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Keynote for iOS review: Still the best presentation app on iOS

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Editors' note, October 24, 2014: This review was updated with information about the latest version.

Keynote (iOS)
8.2

Keynote for iOS

The Good

Keynote has easy-to-use tools for creating great-looking presentations on the go with your iOS device, and they sync up so you can work on them anywhere.

The Bad

Working with presentations feels crowded on the iPhone's smaller screen. The Mac version of the app loses features you had in iWork '09.

The Bottom Line

With Magic Move transitions, tons of themes and collaboration capabilities, Keynote is a must have for making presentations on your iOS device.

Keynote (iOS|Mac) is Apple's presentation software which lets you choose a template, create and edit slides, add animations and transitions, and has numerous charts, tables, and graphs to get your message across. And now, with iOS 8.1 and Yosemite, you can use continuity features to hand off your work between devices.

Keynote was built from the ground up for both iOS and Mac, and just like the other iWork apps, the iOS version continues to improve, while the Mac version is still playing catchup from when Apple gave the apps feature parity across devices. Due to a backlash of user complaints about the Mac versions, Apple has since added more features, but it still isn't on par with what you had in iWork '09.

Before I start, know that I did most of my testing on the iPad. You can get Keynote for your iPhone (just like the rest of the iWork apps), but the smaller screen makes it much harder to create and edit presentations unless you're using an iPhone 6 Plus. You don't lose functionality when moving from the iPad to the iPhone, and it will come in handy in a pinch, but using it on the iPad is a much better experience.

Keynote for iOS is a great way to make presentations (pictures)

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Navigating the interface

You can navigate from slide to slide on the left side of the screen, with the current slide in the main viewing area. On top are buttons for editing objects in your slides, adding new objects such as photos, graphs, or shapes, along with other tools and sharing options. In the bottom right, a plus-sign button lets you add new slides to your presentation.

Creating a presentation

To get started, you can choose from 30 themes that give your presentation different looks for everything from information-heavy bulleted lists to photo- or graphics-focused shows. Once you choose a look you like, each theme comes with several pre-made slides that fit with the overall aesthetic while letting you double tap on placeholders to add your own images and text. The new Keynote comes with almost twice as many themes than you had in the pre-iOS 7 version, and while you lose some animations and transitions you had before, the new version adds new ones that look great.

Keynote (iOS)
When you create a new slide, you'll have tons of layout choices that are included with the chosen theme. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Like any good presentation software, Keynote gives you the ability to create eye-catching motion with objects in your slides through animations and transitions. You can touch an object, such as a block of text or an image, then select the Animate button from the pop-up menu. A new set of buttons then pops up where you can select build-in (the animation that occurs when you first touch the screen) or build-out (another animation when you touch again) animations. There are 24 animations to choose from and all produce a great looking effect.

When you want to transition between slides, you can touch a slide in the left navigation area and then select Transition from the resulting pop-up menu. There are 30 transitions to choose from including a few new ones in the latest version of Keynote. But there's another transition option called Magic Move that's a neat way to keep your audience focused on your message.

Magic Move uses an object or image in one slide, then does a zoom animation to the position of the same object or image on the next slide. So if you have a slide with an image of a toy car at the top of slide A, and the same toy car shows up in a collection of other toys at the bottom of slide B, you can use the Magic Move to keep the audience focused on that toy car as it transitions to slide B. It's hard to explain, but it's a neat effect to add to your presentations.

Keynote (iOS)
Tap on an image in your slide, then tap the paintbrush button to change styles, such as adding frames or drop shadows. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Other useful features

The iOS version of Keynote lost a couple of features in the overhaul to get feature parity across all devices after the rollout of iOS 7, but it also received some new ones.

Interactive charts let you start by creating a regular chart on a slide and then lets you include how the data changes over time. During your presentation, you can show the gradual changes in your data by using a slider. To round out the experience, you can add a background track to your presentation from your song library.

The app also lets you make all or a part of an image transparent using a tool called Instant Alpha, a feature borrowed from the older Mac version, that gives your slides an even more professional look.

Collaboration and iCloud Drive

With all three iWork apps, you can invite up to 20 people to work on the same document simultaneously and you'll see other users interacting with the document in real time. The app color codes each user so you know who is working on a particular section. People also can make comments on sections that show up for all people sharing the document. These are things that Google Docs already does, but it works great on Apple devices as well.

Keynote (iOS)
You can share a link via iCloud to send your presentation to a friend or coworker for collaboration. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

If you just want to share your presentation with others, you can touch the share button on the main presentation index screen to share a link via iCloud Drive or you can send a copy of the whole file via iMessage or Mail. The latest version adds support for third-party storage apps like Dropbox as well. There are also options here for syncing your presentation to iTunes or to a remote server via WebDAV.

Another useful feature that comes with making the iOS and Mac versions (mostly) the same is that your work is synced across all devices via iCloud and you don't lose your formatting or layout when switching. This means that changes you make to a presentation on your iPad will be reflected in the same document on your Mac, iPhone, or even the Web version of Keynote you can access on any platform with a Web browser. With iOS 8 and Yosemite, you'll also be able to handoff your work between devices, so you can start a presentation on your iPad, then immediately pick up where you left off on your Mac.

Some notes about the Mac version

All of the iWork apps including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, were rebuilt from the ground up to share the same features across Mac and mobile so you could do the same things on any device, but in that process, the Mac version ended up with fewer features. There are already a ton of complaints on the Web specifically from Mac users and they have a point: ever since Apple updated all the iWork apps in 2013, the Mac version doesn't have as many features as it did in iWork '09.

Though it's of little consolation for Mac users, what is most likely going to happen is Apple will add in new (and old) features over time that make sense on each platform. In an attempt to keep users of the older versions happy, Apple has left iWork '09 alone (not replacing it with the upgrade), so if you miss certain functionality, you can still use the older version. Obviously, it's not an ideal situation for users, but there are going to be some growing pains for the time being after making the apps on both platforms share features and functionality.

So, the bottom line is, if you use Keynote on your Mac, I do not recommend you pay for the app unless you can download it for free on a new Mac. Otherwise, stick with iWork '09 until Apple makes the promised changes to all versions.

New features in the latest version

Since its launch in 2013, Apple has been adding new features (and some old ones) to bring the Mac version closer to what it was in iWork '09 and making the iOS versions stronger. The latest version adds trace animations, new presenter display layouts, and the ability to pair Keynote with nearby iOS devices using Multipeer Connectivity.

All the iWork apps now have support for iCloud Drive and you can now use third-party storage apps like Dropbox. Sharing has improved with handoff features (for sharing with yourself, if you will) and the apps give you more sharing options that let you send through third-party services such as Gmail.

The latest version adds a custom color mixer to the iPad version and you can sample colors in your documents using the color picker and apply them to other parts of your presentation for a unified look.

You also can take photos and videos from within the app; add labels to columns and rows in tables; and new inter-table alignment guides make the objects and words in each field look more precise.

So, while the Mac version continues to lag behind iWork '09, it's improving with every update. But iOS versions keep improving over the last version, making work while on the go better than ever.

Keynote (iOS)
Interactive charts let you display data as it changes over time. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

How does it compare with Google Docs?

Now that the iWork apps are free, there's going to be comparisons with the Google Docs set of productivity tools. They both have spreadsheet, presentation, and word processing tools, and sync across devices using their own cloud services (iCloud and Google Drive). But it's important to note that the new iWork apps are only free for people who buy new Apple devices, or those who have already bought the earlier versions of the apps. In other words, people who don't have a new device or the previous versions of the iWork apps will still have to pay. The new versions are useful on iOS and I still recommend you get them, even with the steep $9.99 price tag. It's worth it for the templates, the touch-friendly interface, and the Apple ecosystem that works seamlessly across apps and devices.

With regard to Keynote specifically, there is no replacement from Google Docs on iOS devices to make presentations. In fact, the new iOS version offers more themes, more and smarter transitions, and a more elegant interface design than what you see on the Google Docs presentation tools even on the desktop. In other words, for building presentations on either desktop or mobile, Keynote beats Google Docs pretty handily.

Conclusion

Keynote for iOS is a step up from the old version, with new themes, animations, and transitions, not to mention a redesigned interface that offers a better layout than what we had before. Putting the iOS and Mac versions on a level playing field means that your presentations are always synced to every device, and your presentations will work well regardless of which platform you're viewing them on.

Unfortunately, Mac users will not be as pleased with the new version because much of the functionality found in the old desktop version is no longer there. Like I mentioned earlier, Apple is bringing many of the most popular features back over time, but also let people keep iWork '09 for the time being to keep that functionality (in other words, this update doesn't replace your old installation). In other words, for now, only get Keynote for Mac if you can get it for free with a new desktop or laptop and wait for Apple to add to the current version before switching over.

Still, if you primarily use Keynote on your iOS device, the new version continues to improve with every update. Though it's not free for all like Google Docs, it offers more tools for presentations across all your devices. Eventually, when we all move on to new iOS devices, Keynote will be free for everyone, but in the meantime, it's worth it to pay for this update on iOS for a marked improvement over the last version.

Keynote (iOS)
8.2

Keynote for iOS

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 8Interface 9Performance 8