PowerPoint to Flash Conversion Software: Review

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 , 4 comments

While face-to-face presenting is usually the most effective means of direct communication, a properly designed self-running presentation with a recorded voiceover can have considerable impact as a marketing or instructional tool. PowerPoint does contain functionality to record narration, set slide timings and burn to a self-running CD (see our tutorials on creating self running presentations here). But what tends to put people off doing this are the horrors that can arise from version conflicts. Then there is the potential complexity of converting PowerPoint to a universal format (that can easily be integrated into a website or delivered as a softcopy), the risk of having to compromise on the actual running quality of the output, and the cost-and-time impact of installing and getting to grips with the package.

m62 took a short visual presentation of medium complexity and playtested three software packages that convert presentations into Flash™ animations (that can be integrated into a webpage or blog, or distributed without fear of versioning issues on different machines). Here’s what happened.

Articulate Presenter ’09 – Compatible with Windows XP, Vista, Windows7, tested with PowerPoint 2003 and PowerPoint 2007

Articulate’s offering markets itself as an e-learning material creation tool. It offers a range of publishing options; Flash presentation for Web, a Word document of slide snapshots and speaker notes, self-running CD, or an audio-only podcast. Since we’re in the visual communications business, we have foregone the podcast and handout functionality here.

Installation is simple, embedding an Articulate submenu right into the PowerPoint window (easier to navigate in PPT 2007 which creates a new ribbon of buttons,  than in 2003 which drops down a list, but it’s still pretty intuitive to see what’s on offer). Before converting you can record narrative onto the slides (in a separate preview window), and then afterwards tweak the timings if you’re not happy with them. If you’ve ever used PowerPoint’s own narrative recorder this new interface takes a bit of getting used to. Narration is recorded a slide at a time, and requires clicking on separate buttons to advance the animations and slides rather than just clicking the mouse or keyboard continuously to proceed, as comes naturally.

Audio/video quality options are not available at this stage and are instead confined to a separate submenu, which makes creating or amending a voiceover quick to get into. More confident users (actually, perhaps that should be ‘less confident’…) can even open up an impressive audio wave editor that allows you to trim out all those pauses, coughs, ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’.

Also available is the ‘Add Annotations’ process that offers the interesting option to draw on your slides ‘telestrator-style’, by adding arrows, boxes, highlights, check marks etc. If you haven’t incorporated this kind of thing into your slides at the design stage, and you don’t mind the preset graphics style, you might find this worth getting to grips with. It does take some practice: the interface runs the pre-timed slides while you choose your shapes and place them, so you have to be quick on the draw.

You can then preview your creation and opt to Publish once you’re happy. This brings up a tabbed menu screen with the various format options described above; we’ll focus on publishing for the Web. Some digging at this stage reveals extensive calibration submenus, including specifications for rendering quality, navigation restrictions, and tweaks to change the appearance of the embedded Player (you can also add a presenter photo, bio and email address). There are only a couple of preset layouts for the player however, so if you want less conspicuous play controls you have to build up the design yourself.

Once you’re done calibrating to your heart’s content, hit Publish. Our modest ten slides took around thirty seconds to convert, and then gave options to view the presentation in a browser, upload it via FTP, or email it to someone. The final option generates a friendly email with instructions on what to do with the files inside the attachment in order to get it to work.

Quality of the output file with the default settings is good, albeit slightly less sharp than the native PowerPoint show, and we noticed very little degradation of animation effects even with complex, multi-layered combinations. Puzzlingly, we couldn’t find any way of publishing the presentation with the clicks preserved – viewers  must use the playback controls if the timings haven’t been set, which could be confusing.

The option to email the presentation with instructions is helpful, mostly because the output folder contains a huge number of flash files and construction files to hunt through. There are no options to save out the presentation in different formats (.exe, .swf etc.), the ‘go’ file is always a .html, which might be more or less useful depending what you plan to do with your package once it’s converted.

There’s probably more fun to be had by way of setting up user interaction (quizzes and games), but that reaches beyond the scope of this review. Even ignoring these features, you’re getting a good performer with a huge amount of functionality, but at what cost? Presenter ’09 standalone is currently on special at $699 (UP: $799).

iSpring Presenter / iSpring Pro- Compatible with Windows XP, Vista, Windows7, tested with PowerPoint 2003 and PowerPoint 2007

iSpring Solutions has three products on the market, iSpring Pro, iSpring Presenter and an SDK. We decided to test Presenter,which is a similar type of product to Articulate’s, and also the lighter iSpring Pro program since we’re not overly concerned in our arena with creating interactive content.

Like Articulate’s product, iSpring Presenter integrates easily and rapidly into the PowerPoint window, either as a toolbar and submenu (PPT03) or ribbon (PPT07).  Recording narration is even simpler than with Articulate’s product, providing the option to record audio continuously (just one button to click as the slides build and advance).  iSpring has a similarly friendly way to record video as well, just plug in your webcam and hit Record Video, and you’re taken to the same click-through interface featuring your talking head on screen. You can also sync the animations with the audio and/or video in the same window, which is a real timesaver if you need a few tries to get it perfect.

Elsewhere, like Articulate iSpring lets you add an existing Flash movie onto a slide, and is quite loud and proud about its YouTube button, which in exchange for a YouTube link will embed a clip and a player onto the slide. This is essentially the same ‘insert from link’ function that Articulate uses, but here there’s also an inbuilt video tutorial to guide novices through the process. Again, there’s a feature to insert a quiz, and again we’re not really interested in it. The in-window menu is clean and straightforward: record narration and/or video, sync the slides, make changes to the ‘presenter and company’ metadata if you want, throw in a YouTube clip, and then hit Publish.

A new, large, tabbed window now pops up containing all the various publishing options. iSpring have really put some effort into keeping this part of the process simple - it’s much easier to deal with these options all in one go rather than tinkering during the preparation process. The output can be saved to CD, to iSpring’s online sharing community SlideBoom, attached to an email or saved to hard disk. For increased flexibility, different output formats can be chosen via simple checkboxes: separate flash files for use with other animation packages, an .EXE file which is a completely self-contained single ‘go’ file, or a single .swf movie with an accompanying .html file.

There are nine preset player styles, ranging from the businesslike (with navigation pane, picture / video, and presenter information) to the inconspicuous (transparent player buttons in one corner), with other styles at various degrees of glossiness and functionality. One player allows viewers to types notes as they watch or scribble on the slides themselves.  Depending on the detail each style affords, the players can be customised with colour options and information or photos. Changes can be previewed in real time with the user’s actual slides, which makes it much easier to see how the final product will behave.

On other tabs, a similarly open interface presents settings for video and audio quality, playback controls (this time you do have the option, among others, to advance the slides on a click), and the pixel size of the output video – very useful if you’re using a CMS to insert your presentation into a blog or webpage. Another tab lets you customise the image, video and audio compression.

On hitting Publish, iSpring Presenter converted our test slides in just under thirty seconds and immediately launched the file in a web browser. Using the default settings, the graphics and audio were crisp and the animation very sharp. Upon examining the output folder, there’s just one file in it – in this case a .swf file which opens by default in a web browser – very portable and easy to upload or share. Even simpler is the .exe format option (automatically zipped for security) which bundles the presentation and player with the latest flash launcher as well, again in a single file.

iSpring Pro works in exactly the same way as iSpring Presenter, but without the options to record video and insert quizzes, so it’s all about getting the slides narrated and self running with minimum hassle. The real attractions to these packages are the intuitive interface and low cost. iSpring Presenter downloads with a business licence at $399, and if you can live without the video recording and quizzes, iSpring Pro is just $249.

FlashPoint Professional –Compatible with XP, Vista, Windows 7, PowerPoint 2003 and PowerPoint 2007. Tested with PowerPoint 2007.

On offer from FlashDemo comes FlashPoint Pro, a straightforward PowerPoint to flash conversion tool. This is the lighter of the three and installs cleanly and easy, embedding a single button into the PowerPoint interface. This immediately launches a Wizard, starting with three options for encoding the final file: a single Flash movie (.swf) with an option to generate an .exe (useful), as separate Flash movies by slide (probably useful), or as a screensaver.

The next stage offers two player options (a row of navigation buttons, or nothing), and sets up some very basic options around the way the slides run and the render quality. An Advanced tab lets you redirect the viewer to a website after the movie has finished playing, which might be a good idea but can be done more easily by adding hyperlinks into the presentation yourself.

The next two stages allow you to import audio files into the presentation, and record a narration for each slide. FlashPoint Pro appears to use PowerPoint’s own Rehearse Timings feature to accurately sync the animations with your voiceover, which is actually a much simpler way than the more sophisticated packages: you get the slides running full screen, and click to advance the builds and slide transitions, rather than working with buttons in a separate window.

Once that’s done, FlashPoint Pro begins the conversion, which takes about the same time as the other two packages. Opening the output file however is disappointing. The converted file is noticeably degraded in image quality, even with the ‘Improved’ image conversion box checked, and many of the PowerPoint shapes that feature gradient fills or transparent fills were not displaying correctly. There were also several graphical artefacts remaining on screen after their objects had disappeared. Several animation effects suffered, with fades building in very slowly and wipes running jerkily, although motion paths and grow/shrink effects were very smooth.

The quality of the voiceover was rather good; FlashPoint provided the same recording quality options as the inbuilt PowerPoint tool, so the narration sounded clear. Unfortunately due to the visual stuttering caused by the conversion of some animation effects, the audio did not always run in sync with the visuals.

Overall, with conversion performance at the bottom-end and a complete lack of customisation, FlashPoint Pro does not live up to its claim of creating “professional-look Flash presentations and e-learning courses”. With a price tag of $59, it’s probably suited only to PowerPoint hobbyists and bullet-pointers. If that’s you, there are much more useful things you could be reading on this website before you start spending on additional software.

Which is best?

Except as an entry level solution for presentations with very basic graphics and low-end animation, FlashPoint Pro is hard to recommend. The last thing you want to do after producing a deck of slides is to then retro-engineer the graphics and animation because of poor conversion quality. It’s very easy to use, has good flexibility in the output options and is inexpensive, but sadly can’t cut it when dealing with graphics and motion of any degree of sophistication. If you’re still working with flat backgrounds and bullet-points, this will probably do what you need, but it’s hard for us to gauge the value of the tool if that’s your desired type of output.

iSpring Presenter and Articulate Presenter ’09 do very similar things in very different ways, the only major gaps in functionality being that iSpring lets you record the video narration, while Articulate gives you the slide annotation feature and audio editor. Each of these features may be more or less useful and would probably balance out the two products (since the rendering times and output quality are pretty much the same). But the big differences are in cost and ease of use.

Articulate Presenter may offer huge flexibility in customising the Player specifications and calibrating the viewer experience, but its extensive menus are not easy to find and navigate. A better range of output formats and settings, and a more thoughtful structure to the submenus would have made for a less bewildering experience. That said, the output quality is first-class, and those looking to produce interactive learning tools or e-brochures will probably find value here once they get up the learning curve and perhaps invest a few hours watching the online tutorials. For publishing a presentation for web or soft/hard copy distribution, we have to wonder whether it’s worth the hefty price tag as well as the effort required to learn where everything is.

iSpring Presenter is far and away more pleasant and intuitive, and a few hundred dollars cheaper. The viewer experience is slightly less customisable than with Articulate’s package, but iSpring delivers flexibility where it’s needed most, and without any hunting around.  Powerful as they are, both iSpring programs feel completely unintimidating at the publishing stage and make it very easy to set up the exact format, size and quality that you need.

As stated, we’re more concerned with presentations than E-learning tools, but in both cases the option to record video narration seems like a more desirable option than the ability to add arrows and boxes (something that really should be thought about at the slide design stage). Even better, if you don’t need the video and quizzes, the lighter iSpring Pro retains all of Presenter’s output quality and flexibility at just $249, so whatever you’re planning to do with your Flash-based presentation, iSpring’s solutions convert to better value all round.

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4 Comments to PowerPoint to Flash Conversion Software: Review

  1. #1

    Nadia

    9:09 pm, May 12th, 2010

    Hi there — Thanks for this review! I couldn’t decide which would work best. I think I’m now closer to making a decision. I wonder if you have any advise on Brainshark when it comes to functionality and cost. I don’t even know how much they cost. Do you? Thanks.

  2. #2

    Jessica Pyne

    3:16 pm, May 13th, 2010

    Hi Nadia, thanks for your comment! With regards to your question about Brainshark, have you seen our slide sharing websites review? Brainshark was one of the websites we tested. We used the free version (as we did for all the platforms in the review), but they also have a version called myBrainshark Pro – the price guide can be found here: http://presentation.brainshark.com/products/pricing-pro.aspx

    Hope this helps!

  3. #3

    Nadia

    12:35 am, May 14th, 2010

    Thanks Jessica! That was helpful I had not seen the reviews.

  4. #4

    Peter Doonan

    3:01 pm, July 4th, 2011

    Thanks guys for this review. I had a play with the ‘Trial’ Versions of captivate vs Articulate vs iSpring. for my usage I would end up using iSpring. The ‘powers-that-be’ who hold the purse strings have yet to make a decision.

    Although I haven’t tried it I suspect Camtasia would complement iSpring For Video capture.

    Any Thoughts?