The world of documents, spreadsheets and presentations is roughly divided into two. There’s Microsoft Office, and then, there’s everything else. In the second bunch, LibreOffice features prominently, often touted as a free alternative, with a wealth of tools, options and features. I am a mostly happy user myself, although I’ve never been able to fully commit to it, for various functional as well as practical reasons. And yet, whenever there’s a new release, especially a major one, my hope soars up, thinking this could be it, the moment of truth.
With version 6.2 freshly launched, I set about testing, to see whether I could perhaps upset the status quo and shift the balance away from a proprietary, payware solution to a free, cross-platform suite. After all, LibreOffice has many merits, but it is not without flaws, either. Anyway, let’s see what gives.
The UI revamp
The major focus of this release was getting the Notebookbar right, the contextual ribbon-like interface that was introduced as an experimental feature in LibreOffice 5.X. First, it’s no longer called that – it’s just the ordinary UI layout entry in the menu, but it comes with multiple options. You have quite a bit of freedom customizing your interface.
There are a total of nine layouts in Writer. You can use the classic arrangement if you prefer, or go for contextual, which has a ribbon-like functional division. You can also used a tabbed layout – slimmed down or fully expanded, as well as grouping, which is somewhat similar to the ribbon.
To make things a little more confusing, you only get six available layouts in Impress – rather than nine we’ve seen earlier in Writer. This does makes me baffled, and I wonder if these different programs in the suite may have been tweaked in isolation. I don’t understand why this is, or the fact you can tune each one individually.
Some reasonable improvements here. The UI is somewhat cleaner, and you get a bigger, more easily targetable close button. But there are still issues, because some elements look tiny, and others just too big. There does not seem to be a way to increase the default document zoom, or make Calc comply with my system scaling settings. The usage of charts and images remains unchanged.
If me eye does not trick me, Impress has benefited the most from UI changes in this latest release, as it has the most polished feel of the three programs. I don’t know the reason for this, but I am happy in this regard. Overall, much like Calc, the usage remains the same.
I was annoyed to discover, side by side with these nice UI improvements, some rather glaring visual glitches. I did some extra digging, and found out that this issue also exists in LibreOffice 6.1, so this is not a new thing, and I wonder why it wasn’t spotted or fixed just yet. I am also not sure if this is somehow related to Plasma AA settings or perhaps HD scaling – although I did play around, without any discernible improvements.
Long story short, in some of the UI layouts, the text will be vertically truncated – looks like a typical DPI problem, but then as an end user, I don’t really care how or why this comes to bear, I expect the program to look great regardless of the platform choice.
The cropping isn’t restricted just to Writer, it also affects the other programs in the suite. It also affects different icon themes, like Sifr or Elementary.
Then, notice there are two close buttons (depends what layout you chose). No, actually three, if you count the window controls, too. Quite odd, and the odd alignment also makes my OCD demons scream in abject terror. I mean, really.
The layout are quite interesting – and welcome, but I think there should be fewer options. I’d rather see one or two layouts, which have been thought through completely and designed to perfection, than nine layouts that come with bugs. After all, maintaining nine workflow patterns is a complex, difficult task, and it takes a lot of effort. In a way, it’s like the fragmentation in the Linux distro world. Fewer but higher quality choices would be a better solution.
I’ve talked about this before – the style management in LibreOffice remains tricky. Regardless of the UI layout choice, you don’t have an option to quickly apply a style with a single mouse click. In some of the layouts, you can use one of the presets, when they show under a dropdown menu, but this is a static list that does not change based on your usage. The dropdown menu does update to feature your most recently used styles, but it is still a waste of perfectly good mouse clicks. Moreover, you need to double-click to apply a style, and the style list in the sidebar will jump to the current style used for the selected text, so you will need to scroll up and down to re-apply styles. More waste of mouse clicks. Microsoft Office does this a lot better. So much can be done and improved here.
Microsoft Office compatibility
This remains one of the more important – if not the most important – test for any office suite. While we can argue the philosophical point ad nauseam, the simple fact remains that most people on Planet Earth use Microsoft Office for their documents, and if you want to or need to exchange files with them, be they letters, essays, presentations, or spreadsheets of data, you will most likely need to use Microsoft Office formats. This means that if you use LibreOffice for your work, you must have a very good level of file format fidelity.
Over the years, the LibreOffice > Microsoft Office compatibility has improved, with some ups and downs and occasional regressions, but it is still not accurate enough to warrant blind trust in LibreOffice. If you send people DOCS or PPTX files made in Writer or Impress, they will most likely not look quite 100% as you made them once opened in Word or Powerpoint. If you send them ODF documents, they will get silly errors before the files do open, looking just right. So in this regard, the safer bet is to actually share files in the native format, although people on the other side might not figure out how to open them. Likewise, if Word or Excel or Powerpoint users send you their stuff, you will be able to open them in LibreOffice, but there will be visual misalignment.
To test this, I went to Microsoft’s Office official page and downloaded two Word templates, which you can use to make nice posters. These files are a good indicator of format compatibility, as they include tables, colorful elements, images, font in all shapes and sizes. So, the first one:
In LibreOffice, the results were so-so. The margins and the padding were all wrong. For instance, the line height of the poster title was only about one quarter of what the Word template has. The telephone icon and text were placed on the same line rather then separate ones, with the actual word telephone broken over two lines – and the same is true for Email. I really don’t understand why this would be the case. Then, the placeholder text was touching the white frame above, whereas in Word, this has a nice, healthy padding.
I tried another template:
The results weren’t good. The center column was shifted down about 30%, and so was the left pink frame, resulting in a rather ugly effect, where the small inset photo of models on the left is half-obscured by the frame shift. The logo also clashed with the color triangles in the right column, and the text was badly displaced.
Now, imagine you need to work with these two templates, and then send them to your colleagues or prospecting customers. Would you really want them to have something that requires precision looking off by 30% on a page? Or have a decorative element introduce into a picture it was supposed to elegantly frame?
I am aware of the technical limitations – but they are neither the excuse nor the explanation for the fact people require something that will not alter the expected results. If you send a file to someone, and it looks wrong, then you can’t rely on this entire sequence – from you to someone else, where LibreOffice files might need to be used with other programs. In an ideal world, we’d have 100% compatibility, but even in the Web space, it’s still all pretty wild, even thought we’ve had years and years of progress and improvements and standards.
Performance & stability
I have no complaints on this front. The suite is fairly robust, and it does its job well. I’ve played with a bunch of 200-page ODT files, and did some basic Calc work, and I didn’t notice any issues. LibreOffice was stable, and did not throw any errors. I also tried different packaging formats, and ran the suite on several Linux distributions and Windows, and the results were rather consistent.
Some other observations
I also noticed that LibreOffice tries to be smarter than I am when it comes to language choices. I use EN (US) as my system choice. But if you change your timezone (region), it will open new documents with the language set to the locale it thinks is best. So if you choose a European one, you’ll get EN (UK), if you choose Canada, you will get EN (CA), and so forth. I cannot express how much I hate this – not just here, but with any software that tries to localize my language choices based on either the IP address or the timezone.
Then, I went a-huntin’ for non-English characters, and found out that the list of special characters was quite short. A lot seems to be missing.
The cell divider (whereby you freeze a pane, so you can scroll while always seeing certain rows or columns) in Calc is a bit cumbersome, and at first glance, you may think it’s a visual artifact, as it sits too close to the scrollbar. There are some definite visual tweaks that can be introduced, but this ties back into the bigger picture of UI layouts.
If we look at LibreOffice in isolation, and ignore the Microsoft side of the story, it’s a pretty solid suite, with lots of great things. It’s also free, and that’s not a negligible element. But then, there are also things that need to be improved and fixed – and fast. I believe that momentum is slowly ebbing across the entire open-source space, especially products that have a strong Linux presence. It could be the usual wear-‘n’-tear, it could be some sort of inspirational crisis, or just the harsh reality of things in early 2019. While LibreOffice is making progress, it’s not doing that fast enough. Now, cue competition, and things are ever worse.
LibreOffice needs a more consistent UI, with fewer but better designed layouts that will always render nicely, without having to worry about fonts or DPI or anything of that sort. The editing of images and charts is slow and inefficient. The styles can be streamlined a whole order of magnitude. Finally, we do have to contend with Microsoft Office and the file format compatibility. This remains a big issue. Unless LibreOffice users can create files and send them knowing those files will open correctly on other people’s machines, it will always remains an underdog. And at some point, the hope will fade. Let’s all hope that LibreOffice can sustain its energy to become more than a pro-am experiment. In a way, your freedom depends on it.
After all, if you ain’t first, you’re last.