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A Personal Evaluation

As The Document Foundation approaches its fifth birthday, it has released version 5.0 of its LibreOffice office suite, continuing its march to become an improved, flexible, and relevant resource in the office software field. Since its word processing module, Writer, is the most popular and improved part of the office suite, writers, in particular, have much to celebrate.

Here are my reactions, both positive and negative, for LibreOffice 5.0 (LO5).

Windows 64-bit software

Possibly the biggest improvement for Windows users is that LibreOffice is now available as a 64-bit application.

The pre-release version of LO5 was a 32-bit release, meaning it could work in Windows, as had the previous versions of LO, but it didn’t take advantage of the increased memory capacity and the ability of newer processors to access data 64 bits at a time.

When I upgraded from the 32-bit version of LO5 to the 64-bit version, I immediately noticed it loads faster and generally feels zippier than before.

The 64-bit LO5 works with Vista and Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and 10, but not with Windows XP. You need a computer, of course, with 64-bit processors. The program is available in 32-bit (x86), for other PCs, too. (The well-tested Stable version of LibreOffice, 4.4.5, intended for production environments, is only available as a 32-bit installation, which is the same as before.)

Windows users not using an antique PC should upgrade to 5.0 for no other reason than this.

Windows 10 Compatibility

The big news here is that there is no news. LO5 works fine in Windows 10. Period. In my day-to-day usage of 5.0 since upgrading to Windows 10, I’ve found the two work together well. No fancy integration; it just works.

New icon set

Breeze icons

The new breeze icon set is nicely designed.

A new more modern-looking icon set (from KDE) called Breeze has been added.

Breeze is nicely designed, mostly black and white with just a touch of color here and there. It would probably be my favorite of the icon sets if the icons were just a bit larger. I tried Breeze for a week or so and finally returned to the Sifr set (which was also improved). Sifr has bolder line strokes, is a bit larger, and I find it a bit easier on these old eyes. Also, the color dropdown menus with Sifr make their specific function a bit easier to discern.

Add the Breeze icons by going to the View tab in LibreOfficeOptions, and selecting Breeze from the drop-down list of icon sets.

Add the Breeze icons by going to the View tab in LibreOffice Options, and selecting Breeze from the drop-down list of icon sets.

LO5 also updated some of the icons in its Tango icon set.

I think LibreOffice should consider offering an extra-large version of its icon sets for users who are vision-impaired or just stare at the screen for too many hours.

Sidebar improvements

There are some modest improvements in the use of sidebars:

The toggle button to open and hide the sidebar is easier to see and click. (I actually asked for this improvement back before I tried the pre-release version. Thanks, guys.)

The Styles menu in the sidebar offers a preview look at the styles, like the drop-down styles menu in the Toolbar already did.

I recently posted an extensive tutorial on using LibreOffice Sidebars, Saddling Up for LibreOffice Sidebars with my ideas for more sidebar features.

Better Sharing with Microsoft Office

LO5 continues to improve its ability to share Microsoft documents back and forth, particularly with the OOXML format (Office Open XML, which is the newest Microsoft format, “DOCX” to writers.) See our recent Frugal Guidance 2 article, The Writer’s Guide to Word Processing File Formats for more info.

Other Modules, Too

All of the other parts of LO5 have been improved, too. See the extensive LibreOffice 5.0 Release Notes for more details.

Accumulated Improvements

As The Document Foundation releases a new version of LibreOffice every six months (a feat in itself), all the small improvements in the different versions begin to add up in many significant ways. The writer who left LO two years ago and returns now will find some very substantial improvements to the office suite, even as the over-all interface of menus and toolbars continues. The improvements include:

  • A completely redesigned and improved startup menu,
  • Better icon sets,
  • Better color pickers (for text color, highlight colors, and background colors) in the format toolbar, with a choice of different color palettes,
  • Better right-click tool options all around the interface,
  • An improved sidebar function (in fact, sidebars were added just two years ago),
  • Drop down menus that preview styles and fonts,
  • Support for many more languages, including regional variations,
  • Better tools for table design,
  • The ability to import files from an ever-growing list of current and abandoned programs, from old versions of Word, Publisher and Microsoft Works, to Macintosh Apple Pages and Numbers files (and older Mac software), outlining and graphics tools, and PDF files. For writers, this means the ability to open and use old work saved on different platforms.

The Writing Environment

As I’ve written in a recent series on using the LibreOffice interface, writers have a wide variety of tools in LO for editing and refining text, including menus, toolbars, sidebars, contextual menus, keyboard shortcuts and, if you bother to click and right-click on it, the status bar on the bottom of the Writer window. For the new user, the choices can be overwhelming.

That’s why I believe the most useful tool for a writer in LibreOffice is the ability to turn it all off and just write, using the full-screen mode, activated by entering Control-Shift-J. Toolbars and sidebars and such are very useful when editing. But they are a distraction when creating and putting new words on the screen.

A Couple of Criticisms

Firefox Theme Un-Support

In LibreOffice 4.0 (or was it 4.2?), we received the ability to customize the LO interface by adding Firefox Themes. What the user did back then was select a theme in the Firefox website, copy the URL for a specific color or design theme, and paste it into a box in the Personalization area of Options. That theme would load in the toolbars background. A bit klunky, but it worked fine.

A year ago, this was changed with an eye towards viewing choices completely within LibreOffice. Unfortunately, the new design made it impossible to simply paste in the URL of the desired theme. To change a theme, you go to Tools > Options > Personalization, then click on the Own Theme button, then click on Select Theme, click on one of the five tabs, wait about a minute, and then view nine tiny swatches of possible matches to choose. But trying to select from the thousands of Firefox themes by looking at swatches, nine at a time, is incredibly frustrating.

In LO5, however, even that limited tool is broken. Click on any of the five tabs and nothin’, absolutely nothin’, happens.

Your best bet is to go to the Firefox Themes website, find a theme you want to try, copy the name of the theme, open the LO5 tool, paste the name in, wait a while, and pray that a swatch of that theme shows up in one of the nine swatch slots. It wastes time and effort and frustrates the user, especially when the desired theme doesn’t even show. (Today, it worked once in three tries, which seems about average.)

Incidentally, clicking the Help button doesn’t actually find any help, either.

So, to LibreOffice programmers I plead: please, please, return to the method you had in 4.2 where you could simply paste in the URL of the desired theme. Forget the swatches; they’re unnecessary, slow and painful to use, and they don’t actually show what the theme looks like, even when they find the right one.

It should also not be necessary to spend so much time writing about what is a superficial detail to the user interface, except that LO is so bland color-wise that it truly benefits from some added color – just as office workers add photos and drawings and even toys to one’s office cubicle. It’s really a design problem.

So, really, please un-break the Firefox themes tool. (What were you thinking?)

A Firefox Theme design

After several frustrating tries, I finally found a Firefox theme that works well with the LibreOffice 5 menus. The Tree of Cats theme was not the one I was looking for (I’m a dog person, after all), but it adds a splash of color and humor.

Documentation

The Document Foundation needs to quickly update its documentation for using LO5. The most recent documentation is currently stuck in the version 4.2 to 4.4 range, with the Database manual now a full version behind at 4.0.

Since writers rarely produce books about using a free product (there’s not nearly the commercial incentive), the foundation needs to encourage more activity in this area. Sponsoring a blog that solicits users to add their own tips and ideas of using the suite might be useful, too. (The Frugal Guidance 2 blog has recently tried to help a small bit with some recent posts.)

Looking to the future

LibreOffice 5.0 also includes improvements in the code to help it work in future versions of LibreOffice for Android and for a cloud version of the suite. Although users like me can’t evaluate the progress of the code, it’s encouraging that The Document Foundation is being forward-looking while keeping its commitment to core Linux, Mac and Windows users.

Download it here

To download LibreOffice (for free, although they’ll accept a donation), go to the LibreOffice website. You’ll need to download and install the Help file separately, but it’s easy.

Easy to use LO5 installers are available for Windows users (XP or later), Macintosh users using OSX 10.8 or higher, and Linux Debian or Red Hat distributions.

Back to Writers – who should upgrade?

In balance, LO5 is a notable improvement in the software suite, and it is still one of the best, full-featured tools writers have, particularly for editing and publishing. It is both a word processor and a simpler page-layout program, especially for longer documents.

So, who should upgrade?

Current LibreOffice Users

Windows users who use modern computers, will enjoy the faster response if you install the 64-bit version of the program.

If you still need to use the 32-bit version of LibreOffice for Windows, you probably should still upgrade for the newer features and bug fixes unless you are in an office environment, where the Stable version is preferred.

I’m not able to evaluate the Mac and Linux versions, but I’ve heard of no reports to suggest the upgrade is a problem there. You’ll have to make your own decisions.

Apache OpenOffice Users

Apache OpenOffice users should try LibreOffice. As we mentioned in our recent post, Does Apache OpenOffice Need a Superhero Rescue?, there doesn’t appear to be the volunteer force in the AOO space to move that project forward as LO continues to improve.

Personally, I would love to have two active OpenOffice projects competing with each other. But Apache OpenOffice appears to be moribund, by their own admission. The past couple of years of improvements to LibreOffice make a compelling case for switching.

Some Microsoft Word Users

If you are a Microsoft Office user, and you’re happy with it and you’re working in an office environment that is tied in with Microsoft products, there’s no overwhelming need to switch to LibreOffice, assuming you don’t need specific features.

There are some areas where LibreOffice continues to shine, though, particularly for writers:

If you work on long documents of, say, hundreds of pages, LibreOffice has shown over time to be more stable than Microsoft Word, although most of the evidence is anecdotal. My longest LibreOffice document is over 700 pages and I’ve had no instability problems or data loss.

If you create PDF documents (for ebooks, email or web distribution, collaboration, or for sending work to a printshop), LibreOffice has many more options than Word. LO5 also lets you embed a LibreOffice document in your PDF so other LO users can open the PDF and edit it. Word can’t do that, although it’s probably not an oft-requested feature, either. LibreOffice is just superior in PDF creation.

If you need a variety of navigation tools to edit your long documents, LibreOffice has better search tools for finding bookmarks, tables, frames, images, hyperlinks and other objects, than Word. There’s a learning curve, but it works.

If you need documents with a variety of page styles, Word can’t compete with LibreOffice. (Word’s styles, generally, are easier for newbies, though.) If you don’t use style sheets, both programs are roughly equal in their many formatting features.

LibreOffice has better Table of Contents creation tools, and it’s easier to change TOC styles.

If you need advanced search using Regular Expressions (RegEx), I think LibreOffice is the better choice, although I’m still learning.

All Writers

As we’ve recently pointed out on this blog, if you, a writer, are concerned about whether you will be able to open your files in 20, 30 or 40 years, I think LO and its ODF file system is a better bet than Word and most other proprietary programs. For longevity, however, you should probably also save your work in PDF, OOXML, text, and HTML formats, just to hedge your bets. LO5 creates all of these.

If you use an older computer or system, with limited memory or hard disk space, LibreOffice is a much smaller installation than Microsoft Office and should run with less memory.

If you need to open and edit legacy files from now-obsolete programs, LO opens a much wider variety of word processing, page layout, outlining, and graphics files than its competitors. Even if I used a different program, I’d keep a copy of LibreOffice around if I regularly had to open old files and print, edit or save them to a newer format.

If saving money is important, or if you simply don’t like “renting” your software, a free software suite has many attractions. Those attractions wouldn’t exist, though, if the software couldn’t do the job.

Philosophically, if you like the idea of programmers banding together to help develop high-quality, no-cost software for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, then the open source movement, of which The Document Foundation and LibreOffice is a small part, should be attractive.

Congratulations

So, let me give hearty congratulations and thanks to the people of The Document Foundation, its volunteers, and the movement that makes it all work. Maybe they can’t afford a fancy marketing campaign to congratulate themselves, but we can congratulate them. And we do, with thanks.

Resources:

For a history of the LibreOffice project, see Italo Vignoli’s The Road to LibreOffice 5.0 on the TDF website.

Another review by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, LibreOffice 5: The best office suite today won’t cost you a dime on ZDNet.

Also a review by Blair Hanley Frank, LibreOffice gets major update with version 5, is now Windows 10 compatible on ComputerWorld.com.

Screenshots are by the author.

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