LibreOffice 4 liberates you from Microsoft Office

If your needs don't include macro and programming compatibility, this office suite might just wean you away from Microsoft.

If you're feeling like an overtaxed and unappreciated serf in Microsoft's kingdom, LibreOffice 4 might just offer the freedom you seek. An extremely capable office suite, LibreOffice 4 is also highly configurable, extensible, and cross-platform. It supports OS X and Linux in addition to all flavors of Windows. It's also free--not an insignificant attribute for most of us.

LibreOffice Writer

I'm writing this article using Writer and enjoying every moment of the process. For pure writing and editing, it's simply more in tune with my methods than anything else I've tried. I don't miss Microsoft Word's pitiable grammar checking one bit. Writer's grammar checker is better, and the spell checker and other tools are also top-notch.

Writer is enough like Word that the transitional learning curve is minimal, and I've yet to find an important feature missing. Indeed, it has some of its own, such as the predictive word assistance similar to the one Microsoft has on its phone software, but has never bothered to implement it in Word. It offers only one word--not a choice of several, as Microsoft's does--but it is handy on occasion.

The one thing that's truly held me back from Office alternatives over the years was lack of support for Word's Track Changes feature, which is a mainstay for many writers and editors. Writer fully supports revisions and presents them in more tasteful default colors. One feature I do miss is the Word's formatting paintbrush, but I don't miss it enough to go back.

Bloggers and website writers take note: Writer supports HTML, and if your content management system supports the CMIS interoperability standard, you can user Writer to edit your CMS entries and articles as well.

LibreOffice Calc

Calc proved a very pleasant surprise by loading every Excel spreadsheet I have and mimicking the formatting perfectly. I'm heavy on the conditional formatting and Calc does it better than Excel, extending it and recalculating automatically when I copy in another row. Excel requires manual intervention.

The one disappointing area of Calc is macros. Calc has its own capable macro and programming language, but it's largely incompatible with Office's VBA, so I had to redo the range names and macros for my hardware ratings sheets. But from there it was easy to attach them to the button objects I employ for sorts and the like.

Note: Calc retains VBA macros when it saves files in Excel format, unless you tell it not to.

LibreOffice Base

Base is capable enough that I'm seriously considering moving my invoicing system over to it from Access. It has all the basic features, including forms, reports, SQL, and relational multiple table support.

It can connect to external databases, including those from Microsoft Access. Base doesn't import Access forms and reports, but its form design wizard and editor are good enough that recreating them is a not an unduly tedious task. Subforms are supported so you can display multiple tables in a single form.

Base requires Java for its own databases. However, as a front end for external databases such as the Access database I used in my hands-on, Java is not required.

My test database had only about a thousand records, so I can't say how well Base scales. Feature-wise, it's strictly an end-user database. There are no means to make a database run as a standalone.

LibreOffice Impress

Impress didn't display some portions of PowerPoint presentations imported, so in that regard it was one of the less successful modules in LibreOffice.

However, Impress is quite facile at creating presentations, and it exports to PDF, which is the format I see most often these days. PDFs don't require proprietary software, namely PowerPoint, to render. A design wizard and a decent collection of nice-looking templates help to get you started.

LibreOffice Math and Draw

Both the Math (formula rendering and shaping) and Draw applications are capable. I found the Draw program and its myriad shapes and objects particularly useful and easy. You can also use the Draw app to create presentations.

Interface and Compatibility

LibreOffice's interface is enough like Microsoft Office's that few users will have trouble adjusting to it. It also give you complete control over the contents of menus and toolbars, as well as the actions invoked by keyboard shortcuts. This makes it easy to emulate a program you might be more familiar with, or to streamline your workflow by hiding features you don't use. Personally, I decidedly do not miss Office 2010's window-obscuring menu, poor organization of options, and too-many-clicks interface.

As much as I like LibreOffice, I do have some minor gripes. I do not like the mixing of document types in the recent files list in all the modules. When I'm in Writer, I want to see Writer documents, not the database files and spreadsheets I've been working with. At the very least, they should be divided by type. On the other hand, I like it that LibreOffice provides other types of documents under the "New File" heading. Yes, some reviewers are just hard to please.

Note that the inline help is a separate download. There are also a lot of very nice guides available for download as well as extensions that add capabilities to all the modules.

Conclusion: Try it

Where Microsoft seems focused on changing the look of its products and optimizing them for tablets, LibreOffice is improving basic functionality and efficiency with an eye for the desktop. It's not perfect, but neither is the competition. Document compatibility with Office and just about every other standard is so good that the average user can make the switch without qualms in that regard.

On the downside, macro and programming incompatibilities in Base and Calc will be a problem for some, and there will undoubtedly be a feature missing here or there that some user just won't be able to live without.

But put aside those years of disappointing alternatives to Office and take a look at LibreOffice 4. Really. I mean really as in click on the download button and install it. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Note: The Download button takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.

This story, "LibreOffice 4 liberates you from Microsoft Office" was originally published by PCWorld.

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