ALSO SEE THE COUNTERPOINT ARTICLE: How LibreOffice Writer Tops MS Word: 12 Features
LibreOffice (and previously, its predecessor, OpenOffice.org) is the premier office suite available today. I first reached that conclusion after hundreds of hours of using it and every other office suite available. Thousands of hours of use later, I have only had my opinion repeatedly reinforced.
Confident of my empirical evidence, I am perfectly happy to explain LibreOffice’s advantages over Microsoft Office in particular, as I did a few weeks ago.
However, the only perfect office suite would be one that I designed myself. Although LibreOffice is developing far more rapidly than OpenOffice.org ever did, honesty makes me admit that there are still eleven or more features in which Microsoft Office is more powerful:
1) An Advanced Grammar Checker
As a former English instructor, I firmly believe that anyone with enough knowledge to use a grammar checking function properly doesn’t need one. Far from helping correct usage, they are far more likely to lure the grammatically insecure into unnecessary or incorrect changes. Anybody else is likely just to be annoyed.
Still, users clamor for one, and LibreOffice has barely begun to meet their demand. Depending on your distribution, LibreOffice may or may not include Lightproof, an extension that is complimented by being called basic.
Lightproof will query a few things, such as capitalization, duplicate words, word and letter spacing, and the correct use of obscurer punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses. It will also convert back and forth between Imperial and metric measurements.
Everything else falls under “possible mistakes” — and there are not many possible mistakes that Lightproof catches. Unlike the grammar checker in MS Word, it will not query basic elements such as subject-verb agreement.
Of course, neither can Lightproof or Microsoft Word make themselves really useful and query obscure pronoun references, changes in verb tense, or faulty parallelism. All the same, LibreOffice’s has a long way to go before it even equals Microsoft Office’s.
2) A Useful Bibliography Database
Two things are wrong with LibreOffice’s bibliographical database. First, since before OpenOffice.org’s code was created twelve years ago, it has shipped with misleading examples.
Second, while the database columns can be used with any form of citation current in academia, users have to set up the database according to their own needs.
These problems discourage users from having anything to do with the database. By contrast, the bibliographical tool in Word is straightforward, and users can choose the citation style from a drop-down list.
3) Advanced Diagramming Tools
Both Microsoft Office and LibreOffice include the basic tools for making an organizational diagram or a flow chart. However, neither installs with extensive libraries of shapes for similar tasks such as drawing electrical circuits or architectural layouts.
However, Microsoft does offer various versions of Visio, the premier proprietary diagram editor, as an add-on to its office suite. Until recently, free software users have only had Dia, whose home page warns in its first sentence that it is intended for “casual use” and is far more basic than Visio.
The latest LibreOffice release does include an import filter for Visio, which suggests the demand. But perhaps in a release or two LibreOffice will borrow Flow from the new Calligra Suite (formerly KOffice) to achieve something closer to parity. But for now, its diagramming tools remain limited.
4) Sound in Slide Shows
Since LibreOffice began, its slide show Impress has been enhanced in many ways. After years of OpenOffice.org users’ requests, under LibreOffice Impress finally includes a selection of background templates. In addition, the Presenter View extension is now standard.
Sound, though, remains only basically supported. You can add a clip to a slide, but, unlike in MS PowerPoint, you can’t set up a continuous narration or sound track. The best you can do is make the transitions as quick as possible, then add separate clips to each slide and hope that nobody notices the gaps.
This lack of functionality not only makes the most sophisticated slide shows harder to design but makes Impress less suitable for stand-alone shows that might be used at a kiosk or maybe a booth at a trade fair.
5) Broadcasting Slide Shows
These days, conferences quickly post presentations online after they are delivered. You can upload a slide show to a broadcast from within MS PowerPoint. By contrast, although you can send slide shows in an email in LibreOffice Impress, it has yet to provide this small piece of modern functionality.
6) No Whiteboard
The OneNote whiteboard was only added a decade ago to Microsoft Office, which makes it a relative newcomer compared to Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. All the same, it’s a popular application.
Supporting a wide variety for formatting, OneNote can be used for note-taking, brainstorming, outlining, to-do lists, collaboration, and any other function you can find for it. You can get some of its functionality in KDE’s aging application Basket, as well as various Firefox extensions and Calligra Suite’s Braindump, but integrating all this functionality directly into LibreOffice would make it even more useful.
7) Screen Capture
LibreOffice Writer can already scan content and add it-on-the-fly. So why can’t it add screen shots the same way, the way that Word can? It shouldn’t be hard, either, to improve on MS Word’s functionality, and allow a shot of the whole screen, a window, or a selected area, the way that most screen capture utilities do. There’s no need for a full-featured utility like Shutter, although users probably wouldn’t complain if one was added.
8) Sparklines in Spreadsheets
Both LibreOffice’s Calc and Microsoft Office’s Excel have extensive charting tools. However, charts can quickly become crowded and unreadable when they include more than a few data series. When that happens, you may not have space to make the chart as large as you need.
As an alternative, Excel offers the option of sparklines. Invented by information theorist Edward Tufte, sparklines are a small representation of a single data series. In Excel, you can add a sparkline to a single cell — ideally close to the data that it summarizes, then customize the sparkline by adding high and low points, or even every data port. In Calc, I’m sorry to say, you don’t have this simple alternative.
9) Filtering Spreadsheets by Color
When spreadsheets are used for to-do lists or project management, they are often color-coded. For example, a different color may be assigned to each person or team, or to tasks that depend on each other. These visual clues making reading the spreadsheet much easier.
Calc has extensive logical filters to simplify the display of information. Yet, unlike MS Excel, it doesn’t support filtering by color. Why not?
10) A Useful ClipArt Gallery
OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice have included a clipart gallery. Its default content are a series of background tiles, rulers and home page buttons that might have been considered suitable for Web pages two decades ago, and a series of sound clips that are useless because they are unlabelled. If anybody has used any of this material within the last decade, I would be surprised.
The gallery can be made useful, of course, by a few downloads. But the contrast with Microsoft Office’s clipart collection could hardly be greater. Perhaps today when everyone is on the Internet, the idea of a gallery is obsolete, but LibreOffice could at least have a link to some resource like the Open Clip Art Library that might actually be useful to someone. But, right now, the gallery simply takes up space for no good reason.
11) Easily Available, Ready Made Formats
For casual users, one of the strengths of Office is that, for every formatting element, it provides pre-formatted choices, all visible in a click or two down from the editing window.
At some point, OpenOffice.org began to do the same. In Writer, for example, you can select a table Autoformat, and in adding a bullet list, you can opt to choose a graphic bullet. Similarly, in Calc, you can add Autoformats to customize a range of cells or an entire sheet, while Impress has a couple of templates for structuring content.
The trouble is, these features are half-hearted and were never followed through. Today, they are limited and hidden in the menus and dialog windows. But, to make matters worse, from the color palettes, the selection must have been made in the mid-1990s, if not earlier. To a modern eye, they look too drab to be worth using.
OpenOffice.org realized a couple of years before LibreOffice existed that its pre-formatted charts needed an upgrade to reflect current tastes. Now, it’s about time that LibreOffice completed the process, and made the results more accessible at the same time. The project might even consider adding some graphics for numbered lists at the same time.
The Patterns of Problems
These are not the only places where LibreOffice could use improvement. For instance, its cross-reference system is clumsy and requires too many steps — but the same thing must be said about MS Office. A system like the one in FrameMaker, where users can store cross-reference formats that are a mixture of text and building blocks, similar to the one LibreOffice uses for tables of content, would be an immense improvement.
Another task that needs improvement is outlining. Few users understand why multi-level lists can be created using numbering styles or the Outline Numbering utility in the Tool menu, and how the two are related. The Condition tab in each paragraph style remains a similar mystery.
However, looking back over the functions where Microsoft Office has the advantage over LibreOffice, I see several patterns. Some are features that are simply missing and could be added if anyone was willing to work on them. Others are a matter of increasing ease of use by adding a few resources. A few are the coding equivalent of appendixes and male nipples, retained in the evolutionary rush but with their purposes long lost.
Even with these flaws, LibreOffice has a lot to offer — more, I believe, than MS Office. Not only is LibreOffice free-licensed, but its features and stability are usually sounder than MS Office’s, especially in its word processor, and it’s great for people who want absolute control over formatting and are prepared to take the time to get it.
Still, some aspects of LibreOffice are holding it back. I look forward to the day when these — and other flaws — are corrected, and LibreOffice becomes what it should have been all along.
ALSO SEE THE COUNTERPOINT ARTICLE: How LibreOffice Writer Tops MS Word: 12 Features