Tables in OpenOffice.org Impress: New and Unstylish

Impress Tables are one of the most welcome features in the recently-released OpenOffice.org 3.0. Using them is straightforward, but they have their limitations, and you may miss one or two useful features before you learn your way around their somewhat awkward interface. Many of these limitations and bits of awkwardness are the direct result of the tools for using tables falling short of true styles, of the kind available for paragraphs in Writers or drawing objects in Draw.

The addition of tables is good news because, like slide shows in general, tables are all about the visual display of information. However, before version 3.0, tables required a series of kludges in Impress. First, you had to create separate text boxes, add borders and shading to each one. Then, you had to maneuver the text boxes next to each other, and group them together so that you could position the table as a whole. If you were wise, you would save the result as a template so you wouldn't have to repeat this process, but the initial set up was tedious, and in practice you would have to tweak your template for individual slide shows.

With OpenOffice.org 3.0, all that is swept away. As on an HTML page, you are now free to use tables as a quick way to extend Impress' limited format options.

However, before you breathe too deep a sigh of relief, be aware that, unlike an HTML page, Impress does not support nesting one table in another. Try to nest tables, and the most recently added one just floats about the other one. Nor can you add simple formulae to table cells, the way you can in Writer. In fact, aside from the initial creation of tables, the days of tweaking aren't over unless you are either very lucky or easily satisfied.

Adding tables

You have two ways to add tables in Impress:

The easiest way to add a table to an Impress slide is to select Insert -> Table, and select the number of rows and columns to add. The result is a table in the center of the page that you will almost certainly want to resize before using. The table is colored in the currently selected table style, and, in many cases, you will probably want to change that as well, so that the table matches or contrasts with your slide design.

If you want more color selection, or a change in the default color, you can create a table by clicking the Table Design tab in the Task Pane on the right side of the editing window. From there, you can choose from eleven basic designs for blue, gray, green and orange shading. If you squint, you will notice that the designs vary in what rows and columns are shaded. In each case, your selection adds a table in the default five columns and two rows.

After you add a table from the Table Design tab, you can adjust its shading using the Show controls. For example, you can shade (or unshade) the Header row, the first and last column, and the final or Total row. More elaborately, you shade every other row or column by selecting Banded Rows or Banded Columns.

What you cannot do -- although the table designs are listed as "Styles" -- is alter the designs. Nor are table styles listed in the Styles and Formatting floating window. In other words, Impress' table designs resemble Writer's autoformats for tables in that they fall short of the full versatility of styles for paragraphs or pages. Their chief advantage over Writer autoformats is that you can add rows or columns and have the shading pattern automatically adjust itself.

On the other hand, Writer allows you to create and store your own autoformats, while Impress does not. Really, neither implementation is as thorough as it should be.

Customizing tables

No matter how you add a table to a slide, you will probably need to tweak it. The only difference in the two insertion methods is that usingthe table designs in the Task Pane may save you some time in shading.

To customize a table, click anywhere within it. If you want to adjust a particular cell, click within it; if you want to adjust a group of cells, select them with the mouse (depending on the color scheme, you might have trouble seeing what is selected).

When a table is selected, a border of backslashes with green handles displays around it. Pass the mouse over the border until a cursor consisting of four arrows is visible, and you can drag the mouse around on the slide. Drag on one of the handles, and you can resize the table in the same way as you do a window on a desktop.

In addition, whenever you select a table, the Table floating task bar pops up. This task bar has a counterpart in Writer, although the features are slightly different in the two applications. From this task bar, you can make the adjustments that would be part of tables styles, if they existed.

For most Impress users, the most important feature in the tool bar is probably is the Color setting. From the combo box, you can choose whether you want a colored, hatched or gradient background, or even a graphic or a clear background. As well, you can choose the color, gradient, or hatching to use.

Nearly as important is the Borders feature. Its combo box opens to reveal a variety of small diagrams that allow you to set which sides of the table or the selected rows and columns have visible borders. Just to the left, you can set the color of the table's border, and the line styles used.

If you are using a table as a quick way to design, you probably want to opt for an invisible border, along with a clear background. You will still be able to see the table cells while you are editing, but if you want to see how the slide will actually appear in the presentation, you will need to go to File -> Preview in Web Browser or Slide Show -> Slide Show.

Other options on the floating tool bar allow you to split or merge cells, set how cell content is aligned, or add or delete cells.

Conclusion

Customization of tables takes time, so the creation of templates is always a good idea. Probably the most useful template you can create is a slide show with a slide that has a small table with a clear background and invisible borders -- partly because this is a versatile format, but also because, with this selection, you are unlikely to be distracted or confused by the need to undo other formatting. However, you can also include in the template additional slides that have tables with other table formats on them. All you need to do is copy and paste the slides as needed, and delete the unused slides with tables before you finish the presentation.

Tables in Impress were overdue, and help to place the application on a par with Microsoft PowerPoint at long last. For that reason, I appreciate having them, as well as the time they save.. But I also hope that, in another point release or two, OpenOffice.org will take the next logical step and implement true table styles in Impress (and Writer, too, for that matter). Only then will Impress tables become as convenient as they ought to be.

______________________

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Bruce Byfield (nanday)

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