LibreOffice 3.3: Hands-On With the Free Office Suite

The LibreOffice project came about late in 2010 when it became increasingly uncertain what Oracle's intentions were for OpenOffice.org, which it acquired after purchasing Sun.

LibreOffice is overseen by the Document Foundation, which includes open source luminaries such as Red Hat, Ubuntu, and even Google. Because of these backers, LibreOffice is essentially the new kid on the block when it comes to cost-free office suites, and the LibreOffice folks have been busy putting together their first major release--version 3.3, which is now available for download at LibreOffice.org.

LibreOffice’s print dialog box has been overhauled compared to OpenOffice.org. (Click image for full view.)
Two downloads are necessary: the installer for LibreOffice itself, and a "help pack" executable, which contains US English helpfiles. If the latter isn't installed, clicking the Help menu takes you to the documentation section of the LibreOffice Web site.

Installation went fine on the Windows Vista and XP machines I use for testing. Rather rudely, LibreOffice unpacks its installation files to the same folder as the install .exe file, but doesn't delete them afterward. This was a problem with Openoffice.org too and is easily fixed by a quick click and drag to the Trash, but it could be of concern to newbies.

Upon double-clicking the LibreOffice desktop icon in both machines, I received an error that Java Runtime Environment (JRE) is required. I realized I'd avoided installing the dreaded Java bloat on either computer. However, I'd received no warning that it was necessary during installation, and the System Requirements page of the LibreOffice Website doesn't mention it either.

Clicking OK cleared the error message, only for startup to continue and the error to appear again. After 10 or so attempts clearing the error message, I managed to get to the new document launcher, from where I was able to start the suite's applications without a hitch. Starting each application subsequently was also error-free.

I might be wrong but it was only ever the Base database component of OpenOffice/LibreOffice that absolutely required Java to work, so I don't know why I was seeing this error. Sure enough, although Base started up fine, saving a database caused the same JRE error to appear, and there was no way around it other than to quit the program.

Upon starting each application you'll see the classic OpenOffice.org interface. Indeed, it's very hard to see anything new and there arguably aren't any major updates in this release. The list of new features seems to be of appeal only to programmers, or full of features that are not that useful. Many new features might be better categorized as bug fixes or refinements.

You can easily create title pages in Writer. (Click image for full view.)
For example, Writer can now insert scalable vector graphics (SVG) images. You can edit SVG graphics in the Draw graphics editor too. SVG is liked by open source programmers because it's an open standard but it sees little use in the real world outside of Web browsers.

Another programmer friendly feature is that Writer can now "load and save ODF documents in flat XML to make external XSLT processing easier." I've no idea what that means. I suspect it's to do with exporting documents to archiving systems. Calc now supports up to one million rows, again arguably useful only to people that use spreadsheets for serious data wrangling.

Of the less-than-useful new features, Writer now imports Lotus Word Pro files, and has improved WordPerfect support. In other words, you're covered should you and your computer slip through a time warp to 1995. You can open Microsoft Works documents as well.

Of the kind of features companies like Microsoft would boast about, there's only a handful that stand out. There's a new dialog box for creating title pages in Writer, for example, and an improved thesaurus. Calc features "more familiar" key bindings, which means you can use your Excel keyboard shortcuts, and Calc can also utilize Excel A1 and R1C1 formula syntax. The presentations package, Impress, features a handful of new extensions, including a Presenter Console that makes it easier to manage presentations on a laptop connected to a projector. Across all programs, the print dialog box has been overhauled for ease of use.

But that's about it. It's very hard to find anything to write home about. Arguably the biggest additions to Microsoft Office in recent years have been OneNote, the fantastically useful note-taking application, and SharePoint Workspace, which allows collaborative working. Sadly, there's just nothing like either in LibreOffice 3.3. It's a release that would have been stunning in 2000, but is now slightly anachronistic and dull.

It's buggy too, in the way that OpenOffice.org always was. I managed to run into an issue straight away in Writer. Zooming out to two-page view should have invoked the horizontal scrollbar, but it didn't appear. This left me unable to navigate around single-page documents I subsequently created unless I adjusted the zoom settings so the page filled the screen. I couldn't find how to manually activate the horizontal scroll bar.

However, the other applications appeared stable, and in the limited time I had to look over the software, I was able to do common tasks without hindrance.

Impress features a new presenter’s console add-on. (Click image for full view.)
And this perhaps best characterizes the experience: LibreOffice is a reliable old jalopy. It has its quirks but it's reliable for getting basic and even some sophisticated things done. For those who understand its limitations, it's an utter bargain at zero dollars, just like OpenOffice.org was. However, those hoping that the new management at LibreOffice might inject some life into the project are in for a disappointment. There's no sign of that here. It's the same old OpenOffice.org, except with a handful of improvements and a new name.

The biggest disappointment is the lack of any cloud tie-in. How a major new release of any office software can lack this is a mystery. The rather pompous manifesto of the Document Foundation, the organization behind LibreOffice, makes absolutely no mention of the cloud.

For this reason alone I can't recommend LibreOffice for business use over a product like Google Docs, which, while an order of magnitude less sophisticated, includes collaboration options that really can make a difference for smart businesses.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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