Tools I use: beamer

This is largely a rip-off of my original article. I figured I should repost it for posterity and it fits in line with my tools theme.

Being a grad student (for that matter, in almost any profession these days), I frequently need to give talks or present some material. I have finally settled on Latex Beamer as my preferred presentation tool, and this article describes why.

Introduction

Presentation is one of the most effective means of communication for a small audience with diverse backgrounds. Both in the industry and the acedemia, it is becoming increasingly important to create affective and compelling presentations. Not surprisingly then, the presentation tool you use becomes very important in the work place.

The de facto tool for presentation out there is Microsoft Powerpoint. For more reasons than one, I prefer not to use it. I have tried several alternatives, and finally decided to use Latex Beamer for my presentations. Here I try to describe why I made this choice. I must mention here that the beamer web page looks ostentiously simple and naive — don’t be fooled by it. Beamer is one of the most sophisticated and extensively documented (user manual has more than 300 pages of professionally written documentation) presentation tools I have come across. Take a look at one of the sample slides to get a feel of what beamer can do.

Things I dislike about other presentation tools

While I’m not talking about any one tool in particular, the general flavor is of tools belonging to the Powerpoint family (this includes OpenOffice.org’s Impress, KOffice‘s KPresenter etc)

  • I have to worry about layout
  • Font sizes are a function of amount of content
  • Changing parts of a “theme” is hard
  • Powerpoint slides won’t run nicely on Impress or KOffice. The latter two won’t run at all on Powerpoint. Why do I need something as bulky as powerpoint just to do the presentation? While making, I can understand that we might need significant software complexity, but can’t we have something more lightweight for presenting?

Things I like about beamer?

  • Its LaTeX: latex and friends have survived the test of time and for more than 2 decades people have been using tex derived technologies for typesetting their writings. With latex, beamer makes it easier than ever to put mathematical formualae and all kinds of symbols in your presentations, embed images, make tables and do everything else that you can do with latex. Since many of us already use latex, it means there is less tool to learn — I can make my presentations in a language that I’m already familiar with! And I don’t need any bulky tool to manipulate my presentation, just a text editor is enough, thank you.
  • Its PDF: We all know what PDF stands for — Portable Document Format. Thats it! Portable! Latex runs on all major operating systems and architectures out there. Once you get a PDF from Latex, you can display it using any regular PDF viewer. Imagine how easy it now becomes to move your presentation around. You don’t have to worry if your laptop breaks down and the other laptops in the room don’t have the right version of Powerpoint installed. Put your PDF in a USB key and stop worrying about it!
  • Takes care of layout
  • Themes are endlessly customizable: beamer comes with dozens of pre-packages themes, and its very easy to modify an existing theme. Same thing with fonts and colors (you can even do alpha transparency!)
  • Notes and handouts made the way you want them
  • Organize your presentation in a logical manner: beamer sort of follows the MVC philosophy. In each presentation, there is a content structure, which determines how your content flows through (just like a regular article with sections and subsections). Then there is a slide structure, which determines how this content fits onto your slides. The content structure controls the generation of navitation and table of contents. The slide structure controls the slides and the control flow between them.
  • Amazing documentation: The beamer user manual is over 200 pages long, and its all good solid documentation. It is amazing well written considering the fact that its mostly done by a single person. It starts off with a nice tutorial, followed by detailed references and examples.
  • Accompanying packages: Just check out the documentations for xcolor and pgf. The documentation is just as comprehensive as beamer itself, and these packages make it easy and fun to do fancy stuff with beamer. Like draw pretty pictures and do some basic animation. Again, all with the comfort of latex.

But nothing is perfect

  • No knowledge of projectors or screens — the user has to deal with that (or the operating system)
  • Animation is still hard.
  • In general, multimedia is hard: embedding audio and video clips may not work reliably on all platforms.

I highly recommend beamer to anyone who wants to try an alternative to Powerpoint, and if you write a lot of technical papers in latex, you’ll immediately love beamer. Check out my NSDI talk for a sample of what beamer can do for you.

One comment

  1. Andreas K.

    Thanks for sharing this information, you did a good compilation on that topic. I wanted to try beamer anyway, since i love LaTeX, but with this i have some objective arguments for it :)

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