LibreOffice 5.4With version 5.4 The Document Foundation has made the free, open source LibreOffice 5.4 more compatible with Microsoft Office1.

If you like your productivity software to come as a big, sprawling, all-encompassing suite, you can buy an annual Microsoft Office subscription.

Or, you could get the power of Office without paying a penny. LibreOffice is free and open source. When I tested LibreOffice 5.2 a year ago I found it was a solid alternative, but lacks polish.

There’s still no polish. The Document Foundation has stuck with a retro user interface. It says this will be the last LibreOffice 5 version. The next will be LibreOffice 6. That may see the software get a make-over.

While LibreOffice 5.4 make look dated to some, the comments in the earlier post show some users are comfortable with the older way of working. The fancy Microsoft Office ribbon interface doesn’t help you get things done any faster. It’s just cosmetic.

Writer

Whether you like LibreOffice’s look and feel or not, the power of the software is beyond question. The Writer app has almost all the features found in Microsoft Word. If anything is missing, it’s something almost no-one ever uses.

This time around LibreOffice adds the ability to import AutoText from Microsoft Word DOTM templates. In plain English this means you can import the default styles and custom elements that determine how documents look. If you work with others who run Microsoft Word, you’ll be able to create documents in the same style.

The 5.4 update also means you can export and paste number or bullet lists as plain text while keeping their structure. There is a new ability to create watermarks and LibreOffice has updated menus for working with sections, footnotes, endnotes and styles.

LibreOffice says Writer has cleaned up how it deals with imported PDFs. I’ve not tested this yet.

LibreOffice 5.4 improves file compatibility

You may notice an improvement in file compatibility between LibreOffice ODF and Microsoft .docx formats while in LibreOffice Writer. This still doesn’t work so well the other way around when you’re in Word, but that’s not The Document Foundation’s fault. There are still incompatibilities, but they are fewer and less difficult to deal with.

Taken as a list, the upgrades to Writer are incremental, it’s not a big upgrade. There’s a little more going on with the Calc update. LibreOffice has added pivot charts among other things, but it is still an incremental update. You can check the wiki for a full list of changes.

Is LibreOffice 5.4 right for you? It is if you need a full software suite and don’t want or can’t afford to pay for Microsoft Office. You might also ask yourself if you need a suite at all. That’s another post.


  1. Not that it wasn’t already compatible enough for most people. ↩︎

Microsoft’s Outlook.com web mail app is clean, crisp and efficient. It is almost everything you’d want from a browser-based mail app.

Almost.

It fails because there’s an advertising pane on the right hand of the screen. You can’t miss it.

Of course that’s the idea. Advertising is supposed to be in-your-face.

Attention-seeking

Advertisers won’t pay up unless their message catches your attention. And that means distracting.

And annoying.

It’s one thing for Microsoft to show advertising on its Outlook.com web mail to casual users. After all, the service is free. Microsoft needs Outlook.com to earn its keep.

It’s another thing entirely for Microsoft to show ads to people already paying for an annual Office 365 subscription. It amounts to double dipping.

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A bright red app makes it hard to focus on mail.

Paying subscribers already contribute towards the software.

Sure, most Office 365 subscriptions include a copy of the Outlook 2016 desktop app. And, yes, that app does not include any distracting advertising.

Outlook versus itself

But Outlook 2016 is a clunky, heavy-duty application. It gobbles resources and memory. The web version provides all the key functionality in a tighter, simpler, lightweight package.

It would be nice to use it without distraction. It would be more productive to use it without distraction.

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Ruining the app this way is dumb. Outlook.com with competes with Gmail and Apple iCloud Mail. Each has its own set of features, benefits and pitfalls. Let’s put that aside and focus on the deliberate advertising distraction.

You can hide Gmail’s advertising. There never was any advertising on iCloud Mail.

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Online ads are a commodity. They do little to earn money. They do a lot to cheapen the user experience. If Microsoft wants its mail service to be taken seriously as a productivity tool it needs to drop the advertising. Showing advertising to paying customers is greedy. Microsoft can be better than this.

LibreOffice

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.

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.

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.

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.

Rod Drury AWS Summit Auckland 2015One of the advantages of cloud apps like Xero is that it is easy to link them. You do none of the hard work, that’s all handled for you. Best of all, you don’t need to buy fresh software or download and install patches.

Xero founder Rod Drury has hinted in the past that this year would see a lot of behind the scenes work to help small business owners get more from their existing data. He is also keen on automating processes.

Overnight  his company took another step along that path when it announced Xero now links directly to Microsoft Outlook. This means you can get to mail messages, documents and contact information without ever leaving the online accounting software.

Outlook feed

Likewise, while you are working with Outlook you can get a feed from Xero telling you details about a customer including what they have purchased and what they owe. You can then open their Xero contact information without leaving Outlook.

You need an Office 365 subscription to use the Xero link with Outlook.

Taken in isolation, it’s not a huge leap forward. However, Xero has set up a number of similar links weaving its functionality deeper and deeper into small business workflows.

Late last year Drury told me a new wave of innovation is on the way. He says: “When it arrives your software will be able to watch what you’re doing, spot something that matches a pattern it already knows then ask questions like: Here’s something we noticed that we need to ask you about.”

Microsoft took five years to update Mac: Office 2011.

Mac Office:2011 was almost a generation behind the Windows version of Office at launch. It didn’t just look out-of-date, it was missing functionality.

At best Microsoft was paying lip-service to Mac users. It left a vacuum for others to fill. This includes Apple with its iWorks suite.

Office for Mac 2016 beta

Judging by the Office for Mac 2016 beta, that’s changed. I’ve used it for a month and I’m impressed.

Although I’ve looked briefly at the new versions of Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, from this point on I’m going to stop writing about Office and focus on Word 2016.

The changes in the new version are obvious from the software loads. Mac Word:2011 had a messy, confusing user interface. It left the Mac user making weird cognitive jumps between the familiar OS X world and a faux Windows interface.

Beyond ugly

It was ugly to look at. This isn’t simply about aesthetics. Ugly can be productive. Mac Word:2011 was ugly in a distracting way. I found I needed to jump through hoops to get as much of the user interface out of my face before I could think about putting words on the screen.

Microsoft Word for Mac is clean. It isn’t minimal, but the screen furniture left behind stays out of your way.

There are still two menus. The OS X menu you get with almost every Mac app shows at the top of the screen, while a second menu sits just about the Windows-style ribbon interface.

The key is that you no longer find yourself jumping between two disconnected worlds. Microsoft Word for Mac actually feels like a Mac app, not a Windows app recompiled and shoe-horned into a different OS.

OneDrive integration

Microsoft has made huge strides with its cloud services in recent years. OneDrive is now central to Office.

The new OS X version of Word integrates nicely with OneDrive.

Most Mac apps run into a problem when saving documents. The save dialogue provides a list of folders, but it only includes favourites and recent. That’s difficult if you need to store a document somewhere that’s neither a favorite nor a recent folder.

The new Word save dialogue has the usual OS X elements, but adds an online button and allows you to navigate through your OneDrive folders to find the best resting place for your document.

Microsoft has also made it easier to share documents and to collaborate with others. Microsoft collaboration isn’t real-time like Google Docs where you can watch others edit. Instead you get notifications of changes after saving a document.

This may work for some users, but I find the Google approach works best when, say, a handful of editors are racing to get a story online.

A big step forward

Microsoft Word for Mac is still a beta. That can mean risky. So far I haven’t seen any instability or serious bugs. Nor have I seen any obvious performance problems. The code runs fine on my MacBook Air.

Word 2016 this feature will be available soon

There are missing features. I often see a “this feature will be available soon” message.

The good news is that you can download the preview for free from Microsoft.

Microsoft has made huge strides in the last year or so to focus on building great apps. The iOS Office apps are first rate. Microsoft’s web Office apps are a great way to get out of a hole when you only have a browser to hand.