NeoOffice: Impress First Impressions

I’ve heard about the project known as OpenOffice on many occasions as a viable alternative to Microsoft Office, and I was pleased to find a Macintosh version of the office suite on the project’s website. What did not please me was the X11 requirement for the OS X version. Fortunately, it was not long before I discovered a project called NeoOffice written in a combination of Cocoa, Carbon, and Java. It’s based on the OpenOffice 2.0 code base but runs natively in the OS X aqua environment.

Over the course of a few posts, I’m going to be looking at the text editor, NeoOffice Writer, and the presentation module, NeoOffice Impress, to see how they compare to Microsoft Word 2004 and Microsoft PowerPoint 2004 in daily use. These articles are not going to be deeply technical or philosophical. They are just going to reflect my thoughts and feelings as I take the software through some paces.

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I’m going to get something out of the way right now. Subjectively, I like NeoOffie Impress better than MS PowerPoint 2004. I’m going to be critical of a few points in this post, so I just wanted to get that out of the way first. Having said that, let’s move on.

Upon opening a new Impress document, I had to sigh when I saw another wizard greeting me. Fortunately, you can jump out of the Wizard by clicking “Create,” and it’s possible to disable this Wizard altogether in the preferences.

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It looks like my work computer!

Impress has an interesting tabbed interface atop the main document window, and these tabs cycle between different views for your presentation. The choices are Normal, Outline, Notes, Handout, and Slide Sorter. Of these, I thought Notes was particularly useful because this feature could be used to create annotated slide handouts like the one’s I discussed in this post.

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The Normal and Notes views

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Slide Sorter view

The interface for NeoOffice impress is at once more inviting and more prohibitive than MS PowerPoint. It’s more inviting in that the interface is much less cluttered than PowerPoint’s. One of the more interesting ways in which this is accomplished is through toolbars that appear and disappear as they are needed. For example, if I select some text, the picture formatting toolbar is replaced by the text formatting one. Also the use of thumbnail slide’s in the navigator is far superior to PowerPoint’s habit of only showing the slide’s text. (I know this problem is unique to the Mac version of PowerPoint.)

Unfortunately, the interface is more prohibitive in that many features are buried in subcommands and dialog boxes. Doing something so simple as changing the background color of the slide requires jumping through a few hoops, but I felt like this dialog box served to illustrate this issue best:

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Yup, that’s a dialog box for cropping an image. This is what you get when selecting the crop tool from the toolbar. In every other app I know, cropping (or masking) is done directly in the document window and applied to the image live. By contrast, in NeoOffice Impress, you have to manually choose the dimensions of the image. This can be much more accurate, but it is less intuitive to the average user. Fortunately, that thumbnail image previews your changes before you apply them.

My other main criticism of Impress centers around performance. It’s bad. It makes my G5 feel like a G3 trying to run Unreal Tournament 2004. It is that painful at times. Dragging objects around slides always left visible screen artifacts on my machine, and I was finding myself continually minimizing and restoring the document window to minimize the clutter created by these artifacts.

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Unfortunately, bringing the document window out of the dock carried its own hazards. Sometimes, it would take Impress a few minutes to redraw on the screen, and the whole application locked up once in the process of redraw.

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I had to eventually Force Quit the app to escape from this.

Again, my experience tells me that the Java code in NeoOffice is the culprit here. I don’t care what the theory says, in practice complex Java code runs poorly on PPC processors. If I’m correct, these performance issues practically disappear once I get a chance to test this software on an Intel-based Macintosh.

Other small quirks persist. For example, drag-and drop support for images is inconsistent at best, making the use of iPhoto images tricky (though I found copy-and-paste to be a good workaround for this). Copying and pasting elements from one slide to another does not always work, and customizing toolbars proved to be a futile task. It was easy enough to go through the customization process. The problem is that Impress would revert to the defult toolbars every few minutes.

After these criticisms, it may be hard to believe my first pragraph – that I like Impress better than PowerPoint – but it is true. At this point, Impress canot supplant PowerPoint when I need to create more PC-friendly presentations due mainly to performance issues. However, Impress just feels more thought out than PowerPoint does, and that is a great testament to the power of Open Source. One example of that really connected with me was in adding text to a formatted object or image. In PowerPoint, you have to either select the object and choose “Insert Text…” from a contextual menu, or you just create a separate text box and place it atop the image. In Impress (as in Keynote), all you have to do is double-click the object – it doesn’t matter if it’s a drawn shape or a photograph.

NeoOffice Impress shows great petential, but it is hampered more severely than Writer in terms of bugs and performance. If Impress were more responsive and more predictable in its image-handling, then it would easily supplant PowerPoint. As it is, NeoOffice Impress is an application I really like but can’t see myself using on a daily basis.

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