Review: LibreOffice 4 leaves you wanting more

Modest rev of the open source office suite has welcome new features, but old peeves still linger

Despite a change to the left of the decimal point, earth-shaking alterations aren't in store for LibreOffice users this time around. LibreOffice 4.0 feels more like a 3.7, considering the previous edition was 3.6.5.2. That said, LibreOffice is still the best free alternative to Microsoft Office. Current users of LibreOffice -- or OpenOffice, from which LibreOffice is derived -- will be pleased to see their favorite open source productivity suite evolving yet again.

The last few revisions of LibreOffice, this one included, have sported incrementally faster startup and document load times, better compatibility with existing documents, and more features both big and small. There's also less dependence on Java, which in this age of Java security holes is a good thing. Java dependencies are slowly being replaced in LibreOffice with either native platform code or Python.

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LibreOffice has previously allowed some degree of customization of the program's look and feel via color schemes. Version 4.0 adds the ability to use Firefox Personas to dress up the look of the menu and icon bars for all apps in the suite. It works, but it has major practical limitations. If you load a dark-colored persona, the black font used in the program's menus blends with the persona and renders the top menu bar impossible to read. This wouldn't be so bad if you could actually change the color of the font in the program's menu, but that doesn't seem to be an option.

What's new in Writer
Most of the changes to LibreOffice Writer -- the word processor and flagship of the suite -- have been minor, but a few of them stand out as being exceptionally useful. In previous editions of the suite, comments could only be inserted at a specific point in a document. Now comments can be attached to a range of text, such as a whole sentence or paragraph. This makes comments far less ambiguous, since you can now see the entire context of what a comment refers to. As a corollary to this, DOCX files that have commented text ranges retain those when imported.

The handling of imported DOC and DOCX files in general has also been slightly improved, which we've come to expect with each rev of LibreOffice. For instance, as of version 3.6, documents that had contextual spacing enabled for autonumbered lines now render properly, and documents with floating tables now import correctly. I have documents that exhibited exactly these issues, so it's good to see them fixed. Tablet PC users might also be happy to know that (as of version 3.6) ink annotations in DOCX and RTF documents created on a tablet PC can be imported, and native RTF math expressions can be imported and exported.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Usability (15.0%)
Word processing (20.0%)
Spreadsheets (20.0%)
Interoperability (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Presentations (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
LibreOffice 4.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 7.7
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