Head2Head: LibreOffice 6 vs Microsoft Office

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Head2Head: LibreOffice 6 vs Microsoft Office

The latest version of our favourite free office suite introduces a ton of features – but can it stand up against Microsoft?

Version six of The Document Foundation's LibreOffice released back in January, making some major changes and adding new features to the popular open-source Microsoft Office alternative.

While it would normally be unfair to compare a free product to a premium one, in reality, LibreOffice has long held its ground against Microsoft Office and is certainly worth considering if you're unwilling to fork out for an expensive license.

Off the back of its recent update, we've compared the two to see if Microsoft still holds the crown for office software.

Better file compatibility

Compatibility is always a concern when using a non-Microsoft office suite, so it's great that LibreOffice version 6 (technically the more secure version 6.0.1.1) improves the suite's support for MS Office formats, including Doc, Docx and Pptx (PowerPoint) files.

In the past, your carefully crafted documents might have suffered from formatting weirdness when shared between MS Office programs and LibreOffice, but that should hopefully a thing of the past. We tested this with a few documents that have thrown up problems in the past, and were pleased to find that our formatting now remains intact. In addition, LibreOffice 6 adds support for exporting documents in the EPUB format (under File, Export As, 'Export as EPUB'), meaning you can now create your own ebooks.

You can export documents as ebooks in LibreOffice 6.0

Microsoft Office has a slightly unfair advantage here, given that it doesn't have to fix any problems with its own file formats. However, overall, Office's file compatibility is more limited than LibreOffice, which support dozens of popular and obscure formats, including ClarisWorks Cwk and QuarkXPress Qxd files. Nor does MS Office provide any built-in option to export as ePub or any other ebook format.

WINNER: LibreOffice 6

New navigation tools

LibreOffice Writer has had a useful Navigator tool in its Sidebar for a while now. Version 6.0 improves document navigation further, thanks to a new drop-down menu in the Find toolbar. To use it, you'll first need to enable it. Click View, Toolbars, Find (or press Ctrl+F), then select the document element you want to find – Tables, Text Frames, Footnote and so on – from the drop-down menu to the right of the Find box at the bottom of the window. Next, click the up or down arrow to the right to navigate through all the instances of the document element you selected.

LibreOffice's Writer providers a new menu to help you navigate documents more easily

The latest version of Microsoft Word also has a Navigation sidebar, which flies out from the left when you click Find in the toolbar (or press Ctrl+F). You can quickly navigate between Pages or Headings by clicking the relevant link, while a drop-down tool similar to Writer's (opened by clicking the down arrow to the right of the Find box) reveals further document elements to navigate to, including Graphics, Footnotes, Tables and Comments. There are also links to open Word's powerful Advanced Find and Go To options here.

WINNER: Microsoft Office

Advanced toolbars

Recent versions of Microsoft Office have enforced the use of the ribbon toolbar, with only limited customisation allowed. One of the changes you can make is adding shortcuts to the Quick Access Toolbar in the top-left corner above the ribbon – click the down arrow and select the shortcut you'd like to add, or click More Commands for an extended list of options. You can also choose which tools appear in the ribbon tabs by right-clicking an empty space on the ribbon and selecting 'Customize the Ribbon'.

LibreOffice lacks a direct equivalent to the Quick Access Toolbar. Its default toolbars work more like older, pre-ribbon versions of MS Office (before Office 2007). However, not only can you use a hidden Ribbon-like interface called the Notebookbar, but you can also choose from six different Notebookbar styles, including two new ones in 6.0: Groupedbar Full and (in Writer only) Tabbed Compact.

Enable the Notebookbar by clicking Tools, Options, Advanced and ticking the 'Enable experimental features' box. Then click View, Toolbar Layout, Notebookbar to enable the Notebookbar.

Bear in mind that these features are still a work in progress. But it's great to have a wider choice of interface styles than the more rigid MS Office.

WINNER: LibreOffice 6

More image tools

LibreOffice 6 introduces a tool that lets you rotate any images to any angle – not just 90 or 180 degrees – from within your documents in Writer. The only problem is, it's not easy to use.

You need to right-click the image, select Properties, then click the Image tab to get to the tool. And, when you select the rotation angle (using either the dial on the right or the Angle box on the left), the preview doesn't update in real time, so you don't see how your changes will look until you click OK. Not only that, but custom-rotation angles also completely throw out Writer's text wrapping, leaving huge amounts of ugly white space around your picture.

MS Word, on the other hand, works brilliantly with images. Insert a picture into a document and drag the curved arrow at the top to rotate it to the angle you want, with text flowing around it beautifully.

WINNER: Microsoft Office

Improved spell-checker

If you frequently use colloquiums or specialised terms in your documents, it can be annoying to add each variation – YouTube, YouTuber, YouTubed, for example – to your office program's dictionary.

LibreOffice 6 eases the frustration with a new 'Grammar by' option in its Spelling tool. It lets you assign a model word to any new terms you add to the dictionary to tell the spell-checker how your new word behaves when it's used in different sentences.

For example, add the word 'YouTube' and set the model word as 'share' and the spell-checker will automatically understand that the word YouTube behaves just like the word 'share' when you use it in sentences, such as 'he YouTubed his favourite video'. You can also, for example, set 'Googled' to mean 'search online'.

Tell LibreOffice's spell-checker the meaning of any new words

To use this feature, you'll need to create a new custom dictionary (via Tools, Spelling, Options, New), then edit it and enter your new word in the Word box and the model word in the 'Grammar by' box.

You can also create custom dictionaries in Microsoft Office programs (via File, Options, Proofing), but there's no 'Grammar by'-type option. You just have to add each version of the work manually.

WINNER: LibreOffice 6

Export spreadsheet sections

An unusual but welcome new feature in LibreOffice 6's Calc program is the ability to export any part of your spreadsheet quickly as a JPEG or PNG image file. It's a very handy alternative to taking a screenshot, particularly when you just want to share a small area of your spreadsheet's data with someone else. Just select the cells, columns or rows you want to save, then click File, Export. Select the type of file you want, tick the Selection box, then click Save, OK.

LibreOffice Calc now lets you export part of your spreadsheet as a JPEG

Microsoft's Excel lets you export your entire workbooks in other formats and you can also export a specific section as a PDF file, but it's a bit of a faff (click File, Export, Create PDF/XPS, Options, Selection, OK, then Publish - phew!). There's currently no option to export a simple image file.

WINNER: LibreOffice 6

New table styles in Writer

Writer gets a new collection of autoformat table styles in LibreOffice 6 – click the Styles tab in the Sidebar, then click the Table Styles icon at the top of the pane. They're simple and effective but they're nowhere near as comprehensive or easy on the eye as the Table Styles you'll find in Microsoft Word's Design tab.

WINNER: Microsoft Office

Copyright © ITPro, Dennis Publishing
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