Bigger, better, faster: LibreOffice 4.2

The leading open-source alternative to Microsoft Office is looking better than ever.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

LibreOffice is the leading open-source alternative to Microsoft Office and it's looking better than ever in its latest version: LibreOffice 4.2.

The latest LibreOffice, version 4.2, is looking better than ever.

The Document Foundation's newest release of LibreOffice 4.2 targets early adopters. It comes with many new performance and interoperability improvements for users of all kinds. Specifically, this update is designed to appeal to Windows power and enterprise users.

For most users, the biggest improvement is that LibreOffice 4.2 now does a much better job of supporting Microsoft Office's native OpenXML document format. In particular, LibreOffice works well at supporting Word's DOCX format. Personally, what I like most is that at long, long -- one more time with feeling -- long last LibreOffice supports "Track Changes ON" when present in a DOCX document. Unfortunately, this feature still needs work. Still, it's a good start.

For what it's worth, in my basic tests of converting documents from LibreOffice's Open Document Format (ODF) to OpenXML and back again, the conversions worked well. To see if these improvements will be sufficient for your office documents, you'll just need to test it for yourself. For me, they're good enough.

On the other hand, as UK Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude observed recently, government and companies could save money by switching from Microsoft Office (and its difficult-to-work-with formats) to OpenOffice and Google Docs. In particular, Maude singled out document formats as a problem child.

"Technical standards for document formats may not sound like the first shot in a revolution. But be in no doubt: the adoption of compulsory standards in government threatens to break open Whitehall's lock-in to proprietary formats. In turn we will open the door for a host of other software providers," said Maude.

Microsoft, for its part, promised in 2012 that they'd do a better job of fully supporting ODF and PDF. We're still waiting for that document format interoperability promise to be met.

Andrew 'Andy' Updegrove, standards expert and founding partner of Gesmer Updegrove, a top technology law firm,  believes that it we could get improved document interoperability, "the big winners will be, well, everyone, whether they remain users of Microsoft products or move to a competing alternative."

Why? Updegrove continues: "Because for the great majority of the desktop age, there has been no meaningful competition in that space. The result has been a woeful lack of innovation, leaving those (like me) who spend their lives laboring behind keyboards to watch wistfully while fierce competition brings new jaw-dropping innovations to mobile devices, cameras, and much more on an almost weekly basis. How I would love to see the magic that might be wrought if the same type of effort was brought to the desktop."

LibreOffice is trying its best to make this happen. In addition to the Microsoft Office formats, the new program also boasts new improvements with importing and exporting Microsoft's legacy RTF files. Last, but not least, it comes with new import filters for AbiWord documents and Apple Keynote presentations.

LibreOffice 4.2 also offers two other Windows specific improvements for business users: A simplified custom install dialog, and the ability to centrally manage and lock-down program configuration with Group Policy Objects via Active Directory. The new office suite also comes with better integration with Windows 7 and 8. For example, it now comes with thumbnails of open documents grouped by application and a list of recent documents, both showing on the task bar.

The other major change is that Calc, LibreOffice's take on Excel, has gone through its largest code refactoring ever, which has yielded major performance improvements. If your computer comes with an Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA), such as one in the AMD's new Kaveri APU, LibreOffice 4.2's optional formula interpreter enables massively parallel calculation of formula cells using the GPU via OpenCL.

The LibreOffice user interface (UI) continues to undergo significant cleanup with, The Document Foundation claims, "70 percent of our dialogs now refreshed with many distributed UI tweaks. This release also includes a beautiful new 'flat' icon theme, Sifr, and an updated set of default document styles."

I was sorry to see that LibreOffice still doesn't have a cloud version or mobile versions for Android or iOS. The first two are at least being working on, but they're still not even beta-test ready yet.

That said, I'm still very impressed by this latest LibreOffice iteration and you can run it on FreeBSD, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. You can see if you like it on your operating system of choice by downloading it and trying it yourself.

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