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H ow much should you really pay for a full suite of office applications? The nightmare scenario for Microsoft is that the answer is “nothing”, and LibreOffice is one of the products intent on making that bad dream a reality.

LibreOffice is a completely free, open-source office suite that includes word-processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. It’s derived from the old OpenOffice codebase, but has improved upon it and its successor products. And, as you’d expect from an open-source product, it’s available on a range of platforms: Windows, Linux, OS X and (of course) anything you can get the source code to compile yourself. 

That doesn’t include either Android or iOS, although an Android viewer lets you see documents and a full version is apparently “coming soon”. This is the first problem with LibreOffice: now that a lot of work happens on tablets and smartphones, the lack of a full version on those platforms seems antiquated. When Microsoft is creating versions of Office for both Android and iOS, having an office suite that isn’t available on mobile devices is a major hindrance.

Design and core features

The overall look and feel of LibreOffice is also dated. Although it has been improved from older versions of OpenOffice, which really looked like they had been designed in 1998, it still doesn’t match the design work and attention to detail that has gone into Microsoft’s suite. It’s best described as functional, rather than pretty. You might argue that an office suite doesn’t need to look attractive, but for many people, using something that looks and feels dated does matter. Even the icon on OS X – a dull grey document with one corner turned over – looks uninviting.

It is, to its credit, a clean-looking interface, and one that will be familiar to anyone who used Microsoft Office ten years ago. Whether you prefer a modern look or something traditional will determine whether you like the interface design of LibreOffice.

LibreOffice eschews Microsoft’s ribbon bar – with multiple tabs hiding every single feature – in favour of the older model of multiple toolbars that you can show or hide as you please. Yes, this means you could potentially have 25 toolbars open and virtually none of them visible, but at least you can customise which tools are visible without having to flip between tabs on a ribbon.

That’s ideal for people who have a specialised role in document creation and really want a subset of tools that are always available. If you’re an editor, for example, having the review tools onscreen is important.

One core feature that isn’t included in LibreOffice is live document collaboration of the kind built into both Google Docs and the online version of Microsoft Office (and is being brought gradually into Office 16 for Windows). You can’t have several people working on a document at the same time, meaning you have to shuffle files around using email or shared drives (such as Dropbox) instead. How important this is to you will depend on the kind of work you do, but it certainly feels like an omission for an office suite in the second decade of the 21st century.

Writer

There are two major trends in tools for writing: simplified applications that provide minimal distraction and let you focus on the words; and complex beasts that have tools for pretty much any kind of document creation. Writer definitely falls into the latter category.

If you’ve used Microsoft Word over the past 20 years, there’s nothing radically different here. It’s comprehensive, with tools for optimising layout, creating indexes, footnotes and much more. If you have any specialised needs for document creation, whether as a business or academic user, Writer has you covered. Thanks to features such as styles, the navigation palette and anchors, it’s particularly well suited to creating long documents – something that free competitors such as Google Docs seem to struggle with. 

Interoperability with Microsoft Word is an important feature for most users nowadays, and Writer also delivers in this respect. Version 5 includes additional compatibility features, in particular the ability to preserve and correctly represent text highlighting in Word documents. You can even specify whether you would rather export your character backgrounds as highlighting or shading when saving as Word files.

Some of Writer’s longest-standing bugs have finally been fixed. Page numbers no longer become random in draft mode, and you can now, at last, create paragraphs that contain more than 65,000 characters. This last one probably won’t bother many, but for those it did affect (largely in the legal profession) it was a show-stopper.

One of our biggest bugbears with Writer previously was the way it handled inserting images into documents. Many don’t provide tools to crop an image, or if they do, you have to enter numeric values to crop – hardly the most user-friendly process. In version 5, Writer gets this right by allowing you to crop using the mouse. This sounds like a small feature, but it’s a real time-saver.

Overall, Writer is a powerful word processor that costs nothing and can do almost everything Microsoft Word can. Yes, it’s not as pretty – although as we note above, the old-fashioned look has its advantages – but if you want a word processor that can handle long, complex documents and you don’t want to tie yourself to Microsoft, it’s a good choice.

Calc and Impress

It’s a mark of Calc’s maturity that it happily opened every Excel document we threw at it, including some with complex pivot tables, conditional formatting and graphs – all without losing any formatting or data. That’s impressive. Not so long ago, it (and every other non-Microsoft option) would have choked on the same documents. 

If you’re familiar with Excel, you’ll be up to speed with Calc very quickly. All the power you’d expect is there, and of course, the complexity too. 

One disappointing area, and one that’s hard to see LibreOffice improving on in the near future, is macros. Calc’s macros are basically incompatible with VBA, so if you have any existing macros you’ll need to rework them. The good news is that the macro language built into Calc is very capable, so there’s little you can’t do with it. However, if you’re a person who has spent years creating Excel macros, you’ll have to relearn plenty to make the switch. 

Impress, the presentation software bundled with LibreOffice, is the least complete of the main packages (perhaps open-source coders don’t do many presentations). When importing some complex presentations with background graphics, it missed things out, so those who have a lot of existing PowerPoint files will probably want to keep a copy of Office to hand. 

However, it’s perfectly adequate for creating new presentations. All the tools you need are here, including templates. That said, one minor irritation is that you can’t add comments to slide notes, which means that if you’re a team preparing a presentation that relies a lot on the notes, taking in comments or suggested amendments from your colleagues is certainly tricky. 

Verdict

From a reviewer’s point of view, open-source software is always the hardest to rate. It always feels vaguely churlish to give a bad review to a piece of software that unpaid volunteers have spent their free time slaving over. However, on the other hand, and especially with a piece of mission-critical software such as an office suite, you need to compare it with paid-for (and sometimes expensive) products. 

With this in mind, LibreOffice gets a middling rating overall. Despite its updates it still looks and feels old-fashioned – although that has its positives as well as negatives, particularly if you’re familiar with older versions of Microsoft Office. The lack of a cloud services supporting it also means there are no collaboration features of the kind you’ll find in Google Drive and that are being built into Office. Whether that matters to you depends on what kind of user you are. 

Leaving aside the more underpowered elements of LibreOffice – such as Impress – what you have is a powerful office suite that can meet the needs of demanding users, but only if they work alone or don’t mind passing documents backwards and forwards using drive services such as Dropbox. Modern business users, for whom live collaboration is increasingly important, will have to weigh up the positives and negatives carefully before abandoning Office.

However, if you need powerful features in a spreadsheet or word processor, don’t work collaboratively and are on a very tight budget, LibreOffice will meet your needs very well. It’s certainly worth a try for free, you just might find there’s no going back.  



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