LibreOffice 4.4 Reviewed – As good as claimed?

LibreOffice 4.4 – The next great Office Suite?

LibreOffice 4.4 has just been released. The developers have claimed it to be “The most beautiful LibreOffice ever.” Does it stand up to the large claims the development team have made? Let’s take a look.

Isn’t “beautiful” just hyperbole?

As someone who has used my fair share of LibreOffice (since the fork) and OpenOffice (before the fork) the UI of LibreOffice has always been rather spartan; functional, but not what you’d call a “looker” either. So expectations weren’t terribly high for the UI improvements that were touted on the website. I will tip my hat to the UI/UX team though, the difference between 4.3 and 4.4 is astonishing. The changes not only look better, but they really do help you find the tool you need more quickly and intuitively. The selection of icons on the toolbar make more sense and are grouped far more logically. To give a visual, let’s compare the 4.3 and 4.4 versions of Impress (the PowerPoint alternative of the suite).

LibreOffice 4.3's UI was functional if a bit spartan.
LibreOffice 4.3’s UI was functional if a bit spartan.
LibreOffice 4.4 UI
LibreOffice 4.4’s UI is significantly overhauled with more obvious tool icons that pop with color.

So it’s prettier, but what about performance?

The other immediately striking thing that I found is the drastic speed improvement since the last version of LibreOffice. Generally each application launches as fast or faster than their Microsoft counterpart. This is thanks in large part to the new OpenCL modules included. OpenCL essentially allows portions of the computational workload to be shifted from the CPU to the GPU if it would be more efficient there. This works to enable parallel processing between the CPU and GPU (heterogenous systems). The benefits can immediately be seen on Intel and AMD systems which have an integrated GPU die on the CPU or a system with a dedicated GPU. The implementation has given a significant boost to the overall “snapiness” of the programs and larger compute functions inside the programs as well.

Industry Standard Compatiblity

Shiny and fast are great, but how easy is it to create and edit documents? I’m particularly interested in the interoperability features with MS Office, which in the past has been spotty. The good news here is that there has been focused attention to compatibility and font substitution. I opened approximately 10 different Word 2013 documents using Writer and it worked pretty much flawlessly to be honest. How it works with additional and more complex Word 2013 documents will be a good long term test, but thus far I am very pleased.

Daily Driver

I decided to really put LibreOffice through the gauntlet and use it exclusively in place of Office 2013 for the past two days for all my daily work. I can honestly say that it met all my needs; though to be fair I don’t do a lot of advanced Excel/Calc work with pivot tables and the like, so the jury is out on that front. Honestly though, I find that most users of office suites don’t use those features either. I’d wager 95% or more of the general population could use LibreOffice 4.4 without any issues whatsoever.

I’ll be honest and say that MS Office does have more templates and overall “pizazz”, but at the end of the day this is a tool set, and each of the tools in this box does a fantastic job doing exactly what it’s meant to do. I don’t see LibreOffice replacing MS Office in the corporate world where Outlook is the lifeblood of so many, but there is quite literally no reason it couldn’t fulfill the needs of the sweeping majority of home and small business users however.

Overall I’m quite pleased with LibreOffice 4.4, more so than I expected to be. I don’t have any real complaints about it at all. This release checks all the required boxes and is a very pleasant experience overall.

It’s available for download at the LibreOffice.org site – there’s even a portable version, so you can run it off a USB stick and take your personal office suite wherever you go. I’d expect it to be turning up in major Linux distro repositories soon as well.

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