LibreOffice 3.3: Fast, fun and functional

LibreOffice

Microsoft Office is such a comprehensive and powerful suite that at one time it was hard to imagine there would ever be a free equivalent. Fast forward to 2011, though, and we actually have a choice of two (well, sort of). OpenOffice.org, of course, has been around for years, but it's also recently produced an arguably more interesting spinoff, in The Document Foundation's LibreOffice 3.3. This is based on the same code (though with a few additions of its own), so if you've ever used OpenOffice then LibreOffice will seem very familiar.

There are the same core six applications, for instance: Write handles your word processing needs; Calc is a powerful spreadsheet; Impress can create presentations and slideshows; Draw is a vector graphics tool for creating diagrams, flow charts and more; Base is a database management application, and Math allows you to create and edit mathematical equations.

These applications can then work separately, or together (so you're able to add a Draw diagram to a Write document, for example). And a front end menu ties it all together, making it easy to launch the application you need, reopen recent documents, locate new extensions and templates, and generally manage the suite.

Take a moment to explore the individual applications, though, and the new additions to LibreOffice quickly become apparent. You don't just get the ability to open, edit and create Microsoft Office documents, for instance (both the old DOC, XLS and PPT formats, and the Office Open XML-based DOCX, XLSX and PPTX). LibreOffice is now also better at importing documents from other packages, including Microsoft Works, Lotus WordPro and WordPerfect, and the suite now allows you to import SVG images, and edit them in Draw. Compatibility improvements within the applications mean that Calc can now allow you to use Excel A1 and Excel R1C1 formula syntaxes, as well as the regular Calc A1.

LibreOffice also includes many more bundled extensions. "PDF Import," for example, allows you to open and edit PDF files out of the box. The Presentation Minimizer applies various tricks to reduce the file size of a presentation, including optimizing images to reduce their size. And the Presenter Console helps you better manage presentations you're giving via a projector, by displaying the upcoming slide, your notes and a timer, while the audience sees only your current slide.

One or two features aren't quite as welcome, at least not yet. So the OpenOffice local help file, for instance, is replaced here with an online wiki (http://help.libreoffice.org/Main_Page) that's currently distinctly short on useful information. This will surely improve over time, but if you need help now (or regularly work without an Internet connection) then you'll probably want to download the official documentation.

On balance LibreOffice is a solid step forward, though, and while visible changes are hard to spot, there are plenty of handy tweaks just beneath the surface. For example Find and Replace in Calc now skips cells that are filtered out, for instance, minimizing the chance of unexpected data changes; the easier-to-use Save As dialog defaults to showing the appropriate formats for your current document; the code has been tweaked to reduce RAM use, and Excel, DBF and ODS importing is now faster than before.

And if you want more then it's possible to enable experimental features (Tools > Options > LibreOffice > General). This will allow you to, say, use Math to interactively edit a formula within a document. But by definition these features aren't quite ready for prime time yet, and may contain bugs: try them at your own risk.

Verdict: It's a very new product, but LibreOffice is already marginally outperforming OpenOffice.org, particularly with file compatibility. If you're looking for a free Office suite then try here first.

We Like: Familiar interface, lots of features and functionality, improved file and application compatibility, useful bundled extensions, performance improvements, option to try experimental features.

We Don't Like: No local help file included with the program, online documentation is inadequate.

Manufacturer: The Document Foundation

MSRP: Free

Platforms: Linux, Mac OS X, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista (32/64-bit), Windows 7 (32/64-bit)

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