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Microsoft Word vs. LibreOffice Writer

You know what the biggest problem is with reviews? They’re written (or recorded) by people who have a certain bias either towards or against the product. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that perse, but when it becomes obvious that this bias is also affecting the review then I think you got a bit of a problem because it will make the whole thing look out of place.

So before I continue I’d like to state that I am definitely biased towards Microsoft Office and that this blog post was even fully written within Word 2016 (I usually rely on Open Live Writer), so do with this as you want.

Fortunately for us the Document Foundation (= group behind the LibreOffice project) didn’t go here and instead set up an extensive feature comparison. However, the problem with that is that it becomes awkward if you see that some people apparently consider it an important feature that a product still supports obsolete standards. For example: when was the last time than you opened a PCX graphics file?

Therefor I figured I’d install LibreOffice and do a small comparison myself. And honestly? LibreOffice is an amazing and most definitely an impressive project. However… the saying that “you get what you pay for” still holds true today.

Menu entries

So the first thing that I couldn’t help but notice were the rather plain icons which LibreOffice uses in the start menu. It’s not too big of a deal but if you’re working on something (trying to go over things in your mind) while deciding which application to use for your project then I seriously prefer the more colorful approach of Microsoft Office versus the rather plain looking icons of LibreOffice.

My problem is that the LibreOffice icons look very much alike and that makes it harder to separate one from the other.

I’m pretty sure that this setup works for most people, but that’s also what I meant with my comments above: sometimes it’s important to try and think out of the box. Not everyone will be fully familiar with your setup.

Another thing, but that’s nitpicking on my end (don’t I know it) is the ‘base’ system uses the same icon for both the normal and safe startup mode. That’s a bit weird IMO.

The Ribbon vs. icon bars

Sure: LibreOffice does provide (limited) support for something that mimics the Ribbon interface, but if you install it and work with the default settings then you’ll be stuck with icon bars. Seriously, did we go back to the 90’s or something?

Now, in all fairness: the icons which are being used leave little to guess. This is by far as bad as Word was in its early days where you had extremely small icons and either had to guess or hover your mouse over it before you realized what option you were about to click. Even so, it’s still a mess in my opinion because everything is just thrown together a bit:

See: spell check sits right next to the ‘show control characters’ option which in its turn sits next to ‘insert table’. Three totally different functions which have absolutely nothing in common, yet here we are… Please note that I’m not claiming that this is a bad design or something, this is perfectly usable. What I am saying though is this “clutter” is exactly why the Ribbon interface is such a big deal; because all related options are neatly grouped together by function on the Ribbon it’s pretty easy to find whatever you need. Even if it’s an option you seldomly use, and that is a big deal.

Because options which are less often used won’t find their way on any icon bar, and so you’re left to (hopefully) find the right menu, skim over the several items in order to find whatever option it is you’re after. This is made more difficult because once again not all options are grouped together based on similar functionality and worse: the dreaded “Extra” menu. Pretty much everything which LibreOffice couldn’t place in a regular menu got “dumped” under Extra. I’m not a fan because it seems sloppy to me, not to mention the risk that more functions could eventually find their way in there making going over all those functions a task in itself.

Functionality overlap

On the positive side though there is something which LibreOffice definitely got right: overlapping options. If you look at the menu in the screenshot above you’ll notice “Invoegen” (aka “Insert”) and ‘Tabel’. So… if we wanted to insert a table where would we need to go? The ‘Insert’ menu or the ‘Table’ menu? That would be a sloppy design in itself were it not for the fact that the option to insert a table would be found in both menus. Which I think makes sense and shows a good design on the part of LibreOffice. This is something Microsoft Office plain out lacks: an option will always be found in one single location.

Where did my help go?!

So while testing Writer I figured I’d try to look into the help screen when I suddenly got confronted with the error you see above. That’s right: if you download LibreOffice then you get an installer which lacks offline help, you’re supposed to go look online for your help or manually download the help section afterwards. Sure: while downloading the main program you also get to see a link which points you to a help section which you can download. But why make that opt-in instead of opt-out?

This is a very poor design in my opinion, especially for a project such as LibreOffice. No, I’m honestly not just bad mouthing here; there’s a reason for my critical comments. See here:

So, the online help tells me that I should be able to record a macro by using the Extra -> Macro’s -> Record (“opnemen”) option but as you can see my version doesn’t have that option. What gives?

Now, the reason for this inconsistency is easily explained: the online help as shown above talks about LibreOffice 6.2 while I’m using version 6.1. But unfortunately the help option always sends you off to the help articles for the latest LibreOffice version instead of pointing you to an help section which actually matches the version you’re using. And to add insult to injury the website doesn’t allow you to quickly select help for another version; you can only select another language but no version.

Needless to say but this is not very user friendly. And yes, I know: you can change the URL yourself in your browsers address bar and change “latest” (or “6.2”) to “6.1” and you’ll get the help you were looking for. But that’s not the point: you should have been automatically pointed to the right help section as soon as you clicked “help” within Writer. This is also the major risk when you’re forced to rely on online documentation: how sure can you be that the information is still relevant?

Word on the other hand…

I press F1 and I’m immediately greeted with an interactive help section. It shows me some general information, provides links to click on and I also have a search option.

End users vs. techies

This isn’t only about user-friendliness mind you… the main issue with LibreOffice, and a large majority of open source projects alike, is that you’re working with environments made by developers for developers or at least users who are on the same line as the main developer(s) are (or they’re expected to be).

Take the above help screen example: you’re taken to the help section for the latest version because everyone uses the latest and greatest, right? Well, no. When it comes to Office products (or software tools in general) then most users will focus more on usability rather than the latest version. The ‘latest and greatest’ is meaningless if you can’t get your work done with it and getting work done is the first and foremost important aspect of them all!

And that approach is something which often lacks within open source: it’s their way or the highway so to speak. Even though it would help a lot if they also tried to keep the end users in mind.

Another simple example:

Here I added a signature object below my text and then I tried to select so that I could copy the last section to a different page. Well, you can see the result above: no matter what I do I can’t easily select the object so that I can copy it. Sure: the reasoning behind it makes sense: that object is a special individual aspect of your document. It has its own properties and its own reference, so it’s not in our best interest to make copies of it. But isn’t that basically ‘tech’ talk? I simply want to quickly set up a second page with a signature section. If it’s so bad to have a “cross reference” then why doesn’t Writer change that for me automatically?

And in Word:

And this is a classic example of more user-friendliness: not only can I easily select and copy the signature object as I intended, Word also automatically made full use of my widescreen monitor. While zooming out Word noticed that there was room to spare within the application and the result can be seen above. I don’t know about you but for me this is much easier to work with than having to cope with two pages that are only shown halfway.

You get what you pay for!

Sure, LibreOffice is free while you have to pay for Microsoft Office. But don’t think you’re only paying for some software components. You’re also getting the results of over 20 years worth of experience with Office environments which results in a good (but not perfect!) understanding of what an end user might want to do within the application.

In LibreOffice Writer I had to manually mark paragraphs which were written in a different language in order to assign the right setting for the spell checker. Word on the other hand automatically detected the language for me and adjusted these settings on its own (a behavior which you can customize if you want to).

If I have a header and I want to change that from Header 1 to, say, Header 3 then I’ll have to select the text and find the option in the toolbar when working with Writer. In Word I simply right click and select the style I want to change to.

But most of all: Word is fully optimized to work with a widescreen monitor. A help section gets shown on the right side of my edit window, print options will be displayed on the left. And it can do so much more…

Are you writing a document about a certain topic? Then Wikipedia can be a great source for a general overview about the product and which can help you fill in specific details about it. Did you know that Wikipedia is built on the open source Mediawiki project? Apparently Microsoft did realize as much and as a result we can access Wikipedia straight from within Word. In OpenOffice Writer otoh… Well, you can insert PCX files if you want to

Careful when removing LibreOffice!

I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff over the years but never seen such an abominable de-installation as the one with LibreOffice, this was plain out bad.

So what happened? After I was done with my tests and experiments I deinstalled LibreOffice using the ‘apps’ section within the Windows 10 configuration page (start menu -> config -> apps). The (de)installer started and mentioned that the Explorer process was keeping some files open and if I wanted to deinstall without rebooting I had to close the process. Pretty bizarre if you consider that I had no file managers open nor was this ever an issue during the installation. So I told it to close the process to see what happened next. Well, the result is shown above. This is the situation the installer left me with, which is totally pathetic.

Remember my previous comment about “build by developers, for developers”? Another classic example if you ask me. How do you imagine an end user getting out of a mess like this? Yah, I know my way around Windows quite well, so I had a task manager running in no time and after I started a new Explorer process my desktop was also quickly back to normal.

But seriously: what kind of a messed up installer kills the main Explorer process without even bothering to try and restore that situation?

And it gets worse… I came prepared for all this and made a restoration point before installing LibreOffice. This also helped me to check what parts the LibreOffice installer had cleaned up. Well, there were several left over registry keys and the installation directory also never got totally removed. Normally I’d simply refer to that as sloppy (in all fairness things like that happen more often) but if you then consider the state it left me in then I’m really not that optimistic anymore.

Summing up

I’m not a big fan of LibreOffice anymore, and the reasons why are shown above. I’m still totally baffled with the bizarre and totally pathetic deinstallation process. But I’m also a bit surprised to see the lack of progress within OpenOffice. With Word you quickly get the feeling to be working with a program that has been optimized and tuned for your setup, especially when working with a widescreen monitor. Writer on the other hand still relies on icon toolbars and doesn’t even try to use the excess of display space which it has available. Oh I know: if I tweak some settings then I can fully optimize it for that as well. But that still isn’t the point: these are some of those things that I would expect an Office environment to automatically handle for me.

A solid office environment should allow you to concentrate on your work, without having to bother yourself (too much) with the program you’re working with.

And there you have it…


The next post will be written using Open Live Writer again because although I do enjoy the Word editor it’s a total disaster to set up a decent blog layout within Word 🙂


April 28, 2019 - Posted by | Editorial, Microsoft Office, TechBlabber | , , , ,

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