LibreOffice is the full-featured suite of office apps that costs nothing and runs on everything. If you don't want to pay for Microsoft Office or Apple's iWork, or if you (or your office) requires open source software instead of commercial software, then LibreOffice is virtually your only choice.
LibreOffice is an offshoot of the old OpenOffice.org suite, now revived as Apache OpenOffice, but Apache OpenOffice is far behind LibreOffice in terms of power and elegance. If you want to leave your documents in the cloud, Google Docs gets the job done in a highly polished but low-featured way, but LibreOffice is the only free, open source desktop office suite that's even worth considering.
That doesn't mean it's perfect, and it's packed with minor annoyances, so I can't recommend it as your first choice on the basis of its built-in features and conveniences. But if you need an office suite that's cross-platform and open source, you'll be glad that LibreOffice exists.
One advantage of LibreOffice is that it's the only office suite that runs on all desktop and laptop platforms – Windows, OS X, and Linux. It even runs on eight-year-old Macs that use PowerPC processors instead of the Intel CPUs on current Mac hardware. Versions for Android and iOS are in the works, but they won't emerge until later this year or 2014. The recently released version 4 of LibreOffice we’re reviewing here looks a lot like the long-running 3.x series, but has massive invisible changes designed to let it move into the tablet era and provide a new API for corporate and government programmers to interact with it.
Even if you don't use LibreOffice for day-to-day work, it's worth having for its unparalleled set of import and export filters that let you open almost any document format you're likely to find, especially in government and law offices that have been accumulating documents for decades. For example, LibreOffice is the only non-Microsoft app that opens Microsoft Works and Microsoft Publisher files, and it opens files created by the old WordPerfect for Mac word processor that even WordPerfect for Windows can't handle.
Full set of apps
By default, LibreOffice installs a full set of office apps: A word processor called Writer, a spreadsheet called Calc, a database called Base, a graphics app called Draw, presentation software called Impress, and an equation editor called Math. Unlike Microsoft Office and other suites, LibreOffice treats its equation editor as a separate app, but it's also tightly integrated with Writer and the other apps. If you use the menu item in Writer to insert a formula, the Math editing window opens as a pane in the Writer screen.
LibreOffice's word processor, spreadsheet, and presentations apps look and work a lot like the way Microsoft Office looked before Office 2007 introduced the Ribbon interface. A standard top-line menu leads to all major features, so prepare to open a few drop-down menus before you find the feature you want.
Below the menu are customisable toolbars with the usual sets of icons, most of them easy to understand at a glance. If you need an explanatory tooltip, hover over an icon with the mouse. As in Microsoft Word, LibreOffice Writer displays a live word count on the status bar. However, unlike Word, LibreOffice Writer can't split a document into two parts so you can edit two different pages at the same time, and Writer doesn't have Word's writer-friendly page view that shows how a document will look when printed, but without the header and footer displayed on screen.
Instead, LibreOffice offers just a print layout view that shows headers, footers, and a gap between pages, or an ugly looking "web layout" view where text fits into the current window and doesn't reflect how it will look on the page.
Microsoft and Apple put a lot of effort into making the user interface in Office and iWork easy to navigate. LibreOffice still has a lot of work to do. The Tools/Option menu is a confusing array of more than forty separate pages, with no search box to help you find the page you want.
Even worse, whenever I opened the Options menu, LibreOffice displayed a message telling me to go to Tools/Options/LibreOffice/Java and select the Java runtime environment that I want LibreOffice to use. Unfortunately, the "Java" menu that this message told me to go doesn't exist. I eventually discovered that I should go to Tools/Options/LibreOffice/Advanced instead.
By default, LibreOffice Writer automatically inserts curly "typographic" quotation marks when you type a double quotation mark, but not when you type a single quotation mark, so your documents get an ugly mix of curly double quotes and straight-up single quotes.
You can fix this by going to Tools/Auto-Correct Options and clicking the Localised Options tab – not exactly an intuitive choice. Many of LibreOffice's menus have a button labelled Standard, which baffled me until I figured out that it restores all the settings on the menu to the original defaults.
Microsoft Office compatibility
LibreOffice does an impressive job of opening Microsoft Office documents with reasonable fidelity. All my Word documents imported with formatting mostly intact, though I needed to make some minor adjustments to margins and spacing to get all the page breaks in the right places. Calc imported real-world Excel worksheets equally smoothly, and even reproduced much of Excel's graphics-rich conditional formatting.
Some vastly complex worksheets that I use for testing caused LibreOffice Calc to crash when I tried to open them – and when Calc crashed, it took down Writer with it before I was able to save the document I was working on. Fortunately, when I restarted Writer, it offered to recover the document, and restored it in perfect condition.
PowerPoint slideshows imported moderately well, though fancy animation effects were ignored and some text which I had applied animation effects to was imported with some letters missing. The lesson here is to make certain that you've got rid of all fancy effects in documents, spreadsheets, and presentations before importing them into LibreOffice.
LibreOffice has all the features that anyone is likely to need in the real world, although it falls short of Microsoft Office in terms of advanced features that only specialist users are likely to need, such as split-screen editing and the kinds of massive worksheets that Excel can handle.
The price – free – is certainly right, and its annoyances are mostly the kind that you can work around. If you can afford to buy Office 2013, and you don't require open source, cross-platform applications, then don't hesitate a moment before choosing Microsoft Office. But if you told me that I had to use LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office, I wouldn't complain, and I'd get some satisfaction from thinking about the money I'd saved.