Review: LibreOffice 5.2 — solid, unpolished alternative

The free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office gets the job done. Yet there are compromises.

At a glance

For: Free. Open source. Feature rich. Runs on old hardware. Can open most document formats.
Against: Not as polished as paid-for alternatives. Lacks cloud integration. Inconsistent user interface.
Maybe: Comes with graphics app, equation editor and database. No Outlook-like mail client.
Verdict: All the power of Microsoft Office without the price tag or the polish.

What is LibreOffice?

LibreOffice is an office suite that rivals Microsoft Office yet costs nothing. There are versions for Windows, OS X and Linux along with a portable edition that works from a USB drive.

If you’re on a tight budget and have a Windows PC, LibreOffice is by far the best alternative to Office. It is more complete than Google Apps and leaves Apache OpenOffice for dead.

OS X users have a good alternative free option. Apple’s iWorks suite is free with new Macs. Even so, you might prefer LibreOffice because it has better Microsoft Office compatibility.

LibreOffice looks and feels more like Microsoft Office than iWorks. If you know Microsoft Office, moving to LibreOffice will be less of a wrench. It also includes a database unlike either the OS X version of Microsoft Office or iWorks. If you need a simple database and have no budget, LibreOffice would be ideal.

Some Linux distributions include LibreOffice either as standard or as an optional download. It’s a more straightforward choice than using a tool like Wine to run Microsoft Office.

Free alternative

Because LibreOffice is open source there is no business model behind the software. You can donate — money and Bitcoin accepted — on the download page, but this is optional.

Other “free” software suites often extract a price from you in subtle ways. You may have to pay to unlock key functionality. With Google Docs, you agree to accept advertising and being a data collection source.

iWorks is free, but only when you spend well over $1000 on an Apple computer. That’s stretching the meaning of free. Some other free apps extract money from you later. There’s none of this with LibreOffice.

A full office suite

LibreOffice is among the most complete office suites, free or not. It includes more apps, functionality and features than every free alternative. LibreOffice almost matches the most popular paid version of Microsoft Office 365.

It doesn’t include a mail client like Outlook and there’s nothing like OneNote. That’s hardly an issue as there are good free alternatives from other sources.

When you download LibreOffice, you get all the apps in one package. There’s no piecemeal adding of components. Installation is straightforward. Office 365 installs components as separate apps. There is only a single LibreOffice entry point.

Writer:

Office suites include plenty of tools, but the word processor is fundamental. It’s the app everyone uses sooner or later.

Most people considering LibreOffice wonder about Writer’s compatibility with other word processors. It’s an understandable concern, but if anything, it’s misplaced. Writer is compatible with almost every popular word processor format. It reads everything. There are more converters than Microsoft Office including obscure and forgotten formats.

The other misunderstanding is that Writer doesn’t have all the features found in Word. Again, a misplaced concern. Few users come close to scratching Word’s surface. If there is a function missing in LibreOffice Writer, it is something almost no-one uses.

Clutter

While there’s nothing missing in Writer, the user interface isn’t as elegant as Word’s. It still looks old-fashioned in comparison.

Or perhaps we should say it looks desktop Linux-like.

Both Windows and OS X have made huge strides in their user interfaces over the past decade or so. The focus is on productivity and getting distractions out-of-the-way. Most Linux apps still have long menus. Sometimes nested menus. At times finding commands is hard until they become familiar.

Writer’s display shows clutter around the edge of the document. There is a top display of icons and a sidebar. There seem to be more menu items than in Word. The interface is busy. Perhaps too busy.

Far from minimal

With Word you can hide almost everything to have clean, minimal workspace. That’s not the case with Writer. Not everyone prefers minimal displays. If you feel they help your productivity, you might do better elsewhere.

No doubt Linux fans reading this will wonder what the fuss is about. The technical ones will be more concerned about feature sets, more willing to learn and, well, more engaged with their software. They may think things are fine the way they are.

Yet if LibreOffice is to break out of this niche then it needs to improve in the UI department. Until that happens, everyday users are going to feel more comfortable with Microsoft Office. If LibreOffice doesn’t want to break out of the Linux niche, that’s fine too. There is a demand for its approach.

Calc

Every usability point made about Writer applies to LibreOffice’s spreadsheet. There is the same clutter. And the same functional richness. Excel fans and power users may find favourite features are missing. Yet Calc has all the necessary functions for most people’s needs.

While you can drop any Word document into Writer and know you’ll be able to work, that’s not true with Excel and Calc. There are small incompatibilities. A Word user can be productive in Writer straight away. An Excel user will take time adjusting to Calc and some won’t like the experience.

That said Calc is complete. It handles large, complex spreadsheets with ease.

Impress

Impress follows the pattern of Writer and Calc: plenty of functionality, the same screen clutter. Like Calc and Excel, loading complex Powerpoint files into Impress can disappoint. In testing it struggled with some Microsoft fonts. There are workarounds, but newcomers to LibreOffice may find this frustrating.

Base

Like Microsoft Office for Windows, LibreOffice includes a database. Base compares well with Access. Again, the user interface is not as polished. In performance terms the two are similar, experienced Access users could start working on Base projects immediately.

One reasons a Mac user might want LibreOffice is to run databases. Microsoft does not include Access in the OS X edition of Office 365.

While Microsoft Access has a proprietary feel, it integrates well with other Microsoft products. Base seems closer to open source databases like MySQL. It also appears to be a good, free way of getting into basic database development.

LibreOffice also includes Math an equation editor and Draw a graphics app. There is no Microsoft Outlook-like mail client. That’s not likely to bother most LibreOffice users. If you need a heavy-duty mail client, you should look elsewhere.

User interface

For years the user interface has been LibreOffice’s weak spot. Microsoft ironed out the inconsistencies in Office a decade ago. LibreOffice’s developers say the latest 5.2 version has brought interface improvements. But there are still places where things don’t work as you might expect.

This is clear the moment you open LibreOffice. The first screen you see is something called the StartCenter. Thumbnails of recent documents appear in the main windows and a list of folders and app icons appear in a left-hand column.

Click on Writer, Calc or any of the first five create document icons and a blank new document opens. Click on the sixth, for a Base database, and a wizard opens.

This may make perfect sense, but it’s not a consistent user interface. Close the document you’ve just created and the Startcenter is no longer there, you have to open it again from the main menu.

Missing polish

None of this is terrible. You’ll get by just fine. Yet it illustrates just what you pay for when you subscribe to Microsoft Office 365: you get polish.

That polish may feel cosmetic. Some readers may dismiss it as unimportant, but it’s the polish that makes many everyday users who spend a lot of time with office software more productive. It makes less confident users feel comfortable. Yet, many LibreOffice users will never notice.

There are some other odd or less than perfect behaviours. On a Mac, OS X will add LibreOffice as an option to the Open With menus. So you can right-click on, say, a text file in the Finder and open it in LibreOffice. Except it takes a long, long time to open. This happens regardless of the file format you’re opening. It seems the operating system is opening a new instance of the entire LibreOffice app.

Nothing to lose

Despite a handful of annoyances, LibreOffice has all the features most people are likely to need from an office suite and then some. The few missing features are for specialists.

It may lack surface polish, but under the hood the code seems solid and reliable. Performance is, on the whole, good too. There are annoyances, but not many and given the price, it would be churlish to complain.

If you don’t like Microsoft Office, are strapped for cash or have a philosophical objection to commercial software, LibreOffice won’t disappoint.

Review: LibreOffice 5.2 — solid, unpolished alternative was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

10 thoughts on “Review: LibreOffice 5.2 — solid, unpolished alternative

  1. Good one.
    FWIW I’ve found Writer a better substitute for Word than Calc is for Excel. Could be because I’m a ‘power user’ of Excel, but Calc felt a little feature-light. Writer on the other hand has been fine as a complete replacement for Word

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  2. Not a bad summary. On the point of being “open source = no business model”, this is not (entirely) correct. Commercial organisations such as Collabora Productivity employ a significant number of developers behind LibreOffice, and release enterprise-hardened versions (e.g. Collabora Office) with paid L1/L2/L3 support. Enhancements and fixes funded by this are contributed back to the main LibreOffice code base. (Disclosure – we are a Collabora Productivity partner).

    On the point of user interface polish, this really is subjective. In my experience (working at enterprise scale, 1000s of customers, 1000s of devices) for every user who prefers the Microsoft Ribbon interface and such, there’s another user who finds it a counter-intuitive hindrance, which slows down productivity just enough such that a traditional menu is a better option. This is certainly my personal preference, and all things being equal I would still choose LibreOffice’s interface – because it allows me to get work done just that degree quicker than Microsoft Office. It’s a mistake to equate more UI polish with increased productivity (another example is the fancy UI transitions in mobile operating systems which cumulatively slow down access to frequently-needed settings).

    On the note of clutter (again subjective), there’s a full screen mode available, a range of different icon sets, a single toolbar mode, and a large degree of customisation for toolbar positions and icon visibility/order. A user can easily streamline the environment to their heart’s content, although I do acknowledge that default settings matter.

    Regarding LibreOffice Draw, it’s perhaps useful to know it has a strong focus on diagramming. While LibreOffice might lack a full Outlook replacement (Mozilla Thunderbird is a frequent substitute), it does ship with an effective Visio replacement (it will even import Visio-format files). This would usually be a added-cost option with certain editions of Microsoft Office.

    Finally I would add to the summary paragraph that for businesses (or individuals), the top-to-bottom use of open standards and open source in LibreOffice is a huge benefit for document interoperability and guaranteed long-term access to intellectual property. I know very few people who are using LibreOffice (or open source products in general for that matter) on the basis of a philosophical objection to “commercial software”, especially when many of those same open source products are available in commercial guise. It’s far more because it simply makes good business sense.

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    • Productivity is subjective. No arguments there. I’m no fan of Microsoft’s Ribbon. When I use Microsoft Word, I hide everything except the status bar and the menu. They only stay because hiding them is hard.

      Feature-rich office suites are not the best tools for my writing. But I know that’s not how other people work. My instinct says someone coming from Word might struggle for a week or so to master the LibreOffice user interface. That said, the learning curve is no steeper than moving from, say, a pre-Ribbon version of Word to a new one.

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  3. Entirely fair article, although as an Office 365 Linux user I would question “it illustrates just what you pay for when you subscribe to Microsoft Office 365: you get polish”. I dare you to spend a week restricting yourself to the Office 365 web products and still claim they are polished. I’d claim they are shocking.

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  4. I’d say the performance issues with LibreOffice are more due to your MacBook retina having barely any processing capacity compared to typical MacBook Airs or iMacs, which are the usual Macs used for portable document creation or desktop document creation.
    As the LibreOffice developers are not likely to test on exotic Macbook retina models, it is inevitable that performance would be better suited to slightly more typical processors than the Core M.

    I’ve found no issues with LibreOffice on my previous bottom end 2011 MBA 11″ with only 2GB ram, my top end 2011 27″ iMac, or my 2008 AMD dual core Acer laptop on either Windows 7 or Linux Mint.
    My experience with the obsolete Acer laptop would suggest that the less demands the system makes, the better the apps perform, so it maybe that you’d get significant improvement if you were to run LibreOffice in linux such as Ubuntu or Mint.

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    • I tested LibreOffice on a 2014 MacBook Air with 4GB, that’s plenty of resources. The problem is only when right-clicking a file and sending it to LibreOffice. Docs load fast from inside the app and docs for other apps load fast. This only applies to text documents, not spreadsheets which load almost instantly.

      I just tried it again and the loading is faster than earlier, but still in the region of 90 seconds to 2 minutes. Before it was up to four minutes.

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  5. I agree with the commenter who praised the old-fashioned menu interface – I prefer it too, and can’t use the ribbon.

    But as such, I found Calc a more helpful alternative to Excel. I prefer real Word to Writer because I use one if what you seem obscure features: outline mode.

    In Mac Office, if you disable the Ribbon, this is only semi-usable, as without the ribbon you can’t demote to body text.

    But even so it’s a killer feature that LO lacks.

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  6. Just want to point out that there is the IMHO best grammar/spell checking tool available only for LibreOffice: https://languagetool.org
    Even as a desktop Linux user I really don’t like the UI but it’s getting better…
    Calligra (former KOffice) under the KDE umbrella makes great progress with fresh UI ideas: https://www.calligra.org (Don’t let the poor site fool you.)
    And at last a political encouragement to don’t use or support Microsoft Office and its OOXML: http://www.linuxveda.com/2014/11/29/never-use-microsofts-ooxml-pseudo-standard-format/

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  7. This review has so many innacuracies and common places that it’s shocking. I don’t even know where to start. I’ll try here:

    “With Word you can hide almost everything to have clean, minimal workspace. That’s not the case with Writer. Not everyone prefers minimal displays. If you feel they help your productivity, you might do better elsewhere.”

    You can hide almost everything in Writer. The Sidebar can be hidden by pressing the “hide button that shows up near the scroll bar. In the 5.2 release they just included a new “single toolbar” mode that you can enable from the View menu. Therefore you can have a minimal interface if you hide the Sidebar, disable the standard toolbars and enable the single toolbar. Shocking I know. If you are not lazy and actually use the software for more than 15 minutes you would know this. The same can be said for Calc and Impress.
    The UI of LO is infinitely more configurable than Microsoft Office. The Sidebar maes better use of horizontal display space of 16:9 displays.

    “Lacks cloud integration.”

    This is false. You can save documents directly to OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox or set up access to your own cloud service. Again did you even read the release notes?

    This is a completely lazy review, repeating the preconception around LibreOffice from all the previous releases. It seems the reviewers aren’t even trying to review it. They just copy paste the same text every six months without even really trying the software.

    And also, UI work on LO isn’t limited to just changing the position of the toolbar. There’s a lot of menu reorganization, porting of elements to the Sidebar, creation of new Sidebar panels, plus work on a tab like UI going on.

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