LibreOffice 5.0: Faster, Stronger, Better

The Document Foundation released version 5.0 of the LibreOffice suite last week. Usually a whole jump in an application’s version comes with significant changes and new features. Does LibreOffice 5.0 deserve its new version number? And, more importantly, is it worth upgrading to?

LibreOffice may look better, but does it work better?
LibreOffice may look better, but does it work better?

Allow me to start with a disclaimer: I am not a developer and I am not at all that familiar with the inner workings of LibreOffice. I am an end-user, albeit a heavy one. Everything I write (including this article), I write using Writer. I plan magazines, calculate costs, compose invoices, and log cash flows using Calc. If I have to give a presentation, I use Impress to build the slide show. The multinational publishing company where I worked for over 10 years used nothing but, first OpenOffice, and then LibreOffice from the fork onwards, for its productivity-related chores.

True, my first modern wordprocessor was WordPerfect 5.1 and my first spreadsheet program was Quattro Pro, both for MS-DOS back in 90s. I have used a substantial variety of functionally similar applications that appeared over the years, including many versions of what Microsoft had to offer. I have also programmed for Database engines, created macros, written functions in LibreOffice BASIC and Python to make my life easier. But, when all is said and done, 90% of the time I am still just a slightly-more-experienced-than-average end-user.

Bear the above in mind while reading this review.

Faster

LibreOffice 5.0 does not only seem faster than 4.4, it is faster. I timed it.

I timed LibreOffice by starting an empty instance of the program. I then timed it starting by clicking on a big document (the 484 page official LibreOffice Writer Guide — get more LibreOffice manuals here, by the way), and also by starting LibreOffice by clicking on a multipage Calc document. In all cases 5.0 outperformed 4.4 by a considerable margin.

LibreOffice Startup Times & Memory Usage
Version Empty Opening an ODT Opening an ODC RAM (empty)
4.4 ~2 sec. ~12.5 sec ~7 sec. ~50 Mbs
5.0 ~1.4 sec. ~10.4 sec ~4.8 sec. ~60 Mbs
Speed Increase
(bigger is better)
30.00% 16.80% 31.43%

Writer and Calc, arguably the most used tools in the suite, also come over as a snappier and more agreeable experience as you work with them.

And if you are concerned about memory usage, don’t be: 5.0 uses up about an average of 10 more megs of RAM than 4.4. This would have been a problem in the days of the Commodore 64. Nowadays? Hardly.

Stronger

How stabler 5.0 is compared to 4.x is quite more difficult to gauge. It will take months for bugs and consistent crash patterns to start emerging, but, as with speed, the 5.0 seems much more solid than the 4.x branch, at least off the bat.

Writer and Calc, probably what you are most going to use, load about 30% quicker than in LibreOffice 4.4.
Writer and Calc, probably what you are most going to use, load about 30% quicker than in LibreOffice 4.4.

During my time using the 4.x branch of the suite, I had managed to freeze the interface several times a week (freezes that could last from a few seconds to whole minutes) and crash the program completely at least once a month.

Especially annoying was when the older version of LibreOffice took issue with certain combinations of documents for no apparent reason. You loaded an X text document into Writer and then tried to open a Y spreadsheet into Calc, and the whole thing would crash without so much as a peep. X and Y on their own worked perfectly. X and Z, and Y and Z were perfect. But put X and Y together and LibreOffice 4.x just couldn’t handle it.

In the few days I have been using 5.0 for all my productivity-related work, I have had no freezes and no crashes on any document combination, even on those I had labelled as “problematic” for 4.4.

I did run into a disconcerting bug while writing this report. The central workspace where I was writing suddenly froze and showed me a static view of my text. I could scroll up and down, but the text would not visually change when I typed, even though the rest of the interface acted like it was registering my typing. A program restart was necessary to make the problem go away. I have not been able to reproduce the error since and I am still not sure the glitch was the product of LibreOffice or my window manager (KDE 4.14).

Better

Finally there is all the new stuff that make the new LibreOffice merit the 5.0 tag.

LibreOffice users have been able to sign their documents for some time, but it is in 5.0 where everything comes together and you can sign and timestamp your files to guarantee their integrity. To do this, you can use a personal certificate stored by Firefox. For example: as I am in Spain, I use the official certificate given to me for free by the Fabrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre. This personal and untransferable certificate allows me to carry out official business with the public administration online, but I can also use it to sign documents. The government in your country may have a similar service you can use.

Sign and timestamp your documents so that others can check they are tamper-free.
Sign and timestamp your documents so that others can check they are tamper-free.

LibreOffice will often pick up your Firefox certificates automatically, but if it fails to do so, go to Tools > Options and choose Security under the LibreOffice section. In Certificate Path, click on the Certificate button and navigate to /home/[your username]/.mozilla/firefox/[your account].default.

Another interesting new feature is… well, I don’t know what it’s officially called, so I’ve christened it The Navigation Wheel. If you click your mouse wheel (middle button) in any place of a document, a little 3D -looking hemisphere appears stuck to your document. It has arrows pointing North, East, South and West. Move the cursor around, and your document scrolls in the direction relative to the Wheel.

This is kind of cool, but it does break the Linux default functionality assigned to the mouse wheel click, namely that in other programs you use the middle button click to paste at the cursor’s position whatever you selected beforehand.

Navigate a document using the Navigation Wheel (centre-button click).
Navigate a document using the Navigation Wheel (centre-button click).

Maybe a slightly minor improvement for many is that LibreOffice 5.0 is that it is aesthetically more pleasing than its predecessors. The icons are more stylised, the areas to the right of the workspace are wisely used and include handy docks, and the overall colouring schemes are more consistent and pleasant.

But probably one of the most important features is that every new version of LibreOffice adds to the number and quality of their file format filters, i.e. every version is better at importing and exporting documents to different formats, including Microsoft Office formats, than the one before. In 5.0, LibreOffice has improved on DOC and RTF importing and exporting for text documents, and on OOXML formats (docx, xlsx, etc.) across the board.

If you would like to see a full list of changes and improvements, visit the LibreOffice 5.0 release notes page.

Upgrading

Windows and Mac users can download installers from the LibreOffice site. If you are using GNU/Linux, most distros have set up specific repositories with packed versions of 5.0 ready to be installed with your software management system. In Ubuntu, for example, you simply have to do

sudo add-apt-repository -y ppa:libreoffice/ppa
sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

and you’re good to go.

Recommended!

My personal appreciation, may I insist as an end user, is that 5.0 is the best version of LibreOffice yet. It is snappy and light. plus it is finally shedding the last of its 1990s skins and in general looks consistently good. More importantly, it has so far proven stabler than the 4.x branch and has interesting new features, most of which are well thought out and useful.

I personally recommend upgrading right away.

Cover Image: Skyscraper by William Berg-Hillinger at FreeImages.com