LibreOffice 5.2, 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 5.2 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.
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.
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.
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.
LibreOffice 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
For a more up-to-date review see my first impressions of LibreOffice 7.