LibreOffice: A Basic Office Suite, for Free

Microsoft Office is the one set of software you can almost guarantee will be on any computer you touch. It’s been out for the Mac since 1985, 5 years before it was on PCs (as hard as that seems to believe today), and has dominated the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation market long enough that’s it’s the de facto standard.

There is competition, most notably on Macs from Apple’s own iWork, but also from open-source office apps. OpenOffice.org, a Sun Microsystem project, was the most prominent free office competitor for years, but was then forked into LibreOffice after Oracle bought out Sun. LibreOffice 4.0 was recently released, with native versions for OS X as well as Linux and Windows, so it seemed time to take it for a spin.

The new site is more polished than the suite itself.

LibreOffice 4′s website looks far more promising design-wise than anything we’ve ever seen from OpenOffice or LibreOffice in the past. It’s also now a native Mac app, where OpenOffice for years wasn’t directly available for OS X, and required X11. There were – and still are – other options, such as the OpenOffice fork NeoOffice, but we wanted to see how LibreOffice 4 held up on OS X today. It’s easy to try out; just download the DMG and install it as normal. After that, though, it might take some time to get used to the way LibreOffice works.

A Suite That Acts Like One App

All of the apps in the suite are really just one app

Rather than working as separate apps, everything in LibreOffice works as one app. You’ll launch the LibreOffice app, then select what type of document you want to create: a text document, spreadsheet, presentation, and more. Or, you can open a file on your computer. LibreOffice supports most standard document and spreadsheet formats, including all Microsoft Office files, but it doesn’t support Apple’s iWork app file formats.

Each of the “apps” in LibreOffice has its own name: Writer, Calc, Impress, and so on. But even when you’ve launched one of the apps to make a new file or edit an existing document, LibreOffice still acts like one application, so you’ll need to press CMD+` to switch between, say, a document and a spreadsheet open in LibreOffice, rather than CMD+tab as you would to switch between different programs.

Stark, basic, but usable.

Then, LibreOffice’s interface is dated at best, with an odd mix of old and new UI styles and a lack of support for most OS X features. It does support pinch-to-zoom, but precious few other OS X features are supported. You can’t three-finger-tap to check the dictionary for a word; for some reason, if you do this in LibreOffice, it’ll look up the definition of the first word in the paragraph, no matter which word you select. It uses its own spellcheck, and doesn’t support any of the text tools you’ll be used to in the right-click menu on most OS X apps. Pressing CMD+t will open its own Styles and Formatting window, rather than giving you access to OS X font tools. It does support most keyboard shortcuts, keeping them the same as in Microsoft Office, but otherwise, it’s one of the apps that feels the very least integrated into OS X.

In an odd addition that’s perhaps a nod to Office 2013′s themes, LibreOffice supports Firefox Personas, the picture-based themes for the Firefox browser (which oddly doesn’t feel very integrated in OS X, either). You can have LibreOffice use your current Firefox Personas, or enter the address for a Persona to have LibreOffice download and use it directly. The theme you choose will be used across all of your LibreOffice apps, and if it’s too colorful, it’ll make it hard to see all the toolbar buttons. Looks like it might be time for someone to make some more subdued Personas to work better in an office app.

You’ll want to add a Persona, though you might want to make one that feels nicer

In Real Life

LibreOffice does work decently well, if you can get around its many quirks and oddities. The Writer app imports Word files very well in most cases, as long as they don’t include images, and you’ll likely have a fairly easy time collaborating with Word users from Writer. Writing new documents isn’t too bad of an experience, if the differences in the way it handles text versus other OS X apps doesn’t bug you too bad. But then, Microsoft Word isn’t the most integrated – it uses it’s own dictionary, for instance – so it’s not that different. Page layouts in Writer definitely feel lacking, but with work, you can get passable results.

Word interoperability is quite good.

Calc, then, is also fairly good for a spreadsheet, and feels less different than the other apps from what you’d expect. It has a decent library of functions – comparable to Numbers, and feels much like using an older version of Excel. It’s not anywhere near as polished as Numbers, or as advanced as Excel, but then, for what most of us use spreadsheets for, it’d definitely suffice.

Spreadsheats work better, and might be the best app of the set.

If you’re doing presentations from your Mac, though, you should definitely just pick up a copy of Keynote. Really. LibreOffice’s Impress – the suite’s PowerPoint competitor – is easily the weakest offering in the suite. Just like the rest of the suite, it’d remind you more of Office 2000/2001 than a modern version of Office, and for anything aiming at visual design, that’s a definite problem, far more than it is for a spreadsheet app. But Impress has added some more modern, Keynote-style transitions that broke so bad when trying to test them, I had to restart the program to get the Impress slide editor working again. For many purposes, the Writer and Calc app would suffice, just like Google Docs works quite good for most writing and spreadsheet purposes. But for presentations, Keynote and PowerPoint really are still the only game in town.

Don’t even try using presentation transitions. Please.

That’s actually not all there is to LibreOffice. The suite also contains a drawing tool, which really is not much different than using Impress (or PowerPoint or Keynote) to create, say, a diagram rather than a presentation, though one pro is that it can – to a certain degree – import and work with Visio files. There’s also a basic database tool, and a few other bits and pieces you might be interested in exploring.

Conclusion

LibreOffice is impressive for a free suite; after all, even iWork runs $20 per app, making the whole suite cost $60. Microsoft Office is even more expensive, with the recent pricing changes coming in at $140 per computer, or $99/year for up to 5 computers.

But today, LibreOffice isn’t the only free option in town. There’s also online solutions: Google Docs and Microsoft’s own Office Web Apps on Skydrive are surprisingly capable tools for most office type work, and they’re 100% free. The only catch is that you’ll need to be online to use them. But if you only need to, say, occasionally edit Microsoft Office files that others send you, then Office Web Apps likely is plenty for your needs, and it’s free.

There’s other free options, too. Preview gives you quite good options for previewing most Office files and doing basic edits, while TextEdit could compete for a simple word processor, complete with spell check, rich formatting, and options to save in Microsoft Office formats. NeoOffice, the venerable fork of OpenOffice for the Mac, is also still around, and its latest updates include retina display, full-screen, versions, and services support, as well as Apple Core Text support to make font rendering and text editing feel the same as it does in other OS X apps. It’s still stuck with many of OpenOffice/LibreOffice’s problems and oddities, but if you’re wanting to use a free office suite on your Mac, it’s likely the better option just because it’s going to feel much more integrated than LibreOffice does today.


Summary

The free office suite that started as a fork of OpenOffice.org after Oracle bought out Sun Microsystems, LibreOffice is an adequate - but far from polished - office suite.

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  • Ricardo

    Anyone knows if it supports APA and MLA citations like MS Office does? Does it generate the Bibliography automatically?
    Thanks a lot!

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Hey Ricardo, there is a built-in Bibliography Database too, as Sigilist mentions below. It’s not as advanced as the current one in Office, so there’s two other tools you might want to try:

      - http://www.zotero.org
      - http://www.mendeley.com

      Both are free, and more full-featured than the bibliography tools in Word or LibreOffice, so they’re a good option no matter what office suite you use.

  • Sigilist

    Good question, Ricardo, along with others left out in one of the weakest and uninformed rundowns I’ve seen in a while about the open source world, its offerings, and how it stacks up against software in its own class… which iWorks isn’t.

    I use both MS Office and LibreOffice… and the latter has quirks many people won’t understand unless they’ve worked with either a legitimate office suite or software about documents and publishing that comes from that persepective. Again, iWorks isn’t either of those, adn MS Office isn’t the latter.

    Right there I’ve told you a whole lot about L.O. (in summary) that this article missed entirely.

    LibreOffice can handle bibliographies and is even capable of doing so somewhat interactively for web based research in concert with FireFox and possibly Chromium (not Chrome… never Chrome or Safari). Have a look here, and not the (sub)domain where you can learn much more:

    http://ask.libreoffice.org/en/question/455/is-there-a-tool-to-manage-bibliography/

    • Sigilist

      ADDENDUM: Um, this is another obvious one the author of this article didn’t bother looking for in order to answer some question he should have asked himself to answer for the audience. The best place to start in looking for answer about any software is a good “help” file. L.O.’s is online for browsing and you don’t even have to install it to look things up. (Oh, and yes, the help does integrate with the suite as well).

      https://help.libreoffice.org/Writer/Creating_a_Bibliography

      • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

        Sorry for not replying to the original question sooner. I have extensively used both Microsoft Office and iWork, in college and professionally, and used OpenOffice for years before switching back to Microsoft Office. My main complaints here were the lack of LibreOffice integration in OS X and the fact that it doesn’t make use of built-in features and is broken in many ways on the Mac. That’s not a faulty argument.

        Oh, and LibreOffice does run nicer on Ubuntu, but that’s not too surprising. I didn’t report on that because this is Mac.AppStorm, and I’m talking about how this app works on the Mac. Thus the focus of my article.

        If you’d read it in full, you’d see that I actually did say that Writer and Calc are decent Word/Excel replacements for the core features. I’d argue for home users, though, and most business users, that iWork’s apps are equally solid replacements, only they work far better on the Mac using default OS X features.

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  • danny

    Libre Office would have to improve much, much more for me to use it again. Use it for a while and it just has too many bugs…

    • Meow

      I went through med school using nothing but Libre Office so I wouldn’t call it too bad – even did all my presentations on the laptop with it.

      Considering it costs nada, it’s pretty nice.

  • Stranger

    Well the problem with these kind of apps is that 95% of the world uses MS Office… so you open a document somebody sends you and voila! Doesn’t work or formatting is all wrong and stuff.

    That said, I do have some spreadsheets Imma try on LibreOffice and maybe I can eat my words ;)

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