Wrapping Up the 1-Month Great, Frugal Summer-Doldrums Software Experiment

Apache OpenOffice & LibreOffice

Comparisons, Features, and Wish Lists for Open Source Office Software

The steamy dog-days of summer are over; the leaves are beginning to change colors; Labor Day is past and students are in school, so it’s time to end our Great, Frugal Summer-Doldrums Software Experiment.

Here are some of the things I learned in a month of not using Microsoft Office. (And, no, I still haven’t installed it on my new computer.)

Which is better, LibreOffice (LO) or Apache OpenOffice (AOO)?

Frankly, the two programs are still so similar, it’s a coin toss. I’m giving the edge to LibreOffice, mainly because Apache OpenOffice had problems opening PDFs with embedded OpenOffice files and only LibreOffice allows you to save your files in Microsoft’s XML formats. (I don’t understand why Apache OpenOffice hasn’t figured that out, yet.) Also, LibreOffice allows you to embed font info with their files if you are sharing them with somebody who doesn’t have that particular font; Apache OpenOffice doesn’t.

AOO might be slightly zippier than LibreOffice, though, and some of the dialogue boxes are a bit more attractive. AOO’s download is a bit smaller, but LO’s includes more stuff, I think. AOO was the first to introduce the sidebar, which I find to be surprisingly useful. That advantage was quickly erased, however, when LibreOffice also imported that feature.

How do LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice Compete with Microsoft Office?

Better than I expected. There are some things LO/AOO actually do better than Microsoft Office and vice versa. Here’s what I’ve learned:

PDF Creation

LO/AOO both have much better tools for creating PDFs than Microsoft, with many more options. The open software twins might actually be a better platform for e-books and the web than Microsoft – although there is room for improvement from all three.

Style Tools

LO/AOO have much more control over styles, including character styles, paragraph styles, page styles, frame styles and list styles. (For example, Microsoft lets you change page settings, but won’t let you save them as in LO/AOO.)

With more features and more control comes more complexity and the Document and Apache Foundations would do well to try to improve both the features and the user interface. I’ve barely scratched the surface of styles in my month of using the programs, so there is more to be said about the topic. Microsoft has an advantage in interface, in my opinion: styles with style.

Long Document Navigation

LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice have a unique Navigator control, surpassing what Microsoft offers. Microsoft has a better Go to Page function; but LO/AOO let you search for headings, tables, text frames, graphics, OLE objects, bookmarks, sections, hyperlinks, references, indexes, comments and draw objects. If you can remember to name these bits and pieces, finding them is even easier.

For these reasons, I think there are advantages to using LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice for long form writers and editors, as well as e-book producers. However, since most of my writing recently has been for blog posts, I’ve not fully tested all these features.

Customization

Although Microsoft Office may have invented many customization options, I think there are even more controls in LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice. I like the addition of Firefox themes in LibreOffice, but that’s, in part, because the basic look of LO/AOO is much more bland than Microsoft’s. Microsoft is more polished in many respects, and I still count the ribbon interface as an advantage for Microsoft, although the new AOO sidebars make the advantage smaller.

All the programs let you add and organize menus and create macros. LO/AOO use a different form of BASIC to program macros than does Microsoft, so they are not usually interchangeable.

Plug-ins and Add-ons

Here the advantage clearly goes to open source software for added program features. There are a few plug-in programs for Microsoft Office, but more for LO/AOO. LO/AOO seems to have wider language support, including many language dictionaries that can be downloaded for free.

For example, one of the features I liked in Word – and had problems with in Writer – was being able to easily search for invisible characters (for tabs, paragraph marks, blank spaces, footnotes, etc.) Then I found a LibreOffice plug-in called Alternative Find and Replace for Writer, which blows Microsoft’s search out of the water. I think this is an essential plugin if you do a lot of writing and editing in Writer. Too bad it doesn’t extend to the rest of the suite.

The new Find and Replace sidebar in Word 2010, however, is an interface feature I actually like and I’m surprised that the Apache programmers didn’t include that when they added sidebars.

Clip Art Galleries and Templates

Here the clear winner is Microsoft. Their clip art gallery (accessible in another Microsoft sidebar) is more extensive and the artwork looks much more professional. The new versions of LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice have improved their art collections, but there’s still a lot of work that can be done here. The same goes for templates.

Outlining

Microsoft has a real outliner in Word. LO/AOO don’t have real, click-and-move outlining. They should.

When it comes to creating mind maps and turning them into outlines and then to text files, however, my iPad has better tools than any of the office suites.

Grammar and Spelling Checking

Grammar checking is something that Microsoft does much better than open source software. There is some rudimentary grammar checking in LO/AOO but it doesn’t compete, at least not in English.

Spell checking seems to be pretty much equal with all the programs, at least in English. The open source options for spelling in non-English languages might be variable, depending on the language. If you write using more than one language, it might be worthwhile to look at the commercial, German-based SoftMaker Office 2012, which supports more languages out of the box, plus many non-European, non-Latin languages. If somebody wanted to do a language-by-language comparison of these office suites, that would be very useful! (Probably not this blogger, though.)

Crash Recovery

While using LibreOffice, I have had more instances of the program ending unexpectedly than with the other programs. However, each time, LibreOffice reopened with the option to recover the file, and the recovery worked each time! I don’t think I ever lost more than 15 seconds worth of work. I’ve had fewer crashes in Microsoft Office, but the few have sometimes lost more data. I don’t recall any crashes in Apache OpenOffice, it might be a bit more stable than LO, but I’ve used that program less than the others, too.

Other Features

I have not been able to test every feature in LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice in just a month. Another writer, Bruce Byfield (links below), has noted other areas where LO/AOO are superior to Microsoft Office, including:

  • WYSIWYG Headers and Footers. They look closer to how they’ll print in LO/AOO.
  • Document Properties. Mostly useful in corporate environments, only LO/AOO allow you to add additional properties for your files.
  • Paragraph by paragraph hyphenation; Microsoft’s controls only allow you one setting for the entire document. This might be especially useful for e-book publishers.

Platforms

Although Microsoft came out with Word for the Macintosh before they released Word for Windows, ever since then, their Mac suites have been second-place citizens to the Windows versions, with longer waits for new features. Microsoft’s OneNote – one of the best features of Office – still hasn’t been ported over to Macintosh! (It is on iOS and Android, though.)

I haven’t tried LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice for the Mac (my Macintosh days may be behind me). I’ve read of issues, but it seems that Macintosh users are fairly well served.

Microsoft Office is so firmly entrenched in the Windows world, it’s hard to compete, even with free software. Note that I didn’t say impossible.

Microsoft has completely abdicated the Linux world to others, with many Linux installers including either LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice. (See also SoftMaker Office, mentioned above, for their Linux version, too.)

You can also install LO/AOO on a portable USB drive (sometimes called a thumb drive), which you could never do with the Microsoft suite.

However, on the Web, Microsoft is competing with Google and Zoho for online apps, and, if you are on the move or collaborating, it’s one of Microsoft’s better features. Now that Microsoft is manufacturing tablets and getting into the phone biz, they should be making big improvements to their tablet and phone apps, too.

There have been reports of prototypes and proof-of-concept projects for web and for tablets for some form of OpenOffice. If the Document or Apache Foundations are doing any significant development in these areas, though, they’re keeping it very close to the vest.

Sharing Files

Each of these programs has made progress in translating and sharing files.

Microsoft Office now allows you to open and save files in OpenDocument (odf) formats.

Both LO/AOO have made improvements in importing Microsoft files (some improvement still needed, as we’ve seen). In fact, LO and AOO might open more old versions of Microsoft Word and Excel than Microsoft Office! LO/AOO may be the Swiss Army Knives of office software, opening and saving in many formats.

LibreOffice exports files in Microsoft’s older and newer (XML) file formats, and both LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice are great for creating PDF’s. There is a LibreOffice plugin, MultiSave, that allows you to simultaneously save a file in OpenDocument, Microsoft, and PDF formats, but I haven’t tested it yet.

My LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice Wish List

I posted a wish list of features in my previous analysis of Apache OpenOffice 4.0. Here’s an update. (Note that no software package has all of these features – but wishes, like Christmas gift lists, should be full-featured.)

  • A tabbed interface to make it easier to keep track of and switch between open documents.
  • A projects tab or sidebar to group certain files together to save and open simultaneously. A dashboard that keeps track of named projects and their related files would be nice, too.
  • Incorporate the features of the Alternative Find and Replace for Writer plug-in into not only Writer, but as appropriate for the other modules as well.
  • Advanced grammar checking, in English, please.
  • A simple, one-click, Zenware-like, plain text editing mode that instantly turns off all automatic formatting when I don’t want it (say for editing HTML or simply for creating plain text files for my blog).
  • Along with the previous wish, the addition of Markdown for creating simple HTML. Markdown is common in iOS and Mac programs, but is still rare on the PC. Also, be able to copy or export just the Markdown HTML.
  • As an alternative to the previous wish, some way of easily sharing text, data, stylesheets, tables, and HTML between LO or AOO and WordPress. There are millions of bloggers looking for better writing and editing tools than the current offerings. If LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice could fill that gap, its popularity could soar.
  • Provide a decent outlining tool with drag and drop outlining. Or how about going a step further with a combined mindmapping/outlining tool, using one of the open source mindmapping programs?
  • Finish updating the “printed” documentation available online for LibreOffice, adding the same for Apache OpenOffice.
  • Update Base to make it easier to use by non-programming and amateur database designers.

Wait, There’s More! A Sidebar Wish List

Now that sidebars are part of LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice, here are more sidebars I’d like to see (mostly for writers):

  • Find and Replace (with the added features mentioned above)
  • The built-in dictionary and thesaurus tools
  • Internet search and reference tools to provide one-click access to online dictionaries, Wikipedia, grammar checkers, and other reference sites, such as language dictionaries
  • Google Translate
  • Sidebar access to LibreOffice’s and Apache OpenOffice’s own online help files and templates
  • Mail merge
  • Autocorrect
  • Functions and formulas in Calc
  • Database / List tools for Calc (for using sortable, searchable lists)

I’d also be interested in exploring alternatives to the current menus. An interface that combines traditional menus with a parallel popup toolbar would be excellent. (I envision a combination of Menus plus a ribbon-like toolbar. See Zoho.com’s Writer if you want to see a simple version of what I mean.)

It Doesn’t End Here

I want to thank all the programmers, volunteers, organizers and document writers who have worked on the OpenOffice projects, past and present. As a result, LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice are impressive office suites that can finally compete with commercial programs.

The experiment continues. I plan on trying more modules and features in the future, so stay tuned for more posts from time to time, either in my name or by our software expert, The Frugal Parson.

Further Reading

Here are two articles by Bruce Byfield I found to be extremely useful for comparing LibreOffice and Microsoft Office:

How LibreOffice Writer Tops MS Word: 12 Features

How Microsoft Office Tops LibreOffice: 11 Features

Readers, do you have any other tips or tricks for using LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice? Please share in the comments.

See our other Frugal Guidance 2 posts on using LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice:

Creating PDFs in LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice

Using Apache OpenOffice Sidebars – in LibreOffice!

Creating Your Own Business Cards in LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice

Installing LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice on Windows 8

The Great, Frugal Summer-Doldrums Software Experiment, Part 1

Trying the New Apache OpenOffice 4.0

How to Customize the New LibreOffice 4.0

LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice Preview Improvements

The Frugal Parson’s Guide to LibreOffice and OpenOffice, Part I

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