LibreOffice 4.0: First Take

LibreOffice 4.0: First Take

Summary: Don't need all the new features and cloud integration in Microsoft's Office 2013 — or just hate the ribbon? The new version 4.0 of the free LibreOffice could be what you need, but it's not the milestone it claims to be.


LibreOffice 4 promises a range of improvements, from better compatibility with Office documents and document management systems to the usual catch-up features in Writer and Calc. However, the most significant improvements continue to be under the hood, where most users won't notice them. 

As with the previous release, the LibreOffice software is (finally) bundled into a single installer for Windows — and the installer is polite enough to ask which document types you want to associate with the software, and not to have loading LibreOffice when Windows starts up as the default any more. But it's still annoying to have to download the help separately, especially as most of the help menus point to the web.

LibreOffice 4 feels faster than the 3.5 version we looked at last, but you might want to consider having LibreOffice load at startup if you use it a lot as this still speeds up application-opening considerably (even so, Office 2010 applications on the same PC loaded about twice as fast in our tests).

The interface remains firmly in the last decade with menus, toolbars and icons that don't seem to have changed in years (although major changes in the way the interface is built could make it easier to move to a new interface design in future).

Actually, you can already choose from multiple different icons sets or even add one of the thousands of Firefox personas to jazz up the interface. This is a much wider choice than the dozen themes and three colour schemes in Office 2013, although picking a persona repeatedly caused LibreOffice to hang in Windows 7 and the more colourful personas can leave the toolbars rather hard to read. The Linux version also integrates with the Unity interface for the GNOME desktop. It would make more sense to put these options in the installer rather than leaving them buried in the options. Other UI improvements are more useful, like a new Template Manager dialog and seeing previews of fonts in the Fonts drop-down on the toolbar.

Get a new look for LibreOffice 4 with a Firefox persona, but watch out for hidden icons.

The new features are certainly useful, but feel a little haphazard. LibreOffice 4 adds four new open-source font families, although two of them are for code. You can finally save charts as images directly from Calc rather than copying and pasting them, and there are a handful of new conditional spreadsheet functions and conditional formats for highlighting information inside spreadsheet cells. The improved header support from LibreOffice 3.6 gets another feature; you can have different headers and footers on the first page of your document by selecting an option in a dialog box rather than applying a different page style. You can resize images in draw and Impress — and oddly in Calc, but not in Writer.

An easier way to get a different header on your title page.

The most interesting new feature is only available on Linux for now (and it's very much a work in progress): the Impress Android Remote app lets you control a presentation on your notebook over Bluetooth. You can see thumbnails of your slides, read your speaker notes, move to the next slide using the volume control on the phone or blank the screen.

Remote control — for Android and Linux only.

LibreOffice 4 improves its support for Microsoft Office document formats, although we still see issues with some layout features (including table positioning and the new support for ink annotations from Word, which don't always render correctly). If you're adding comments to a Writer document you can now select a range of text to link the comment to (and comments created in Word show up linked to the full original text range rather than a single point, which can make it easier to understand the point under discussion). You can now open Microsoft Publisher layouts in Draw — this works better on simpler layouts and doesn't support all the objects you can create in Publisher (web layout controls and forms won't show up for example). This is one of the major Office formats that's been missing, so it's good to see it added to LibreOffice. LibreOffice also supports Visio files in all formats, including Visio 2013.

Ink in Word 2010 and Writer.

Welcome for larger businesses is support for checking documents in and out of document libraries directly in LibreOffice 4, as long as they support the CMIS open standard (that includes SharePoint 2010 and 2013 as well as Alfresco and various open-source document management systems). Unlike the SharePoint integration in Microsoft Office 2010 and 2013, this isn't easy to find how to access a document library in LibreOffice so IT teams will need to offer some user education.

The Document Foundation (the organization behind LibreOffice) calls version 4 a milestone release. It's hard to agree, though — unless the milestone is more like the starting line. On the surface this looks like a welcome point release that improves compatibility, although bringing the Android remote presentation control to Windows will make it more significant. However, after all this time we were hoping for a much more major update. In many ways, LibreOffice is still catching up from years of neglect, and the new influx of enthusiastic developers has been an opportunity to clean up the code and build foundations that might deliver something more than an incremental update next time. Still, if you need an alternative to Microsoft Office, LibreOffice is worth considering — especially as it's free.

Topics: Software, Linux, Open Source, Reviews

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Talk about unproductive

    Over a decade ago Microsoft released Office 2000 and on the product box it said 'What productivity means today'. Over a decade later, we have Libre Office 4.0 and the slogan is 'What being unproductive is' would be the perfect slogan of this suite. When you launch a productivity app such as a wordprocessor, spreadsheet or presentation graphics you are in it to get work done, not waste time dressing up tool bars. Its a complete distraction. Look at the persona in app, you can hardly see the bold button or Table, its all lost. Which ultimately means, you be spending most of your time squinting looking for the right button to click or spending a lot of time clicking the wrong thing. I personally produce a lot of professional documents because I help prepare the exam papers that students use. So I use tools like bullets, tabs, equation editor. In addition for things like PTA meetings producing mass documents are important so Mail Merge is heavily used.

    Now, I can imagine the amount of lost time trying to get work done with this new look. I use Office 2013 and it is themeable, in fact, I have been able to theme Office since version 2003, but its subtle. Yes, customization is nice and the approach to computing is more personalized since this stems from BYOD culture. But LibreOffice takes it too far. The theme backgrounds in Office 2013 are subtle and does not over power the user interface and are located in aspects of the interface that does not interfere with the core tools (Ribbon).

    Another thing I love about Microsoft Office 2013 is the ability to sign in and have my documents sync with Skydrive and have most recent documents I working on show up in the Recent (File) menu. That is what productivity is and its obvious Libre Office does not realize that. I like the quick get started templates from the Start Screen so I can quickly jump onto a project right away. Performance is also another feature I like, MS Office apps open fast, I don't have to spend time waiting on the suite.
    • Worried about something?

      MS Office is an expensive piece of SW and LibreOffice is free. Some users need what MS Office brings and are willing to pay. For many users, LibreOffice is all they will ever need. Give it a rest.

      Why do I get the impression you are a MS shill?
      • Talking about Shills...

        Why do I get the impression that you are a TROLL?
        • Owlll1net Talking about Shills... go look in the mirror

          Why do I get the impression that you are a Microsoft TROLL?
          Over and Out
      • Exactly

        If Office is one's first in line for getting things done, right on. LibreOffice is still free, so why not have it installed, just in case a Plan B is needed?

        And for those for whom it's good enough (raising hand) it got better. This all seems to be a no-brainer and no-insulter.
    • Huh?

      You're saying that the choice to dress up the program is bad because you spend less time doing work? They could always just... not dress it up while they're supposed to be doing work... >_>
      Michael Alan Goff
      • That's what I was thinking

        Forget about the customizations and just do what needs to be done.
    • Enjoy the Ribbon

      Because nobody else does
      Alan Smithie
      • Generalizations are wrong

        regardless of who makes them
        Michael Alan Goff
        • Paradox?

          No next.
          x I'm tc
        • However...

          Does a set of all sets contain itself? ;)
          Third of Five
          • :D

            Does the set of all sets which do not contain themselves contain itself?
        • Please.

          It's called hyperbole.
          • Regardless of what it's called

            it's still a stupid comment to make.
            Michael Alan Goff
      • LibreOffice, my a$$

        My second choice from Microsoft Office is IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0, which looked a lot better compared to Open/LibreOffice. And guess what, I love the ribbon interface and I don't even miss seeing menus in word processor, but tabs. Give me tabs instead of menus. Oh, yes. IBM Lotus Symphony is a hybrid of Open/LibreOffice and Office 2007/2010/2013, so I'll give credit to IBM for forking OpenOffice just to make it easier for me to navigate around the UI.

        However, the default styles with default settings are just too lacking (need to add some spacing below paragraph; indent text style is redundant Microsoft Office remembers when I indent a paragraph) compared to Microsoft's Office. And one more thing: Office formats bullet and numbered lists better than Open/LibreOffice, because you don't need to manually switch to Bullet List or Number List style. Consequently, Open/LibreOffice does not switch from numbered list to alphabetical/Roman numeral list when I tab to the right. Last but not least is when I tab the bullet list to the right only to find out that the text does not get tabbed to the right, so I had to hit tab again. If you tab and shift-tab the bullet list, the bullets get pushed to the left beyond the left margin of the page.

        So yes, IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0 uses OpenOffice 3.0 but with improvements that IBM made. You still don't get the outline view, if I recall. It's a limitation of OpenOffice.
        Grayson Peddie
        • IBM Symphony got the UI right for productivity

          I use MS Office at work and Open Office/Libre Office at home, or did till a few weeks ago when I had to switch over to a Mac for both work and home. I like the features in MS Office, but MS Office does not have productivity in mind, it takes a lot more time to do stuff. Open Office is easier, but does not have all the features. I had used Symphony a few years back, but it was not mature at that time. I decided I would try it out, and to my surprise I found it pretty good and easy to use. It looks like IBM has spent time making the UI productive and easy without losing out on features. I have used word processors since Wordstar/WordPerfect, and I do not hate MS Office, but I (personally) believe that Symphony is more productive than both MS Office and OpenOffice/Libre Office. IBM should market this and push it out. After seeing me use Symphony, many of my co workers have done the same and feel happy about it.
          • Symphony has been open sourced

            Last I heard the Symphony changes were given to the Apache project for inclusion in OpenOffice.
          • Symphony changes given to Apache project

            That's right, but IBM continued to develop Lotus Symphony further for their own purposes on ODF. The latest version is now Lotus Symphony 3.0.1 and the software is released for FREE use since January 2013. All peopl ehave to do is to create an also free IBM account that requires only a user name, PW, and a valid email address. Download size is just under 300 MB. It's a nice improvement.

            Difference to OpenOffice/LibreOffice is that it doesn't have a database, just text editor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool. Still, pretty useful for those who don't need an equivalent to MS Access.
      • Office runs on 1 billion PCs

        So are you saying hundreds of millions of users are nobody? You are stupid to the max.
        • No

          He didn't dispute numbers. He said that nobody enjoys the ribbon. I happen to agree with him. I work in tech support on a 6000 workstation network. We have been on Office 2007 and above for four years and I still hear calls all day about "where is this now" and "can I get the menus back". Yeah, it's great for the 80/20 crowd. But what about the 20? It's more painful to find some things now, even after 4 years of trying to find them in the ribbon.