LibreOffice 4.4 raises the bar

The latest release of the open source productivity suite is leaner, smarter, and more compatible with Microsoft Office docs

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Credit: Sergey Nivens

The developers behind LibreOffice, the free and open source productivity suite forked from OpenOffice, have sweated and bled to advance the toolkit over the past couple of years. The effort has paid off: It’s a no-brainer to recommend LibreOffice over OpenOffice, thanks to Libre’s consistent release schedule and the increasingly polished quality of the product.

Now for the bigger question: Can you recommend LibreOffice in the same breath as Microsoft Office? The short answer: Maybe. To its credit, LibreOffice 4.4 handles old- and new-school Microsoft Office documents better than ever before -- no small feat considering how prohibitively complex such documents can be. If you plan on using LibreOffice as a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office, know that document compatibility is still a roll of the dice -- but with each revision LibreOffice is improving the odds.

Looking good, working better

The changes in LibreOffice 4.4 are visible the moment you open a document, though some are fairly subtle. Application toolbars, for instance: The default controls for each application in the suite have been cleaned up to display the most commonly used functions. Though you're presented with a slightly more crowded toolbar, it should be a more useful one. I’m of two minds on this, if only because the pop-out side panel (which both OpenOffice and LibreOffice inherited from IBM’s Lotus Symphony) has largely replaced the toolbars for me.

Among the best of the interface improvements in Writer is a more readable status bar, at the bottom of the application window. Word counts, document positions, and other details about the document are spelled out more explicitly and far less confusingly than before. The once-cryptic icons that indicate a modified document or the selection mode now have tooltips that explain their significance. Right-clicking on many, although not all, of those elements brings up a contextual menu, such as one for selecting page styles. You can’t, however, customize the elements appearing on the status bar, which I always appreciated in Word. (I don’t really need the zoom slider.)

LibreOffice 4.4 Writer

Conveniences abound in the new LibreOffice 4.4, such as the ability to update a style from the text itself. Note also the revised and far more readable status bar.

The process of editing a document has been streamlined in some ways. If you make changes to the style of a paragraph, you can now apply those changes to the underlying style via the style drop-down, instead of editing the underlying style directly. Master documents, which allow multiple documents to be ganged together into a single file, can now be used as document templates -- a handy way to reproduce the structure of a multipart document as part of a standard workflow.

Unfortunately, some long-standing annoyances remain. If you switch to draft mode, especially on longer documents, the document’s page count jumps to an arbitrary number -- for example, the counter will display "5 pages" for a 228-page document -- and one’s position in the document creeps backward as the repagination process takes place in the background. You can work around this by switching to print layout mode, but for those of us who like to plug away at long documents in draft mode, it’s galling. (There’s already a bug report for it.)

LibreOffice 4.4 toolbar

Users will find more options on the LibreOffice 4.4 toolbar (bottom) than in previous versions (top). LibreOffice’s creators claim those choices represent the most commonly used functions. 

The other apps in the suite have their share of improvements, too. Calc has new statistical functions in its Statistics Wizard, as well as support for the Excel Aggregate function. Impress now supports OpenGL-powered transitions. Draw and Impress documents can be password-protected. Two popular proprietary fonts normally supplied by Microsoft, Cambria and Calibri, now have open source replacements named Caladea and Carlito -- useful if you’re leaving behind both Office and Windows. Plus, PDFs exported by any LibreOffice programs can be digitally signed with whatever certificates are available from the operating system.

From OOXML to OpenDoc, but not always back

If LibreOffice continues to botch complex Office documents, it’s not entirely to blame. A third party can provide only so much cross-compatibility with Microsoft Office documents before the user is eventually forced to pick, for keeps, either Microsoft's or OpenDocument's method.

I fed LibreOffice Writer a Microsoft Office (OOXML) Word document some 230 pages long and chock-full of corrections, annotations, and stylistic markup. The document opened properly and displayed accurately, including the corrections and annotations. Attempting to make more than the most trivial changes to it, however, triggered a warning: I’d need to save the document as ODF, not OOXML, to preserve all details. I knew full well what might happen if I didn’t. In another document I’d converted the same way, OOXML highlighting had been converted by LibreOffice into simple text colors, irreversibly.

Such behaviors aren’t limited to Writer. If you have a presentation in PowerPoint, for instance, Impress can generally read it and display it. But Impress doesn’t support many of the snazzy 3D slide transitions found in PowerPoint, so it replaces any such transitions with a generic substitute like a cross-fade. That’s fine if you’re only making a one-way conversion, but it’s disastrous if you’re bouncing from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice and back.

None of this is LibreOffice’s fault alone. No doubt ODF has features OOXML doesn't support as well. This makes it nearly impossible for any program that deals primarily with one to transparently interoperate with the other and not lose any details in the shuffle. Consequently, you’ll have fewer document-format issues with LibreOffice if you’re making a clean switch and not looking back, or you're starting with a clean slate and not using any legacy documents with it.

The code cleanup continues

Even as the LibreOffice team adds new features and improvements, it has been fearlessly revising the code base. Aside from refactoring Writer internally, with large classes split into many smaller ones, LibreOffice has seen a major improvement in code quality across the last few revisions thanks to a code scan provided by Coverity. According to the company, this eliminated 6,000-odd defects in the code, the vast majority of them common C++ software gotchas like dereferenced null pointers.

In my entirely subjective and unscientific opinion, not only is the suite itself becoming much faster and less buggy, but the project's bug-handling process also seems to be improving. When I tested the 4.4 release version, the suite crashed when I tried to browse by bookmark through a document that contained no bookmarks. It turned out to be a bug that had been fixed the day after I reported it. Said fix will land in LibreOffice 4.4.1, and it was already present in the nightly build I was invited to test out.

Microsoft Office still remains king and emperor of all it surveys, even as productivity moves to the cloud and Microsoft works to play catch-up. It’s impressive to watch LibreOffice keep moving forward in the face of the challenge -- and to become increasingly a preference, not only an alternative.

This story, "LibreOffice 4.4 raises the bar" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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