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LibreOffice 4.3 (PC) review: A powerful but dated Office clone

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The Good LibreOffice offers excellent compatibility with Microsoft files, tucked into an appreciably familiar interface.

The Bad The lack of a mobile presence coupled with an archaic interface make LibreOffice a tough sell.

The Bottom Line LibreOffice is a great office suite, but it can't compete with modern apps that offer strong compatibility with Microsoft Office, and also work on mobile devices and the Web.

7.1 Overall

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Microsoft Office might still be the de facto name in office suites, but the free, open-source LibreOffice has been one of the top contenders in the space for years. And while the recent update to version 4.3 is light on grand, sweeping changes, it still cements the suite's place as a solid contender to tackle your productivity needs.

But while LibreOffice's suite of desktop apps has long championed speed and excellent file compatibility with Microsoft Office files, the competition at Microsoft, Google, and new upstarts offering free apps have taken their wares to the cloud and to mobile devices -- the places where we're increasingly getting stuff done. LibreOffice, by contrast, is stuck in the past: with competing office suites catching up on compatibility and offering far more features, it's time to leave LibreOffice behind.

A time capsule

LibreOffice's user interface dates back to a time when Microsoft Office office was still generally well liked, before the infamous ribbon showed up and foiled many a well-honed routine. And it hasn't really evolved since: firing up Writer or Calc is like stepping back through time, with most of the app's functions splayed out before us on tool bars as little nondescript icons. As someone all but raised on Microsoft Office and OpenOffice it's at once familiar. And every app in the LibreOffice suite shares the same general appearance, which is admittedly very handy for building familiarity with the tools.

LibreOffice (top) vs Microsoft Word 2007 (center) vs Google Docs (bottom) Screenshots by Nate Ralph/CNET
Yes, I know what all of the buttons do, and generally navigate by keyboard shortcut anyway. It's also very easy to customize those toolbars, whether you'd like to scrap some of the functions you don't use, replace those icons with text descriptions, move things around, add new buttons or get rid of the toolbars altogether. But I've grown accustomed to the clear, easily navigable UIs of modern tools like Google Docs, which don't require any fussing about -- LibreOffice's wares look cluttered and archaic, proving especially daunting if you're new to the suite and dipping your toe in to all the apps that it has to offer.

The classic Office experience

And there are a quite a few apps. Of course if LibreOffice is going to be a suitable replacement for Microsoft Office, it's going to have to offer a suitable alternative for just about every single piece of the puzzle. And it does! Better still, it performs rather well, opening files up quickly, tackling just about every file I threw at it with ease, and generally playing nicely when I sent documents to and from Microsoft's apps. Better still: LibreOffice can even open many older Office formats,


Comments and changes are compatible with Microsoft Word. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Writer is likely going to be the LibreOffice app that sees the most use. It's a fairly standard document editor, packing all of the features you'd expect: You can change the style and formatting of particular sections of a document, see your spelling snafus on the fly care of little red squiggly lines, leave comments in the body of a document, and track your changes. One neat feature lies within the grammar check: I generally avoid that tool, but when LibreOffice alerts you to a grammar error (care of a blue squiggly line) it'll actually tell you what it thinks is incorrect in a tooltip. It even offers explanations, care of links to grammar articles on Wikipedia. You can also drag and drop most image types directly into a document, resizing them on the fly -- text will simply flow around it, as we've come to expect out of any modern word processor.

Writer (and the rest of the LibreOffice suite) saves its files in the OpenDocument format by default. That file format is supported by most word processors, but it's easy enough to change if the unfamiliar extension (.ODT) scares off your friends and colleagues. When I tried opening opening .ODT tiles in Microsoft Office 2007 I saw unsettling errors about file corruption, even on the simplest files containing a single sentence, but documents opened just fine, with things like formatting or inline comments preserved.


LibreOffice's Calc can tackle most of your Excel files. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET
Next up is LibreOffice's Calc, the spreadsheet editor. One to one parity with Microsoft's Excel is a lofty goal, but it's one that Calc has always handled fairly well. If your Excel sheets are fairly basic, Calc will tackle them just fine. On the simplest Excel files I tested, font layouts and even the colors I chose for individual tabbed sheets were replicated faithfully.

Some of my more complicated worksheets pull data from web queries into specific tables on a sheet -- Calc offers this functionality, but failed to preserve the connections I'd already set up in Excel. And when I loaded up a behemoth of a spreadsheet that couples VBA scripting and web queries, Calc failed outright. I expected as much: many of the tools I'm using are native to Excel, and it wouldn't be fair to expect an outright replication of every arcane feature Microsoft has brought to bear. If you're developing especially complex Excel spreadsheets, it'll probably be best to stick to Excel.

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