If functionality and stability are the criteria, LibreOffice’s Writer is a more powerful tool than Microsoft Word.
But how do the other main productivity tools in LibreOffice and Microsoft Office (MSO) compare? In other words, how do Impress and PowerPoint, the slide show applications in the two office suites, compare? Or Calc and Excel, the spreadsheet apps?
The answers are far more complicated than with the word processors. Writer and Word are applications with distinctly different approaches and assumptions about how users work. By contrast, LibreOffice’s Impress and Calc, which were developed after Writer, are designed for compatibility with their MSO counter-parts, and are more similar to them in design.
Nor does the LibreOffice emphasis on styles, which makes such a difference in word processing, matter so much in slide shows and spreadsheets. Both Impress and Calc offer styles, and they can be powerful tools.
But, unlike Writer, Impress and Calc do not require the use of styles for advanced features. Styles work best with largely uniform information layouts like text, and are harder to implement in more variable layouts like slide shows and spreadsheets — which is likely why many Impress and Calc users ignore them completely.
Probably the most obvious difference is that PowerPoint and Excel use MSO’s ribbon interface, while Impress and Calc, like the rest of LibreOffice, use traditional menus and toolbars.
Although this difference does not affect functionality, most users are likely to have strong opinions about it. While some argue that ribbon interfaces are more efficient, others argue that finding features on them can be harder, and that their dialog windows tend to be cramped. However, many users acquiesce with a few grumbles to whatever interface they are offered.
Instead, the majority of differences tend to be subtle ones, a matter of small bits of extra functionality more than basic features.
Slide Shows: Impress vs. PowerPoint
In most Linux distributions, Impress is configured to start with a wizard. This wizard guides users through the basics of choosing a template, slide background, and transitions, but can be bypassed at any time. It can also be turned off altogether by unselecting Tools -> Options -> LibreOffice Impress -> General -> Start with Wizard.
By contrast, PowerPoint opens directly on the editing window. On the left is a pane showing thumbnails of all the slides in the presentation. In the middle is the main editing pane for the current slide, with an impossibly small space below it for adding notes.
Impress’s editing window includes the thumbnail pane and the main editing space, but not the notes pane. Nor can Impress group thumbnails into sections for group editing, the way that PowerPoint can.
Instead, Impress has a task pane on the right with tabs for various tasks. If unmodified, this layout more or less requires users to work with a maximized window, but has the advantage of making the commonly used tools accessible.
Assuming that LibreOffice has been packaged in a distribution with a couple of dozen background templates (or that you have installed a selection from the web), Impress and PowerPoint have very few differences. Both offer similar views of your work, although they are easier to switch in Impress, where there are tabs on the main editing pane. The selection of transitions is also similar in the two apps.
Both, too, support the same array of objects: graphics, tables, animation, sound, and video clips. Each supports diagrams as well, although PowerPoint offers a selection of playback buttons, while Impress offers connectors between parts of a diagram that keep the parts connected as they are moved about, and has Presentation Styles for managing objects in a diagram.
The differences only start to emerge with the finishing touches. Here, PowerPoint has a decided advantage, with the ability to record narration and laser point gestures, and to sync slide changes with a CD.
To a limited degree, PowerPoint’s advantages can be reduced by installing extensions in Impress. In particular, users might want to download from their distribution’s repositories the Presenter Console, which gives a view of a running slide show on the computer, and the Presentation Minimizer, which reduces the size of slide shows to make them more portable. Both these features are built-in to PowerPoint.
However, even with these extensions, Impress lags behind PowerPoint in advanced features. Impress has the basics tools for creating and running a slide show, and it creates diagrams more easily than PowerPoint, and for most users, is more than adequate. But in advanced features, especially for sound, Impress still has some catching up to do with its proprietary rival.
Spreadsheets Calc vs. Excel
Calc has always been highly compatible with Excel. Even more than Writer, it is the LibreOffice app whose files are imported most frequently to MSO formats, and a spreadsheet without precision is useless. Without this compatibility, Calc would be like Gnumeric, the spreadsheet begun as part of the long-ago abandoned GNOME Office: perhaps powerful in its own right, and admired by its users, but little used outside the free software community.
Calc’s and Excel’s cell and page formatting features vary occasionally in the names of the feature. Otherwise, they closely resemble each other, aside from minor differences.
For instance, Excel can vary text direction in cells and use fill patterns for backgrounds, while Calc supports embossed and engraved effects, and can add diagonal borders and borders with shadows to cells.
Calc’s greatest advantage is that it can selectively delete types of contents from cells, removing formatting, for example, while leaving the contents untouched. Otherwise, the available features for formatting, fonts, alignments, borders, backgrounds, cell protection and printing are next to identical. Excel might use themes, while Calc uses page styles, but the features and ease of use are much the same if you examine them.
Calc offers two tools for entering functions, the Function List and the Function Wizard. The Function List opens in a pane on the right side of the editing window, and is suitable for experts who know the functions they need. The Function Wizard is closer to Excel’s Insert Function dialog, but does a better job of showing formulas as they are built, and of warning of errors. Its main fault is that errors are cited by number, and are meaningless unless looked up. However, the Function Wizard could also benefit from Excel’s function search field, which allows you to describe what you would like a function to do.
Excel lists 392 functions to Calc’s 406, but these numbers tell only part of the story. Although function categories are named differently, close examination shows few differences in the functions themselves.
Usually, both the names and the options for the functions are identical. The only exceptions are Excel’s seven Cube functions for creating a data pilot-like connection to information stored in a database and Calc’s functions with an “a” suffix that are minor variations of Excel-compatible function, most of which have to do with how text-formatted cell contents are handled.
The tools to manipulate data are equally similar. Basic sorting and filtering tools are much the same, but Excel has a few extra that allow sorting by cell value as well as formatting choices like color or font color. Both have the ability to rearrange data with data-pilots or into charts, to which Excel adds sparklines, miniature graphs that give a quick impression of overall trends.
Other tools are more confusing because of differences in names. However, once you realize that Calc’s Detective is Excel’s Error Checking, and Calc’s Scenarios are Excel’s What-If, the differences are next to non-existent.
Unlike the case with Impress and PowerPoint, neither Calc nor Excel could be said to have major functionality that the other lacks. In the past, I have heard criticisms of Calc’s slowness when making long calculations. But with LibreOffice’s recent efforts to clean up the code and focus on speed in the latest 3.5.4 release, the problem seems to have disappeared since I last compared the two spreadsheets several years ago. Possibly, too, the amount of RAM on modern computers has helped to eliminate the problem.
The most you can say is that Excel has refinements that advanced users might appreciate. However, these refinements are far from necessities, and the average home or office users of Calc might not miss them, assuming they are aware of them at all.
Users will always have features that they can’t live without. Some, too, will be tempted, based on changes in feature’s names and positions, to assume that the features of one app doesn’t exist in its equivalent.
However, a close comparison of LibreOffice’s and MSO’s presentation and spreadsheet apps suggests that the differences are steadily diminishing, especially for average users. If Excel offers more than Calc, the victory is more a technical than a practical one.
Admittedly, PowerPoint still outperforms Impress, yet not by such an extent that the difference couldn’t be overcome in a release or two. In fact, the lack of improvements in Impress over the last few years — particularly in its audio capabilities — suggests that for most users the deficiencies are unimportant.
LibreOffice boasts a superior word processor to Microsoft Office, a spread sheet that is a close second to its MSO equivalent and an inferior but adequate slide show app. This record has room for improvement, but it’s enough to prove LibreOffice is a serious match for MSO.
If you insist otherwise, you might want to do some self-evaluation and ask yourself if you are seeing what you expect rather than what is actually there.