Review: Apache OpenOffice 4 vs. LibreOffice 4.1

Not so fast, LibreOffice -- OpenOffice has a shiny, new, and improved major release of its own

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Some 3,000 bug fixes have been committed to the code base, so you can't fault LibreOffice's maintainers for not being good custodians of their code. One major set of improvements addresses an issue common to both LibreOffice and OpenOffice: better handling of Microsoft Office documents, both legacy and current formats, via LibreOffice's improved document translation filters. This time, a key fix smooths the way auto-numbering or bullets are translated from Word documents. Previous editions of LibreOffice didn't translate graphical bullets properly; this one does. I've been bitten by this particular bug a few times, so I was heartened to see it fixed.

Other little changes involve features not present in OpenOffice at all (yet). Take font embedding, for example; if you wanted to save an ODF document with fonts embedded, your only option was to save as a PDF. LibreOffice 4.1, though, includes font embedding as a document properties option. Another addition: The ability to rotate images in-place in Writer, albeit only in 90-degree increments. A third feature: The ability to insert multiple pictures at once as a "photo album" in an Impress presentation. LibreOffice has it; OpenOffice doesn't.

The comeback kid: OpenOffice 4.0
OpenOffice 4.0 feels much more like a 4.0 release than LibreOffice's 4.0 did. It constitutes a major bump in the program's functionality and usability, even if those changes largely revolve around a single major new feature: the sidebar.

The sidebar is exactly what it sounds like: a side panel that displays either the currently selected object's properties, or the styles and formatting pane, or the clip art gallery, or the document navigator. In previous versions of OpenOffice, they were present as side-dockable toolbars, but it's nice to have them all in one place. If you don't like the sidebar, it can be collapsed or tucked away completely with a click, but I left it open and found it more useful than not. (The folks at Apache claim it's a better way to make use of on-screen real estate for widescreen displays.)

If the sidebar seems vaguely familiar, it might well be. The code comes by way of IBM's Lotus Symphony project, a now-defunct spinoff of OpenOffice, donated to Apache for use in OpenOffice itself. Actually, LibreOffice has this feature as well, albeit only as an option that has to be enabled manually through the program's advanced options menu.

The rest of OpenOffice's look and feel is still very much the same. As I've grown more used to the ribbon-style controls introduced by the likes of Microsoft Office 2007, the dockable toolbars in OpenOffice (and LibreOffice) seem antiquated to me, but they get the job done.

Like LibreOffice, though, OpenOffice has added tons of under-the-hood improvements, many of them addressing .docx cross-compatibility and other irritating behaviors, like improper section header numbering in Word documents. Some are actual expansions of functionality, such as the addition of support for the GETPIVOTDATA function in Excel (also supported in LibreOffice) -- rather vital considering one of the biggest Excel contingents are number crunchers who use Excel as a front end for PivotTable reports.

And like LibreOffice, OpenOffice has continued to phase out legacy components (the StarOffice file format filters, for instance) and reduce the suite's dependence on Java. Base, the database component of OpenOffice, requires Java, but the other apps in the suite need it only for specific functions. It'll be a while before Java can be completely removed, though; don't bank on this happening anytime soon in either version of the suite.

OpenOffice 4.0
OpenOffice 4.1 (above) introduces the sidebar, which handily displays the currently selected object's properties, the styles and formatting pane, the clip art gallery, or the document navigator. If you want the sidebar in LibreOffice 4.0 (below), you can enable it through the advanced options menu.
LibreOffice 4.1
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