The development team at The Document Foundation has been hard at it for the past couple of years. Since adopting the OpenOffice.org codebase and turning it into a community project, the popular free office suite has seen a rapid-fire schedule of releases. This is its fourth update in that time – a rate that far outstrips Microsoft’s release cycle.
With such frequent updates, it isn’t surprising that improvements are comparatively minor. Version 3.5 was light on big new features, and this is also the case in version 4 (although we’ll also be covering updates included in version 3.6 in this review); anyone hoping for an interface overhaul on the scale of the recently updated Microsoft Office 2013 will be disappointed.
All is not lost, however. Although there hasn’t been any change to the look and feel of the buttons, toolbars, menus and dialog boxes themselves, it’s possible to freshen up the interface using the new Persona tools, which allow you to change the toolbar background. This uses the same framework as the Firefox web browser: to switch personas, simply visit the Firefox themes gallery, pick a background, and copy and paste the URL into the Persona dialog box. Themes should be applied with care, though, as dark colours can render menus and icons unreadable.
LibreOffice also brings improvements to Microsoft document format compatibility. This includes the ability to import linked annotations from DOCX and RTF files, plus floating tables and WordArt. None of these features worked perfectly in our tests, though, with both the position and look of the graphical elements a long way from matching the original.
Elsewhere, it gets an updated template manager tool, which also allows the import and use of templates from “other office suites”. We tried this feature with a couple of randomly downloaded Word templates and were similarly disappointed with the results.
At the back-end, there’s now the ability to integrate with document and content management systems, allowing the opening and saving of files to and from Alfresco, Nuxeo, SharePoint and other similar systems.
The tool we use most in the LibreOffice suite is Writer, and here there have been a handful of more effective revisions. Up first is the comments facility, which has been updated so that a range of highlighted text can be commented on; previously, comments were difficult to spot within the text, since they were indicated only by a very thin arrow.
That’s a useful change, as is the ability to have a different header and footer on the opening page of a document. Also, the addition of a word count to the status bar at the bottom of the screen will be a boon to students and journalists alike.
Calc, the LibreOffice equivalent of Excel, has seen more significant changes. The most noteworthy since 3.5 is the introduction of colour scales and data bars, and the ability to import these formats from Excel spreadsheets. They’re certainly useful, but, as is often the case with LibreOffice, the dialog boxes used to configure them are bafflingly complicated, to the extent that we can’t imagine many people taking advantage of them.
Other developments include improved chart previews: they now look better both on the screen and in print, although they’re still a long way from looking as attractive as those in Excel’s huge range. Work has been done to prevent axis labels from awkwardly overlapping, too.
The rest of the picture is familiar – small changes with nothing that stands out: in Draw, supersampling has been implemented to improve the look of onscreen graphics; in Impress, there’s now a console (similar to PowerPoint’s Presenter view) and support for remote control via an Android app. However, Impress continues to be LibreOffice’s weakest application, with occasionally sluggish performance and a disappointing range of standard templates.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the latest version of our favourite free office suite. On the one hand, it’s good to see LibreOffice moving forward, and with considerable momentum. On the other, we’re not so pleased to see how many new features seem to be either fatally flawed or poorly implemented.
For users that don’t require the reliable interoperability and huge complexity of Microsoft Office, LibreOffice continues to deliver the best free alternative. However, the rather inconsistent implementation of new features is a concern.