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Review: LibreOffice Productivity Suite 3.5.0

20 February 2012, Software Publisher

There aren’t many things in life that you can say are completely free. In the case of free software, you often find that you are having to make some sort of compromise whether it be in putting up with a limited version of a commercial application, enduring advertisements, or simply having to work with something that is less than impressive in terms of standards. Almost every computer user has need for an office suite, or at least some component of it, at some point, if not every day of their lives. Microsoft Office may be the most widely installed suite, but for the average user it is expensive and unless a copy came pre-installed on your computer, you may not feel inclined to part with that amount of money. This explains the increased interest in free alternatives, and one such suite is LibreOffice Productivity Suite which has just hit the milestone release number of 3.5.0.

It is fair to say that an office suite is not the most exciting piece of software anyone is going to be installing, but it is something that is vital to so many people and it is important that it does its job well. One of the reasons Microsoft Office is so popular is the fact that it is so feature-packed that it can cater for almost any requirements you may have. When you start to look at free alternatives, you’ll often find that quality starts to slip and important features start to get dropped. These are not charges that can be leveled at LibreOffice which is just about as riddled with features as you could possibly hope. Should you be unfamiliar with the suite, this particular set of office programs comprises a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing tool, presentation application, a database and an equation editor.

Fully loaded suite

LibreOffice Writer has everything you need to create letters, novels and more

It is impressive to see that a database tool has been included, and while this is not something that everyone will need it great to see that no corners have been cut. For many people, the cornerstone of any office suite is the word processor, and LibreOffice’s offering is suitably adorned with everything you would expect. On the fly spell checking has become a fairly standard feature of modern word processors and while grammar checking is sometimes available, it is often slow and unreliable. The latest version of LibreOffice sees the introduction of a faster checker and improved handling of errors to help make it clearer what issues have been detected. Recent changes to the handling of headers and footers make these document components even easier to work with.

But an office suite is about more than the word processor, and the spreadsheet tool is just as important. Calc is an extremely competent program that is Excel compatible and now boasts support for documents that contain up to 10,000 sheets. Elsewhere in the suite you’ll also find the presentation tool Impress, drawing and logo creation app Draw, and Math the equation and formulae editor. Each of these programs has very much the same look, so once you have spent time using any of them, you’ll immediately feel at home in any of the others.

Speedy development

This is an office suite that has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. Breaking away from OpenOffice has led to a faster development cycle which in turn has mean that it has been possible to address issues that have been causing problems for users in different ways. Something that has long deterred serious writers from making the switch to LibreOffice was the lack of a live word count. This might seem like a minor point, but when you need to write to a word count, you want to be able to focus on getting the words down on the page rather than having to keep checking through menus to see how many more words you have left to work with. The addition of a live word count to the latest version is a small but important change, and just goes to demonstrate that such a little thing makes such as big difference, and is an excellent example of listening to the target audience.

LibreOffice Calc supports gigantic spreadsheets of up to 10,000 sheets

In the past, if you wanted to keep up to date with the latest version of the suite, it meant having to perform a manual check online to see if anything new had been released. Arguably one of the most useful additions to the software is the update availability notifier – when a new release hits the servers, the program will let you know so you can update your program straight away. There are few complaints with LibreOffice, but where it does fall down slightly is in terms of looks. The toolbars are a little cluttered and the design of some of the buttons a little busy, and the aforementioned live word count, while useful, has been oddly implemented so a separate window needs to be kept open to monitor a changing word count.

The way the installer works is interestingly different to other apps and recognizes the fact that making the switch from one office suite to another is a big step. On the one hand, the installer informs you that it could be used as the default handler for Word, Excel and PowerPoint document – but importantly, does not steal file associations by default – and also points out the fact that if you are only trying out the suite you might want to leave this option disabled. This is a small touch, but it irons out an annoyance that has plagued too many other programs in the past.

Cross-platform compatibility

A big plus point for LibreOffice is the fact that it is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Cost conscious computer users may have opted to go down the Linux route to save money on hardware and software, and this suite is available for users of this operating system. But if you are working in a multi-platform office environment, or want a reliable way to collaborate on projects with people using different systems, this is a great way of ensuring a level playing field on which everyone has access to the same tools and options and does not have to worry about incompatibility issues.

Overall, this is an office suite that comes highly recommended. The decision to break away from the main OpenOffice product has led to a faster development cycle and this has resulted in the impressive product we now see before us. Choosing an office suite is quite a personal affair, and it is not possible for one suite to cater to the needs of every user. LibreOffice Productivity Suite 3.5.0 achieves an excellent balance of everyday features that are intuitive and more powerful options that will be welcomed by businesses and power users. Whether you are currently in the market for a new office suite or not, this is well worth taking a look at as you may just be swayed. However it is worth noting that this release (version 3.5.0) is recommended for power users – The Document Foundation recommends that less technically minded users and businesses hold off updating for the time being.

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