I'll be looking at, are Google, with Google Drive/Apps, Microsoft with SkyDrive/Office365, and Apple with iCloud. Each upcoming piece (hopefully weekly) will focus on one component of their productivity suite (order subject to change):
  • Word processing
  • Spreadsheet
  • Presentation
  • Email
  • Calendar
  • Messaging
Finally, I hope to tie it all together with talking about how the different systems tie themselves together into an ecosystem.

My hope is to also have a guest writer for at least one of these components, lending their expertise. So stick around for the next few weeks as I start a review catalog of how you can best get work done online!