Microsoft PowerPoint 2003 is more than two years old and isn't the simplest presentation software to use, but it is still the best overall choice for a small-business user who needs to create slide shows and presentations. It's available as a stand-alone program or as part of the Office 2003 package; the Small Business Edition encompasses Word, Excel, Publisher, and Outlook, while the Professional Edition also includes Access. At around $200 for just the PowerPoint software (about $500 for the entire Office 2003 suite), it's on the pricey side, but it's a responsive program that gives you a lot of options when you're building a presentation. Unfortunately, your choice of export formats is limited.
For this review, we loaded the entire Office 2003 Professional Edition suite, which took about 11 minutes; if you're installing just PowerPoint, it should go faster. Unfortunately, PowerPoint doesn't come with a manual or a shortcut sheet; you'll have to rely on links to Microsoft's Web site for instruction and tips.
Once set up, PowerPoint, like other Office programs, has a menu item for a new document. Just pick the template you want to use and you're on your way, although unlike Apple Keynote and other presentation programs, there's no direct side-by-side comparison of the templates, and many of the 44 options are derivative of each other. While PowerPoint includes a lot of options for transitions between slides, they come in only three speeds. Other programs, including Keynote 3 and ProShow Gold (check back soon for reviews of these products), allow a more granular, second-by-second transition control. For those who want additional templates, effects, and options, we suggest looking into CrystalGraphics PowerPlugs, though this software will set you back a hefty $400.
Using PowerPoint, you can start creating a presentation by using an outline or a Word file, which shows how well the Office components mesh. You can use just about any image, video, or audio format in your presentation, including AVI files that caused Corel Presentations to balk. The Clip Organizer tool provides one-stop access to media, but the standard menu items also work well. Microsoft does include a downloadable presentation viewer, but that doesn't make up for the pitiful export potential of PowerPoint. While some of the other programs we looked at allow you to save a slide show as a movie, as Flash animation, or even as Acrobat slides, PowerPoint can save only in its native format, any of six different image formats, or as a Web-ready XML file. On the plus side, you can print a wide assortment of handout sheets with space for notes and multiple slides per page. As far as performance goes, PowerPoint 2003 is fast: it can import a variety of multimedia objects quickly and save the entire file in a snap. The test file we created was 7.7MB--the smallest file size of all of the presentation software we tested--and took only 1.3 seconds to save.
Like other Microsoft programs, PowerPoint 2003 comes with lifetime support, though you'll pay through the nose for personal attention. Your first help request, submitted either via e-mail or over the phone, is free, but each additional request will cost you $35. Microsoft's toll-free phone support line is open on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on weekends from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT. Although the support hours are generous, we waited on hold for half an hour before finally giving up (hooray for toll-free numbers). Microsoft's Web site promises a response to an e-mail query within one business day. If you're unwilling to fork over $35, the company's Web site includes a wealth of downloads, tips, discussion forums, and FAQs. We recommend you start there.