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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Nonetheless, working with Office documents is not LibreOffice's real strength. The more complex an Office document is, the less likely it is to render perfectly in LibreOffice. Fonts, placed images, macros, graphs, tables, OLE objects, fancy presentation transitions, and text effects are all likely trouble areas, to name just a few.

Similarly, Base offers limited support for Microsoft Access databases by invoking Microsoft's Access database engine, which is available only on Windows. LibreOffice for Linux or Mac OS X can't import Access databases at all. While Base is a competent data storage tool, in terms of front-end database UIs it's no match for Access, which is practically an application platform in its own right.

To be fair, Microsoft makes it difficult for competitors to support its file formats by design, and just because LibreOffice fails to import an Office file correctly doesn't mean you can't create a similar-looking document from scratch. But if you frequently trade complex documents with others, you should be aware that document fidelity between LibreOffice and Microsoft Office is almost never perfect. Also, Office generally allows you to create richer, more aesthetically pleasing documents than LibreOffice.

Steps in the right direction
LibreOffice 3.5 does introduce quite a few new features, but most are best described as subtle or at least incremental. Many are relevant for only users of non-English languages and character sets. Others improve upon the behaviors of existing features.

One significant change is that password-protected LibreOffice files now use AES encryption, which necessarily breaks compatibility with earlier versions of the suite (using Blowfish).

Some new features seem like works in progress. For example, Writer 3.5's word-count window can remain open and update as you type, resolving a long-standing issue for professional writers. But that's still much clunkier than Word, which keeps a running tally in the document's status bar.

Writer 3.5 also comes bundled with a new text-proofing tool, but to call it a grammar checker is charitable, to say the least. It can parse only a few simple rules, such as pointing out missing capitalization or extra spaces in a line. It knows nothing about proper sentence construction, and it certainly can't flag passive voice, for example, or assess Flesch-Kincaid readability measures, as Microsoft Word can.

Incidentally, LibreOffice's spell checker is similarly lackluster. The supplied dictionary is missing lots of compound words, like "handheld," "onboard," and "smartphone." When I typed "monday" in lowercase, its first suggestion was "Raymond," followed by "Monday." Sadly, these proofing tools don't feel up to professional quality -- an unfortunate characteristic of the suite as a whole.

libreoffice-font-rendering.gif
Fonts don't render as nicely in LibreOffice Writer as they do in Microsoft Word (bottom). Compare the lowercase o's and p's. Also, LibreOffice's default character and line spacing is more cramped than Word's, causing text to wrap differently at the same font sizes.
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