Some Great New Features, Two #Fails, and a Couple of Quibbles
write a blog called “Frugal Guidance” and discuss frugal software options. So, when The Document Foundation announced LibreOffice 4.4 was released, I immediately downloaded it. At first, it seemed that most of the changes were cosmetic, but when I dug into the features and checked out the change lists, I discovered there’s some real meat to this upgrade, and a couple of frustrating features.
Full disclosure: Although I’ve used LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice as my main office suites for the past year and a half, I also use text editors for my blogging and Microsoft Office for proofreading for corporate clients. As I write this, though, I’m using LibreOffice Writer and exploring its new features.
So What’s New with LibreOffice 4.4?
Redesigned Icons and Toolbars
LibreOffice introduced its set of monochrome, flat-design-inspired Sifr icons last summer. They’ve now expanded the set of icons, which works well with the rearranged Standard and Formatting toolbars in Writer. Icon sets Tango and Oxygen have also received new designs. Personally, I find the Sifr icons easier to read and use.
LibreOffice offers six (count ’em, six) icon sets, compared to Apache OpenOffice’s four.
The Formatting Toolbar
The Formatting Toolbar has received a good number of improvements:
- The Style dropdown menu previews the look of the formatting options, which is much more intuitive than Apache OpenOffice’s plain-text style choices.
- The Style menu now shows an arrow next to any highlighted style with options to Update or Edit the selected style.
The Font selection drop-down menu also previews the different fonts.
- The Font Color, Highlighting and Background Color tools all use a new color selection box that shows your recent choices and also offers a choice of different palettes.
- The Line Spacing, Bullets and Numbering tools now have drop-down menus as well.
With these changes, the toolbar options are friendlier and easier to access. They also duplicate the options of the Properties sidebar. If you are just learning how to use LibreOffice, it might make sense to choose one or the other for your basic formatting tasks. But, there is another option, too…
Contextual menus are those mini-menus that pop up when you right-click on your mouse.
In LibreOffice Writer, the contextual menus include:
- Cut, copy, paste, and “paste special” (including the option to paste unformatted text),
- Shortcuts to formatting dialogue boxes for: Character, Paragraph, Page, Bullets and Numbering,
- Change Case options: (UPPER case to lower, lower to UPPER, Sentence case, Word Caps, and rEVERSE options),
- Style options, and
- Quick access to a list of synonyms (your cursor needs to be in a text area to see this).
Curiously, access to Font, Font Size and Text alignment options have been removed from the context menu. This seems odd, but apparently studies show they weren’t used much.
If you have automatic spell-checking enabled (Tools –> Automatic Spell Checking), right-click on a suspected word to find spelling suggestions and other options.
If you right-click on a graphic in your Writer document, you see a slew of graphics-usable options, too. There are also customized contextual menus for inserted tables and spreadsheet cells.
Of course, if you are in Calc (the spreadsheet module), you’ll see a bunch of spreadsheet formatting options, too.
In short, with these contextual menus, you can access most of the features found in the formatting toolbar or the sidebar. So, if you want, you can you can hide your menus and the sidebars to expand your writing space and get rid of distractions.
While you are right-clicking around the screen, note that you can also right-click on any toolbar to get a drop-down list of the same commands plus the option to edit which features show in that toolbar. This pop-up menu also lets you access the Customize Toolbar window, and dock, lock and close any toolbar with a right-click. I don’t know if this is a new feature, but I had never noticed it in previous versions.
Curiously, right-clicking on a sidebar doesn’t offer the same control over commands, so toolbars are still much more flexible than sidebars. This is good to know if you like to customize your workspace.
LibreOffice already had great options for creating PDFs. Newly added is the ability to add Digital Signatures. This should be particularly useful for legal, banking, and business documents shared electronically. If you need to create lots of PDFs, LibreOffice is much more flexible than Microsoft Office.
If more than one person is editing and proofing a document, it makes sense to keep track of the changes different editors make. In this version, LibreOffice has redesigned the change tracking toolbar; access it from View –> Toolbars –> Changes. (If you don’t use the tracking toolbar, go to Edit –> Track Changes to enable tracking).
- Show changes,
- Record changes (turn the change tracking on),
- Navigate to the previous or next change,
- Accept and Reject changes,
- Manage changes (which opens a list view of the changes),
- Comment on Change (to add a comment to a specific change),
- Protect changes (to keep somebody from editing them), and
- Compare two or more documents.
There’s also an arrow on the bar of the floating menu which also gives you the option to add a comment or to merge, well, to merge something. (I don’t know what.) These two options and others are also available if you right-click on the Changes menu bar, which is good because the arrow disappears when you dock the toolbar to any of the four sides of the document window. In my opinion, it would have been better to add comment icons to the Changes toolbar rather than hiding them under a dropdown menu.
When you turn on Track Changes any new editing is done with a different color font. You can then navigate through the changes with the toolbar or by right-clicking on the changed text.
All of this is on top of the improved comments released last summer (see Insert –> Comment). All in all, these are excellent improvements for anybody who needs to edit or collaborate on a document.
Rulers and the Status Bar
The rulers (in Writer) are a bit thinner and, thus, use space more efficiently; use Ctrl-Shift-R to turn them on and off.
The Status Bar (the thin info bar below the document, has also been improved for clearer page numbering and easier reading. Clicking on a box with the left mouse button results in an action or a dialog box; right-clicking in appropriate areas allows for menu selections; and pointing at any element shows a tool tip.
Revamped Start Center
As you start up LibreOffice, you see the Start Center. With this version, you not only see small versions of your recent documents, but also templates. A few templates are included.
The Start Center is so useful now, it brings up the question of whether you should be able to use it anytime. Currently you have to close all your documents or quit and restart to see the Start Center. Maybe the Recent Documents list should be replaced by the Start Center?
Many people will only find this is if you create presentations. You can now use OpenGL’s 3D slide transitions in Presentations in Windows. Apparently this was already included in the Mac and Linux versions. You can control use of OpenGL under Tools–>Options–> LibreOffice –> View, under Graphics Output.
Personally, OpenGL sounds like something I would want to promote, but it would be nice if some techie could actually explain, in non-techie terms, what it is in the context of LibreOffice.
In Writer, Calc, and Draw, the sidebar function shows a set of tabs by default. These open and close the appropriate sidebars, which makes it easier to access and you don’t have to hunt for the tiny little edge dots to open and close all the sidebars. The old Gallery and Styles and Formatting floating panels are gone and incorporated into the sidebar.
Importing Files from Legacy Applications
LibreOffice Draw can now import Adobe PageMaker files (from versions 6 and 7), and both Draw and Writer can import MacDraw, MacDraw II, and RagTime images for the Mac. This continues LibreOffice’s drive to import legacy files from older Mac and PC programs, including Microsoft Works, Microsoft Publisher, Lotus Office files, AbiWord (an open source word processor) and other programs. In turn, this improves LibreOffice’s use both as a productivity tool and as a means of transferring legacy files from out-of-date proprietary file formats into standard, non-proprietary file formats (important for governments and companies who need to keep files accessible for a long time).
You can also import Sony BroadBand eBook files, if you find any.
In PR sent from The Document Foundation and its people, one of the features of version 4.4 supposedly is:
“Installation of free fonts Carlito and Caladea to replace proprietary Microsoft C-fonts Calibri and Cambria, to get rid of font related issues while opening OOXML files[.]”
Further, the LibreOffice website also says:
The only problem is that the update doesn’t include the advertised fonts (at least not in the Windows installer) and the fonts are not mentioned in the Release Notes. So there seems to be some confusion about this from right at the top. I was certainly confused and spent some time searching for the fonts, myself.
But, it is easy to install these fonts separately, and they will make more accurate formatting if you import Microsoft Office files (assuming you don’t already have Calibri and Cambria, which do come with recent versions of Windows).
So why are these new fonts important? Caladea is an open-source, free font that preserves the spacing and basic look of Microsoft’s proprietary Cambria. (Reportedly, they’re “metric-compatible.”) Similarly, Carlito is a free, open-source font that preserves the look of Microsoft’s Calibri.
Having the two new fonts makes it easier to import Microsoft Office documents and keep their look and spacing, even if you don’t have Microsoft’s C-suite of fonts (Constantia, Corbel, Calibri, Cambria, Candara, and Consolas). Cambria and Calibri appear to be the favorites of the set.
So, if you do want to install the fonts, the Open Font Library offers Carlito here. You can also download Caladea here. (Don’t confuse the silly “Download Here” ads for the actual “Download Carlito” or “Download Caladea” buttons.)
I even did a comparison of the pairs of fonts to show the differences between them and to show that they do appear to line up quite nicely. To view the differences, check the shape of the serifs, the curves, the punctuation marks and the ampersands. The open source versions are definitely not a ripoff of the Microsoft versions.
Two #Fails and a Couple of Quibbles
The Good, The Bad, and (yes, you know it’s coming), The Ugly
(Twitter hashtag: #ObligatoryOverusedSpaghettiWesternTitleReference)
There is a changed interface for selecting Firefox themes in order for them to show up in the background of the menu bar and toolbars (above and below the document).
I would hardly call it an improvement. Before version 4.4, you could go to Mozilla’s Add-Ons website, and browse through, oh, maybe 300,000 decorative themes to find the one you like. All you had to do was paste the URL for that theme into a box and it would show up on your LibreOffice background. Sometimes it even would look good.
Now, to find themes, you navigate Tools –> Options –> Personalization, click on the radio button for Own Theme, then the Select Theme button. Then click on a tab to see which themes are available under it.
There are nine themes in each tab (which load very slowly), and five tabs. Now, I’m no mathematician, but that appears to be 45 possible themes vs. 300,000 online. If all 45 worked, that might be OK, but most of them are too dark to use in LibreOffice and end up hiding the toolbar icons and often the menus, too. (See sample below.) In many of them, the Sifr icons simply disappear.
Yes, there is a search bar, but it can’t find the themes I want, even if I enter the URL to the theme (which gives an error message) or its name. The old box to simply enter the URL is gone.
This seems to be a matter of good intentions gone horribly wrong.
In my experience, only very light themes, or themes where the artwork only shows up on the far right of the header area, work in LibreOffice.
If you must use a dark theme, your best bet is to use the Hicontrast icon set, but I advise against it for user interface reasons. Plus, the Hicontrast icons are ugly. You could also use only the sidebars – but if you hide the toolbars, there’s hardly any room for the artwork to show. (You could move your needed toolbars to the sides and use unneeded toolbars above and below just to show the artwork, but that’s just wrong on so many levels.)
User feedback in a word: blech!
Connecting to Microsoft’s OneDrive
This version of LibreOffice is supposed to make it easier to save and share documents with Microsoft’s OneDrive (it’s online web storage area) in addition to SharePoint files. I’ve not been able to figure out how to do this, yet and haven’t found any instructions on how. (Neither has Google.) I even crawled through all of LibreOffice’s Options windows to see if there was a clue there. Nope.
Yes, it’s nice to pump up your features list, LibreOffice, but it would be nice to show people how to use those new features, too.
As good as these improved toolbars, sidebars, and contextual menus are, they don’t seem to lead to much decluttering of the menus or the items in them. (It was a similarly cluttered menu structure that Microsoft was trying to fix when they changed over to the ribbon interface in Office 2007.) As it is, there are probably at least three ways to do anything in LibreOffice.
For example, to format your text you can 1) show the formatting toolbar and find the correct icon, or 2) use the Character… dialogue box, or 3) use the right-click Contextual menus, or 4) use the Formatting Tools Sidebar, or 5) memorize the keyboard shortcuts, or 6) click a character style in the sidebar. Choice is good, but too many choices can be overwhelming, especially to beginners. Perhaps a one-click toggle between simple and full-featured formatting could be devised. (Some days, I really miss MacWrite. Other days I use FocusWriter.)
Likewise, the Options area (which allows you to customize almost any setting) badly needs rethinking and reorganizing. Trying to find the correct area for most features is a trial-and-error search. Splitting formatting and writing options between LibreOffice, LibreOffice Writer and LibreOffice Writer/Web is confusing and illogical. Hopefully this can receive some attention soon.
If That’s Not Enough Info…
See the LibreOffice 4.4 Release Notes for further info and an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of all the changed in version 4.4.
With this latest upgrade, LibreOffice is edging ahead (again) in its competition with Apache OpenOffice for improved user-friendly design. LibreOffice is appropriate for a home office, a college dorm, a small business, or as a standard for large governments, universities and other educational institutions, and corporations.
LibreOffice is also continually improving its ability to share files back-and-forth with Microsoft Office. Since MO continually changes, this is a constant challenge.
LibreOffice is also making it easier to import older Macintosh and Windows documents, ranging from page-layout programs, artwork, defunct Microsoft products, outliners, and more. Also, its file formats are international standards. This should help preserve access to the data over time.
There is no single perfect office suite. LibreOffice has its disadvantages, too. If you prefer to work or collaborate in the cloud, you’re currently better off with commercial offerings from Microsoft, Google, Zoho and others. Hopefully, this will change in the future.
All three major office suites (Microsoft, LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice) are full-featured (and thus complicated) programs. They all have substantial learning curves – but reward you if you take the time. If all you need are very basic writing tools there are lots of alternatives – see our articles on Zenware writing tools. But if you need to publish, print, create PDFs, or do actual office work, LibreOffice is a good choice. And it’s free. Always.
To try LibreOffice 4.4 for yourself, you want LibreOffice Fresh, available here.
All screenshots for this article were taken using LibreOffice 4.4 in a Windows environment. Some shots were resized, and the actual size will vary, depending on which size window you are reading this blog on.
The LibreOffice logo was from their website and belongs to The Document Foundation.