OpenOffice has long been one of the top competitors to Microsoft Office 2010, but the open source productivity suite's future was clouded in 2009 when Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, which had maintained OpenOffice.org since late 1999. Oracle eventually donated the OpenOffice.org code to the Apache Foundation, which promises a new release this year.
Meanwhile, buzz has been building around LibreOffice, a fork of the OpenOffice.org code by a consortium of former OpenOffice.org developers known as the Document Foundation. Like OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice includes a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation maker (Impress), a drawing and diagramming program (Draw), and a database manager (Base). Superficially, the two suites appear almost identical, and LibreOffice even carries over its version numbering from the last OpenOffice.org release.
Behind the scenes, however, the Document Foundation and its volunteers have been hard at work, cleaning up the code, fixing bugs, and adding features. The new version 3.5 includes more than 30,000 code changes -- making it, in the Document Foundation's words, "the best free office suite ever." Based on my tests, that claim might actually be true -- but price isn't everything. See also: Group test: what's the best office software?
LibreOffice 3.5: Installation is free, but not easy
LibreOffice is available for Windows 2000 and later, Mac OS X 10.4 and later (Intel and PowerPC), Linux, and Linux x64. I installed the Windows version, which comes in two parts: one installer for the applications and another for the online help (available in 107 languages). Version 3.5's new installers are MSI packages, sure to please sys admins.
Installation took longer than it should, mainly because of LibreOffice's reliance on Java. You can use most of the suite's features without Java installed, but it's required for a few functions and Base won't work without it.
Unfortunately, LibreOffice doesn't come bundled with a Java Runtime Environment (JRE), so you have to download and install one yourself. Keeping current with Java updates and security patches is also your responsibility, which could be a deal breaker for organizations with strict IT policies.
Worse, LibreOffice's Java interface is finicky. I tried installing the latest Java 7, but LibreOffice said my JRE was "defective." When I tried again with Java 6, the same applications crashed without explanation. I eventually got it working, but installing and reinstalling the various components wasted a lot of time, which doesn't bode well for unattended installations.
Alternative installation methods are available. Linux distributors typically package their own versions of the suite, and Intel and Suse have produced a Windows installer for the Intel AppUp Center. There's also the PortableApps version, which can run from a USB keychain. Even so, the standard installation method for Windows should be more straightforward, and ideally the suite shouldn't need Java at all.
LibreOffice 3.5: A familiar feel, yet long in the tooth
LibreOffice's user experience remains virtually identical to OpenOffice.org, though its UI is perhaps a little friendlier. For example, the icons in LibreOffice's Start Center, which greets you when you first launch the suite, are more colorful and have less of a corporate feel than in Oracle's OpenOffice.org releases.
Dig deeper, however, and you'll find plenty of minor UI changes. For version 3.5, the Document Foundation has cleaned up the text of dialog boxes, removed confusing or redundant options, and improved prompts and user controls throughout the suite.
None of this is as impressive as the radical UI redesign Microsoft introduced in Office 2007. Count me among those who think Microsoft's Ribbon interface, developed through extensive user testing, gives Office a powerful competitive advantage. But if you hate the Ribbon, you'll appreciate LibreOffice's classic look and feel, which resembles that of Office 2003 and earlier.
Still, subtle UI quirks occasionally make the LibreOffice applications feel clunky. Because it is a cross-platform suite, its menus, dialog boxes, controls, and widgets don't always blend in with other Windows applications, particularly on Windows Vista and later.
I also found LibreOffice's font rendering somewhat unappealing. Letterforms don't look as nice in Writer as they do in Microsoft Word, and the line and character spacings feel cramped. As a side effect, the text of imported Word documents sometimes wraps differently in Writer, even though the font faces and sizes haven't changed -- just one of the ways in which LibreOffice might disappoint heavy Office users.
LibreOffice 3.5: Taking on Goliath
Microsoft Office interoperability isn't the only goal of LibreOffice, but it's an important one. The installer goes as far as to set the LibreOffice applications as the default handlers for the Office file formats, even if you have a version of Office installed.
LibreOffice 3.5's Office document compatibility is impressive overall, and it has improved from previous versions. It even does a fair job of reading the XML-based file formats from Office 2007 and later, and LibreOffice 3.5's Draw module includes a first attempt at an import filter for Visio documents.
LibreOffice's icon-rich UI harkens back to the style of older versions of Microsoft Office, but it can seem a little clunky on Windows Vista or later.
Nonetheless, working with Office documents is not LibreOffice's real strength. The more complex an Office document is, the less likely it is to render perfectly in LibreOffice. Fonts, placed images, macros, graphs, tables, OLE objects, fancy presentation transitions, and text effects are all likely trouble areas, to name just a few.
Similarly, Base offers limited support for Microsoft Access databases by invoking Microsoft's Access database engine, which is available only on Windows. LibreOffice for Linux or Mac OS X can't import Access databases at all. While Base is a competent data storage tool, in terms of front-end database UIs it's no match for Access, which is practically an application platform in its own right.
To be fair, Microsoft makes it difficult for competitors to support its file formats by design, and just because LibreOffice fails to import an Office file correctly doesn't mean you can't create a similar-looking document from scratch. But if you frequently trade complex documents with others, you should be aware that document fidelity between LibreOffice and Microsoft Office is almost never perfect. Also, Office generally allows you to create richer, more aesthetically pleasing documents than LibreOffice.
NEXT: steps in the right direction?