If you follow my blog, you know that I am a big fan of the Scrivener writing software. As great as that program is, authors need another word processing program. Most writers use MS Word. But what if you’re on a budget, or just don’t like Microsoft Products? Perhaps you need a full office suite but can’t shell out $300 for MS Office Professional. Are there budget options that don’t sacrifice quality?
As a matter of fact, there are alternatives, and at the head of the pack is LibreOffice. Originally a fork of OpenOffice, LibreOffice has matured into a much more advanced and feature rich suite than OpenOffice. I previously wrote reviews of LibreOffice versions 3.6 and 4.0, and was anxious to give version 4.2 a try. From what I have seen thus far, a great deal of development has taken place, and this office suite is better than ever.
By default, LibreOffice has the following applications:
- Writer a word processor
- Draw a graphics application
- Impress a presentation program (Similar to Microsoft PowerPoint)
- Math an equation editor
- Calc a spreadsheet application (Similar to Microsoft Excel)
- Base a database program (Similar to Microsoft Access)
As an author, I’m going to focus most of this review on the Writer Application, since this is the program I use most often.
Out of the box, the first thing you notice is a new start screen. Along the left hand side of the screen is a clickable list of applications, while the right contains a quick-launch selection of recent documents. This is a much cleaner, more modern start screen, and a welcome change.
Older versions of LibreOffice looked much like the pre-2007 Microsoft Office software, with a header full of drop-down menus and multiple quick-launch toolbars. Out of the box, version 4.2 looks pretty much the same, leaving the user feeling like he is stuck in the 1990′s. However, by making a few adjustments, the interface can be changed to something that looks a bit more modern.
Introduced in version 4.1 was an experimental sidebar, courtesy of code from the Lotus Notes project. The sidebar has been worked over, and is now a regular feature. What the sidebar does is give the user access to some commonly used functions without having to go to the drop-down menu. Formatting, styles, gallery objects, and a document navigator can all be accessed from the sidebar. Essentially, what they have done is add a vertical toolbar. Since most of us use widescreen monitors and laptops, there tends to be excess space to the left and right of our document. So by enabling the sidebar, horizontal toolbars can be eliminated, thus giving the user more vertical space for the document.
In addition to the sidebar, there is a new icon theme. Called Sifr, it is a flat icon theme with a thorough modern look. The old icon themes are still available for those who like that look, but I think the new look is great (and was sorely needed).
So what do I think of the new interface? Well, it’s better, but still not as good as I think it could be. Personally, I would like to see the total elimination on the top menu and have everything moved to the sidebar. For those who are familiar with the Linux Program Calligra, I think they have the best user interface of any office suite, as everything is run out of the sidebar. Of course, if you are a person who likes drop-down menus and toolbars, you will be completely happy with LibreOffice interface.
Beginning in version 4.0, LibreOffice introduced a feature to dress up the background with Firefox Themes. To access this feature, go to Tools –> Options –> Personalization. Choose a theme from the Firefox website, import it into LibreOffice, and you are ready to go. My reaction to the theming was “meh.” It’s a neat way to dress up your computer, but I would have rather seen more work on the sidebar than theme integration.
One of the big improvements of version 4.2 is file format compatibility, most notably Microsoft proprietary formats. .Rtf now imports flawlessly, and Publisher files (.pub) import fairly well. I plugged in a few Publisher files and found the text boxes and images didn’t always import into the correct position, but at least everything imported, and shifting/resizing images, while time consuming, is not difficult.
.Docx, Microsoft Word’s XML format, is much improved (and for the fellow writers out there, track changes imports correctly…finally!). I personally imported several .docx documents, converted them to .odt format (the open sourced text format), then converted back to .docx without any problems. Admittedly, the documents I converted had few embedded charts or images; from what I’ve read online, this seems to be the source of some conversion issues. Still, even Microsoft Office has issues converting from within its own formats, so the fact that LibreOffice converts so well is no small feet. (In 2012, Microsoft promised to do a better job of importing .odt and .pdf files. We’re still waiting on that promise.)
I know the promoters of the open document format (.odt) want it to be the “universal” format because it is open source and anyone can code for it. I understand that. However, since most businesses use MS Word, the .doc and more recently the .docx formats have become “the standard”. 99% of businesses in the United States require resumes in .doc format. Evey publication I have wrote for wants .doc or .docx. Every editor I have worked with uses .doc or .docx. In fact, I don’t know of any business that uses anything other than .doc and .docx (there may be some…somewhere…but I don’t know of any).
Calc, LibreOffice’s spreadsheet application, has gone through its largest code change in history. The code change allows for parallel calculations by both the gpu and cpu, greatly speeding up calculations. For those who complained of Calc bogging down while running multiple calculations on huge spreadsheets, this should be a welcome relief.
What is Lacking
So is this LibreOffice the perfect office suite? Hardly; there’s still things that need work. As I said earlier, I’d like to see the drop-down menu GONE, with everything moved to the sidebar. For the Microsoft Access users, Base still needs a lot of work. And I’d love to see an Android version, although I hear that is in the works.
Cloud collaboration is very much lacking. Sure, you can save to an online service such as dropbox, but real-time collaboration is nonexistent. Google docs is currently the master of this type of technology, and I would love to see a set of collaboration features added.
So what do you think of LibreOffice 4.2? I’d love to hear back from those who have given this software suite a try! Also, be sure to check out my video review of LibreOffice 4.2 so you can see this software in action.
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Thanks for reading!
Alex is a writer, blogger, and fan of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. He loves nothing better than kicking back with a good novel. Favorite genres? Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History, and Political Fiction. Be sure to check out his Sci-Fi/Fantasy series Chronicles of Aria Prime.