LibreOffice 3.5: The best Office killer yet

Latest version of open source productivity suite brings better Office interoperability and improved user experience, but rough edges remain

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Worse, LibreOffice's Java interface is finicky. I tried installing the latest Java 7, but LibreOffice said my JRE was "defective." When I tried again with Java 6, the same applications crashed without explanation. I eventually got it working, but installing and reinstalling the various components wasted a lot of time, which doesn't bode well for unattended installations.

Alternative installation methods are available. Linux distributors typically package their own versions of the suite, and Intel and Suse have produced a Windows installer for the Intel AppUp Center. There's also the PortableApps version, which can run from a USB keychain. Even so, the standard installation method for Windows should be more straightforward, and ideally the suite shouldn't need Java at all.

A familiar feel, yet long in the tooth
LibreOffice's user experience remains virtually identical to OpenOffice.org, though its UI is perhaps a little friendlier. For example, the icons in LibreOffice's Start Center, which greets you when you first launch the suite, are more colorful and have less of a corporate feel than in Oracle's OpenOffice.org releases.

Dig deeper, however, and you'll find plenty of minor UI changes. For version 3.5, the Document Foundation has cleaned up the text of dialog boxes, removed confusing or redundant options, and improved prompts and user controls throughout the suite.

None of this is as impressive as the radical UI redesign Microsoft introduced in Office 2007. Count me among those who think Microsoft's Ribbon interface, developed through extensive user testing, gives Office a powerful competitive advantage. But if you hate the Ribbon, you'll appreciate LibreOffice's classic look and feel, which resembles that of Office 2003 and earlier.

Still, subtle UI quirks occasionally make the LibreOffice applications feel clunky. Because it is a cross-platform suite, its menus, dialog boxes, controls, and widgets don't always blend in with other Windows applications, particularly on Windows Vista and later.

I also found LibreOffice's font rendering somewhat unappealing. Letterforms don't look as nice in Writer as they do in Microsoft Word, and the line and character spacings feel cramped. As a side effect, the text of imported Word documents sometimes wraps differently in Writer, even though the font faces and sizes haven't changed -- just one of the ways in which LibreOffice might disappoint heavy Office users.

Taking on Goliath
Microsoft Office interoperability isn't the only goal of LibreOffice, but it's an important one. The installer goes as far as to set the LibreOffice applications as the default handlers for the Office file formats, even if you have a version of Office installed.

LibreOffice 3.5's Office document compatibility is impressive overall, and it has improved from previous versions. It even does a fair job of reading the XML-based file formats from Office 2007 and later, and LibreOffice 3.5's Draw module includes a first attempt at an import filter for Visio documents.

libreoffice-UI.gif
LibreOffice's icon-rich UI harkens back to the style of older versions of Microsoft Office, but it can seem a little clunky on Windows Vista or later.
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