LibreOffice 4.0: First Take

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.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

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.

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