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Making Sense of PowerPoint Pandemonium

by Mark Simon

September 14, 2011

Review

by Mark Simon

September 14, 2011

“In this article, I evaluate each tool, outline its features, and then list some of the pros and cons for each application. I’ll also offer my opinions about the environments and situations where each tool will work the best. My aim is to help you decide which tool will work best for you on your next project.”

Five years ago eLearning developers were scratching their heads, trying to figure out whether to buy Articulate Presenter or Macromedia Breeze (which is now Adobe Presenter). Both were PowerPoint (PPT) add-ins, had nearly identical menu choices, had nearly identical features, and both produced nearly identical eLearning output.

Today, things are even worse.

There are now three PPT-based eLearning tools that not only look alike, but are all named Presenter.

But wait, there’s more: How about a new PPT-based tool that looks just like the others (but it’s not named Presenter) and it costs far less than the other tools. Now we must figure out whether this new lowball application can handle highbrow eLearning lessons – and then we need to look at all four to figure out which one is right for our specific environment.

In this article, I evaluate each tool, outline its features, and then list some of the pros and cons for each application. I’ll also offer my opinions about the environments and situations where each tool will work the best. My aim is to help you decide which tool will work best for you on your next project.

Please note that I took all prices in this article from the respective publisher Web sites on September 8, 2011. The publishers of these tools often offer them in various combinations or bundles at various prices, some of which may be lower than what I’ve shown here. Therefore, consider the price information as one point of comparison only, and understand that, under some circumstances, you may be able to get any particular tool at a lower price.

Articulate Presenter/Articulate Studio

Tweet-length Summary:  Great package with a lot of useful tools, but the competition is very close behind. Is the price way too much?

Articulate has several components that you can buy separately or in various bundles. (Prices shown are full price/sale price.)

 

Table 1. Articulate products and prices

Component

Price

Description

Articulate Presenter

$799/699

Articulate’s core eLearning development application for creating full-featured eLearning lessons, minus QuizMaker assessments and Engage interactions

Articulate QuizMaker

$699/599

Electronic learner quiz/assessment tool

Articulate Engage

$499/399

A set of Flash-based learner interactions that can be inserted as pages in the lesson or used in tabs at the top of the eLearning “skin”

Video Encoder

Free

Video-to-Flash converter that is included for free as a part of the Studio Standard or Studio Professional bundle

 

Features

While Articulate has a number of features that are unique and helpful in certain situations, its big edge over the competition is the overall package. No other tool has more options for interactions and visual enhancements than Articulate, and if you buy one of the Suite bundles, you can rest assured that you are getting the most robust eLearning development tools available for PPT-based tools.

The two features that usually make Articulate stand out from the rest of crowd are Engage and QuizMaker. Engage is a module that contains several pre-packaged Flash learner interactions, and as any experienced Instructional Designer will tell you, the learner interactions are often the biggest thing that separates a good learner experience from a bad one. Of the tools reviewed in this article, Articulate is the only one that has such a feature and you can usually tell an Articulate-based eLearning lesson by the presence of one of these interactions.

QuizMaker is a very robust assessment or survey tool that allows you to test learners in just about any manner. There are also many learner remediation options available (custom replies based on answers, navigation options based on answers, and so on) and you can capture all the learner answers nicely in your LMS via QuizMaker’s compatibility with SCORM and AICC.

Articulate’s audio recorder and sync tools are excellent, and they raised the bar with Articulate ’09 when they added an annotation feature that allows you to overlay graphic pointers and shading on top of your slide page during the narration.

Articulate also includes a branching feature that allows you to create branching scenarios in your learning content. You can, of course, build branches through a few clever PowerPoint links instead of using this built-in feature, but that band-aid method has many drawbacks so it is very nice to have a built-in, fully supported feature for branching.

Articulate’s slide controls allow you to create multi-level navigation for learners by specifying level numbers for each slide. This creates a nested display of topic titles in the learner’s contents bar, which is a very helpful thing when you have 50 or more slides. Instead of 50 topic titles appearing at the same level in the contents bar, the learner can view a limited number of section titles and then the individual topics indented under each section title.

Finally, Articulate’s publish feature allows you to publish to several media formats and it has fully compliant output for SCORM or AICC. Beyond that, Articulate publishes to CD if you want a “vanilla” output without all of the extra XML files for SCORM and AICC, and it will publish as an MP3 podcast, which results in a concatenated audio file using all audio recordings in your lesson. It is also very helpful that Articulate publishes to an MS Word file, which gives you the option of distributing a storyboard of your lesson to any interested parties.

Summary: Articulate positives

  • Engage interactions can help learner engagement with eLearning lessons.
  • The QuizMaker tool is rock solid and can create just about any assessment that you need.
  • Support forums are excellent and the staff members at Articulate are serious thought leaders in the community. There are a wide variety of options for issue resolution, although you will need a credit card for any live support (telephone or chat).
  • Its annotation features can be very helpful for emphasis on an otherwise static page.

Summary:  Articulate negatives

  • There is limited ability to duplicate PowerPoint animations and no capability to duplicate PowerPoint slide transitions.
  • Its performance is extremely slow, especially with publishing and any operations that involve Engage or QuizMaker.
  • You cannot copy and paste with Windows clipboard during publishing. On the surface, this is just an annoyance, but combined with the horrible performance of Engage and QuizMaker, it makes one wonder about the engineering stability of the system.
  • Articulate Studio ’09 was released in September 2008, which was ages ago in the World of eLearning. By contrast, Lectora Snap! has had two version releases within the past six months, and iSpring went from version 5.0 to 5.7 in just a little over a year.

Adobe Presenter

Tweet-length Summary:  Pioneer of PPT-based eLearning is no longer the front-runner but is a respectable tool and it is now at a respectable price.

For just $500, you can get the stand-alone version of Adobe Presenter, which includes a highly capable quiz tool and many of the same features of Articulate. This is a drastic difference from several years ago, when you had to spend $5,000 to get it because the price of Macromedia Breeze (the original Adobe Presenter) was $1,000 and you could only buy it in bundles of five applications at a time.

 

Table 2. Adobe eLearning products and  prices

Component

Price

Description

Adobe Presenter

$500

Adobe’s eLearning development tool includes their quiz tool application that creates narrated eLearning lessons using PowerPoint as the base for the development

Adobe eLearning Suite

$1,799

Includes Presenter, Adobe Captivate, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, X Pro, and Audition. (Wow!)

 

Features

In many ways, you can think of Adobe Presenter as the vanilla version of Articulate Presenter. It contains the same basic features as Articulate Presenter and QuizMaker, but it doesn’t have some of the flashy features such as annotations or easy-to-use templates for Flash interactions.

As they have done since the beginning, Adobe claims that Presenter has the “best-in-class” conversion to Adobe Flash. They own Flash and they own Presenter, so it would be natural to assume that they have the best Flash output. However, since there is certainly no noticeable difference to the end-user, this advantage is somewhat questionable.

However, Adobe does have a big advantage with the ability to work with ActionScript 3, which is the new foundation for Adobe Captivate simulations. Since Captivate is part of the tool set for many eLearning developers, this compatibility is very important – mostly because the other PPT-based eLearning tools require workarounds to get Captivate to work.

You cannot overlook the importance of Adobe’s packaging of Presenter with a number of very impressive cousins in the Adobe family. The bundle includes Captivate, along with Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, X Pro, and Audition. And some little features, such as the ability to publish to PDF (another cousin in the Adobe family), can be helpful to a serious eLearning developer.

As with Articulate, I have to say that this rapid eLearning development tool has not been rapidly developing in terms of exciting new enhancements. In fact, they still have the same bug with the publishing process, the one that takes over the Windows clipboard and prevents you from doing copy/paste while publishing is running.

In addition, it was disappointing to see that Presenter would not initially install on my Windows 7, Office 2010 computer because it didn’t think I had PowerPoint installed. The problem was that I changed my Start Button menus so that all my Microsoft apps were in the same folder, but this didn’t throw off any of the other tools.

Summary: Adobe Presenter positives

  • It’s backboned by Adobe, a mighty force in the world of eLearning development.
  • Adobe Support can be reached worldwide, 24x7, and often at no cost. I had a problem with my installation and reached a Support Agent via chat at 6:30am EST, well before normal business hours in the U.S.
  • Adobe Presenter handles just about every PowerPoint animation.
  • It works with ActionScript 3, a technical foundation of Adobe Captivate 5.X. (Captivate 4 videos could be inserted without problem into other eLearning tools, but one of Captivate 5’s “features” was ActionScript 3, which (surprise!) didn’t work very well with tools other than Adobe Presenter.)
  • It publishes to PDF
  • It imports Articulate QuizMaker quizzes, just in case you are working with multiple tools or migrating over from Articulate to Adobe.
  • The Adobe eLearning Suite is an incredible bundle of joy for eLearning developers. Having a PPT-based development tool and Captivate in the same bundle would be good enough for many, but the inclusion of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, X Pro, and Audition makes this a very powerful bag of tools for the serious eLearning professional.

Summary:  Adobe Presenter negatives

  • There have been very few serious enhancements to Adobe Presenter since Adobe acquired the tool from Macromedia. It is more-or-less the same tool that Macromedia released in 2005.
  • It cannot copy and paste with Windows clipboard during publishing.
  • Due to a change that I made with my Start menus, Presenter would not initially install on my computer.

Lectora Snap!

Tweet-length Summary:  This IS NOT just a novelty ploy by Lectora to prove a point. It’s a legit eLearning app, albeit for smaller lessons. (For now…)

Lectora Snap! has no bundle, no special package, and no buy-it-today discount specials. Snap! is a full-featured package that costs $99. Period. It’s tempting to go out and buy a copy of it for that reason alone – even if you’re not exactly sure how you’re going to use it.

Table 3. Lectora Snap!

Component

Price

Description

Lectora Snap!

$99

Snap! is an all-in-one PPT-based eLearning development application

 

Features

You have to hand it to the folks at Lectora. It would have been easy to ignore the PPT-based eLearning development world and stick to their more sophisticated applications that are designed to handle more sophisticated eLearning applications. But they have proved that they could play in this market too, and Snap! is now a modern version of The Mouse That Roared.

While it certainly lacks a number of advanced features that you can find in its more expensive competitor tools, Snap! has a solid set of features that will produce almost the same results – and at a fraction of the cost.

In one bundled package, Snap! has the ability to create all of the essential ingredients of a solid eLearning lesson:

  • Record and/or import audio in PowerPoint slides
  • Sync the audio with the PowerPoint animations
  • Insert video headshots of presenters
  • Insert Flash or other videos as a page in the lesson
  • Create excellent assessments from Snap!’s built-in quiz tool
  • Publish output in a number of different formats, including SCORM and AICC-compliant formats.

Who could want anything more?

Well, to be honest, a few other things would be nice to have. Snap!’s biggest problem that the lesson output is a few supporting files and ONE giant Flash SWF file. This works fine for most smaller lessons (~25 slides/pages or less), but for larger lessons, the size of the SWF file will be very challenging to load while accessing the lesson through a LMS, and the performance (especially for learners with slow connections) will suffer.

It would also be nice to have more features for learner interactions similar to the ones offered by Articulate Engage and there are some issues with maintaining the integrity of graphic shapes and animations in PowerPoint. In addition, companies that are branding-sensitive will be disappointed with the lack of options for color schemes or any other type of company branding with the eLearning skins.

Summary: Snap! positives

  • $99!
  • There is excellent Customer Service coverage. Telephone support is from 6:00am – 7:00pm EST, or you can submit electronic tickets anytime.
  • Snap! has all the basic tools and features to create useful eLearning lessons.
  • The integrated quiz/assessment tool makes insertion of assessments smooth and easy, and it behaves much better than Articulate’s separated QuizMaker application.
  • There is an excellent and highly useful full-screen button for learners.
  • It’s very easy to insert presenter video head-and-shoulders shots on each page.
  • A simple video editor is included in the bundle, similar to Articulate’s Video Encoder.
  • It’s simple to add a YouTube video.

Summary:  Snap! negatives

  • It publishes to one SWF file, which will makes it just about impossible to use with any lesson above 20 slides or any lesson with a robust quiz.
  • As with Articulate and Adobe Presenter, you cannot copy and paste with Windows clipboard during publishing.
  • It has limited ability to duplicate PowerPoint animations and no capability to duplicate PowerPoint slide transitions.
  • You cannot display the narration script, which could lead to Section 508 compliance issues. The only option is to attach a file that contains all narration text.
  • The audio-editor tool lacks functionality. You cannot resize the tool, the Insert Silence feature only works by replacing existing audio with silence (no true “insert”), the Play button can only start the audio at the beginning of an audio track, and more.
  • It has very limited color schemes or GUI customizations that will likely leave you disappointed if you need to match company colors and branding.

iSpring Presenter

Tweet-length Summary:  Try it and you’ll wonder why it isn’t in your toolbox. Solid package, behaves well, and gives you just about everything you could dream of.

Like Articulate, iSpring has separate Presenter and QuizMaker tools that you need to buy individually. However, they also offer volume discounts for purchases of two or more licenses, and all are priced at about half the cost of Articulate.

iSpring also offers a low-end PPT-based eLearning tool (iSpring Pro) that is similar to Lectora Snap!. It has most of the features of their Presenter package, except it will only publish to a single Flash file and it will not easily work with any type of quiz assessments. (Prices shown are full price/sale price)


Table 4. iSpring products and prices

Component

Price

Description

iSpring Pro

$249

iSpring’s’s eLearning development application for creating smaller eLearning lessons. It is very similar to Lectora Snap!, minus the built-in quiz assessments.

iSpring Presenter

$499/$399

Presenter is iSpring’s’s core eLearning development application for creating full-featured eLearning lessons. NOTE that the prices shown here include QuizMaker.

iSpring QuizMaker

$299/$229

Electronic learner quiz/assessment tool

 

Features

From an engineering perspective, iSpring stands alone at the top of this group of eLearning development tools. This is something that you notice with a number of little things from start to finish. For example, in the beginning, the installation file is an MSI (Microsoft Installer) file, which has much more functionality than an EXE file. It also has a 64-bit version of iSpring that you can install, something that none of the other tools have.

And what about the finish?  Well, iSpring is the only tool among the four evaluated here that does not utilize the Windows clipboard while publishing. It may seem like a minor thing (there are other things that we can do during publishing that do not require copy/paste), but this engineering improvement tells you two things:

  • There is no need to be nervous that an action you take with another application will corrupt the published output. (Think about it: if your eLearning tool is using the Windows clipboard for publishing and you press Ctrl-C at the wrong time during publishing, you are likely to be affecting your eLearning output.)
  • The engineers at iSpring are working at a level that goes beyond the other three. I can’t speak for why Adobe and Lectora have not corrected this issue, but I do know that this topic came up during beta testing for Articulate ‘09 and the reply from Articulate was that this was a much bigger issue that they could not correct with the ‘09 release. That, of course, was three years ago, so it’s a little disappointing that this issue still exists.

In between, there are a lot of little signs that the engineering is a step ahead. There are also no performance issues when working with features such as audio, quizzes, Flash insertions, and so on. Using iSpring after using one of the other tools is like buying a new high-speed laptop to replace the one that you’ve been using for the past three or four years. And even better, that 64-bit version of Presenter optimizes performance on your brand new laptop – another sign that the engineering team at iSpring is truly on the ball.

Now what about the features?  It is certainly great to have a software application that is stable and well designed, but if it doesn’t have the features that you need, the stability won’t make any difference. Well, when evaluating the core eLearning development and quiz tools, iSpring matches up very well with each feature found in the other three tools.

For example, it can publish to either a single Flash file (like Lectora) or multiple Flash files (like Articulate and Adobe) and it can publish output that is compliant with SCORM or AICC. It cannot publish to PDF like Adobe can, but it is the only PPT-based tool that can publish a specially configured output for the Blackboard LMS.

The iSpring QuizMaker tool is a very robust assessment tool that contains almost every feature needed to create a comprehensive assessment for just about any learner in any environment.

It is also worth mentioning that iSpring successfully reproduces almost all PowerPoint animations (89 out of 95, according to their Website) and even reproduces slide transitions. You can view this as another sign of excellent engineering – or simply as a lot of great features that may help you with your eLearning lesson. Regardless of how you view it, the conclusion should be the same:  iSpring is a great application that is likely to become even better in the months and years ahead.

Summary: iSpring positives

  • iSpring is the best engineered PPT-based eLearning development tool of the four reviewed here (in my opinion).
  • Publishing does not utilize Windows Clipboard, allowing user copy/paste functions to continue without worry.
  • It has a 64-bit version optimized for the 64-bit version of MS Office.
  • It handles almost all PowerPoint animations and it also handles slide transitions.
  • There are frequent application upgrades that add new features and address any potential issues in the past releases.

Summary:  iSpring negatives

  • Customer Support will be a little difficult to reach if you need telephone support. They provide telephone coverage, but their hours are 8:00am – 4:00pm Eastern Standard Time, which is certainly a relatively small window of time.
  • Community support and forum groups are fairly sparse, especially compared to Articulate and Adobe.
  • While the iSpring QuizMaker has a sufficient number of question types, there is no remediation for individual assessment questions. In other words, if you have a ten-question assessment, your feedback for wrong answers is limited to just one response for all.

Conclusions

While money is certainly not the only consideration, Snap! is making us take a good look at the cost of our PPT-based tools. So here is a side-by-side comparison, based on the cost of the core tools and a quiz component. (Prices shown are full price/sale price.)

Table 5. Side-by-side comparison of PPT-based tools

Component

Price

Comments

Articulate Presenter plus
Articulate QuizMaker (totals)

$1,498/1,298

List price is 300% higher than the next highest-priced competitor and over 1400% higher than Lectora Snap!.

iSpring Presenter,  including
iSpring QuizMaker

$499/399

Lower-middle of the pack in terms of price; top-of-the-pack in terms of engineering.

Adobe Presenter
(with quiz tool included)

$500

The company with more eLearning toys than anyone else has a very attractive price for their Presenter tool.

Lectora Snap!
(with quiz tool included)

$99

Snap! is a legitimate and stable tool but at this point you cannot rely on it for heavy lifting.

 

Moving from bottom to top, Snap! is a very capable tool that will provide you with better than adequate results, as long as you only plan on producing short lessons. Keep an eye on this one though, because Lectora came out with version 1.1 in a snap (pun intended), so it may not be long before we see bigger and better from them.

Adobe Presenter is a fine tool and, when combined with the eLearning Suite, it can produce some very nice lessons. If you are producing some heavy-duty eLearning and like the idea of getting a PPT-based tool with Captivate, Photoshop, and a few other goodies all with the same purchase order, then this is the tool for you. However, as a stand-alone tool it doesn’t have much to make it stand out in a crowd, so you should look at the other tools if a PPT-based tool is all you want.

iSpring is a very slick package, and it only gets better when you look under the hood. If you want a stable, reliable application that will make you very happy with the results, then you should consider paying a little more for this application. Above all else, do not skip this one if you are evaluating PPT-based eLearning tools!

Articulate is the King of Rapid eLearning, and deservedly so. They literally wrote the book on it. They have an excellent arsenal of tools and, like Adobe, you will want to seriously consider Articulate if you want a mountain of (easy to produce) pizazz for a mountain of eLearning that you are developing. However, it is far more expensive than any of the other tools, so you want to think carefully about how much the extra pizazz is worth for you and your learners.

 


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I made the comparisons among these products two years ago (sans Snap, which didn't exist then) and came to the overwhelming conclusion that for the price iSpring was BY FAR the best tool. It does 95% of what Articulate does for a fraction of the cost.


The primary concern with iSpring is related to crashes while publishing and customer support. It takes a VERY LONG time to publish content if you have lots of video and it may seem like the application is not responding, but it is. Customer support hours are short and I have never spoke to anyone without an Eastern European accent. Having said that they are responsive and seem to know their material.

If you looking at PowerPoint add-in tools I I would endorse iSpring.
One aspect you didn't write about, but is affecting all these tools is a very limited support to Right to Left languages.
I have tried Articulate, ispring and Snap! of the three Snap! has the biggest advantage since its price and features are a a winner.
Regrading the SWF. cut your Eduware to small modules of 20 slides and your learners will thank you, your size will be limited and maybe you could try to give them just what they want.
I agree with the author's assessment of iSpring. It is indeed well-engineered. I used my toughest test slide with over 150 hide/show trigger effects and the result was flawless. I could hardly believe my eyes. You can see this crazy example at http://horton.com/portfolio/switches/index.html. The only thing on my wishlist for this product would be the ability to integrate the quiz with my slide template--like Adobe Presenter.
I love iSpring. I was working on a training that needed to use PowerPoint's trigger animations. I asked Articulate when would they support the trigger animations. I was told that they don't give out timelines of their updates. I immediately started looking for an alternative and found iSpring and I've haven't looked back. It's the only one that converts PowerPoint's trigger animations. That, plus everything that was mentioned in the article, puts iSpring well above the others in quality and value.
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