OK, LibreOffice is free for the download, and you can install it on as many different machines as you choose. But a free price and a free license aren’t much good if the software doesn’t have the features you want.
Happily, that’s usually not a concern with LibreOffice or its predecessor, OpenOffice. Although many people assume that a free application must be inferior to one that they pay for, a comparison of LibreOffice with Microsoft Office (MSO) proves that the opposite is often true. Sometimes, MSO has features that LibreOffice lacks, but, just as often, it’s LibreOffice that has more tools than MSO.
However, unless you’re concerned about a must-have feature, there’s usually no need for a point by point comparison. Focusing on performance and high-level interface choices alone, I can think of at least seven reasons to choose LibreOffice over MS Office:
7. The Classic Menu Structure
In 2007, Microsoft Office has replaced the standard menu and toolbar with a ribbon, a collection of tabs with links and icons. Although most users have made their peace with the ribbon, many have not. Only a handful of other software companies have switched to ribbons, and, five years later, at least one company offers software to convert MSO to standard menus and toolbars at $38 per box.
By contrast, LibreOffice / OpenOffice.org have experimented with ribbons in pilot projects, but officially retain the classic look. Although nobody has shown that either the standard or ribbon layout is superior to the other, the standard layout does have the advantage of being easier to read, and of allowing users to discover functionality more easily. Being less compressed, the standard layout is also easier to read for those with limited close-up vision.
6. Common Code and Interfaces
Unlike MSO, LibreOffice is not a collection of originally separate programs grouped together by branding and a few interface choices. Instead, LibreOffice applications were designed to share as much code as possible.
This organization means that a LibreOffice installation occupies less hard drive space than an equivalent MSO installation, and is generally faster on the same machine. In these days of multi-terabyte hard drives, that may not matter on a workstation, although it could still be an issue on a netbook or lower end lap top.
Even more importantly, many dialogs are the same between applications, which makes learning easier. For example, windows for formatting text or its background in styles dialogs are identical whether you are formatting a text document or a spreadsheet cell.
5. Greater design control
MSO offers templates for slide backgrounds, tables, bullet styles, and almost every other feature. These templates have the advantage of being quick to insert, but users have extremely limited control over them.
For those who want hands-on control over the details of their document design, LibreOffice rivals a low to medium end layout program. Features can often be set to one or two decimal places, ensuring that your design is exactly as you want it. Experienced users, of course, will save the results in a template so they don’t have to create a layout more than once.
4. A regular six month release cycle
In the last decade, MSO has averaged a release every three years. Users have to pay for upgrades, although the cost is less than buying an entirely new version. These new releases have often been late, and have frequently changed file formats
In the few years of its existence, LibreOffice has settled into six month release cycles. While few office suites have major changes at this stage in their evolution, this release cycle means that LibreOffice can respond more quickly to changing needs and evolve more quickly. So far, releases have been more or less on time, and backward compatibility is total. Each release is free for the download.
3. Better navigation
One of LibreOffice / OpenOffice.org’s unique features is the Navigator. This floating window allows you to move through the document by using headers, graphics, tables, sections, cross-references, comments, hyperlinks, and other objects, and reposition sections of a document in relation to one another. It is especially effective if the objects you added are given descriptive names — for instance, if a picture is labeled “Author profile shot” rather than the default “graphics1.” The longer the document, the more useful the Navigator becomes.
The closest MSO has to the Navigator is its search functions, which are not nearly as convenient if you want to move to more than one position in the document.
2. More extensive styles and automation
Besides the usual character and paragraph styles, LibreOffice includes styles for pages, lists, and frames — none of which have more than limited equivalencies in MSO when they have any at all. These features help to automate features like tables of contents or outline lists. Learn to use them properly, and the time-saving can be immense, especially when editing extensively.
1. Greater stability
MSO works reasonably well in smaller documents — for instance, in twenty page text files. However, the larger the file, the more likely it is to crash, opening the possibility that it will become too corrupt to be recovered.
This limitation is in marked contrast to LibreOffice. Its ancestor OpenOffice.org is rumored to have been designed for stability because its original coders were required to write its documentation in the program. This rumor is credible, because (as I can personally witness) LibreOffice is capable of handling documents hundreds of pages long or hundreds of megabytes in size. The main limitation is the amount of RAM on the system you are using.
LibreOffice does occasionally crash. However, unlike MSO, the times that it has failed to recover all files after a crash are so few that I have to strain to remember them.
In fact, in ten years of using LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org, I can only recall two unrecoverable crashes — one of which was on a document of over 960 pages. By comparison, I have had as many crashes with MSO in a day.
Beyond free cost and license
As these points show, using LibreOffice is not just a political statement or a matter of putting up with inconveniences for the sake of multiple installations from the same source.
Of course, free cost and free licenses can be significant advantages. But, in LibreOffice’s case, there are also pragmatic reasons for preferring free software over its proprietary rivals. Install LibreOffice and start to use it with an open mind, and you should find additional reasons to prefer it as well.
BY BRUCE BYFIELD