ALSO SEE THE COUNTERPOINT ARTICLE: How Microsoft Office Tops LibreOffice: 11 Features
When reviewers look at LibreOffice and its ancestor OpenOffice.org, they inevitably assume that it’s inferior to Microsoft Office. At the very most, they may grudgingly find it acceptable for undemanding users.
However, when you examine LibreOffice and MS Office without assumptions, the comparison changes dramatically. That’s especially true when looking at the word processors, LibreOffice’s Writer and MS Office’s Word.
For one thing, features frequently have different names in Writer and Word. Although LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org have a history of conforming to MS Office’s name-choices — for example, in the spreadsheets, data pilots were recently renamed pivot tables to match Excel’s usage — holdouts remain. For example, the equivalent of Word’s AutoSummary in Writer remains AutoAbstract.
For another, features are not always in the same positions in Writer and Word. Since Word sports a ribbon interface while LibreOffice remains with a traditional menu, finding equivalent features is even harder than a decade ago, because Word often buries advanced features several levels down, often in drop-down lists.
Once you get to know Writer and Word, the differences become less clear-cut. To a degree, Writer has always imitated Word in the hopes of being competitive. More important, in the last few years the two have been in a mostly unnoticed arms race, with one rarely adding another feature without the other one copying it as soon as possible.
Far from one having an obvious advantage, in recent years the feature lists of Writer and Word have become closer than ever.
All the same, some basic differences remain. Far from being the underdog in every circumstance, Writer has at least twelve major advantages over Word. Together, these advantages not only suggest a very different design philosophy from Word, but also demonstrate that, from the perspective of an expert user, Writer is the superior tool.
1) The Navigator
Word has a pane on the left side of the editing window that uses headings as a tool for moving through a document. However, with Writer’s Navigator, you can jump back and forth in a document not just by heading styles, but by any type of object you care to name: tables, frames, graphics, comments, links, or anything else you care to name.
Get into the habit of naming objects instead of accepting defaults like Table1, and the Navigator becomes even more powerful. Moreover, since the Navigator is a floating window, you can place it anywhere on the screen, so that it doesn’t reduce the size of the editing window.
And that’s not all: the Navigator can be used as a basic outliner and as a table of contents for a master document made up smaller documents. It’s a little like KRunner or GNOME+Do — a flexible, minimalist tool for advanced users. The longer the document, the more powerful you’ll find the Navigator.
2) The Styles and Formatting Window
Another floating window, Styles and Formatting is even more powerful than the Navigator. Opened by pressing F11, it places all of LibreOffice’s five categories of styles — paragraphs, characters, frames, pages, and lists — within easy reach, providing different views of each category, and allowing easy creation and modification of styles. Much of its functionality is also available in Word, but several layers down — an arrangement that discourages users from adding the elegance of styles to their workflows.
True, Word does have style previews, which Styles and Formatting lacks. But previews are only useful for characters; for paragraphs, they would need to show at least three lines to be useful. Besides, when you can easy apply a style to the document directly as an experiment, then change it just as easily, previews become redundant.
3) Page Styles
In Word, you can adjust all the usual page features, from margins to the number of columns. But different page orientations and designs can only be added as a kludge, and all paragraphs have the same alignment.
Writer’s addition of page styles gives you far more flexibility with less effort. By careful use of the Organizer tab, you can set your document to change page styles automatically, so that a First Page style is always followed by a Left Page and a Left Page by a Right Page. Since headers and footers are also attached to page style, you can also use different header and footer styles automatically.
4) Separate List Styles
Although the fact is hidden, Word does allow you to create paragraph styles that include a bullet or numbered list. In Word 2010, you can even create a multi-level style, which was difficult in earlier releases.
However, Writer makes list styles separate, and gains two advantages. First, the same list style can be used by more than one paragraph style, which reduces the number of styles to set up.
Second, because lists are a separate style category in Writer, there is more room in the dialog window for customizing features. Among other things, you can use a text or graphical bullet, and position the text precisely in relation to the bullet or number. You can even use a warning sign as a large bullet in order to add it automatically in an instruction manual.
5) Frame Styles
Frames are the containers for objects in a document. In Writer, they can have styles applied to them — a feature that is roughly paralleled in Word for text frames, but not for other objects.
Why would you want to use frame styles? For the same reason you use any styles: to automate your work. Instead of setting characteristics like the border, background and text wrap around each time you insert an object — or finding, copying and pasting an earlier frame — you can apply a frame style with a single click. Frame styles are especially useful for hard-to-position frames, like those for annotations in the margin.
6) Hierarchical Paragraph Styles
Technically, Word paragraph styles are hierarchical. However, since every style is based on Normal, the hierarchy is not much use when you want to make subtle design changes quickly
Admittedly, all Writer’s paragraph styles are based ultimately on the Default style. But Writer’s paragraph styles also have intermediate levels. If you want to change all the headings in a document, instead of editing styles Heading1 through Heading10, you only need to change the Heading style. The same arrangement applies to the styles used for indexes and tables of contents.
7) WYSISYG Headers and Footers
In the last few releases, headers and footers have become significantly less awkward in Word. Using multiple header and footer layouts in particular has become much easier.
Unfortunately, though, headers and footers in Word continue to be restrained by limited designs that divide the space into several columns and that use partly hidden features and labeled diagrams for editing. As a result, in Word you still get only an approximation of what the edited results are like as you edit.
Unlike Word, Writer shows headers and footers very chose to how they will print, with more options. It also ties them to page styles, making them easier to find than in Word.
Writer also gives you more control. Where Word only allows users to set the distance between the header or footer and page edge, Writer also lets you choose the distance from the text and the distance from the left and right margins and choices about how to set the height of headers and footers.
The type and position of any lines in the header or footer can also be modified, as well as the header and footer paragraph styles. Everything about headers and foots is handled more simply and in more detail than in Word.
8) Custom Properties
Individual users often ignore document properties. However, in corporate settings, details such as who wrote the document – and security to control who can do what with a document – can be important. Those who publish online or on an intranet are also concerned with keywords, which can help searchers to locate a document.
However, only Writer includes the ability to add properties. You could, for instance, add fields for an artist or an editor who worked on a document. These fields could then be used where appropriate in the document, instead of typing the names each time.
Should the names changed or need to be updated, you can do so once under custom properties instead of going through the document making manual changes. In this way, custom properties are much like styles.
9) Paragraph by Paragraph Hyphenation
How a document is hyphenated strongly affects its final appearance. Word treats hyphenation strictly on the document level. You can hyphenate manually, making decisions for yourself, or automatically. For automatic hyphenation, you can choose to limit the number of consecutive hyphens at the end of lines, and the “hyphenation zone”or the space in which hyphenation may occur at the end of the line.
In Writer, hyphenation is a feature of paragraph styles. This orientation has the advantage of letting you adjust hyphenation according to the format, letting it be looser on a line with a ragged right alignment, or tighter on a line with a justified alignment.
Just as important, instead of using the ambiguous concept of a “hyphenation zone,” Writer lets you adjust hyphenation in the much more meaningful unit of characters at the end and start of a line. Writer does include a document hyphenation tool as well, but that is mostly a finishing touch, like spell checking to clean up what the paragraph settings have been unable to handle as you’ve rearranged text.
10) Improved Table of Contents Options
Word generates tables of contents quickly, using existing templates. However, the result is uneditable, and invariably runs leader dots between the title and page number — a sure sign of failed design to any typographer.
Writer provides a far wider arrange of possibilities. You can adjust the position of all the components of a table of contents entry, or whether they appear at all. Each level of the table includes its own editable paragraph style, and, while Writer, like Word, assumes you will use heading styles to create entries, you can also manually enter other markers as well.
The result is a far richer set of design options than in Word, a set that is far more easily updated.
11) Advanced PDF Options
Both Writer and Word support saving a file as PDF. However, Word provides only basic options. Either you can choose to produce a minimal sized or print quality PDF, or you can chose from a handful of options, such as page range, and whether to create bookmarks or password protect the PDF.
As free software often does, Writer’s Export to PDF provides an exhaustive set of options for those who want them. Instead of Word’s vague options for quality, Writer lets you set the image quality and resolution.
Similarly, you can decide exactly how links in the original are handled and exactly what is password protected. In addition, it lets you set the details of the initial view for the PDF and the window in which it displays. Short of going to Acrobat itself, you won’t find a more complete set of options for PDF creation.
12) Stability, Long Documents, and Recovery
MS Office 2010 is generally credited with having the reputation of being far more stable than earlier releases. However, a service pack has been released, and stability remains a relative concept.
Rearranging material can still leave a document in hopeless confusion, and, in general, the use of word should be confined either to documents that contain only text and are under about thirty pages, and documents with graphics, tables, and other objects of under twenty pages.
The verdict is also out on whether master documents in Word are reliable — mainly, from what I can figure, because experienced users have developed such a phobia about master documents corrupting their files that they never use them.
The situation in Writer is much different. From first-hand experience, I can say that two gigabytes of RAM is enough for tolerable performance while editing documents of up to five hundred pages without documents. And while I have had master documents (and one or two other large files) crash LibreOffice, I have always recovered them without them being corrupted, and almost always without a recurrence.
The main reason for crashes in LibreOffice appears to be system memory. With sixteen gigabytes of RAM, Writer has yet to crash any document that I have opened — something that I can’t say about Word.
The Difference in the Design
These twelve features are not cherry-picked. Rather, they are a result of going through the menus item by item, ignoring cosmetic differences and concentrating on the major functional ones.
To be fair, you could make a similar (if probably shorter) list of Word’s advantages that would include superior outlining and cross-reference systems, as well as grammar checking. Word also comes with a larger selection of templates, although a few dozen downloads of Writer templates would soon remedy that.
Moreover, the discussion could be complicated immensely by considering all the available add-ons. For instance, as Word installs, it lacks Writer’s hidden sections and paragraphs, offering only the much more cumbersome hidden text. With an add-on, it achieves parity.
In the same way, LibreOffice’s extension PDF Import gives it an ability utterly lacking in Word. However, since many users are unaware of these extras, I have left them out for simplicity’s sake.
However, when all these considerations are taken into account, what is striking is not just that Writer more than holds its own, but the pattern that its advantages fall into.
Features like the Navigator emphasize that Writer is a mid-level desktop publishing app as much as a word processor. In fact, as I proved to myself years ago, LibreOffice makes a more than adequate substitute for FrameMaker, which is intended for long, text-oriented documents.
Further proof of Writer’s design is its emphasis on styles, and its ability to fine-tune features whose defaults a Word user often has no choice except to accept. The closer you look, the more Writer seems designed for those who frequently write documents of over twenty pages, and who want the option sometimes to control layout closely, sometimes down to the last millimeter.
By contrast, Word’s design favors shorter documents, and users who are less concerned with layout and exactness than getting a task done with a minimum of distraction.
Moreover, while a bit of preparation can make Writer suitable for light users, little can be done to make Word suitable for more demanding users.
Really, the superficial conventional wisdom has the wrong view entirely. It’s not LibreOffice Writer that needs to catch up to MS Word. From an expert’s perspective, it’s frequently MS Word that needs to catch up by LibreOffice Writer.
ALSO SEE THE COUNTERPOINT ARTICLE: How Microsoft Office Tops LibreOffice: 11 Features