We review a free Microsoft Office alternative: verdict, not great

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We review a free Microsoft Office alternative: verdict, not great


LibreOffice, the free suite spun off after developers lost faith in OpenOffice’s direction under Oracle, is building up a head of steam with its third major release in only 16 months. With the help of full-time and volunteer “hackers”, The Document Foundation says LibreOffice 3.5 has had its 15 years’ worth of code “renovated” with the aim of pulling away from its still-alive ancestor.
First things first: this aggressive approach to redevelopment means stability isn’t the immediate priority. This new release is recommended only for power users initially, with others advised to remain on the more stable 3.4 branch until kinks have been ironed out. We had one fatal crash during our testing, but savvier software users shouldn't need to worry too much. You also can’t upgrade from any version before 3.4.5, so you may need to completely uninstall to get 3.5.
Although the majority of the work is hidden beneath the surface, you’ll notice a few visible changes straight away. LibreOffice finally has an automatic update checker, which sounds a faintly ridiculous introduction in 2012, and it comes in a single MSI installer to make setup as simple as possible, to attract new users. If you were fearing a Microsoft-style ribbon overhaul, there’s no sign of that, and if you’re coming across from Office 2003 things will feel familiar. It’s also largely consistent across platforms, with the OS X and Linux toolbars practically identical to Windows.
The Word alternative: LibreOffice Writer
Writer is the core word-processing application, and it comes with an improved built-in grammar checker, a more visual entry method for headers and footers, and a live word count. All are solidly implemented, yet hardly groundbreaking, and the live word count would be more useful if it weren’t in a separate pop-up dialog. There’s also an automatic word completer on by default, which quickly becomes irritating.
Word file compatibility is good: we could open the latest DOCX files with a range of formatting and styles; some Word-specific features such as WordArt objects were lost, however, along with fancier fonts and effects. On the other side, saving a file in DOCX format within Writer saw a few less common fonts and some spacing fail to carry over to Word. Also be aware that if you save and encrypt your file in LibreOffice 3.5, it won’t be compatible with version 3.4.4 and earlier, since the Blowfish encryption has been replaced by AES.
The Excel alternative: LibreOffice Calc
Calc, LibreOffice’s alternative to Excel, is a more complex beast, and one that it’s arguably more important to get right if the whole suite is to tempt users. Some basic but important updates have been made, such as allowing the formula input bar to expand beyond a single line, and adding support for 10,000 sheets in a single file. There’s now no limit on the number of conditional formatting rules you can apply, and the many pop-ups and dialogs are cleaner and easier 
to navigate.
For the most part Calc apes the layout and feel of Excel, and it does a good job – some would say a better job, given the simpler main toolbar. Our one gripe is the Save icon: we’re all for finding a replacement for the retro floppy disk, but it isn’t immediately obvious what LibreOffice’s tiny rectangle with a green arrow on top is meant to indicate.
As for the other components, Draw can now import and display Visio documents, and Impress will open the latest PPTX PowerPoint files. It did so with only one or two cosmetic alterations to our test presentations – the core elements were generally present and correct, even if a few of the fills and effects weren’t. Some new transitions and elements of SmartArt won’t appear properly either, but for basic slides Impress is a usable, if uninspiring, application.
The best thing we can say about LibreOffice 3.5 is that it’s undeniably better than the suite that spawned it, and it’s wonderful to see a proper movement driving it forward after a time when its future has looked uncertain. It’s a perfectly usable collection of software, and if you’re already a user of LibreOffice or OpenOffice it’s a worthy download.
The problem is that although the many updates are welcome, they’re generally updates that any paid office software has had for some time, and there’s still a long way to go before LibreOffice gets close to Microsoft’s beast. Compatibility is getting much better, and the user experience is steadily improving, but few could argue it’s entirely intuitive and novice-friendly. And there’s the threat of Microsoft’s free Office Web Apps looming large, too. 
If you’re looking to leave Office, LibreOffice 3.5 is becoming ever more viable, but it needs to keep going for a few more versions at this rate.
Wondering how good free alternatives are to Microsoft Office? We explain why LibreOffice is still a long way behind Microsoft’s paid suite
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