Review: LibreOffice 4 leaves you wanting more

Modest rev of the open source office suite has welcome new features, but old peeves still linger

Despite a change to the left of the decimal point, earth-shaking alterations aren't in store for LibreOffice users this time around. LibreOffice 4.0 feels more like a 3.7, considering the previous edition was 3.6.5.2. That said, LibreOffice is still the best free alternative to Microsoft Office. Current users of LibreOffice -- or OpenOffice, from which LibreOffice is derived -- will be pleased to see their favorite open source productivity suite evolving yet again.

The last few revisions of LibreOffice, this one included, have sported incrementally faster startup and document load times, better compatibility with existing documents, and more features both big and small. There's also less dependence on Java, which in this age of Java security holes is a good thing. Java dependencies are slowly being replaced in LibreOffice with either native platform code or Python.

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LibreOffice has previously allowed some degree of customization of the program's look and feel via color schemes. Version 4.0 adds the ability to use Firefox Personas to dress up the look of the menu and icon bars for all apps in the suite. It works, but it has major practical limitations. If you load a dark-colored persona, the black font used in the program's menus blends with the persona and renders the top menu bar impossible to read. This wouldn't be so bad if you could actually change the color of the font in the program's menu, but that doesn't seem to be an option.

What's new in WriterMost of the changes to LibreOffice Writer -- the word processor and flagship of the suite -- have been minor, but a few of them stand out as being exceptionally useful. In previous editions of the suite, comments could only be inserted at a specific point in a document. Now comments can be attached to a range of text, such as a whole sentence or paragraph. This makes comments far less ambiguous, since you can now see the entire context of what a comment refers to. As a corollary to this, DOCX files that have commented text ranges retain those when imported.

The handling of imported DOC and DOCX files in general has also been slightly improved, which we've come to expect with each rev of LibreOffice. For instance, as of version 3.6, documents that had contextual spacing enabled for autonumbered lines now render properly, and documents with floating tables now import correctly. I have documents that exhibited exactly these issues, so it's good to see them fixed. Tablet PC users might also be happy to know that (as of version 3.6) ink annotations in DOCX and RTF documents created on a tablet PC can be imported, and native RTF math expressions can be imported and exported.

A new 4.0 feature is the ability to set variant first-page headers and footers for a given page style (what Word implements as document sections). Only ODF documents support this feature right now, but there are plans to expand support to imported DOC and DOCX files.

Most big organizations use some variety of content management system, typically one that adheres to the CMIS standard. Writer (and LibreOffice generally) can talk to such servers -- such as Alfresco or SharePoint -- to open and save documents they store.

Another CMS-related addition, by way of a plug-in, is the ability to publish documents as articles on MediaWiki servers. Writer is able to convert the document to MediaWiki markup automatically, which is genuinely handy, but unfortunately this is a one-way street: You can't point to an existing article on a wiki somewhere, import it for editing, then reexport it. Likewise, although it's possible to export a document as a MediaWiki text file, it's not possible to import it and edit it as a native LibreOffice document. Maybe the next point revision could allow this -- I suspect Wikipedians everywhere would be thrilled.

Annotations in LibreOffice 4.0 can span whole ranges of text, so it's unambiguous what they refer to. Word documents (DOCX) with such annotations now import correctly.

Calc and Impress, odds and endsCalc, the spreadsheet app, has been gussied up. Most significant is a performance improvement when loading spreadsheets with lots of formulas. The formulas no longer need to be recalculated, which does wonders to speed up load time. (You can always force a recalculation if need be.) I also liked how individual charts can be exported as images, but I was disappointed with the limited range of options. You can't export a chart to a vector format like SVG, for example, which would have been really useful. (You can export to a PDF, but the embedded image is rasterized, which defeats the purpose.). Nor can you export at a different size or scale than what appears in the document itself.

Impress, the presentation app, has one major new feature worthy of attention. Those with the Linux edition of the suite and a Bluetooth-enabled, Android-powered phone can use an app for the phone to control Impress. The bad news is that only the Linux version of LibreOffice supports this right now, and it took great effort to get it working there. I hope it can be improved in the next release, which is when support for this feature is slated to arrive in the Windows and Mac OS X versions.

Some additions in LibreOffice 4.0 seem puzzling at first, but turn out to have unexpected utility. LibreOffice now includes an interpreter for the Logo language, which allows you to add programmatically created vector art to documents. The resulting vector graphics can be exported as SVG or PDF images. It's intriguing, but I'd like to see it integrated a little more deeply into the suite. It could be useful as an alternative graphics engine for Calc charts, for instance.

Exporting charts as stand-alone graphics is handy, but limited to creating rasterized images, not vector art.

Some long-standing features have been removed with 4.0, although I suspect the vast majority of them won't be missed. Case in point: LibreOffice no longer supports legacy binary StarOffice files. However, some omissions might create a few problems for users in mixed environments, such as the ability to export to legacy Word and Excel (6.0/95) document formats. None of the cuts should be real showstoppers for up-to-date users or to users whose workflow is entirely centered on LibreOffice.

Persistent peevesSome performance and behavioral issues still linger. On opening a large document (500-plus pages) in Writer, even in native ODF format, and moving the cursor to near the end, the repagination process can cause one's position in the document to jump around, or the whole program may even hang briefly. Large DOCX files with lots of corrections and comments also open very slowly. Worse, I had trouble saving such documents to ODF format, then reopening them. They'd often crash with a nondescript error.

Contextual help is still handled clumsily. Pressing Help within the program takes you to a page in the LibreOffice wiki for the feature in question, and some features have either skimpy documentation or none at all. I also wish LibreOffice had something akin to Microsoft Word's draft-editing mode. The closest thing is Web Layout mode, which gives you incorrect pagination information.

LibreOffice 4.0 is better than the previous version of the much-vaunted open source productivity suite, but it's decidedly evolutionary, not revolutionary. The plethora of little changes and the gradual improvement of the most crucial features, like DOC and DOCX compatibility, are all quite welcome. Perhaps I should be more grateful for steady, incremental improvement, but I would have saved the "4.0" for a bigger milestone -- such as when LibreOffice is entirely free of its dependency on Java.

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