LibreOffice: Escape Microsoft’s Proprietary Office Suite

In this feature we’re going to look at how to get started with LibreOffice; a cross-platform, free and open source traditional office suite that is available for Windows, Mac and Linux.  We’ll look at where to download it, how to install and configure it, and where to go if you run into problems.

Along the way (and since we’re considering the feasibility of switching from the monolithic might of Microsoft Office to this free and open alternative), we’ll examine compatibility with the commercial behemoth, look at how to open and save documents using MS (MicroSoft) file types, and discover what can be done to make LibreOffice’s appearance more closely resemble that of the more dominant office suite.  These are the specific areas we’ll be covering (click one to skip ahead).

When it comes to productivity in the office workplace, Microsoft has set the standard for years.  Although times are changing – you may, for example, find many modern businesses adopting G Suite (Google’s cloud-based office apps) – Microsoft Office continues to remain a sought after product to this day; especially for those in need of a fully-featured office suite.

It’s understandable, as it’s a very comprehensive package, but as Microsoft itself tries to push more and more people away from its traditional suite and on to its Office 365 global cloud offering, surely there must be another alternative – and one that doesn’t have to cost the earth?

Welcome, then, to LibreOffice.

Installation

Where better to start than getting the software loaded on to your computer.  First you’ll need to check whether you’re running a 32 or 64 bit operating system.  Modern PCs will certainly be 64 bit, but there are still a few earlier examples around.  If you’re not sure, (on Windows 10) click the Start Menu and begin typing “system” (without the quotes).  When “System Information” appears in the list, click on it.  In the window that opens, look for System Type (as shown in the screenshot); x64 is a 64 bit OS (Operating System), x86 is 32 bit.

Now click on the following link to visit LibreOffice’s website.

https://www.libreoffice.org/

On the homepage, click the large DOWNLOAD NOW button.  There are two versions numbers of LibreOffice available on the download page.  The higher of the two is more recent and will feature all the latest up-to-date features, the other (further down the page) is slightly older and said to be more stable, which is why it’s recommended for corporate environments.  For our home use (and because we like to live dangerously), let’s download the most recent version and take advantage of all those lovely new features.  Don’t worry, it’s still pretty stable.

It’s a reasonably large download – this is a fully featured office suite, after all.  So, if your broadband connection is more slow-lane than Usain (Bolt), now may be a good time to grab a cuppa.  It’s also useful to download the additional Help for offline use (this one’s much smaller); make sure you get both this and the main office package in the (same) language that you require.  There’s an English (GB) and English (US) available.

When installing, choose the Custom option.  Among other things, this will allow you to select the file types you wish to associate with the software.  If you’re using LibreOffice as your “only” office suite, go ahead and check all of the Microsoft boxes (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Visio) as this will mean LibreOffice will become the default application for opening any of these file types when you double-click them.

If, on the other hand, you are merely testing the waters and trying LibreOffice to see if it could serve as a replacement for Microsoft’s version (and you currently have MS Office installed), you probably won’t want LibreOffice opening your MS files when you click them.  In which case, leave these boxes unchecked.  Don’t worry, for testing purposes you’ll still be able to open your MS Office files to try them in LibreOffice.  Either way, you can leave the checkbox selected to “Create a shortcut on desktop” as this never hurts.

The option to “Load LibreOffice during system start-up” is entirely up to you.  This does precisely what it says on the tin, loading LibreOffice in the background each time your computer fires up.  If you intend to use the software a lot this can be useful as it will ensure the office suite responds more quickly each time you open it.  Conversely, if you’ll only be using LibreOffice now and again, it’s better to leave it unchecked, as having it start every time you turn on your computer will both add to the starting time of your PC (or laptop) and use extra resources with it running in the background.

Now go ahead and install the software.  Once the main office suite is installed, don’t forget to also install the “Help for offline use” package that you downloaded earlier.

Opening LibreOffice

To get started double-click the LibreOffice icon on your desktop.  You should be greeted by the software’s start screen (as shown in the screenshot).  Here you can choose which program to open from the following.

Writer – word processing
Calc – spreadsheets
Impress – presentations
Draw – drawing
Math – maths formulas
Base – databases

Alternatively, you can drag a document on to the grey workspace area to open it.  As you start working with various documents within LibreOffice, you’ll see them appearing as Recent Files in this area – just click one to re-open it.

Creating desktop shortcuts

If you’d sooner bypass the start screen entirely and launch straight into the individual LibreOffice programs, you can open them from the Windows Start Menu.  To make life even easier, let’s create a desktop shortcut for each as follows.

Click the Start Menu and type “writer” (without the quotes).  When “LibreOffice Writer” pops up, right-click on it and select “Open file location”.  You should see a new window containing all of the shortcuts to the various LibreOffice programs (as pictured in the screenshot).  Copy those you’ll be using the most often and paste them on to your desktop.

Tone’s Tip. Single click each file you’d like to copy while holding down the Ctrl key on your keyboard – this will keep all of the files you select highlighted.  Then use the keyboard shortcuts of Ctrl + C (copy) and Ctrl + V (paste) to add the program shortcuts.

Now that you have the shortcuts to the individual components of the LibreOffice suite, double-click one to launch that particular program.

Save as Microsoft Documents

As much as I’d like to recommend LibreOffice’s open (non-proprietary) file extensions, which the software defaults to out of the box, the sad truth is that most of the world (when talking about Office documents) still uses Microsoft’s locked-down file types.  For this reason, it makes sense for LibreOffice to save any documents that you create as Microsoft files as well – it will already open MS documents without you having to do a thing.

To change the default behaviour, open LibreOffice’s start screen and click “Tools” on the top menu.  From the dropdown list, click the little + (plus) sign to the left of “Load/Save” in the left-hand column, and click on “General”.  On the right-hand side of the window, look under the Default File Format and ODF Settings section.  First, untick the Warn when not saving in ODF or default format, as we don’t want LibreOffice warning us every time we save a file as a Microsoft document.

The Document type should already be set on Text document, so look at the Always save as box underneath and change ODF Text Document (*.odt) to Word 2007-2019 (*.docx).  Next change the Document type to Spreadsheet from the dropdown list, and change the Always save as box to Excel 2007-2019 (*.xlsx).  Lastly, change the Document type to Presentation, and the Always save as box to PowerPoint 2007-2019 (*.pptx).

Important. With all of the file types set, don’t forget to click “Apply” and “OK” to confirm the changes.

That’s it.  Even though you’re using LibreOffice, your files will now save as Microsoft Office documents, so they’ll open on anyone’s computer who is using the paid for product.  But why not tell them about LibreOffice, too, and spread the word on the benefits of using free and open source software.

Ribbon toolbar

Microsoft Office has used the ribbon interface for many years now, but it wasn’t always that way.  Originally the suite had a more traditional layout with dropdown menus across the top.  The default interface in LibreOffice may remind those of us who are old enough of that layout, and – although many do like it – some would say that, in our modern world of flashy graphics, it looks a little dated.

If, then, you would prefer a ribbon-style layout, LibreOffice can now accommodate you.  This newer interface is known as the Notebookbar.  Unfortunately, the procedure is slightly more time-consuming than it needs to be, as you have to change the interface for each program within the office suite individually.  It would be nice if there was a way to turn on the notebookbar for the whole of LibreOffice with a single click – I can’t imagine anyone wanting to use it in, say, Writer, but not in Calc.  I think most people will either want it, or not.

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Before we can get to that part, we first need to turn on experimental features (as the notebookbar is still a relatively new feature).  So, let’s get started.

Double-click LibreOffice to open the start screen and click “Tools”, then “Options”.  In the Options window that opens, select “Advanced” in the left-hand column.  Now tick the “Enable experimental features (may be unstable) checkbox and click “OK”.  Don’t worry, in spite of the may be unstable warning, I haven’t experienced any major problems.  LibreOffice will prompt you to restart the software, so click “Restart Now”.

Okay, with that done, it’s time to enable the Notebook bar in each of the programs; where it’s available, that is.  Let’s start with Writer, so open that now.  Click “View” on the top menu.  On the dropdown list that appears, select “User Interface” and click “Tabbed”.

Tone’s Tip. If you only have a small screen, there is also a “Tabbed Compact” option underneath “Tabbed”.  As the name suggests, this will still give you the new Tabbed (notebookbar) interface, but take up less space.

If, for any reason, you need to view the traditional menu bar (which has now vanished from along the top), there is a Menubar icon at the top left of the screen.  Simply click on this to bring the traditional menu back.  Clicking it again will hide it once more, as you’ll notice you now have both the traditional menu and tabbed interface displayed.  Should you wish to return to only the traditional menu, you need to go back to “View”, “User Interface”, and click “Standard Toolbar”.

The procedure for turning on the new tabbed notebookbar UI (User Interface) is the same for each program within Libreoffice (as is the procedure for turning it off).  So next open Calc, and go to “View”, “Interface” and Tabbed”.  Do the same for Impress and Draw.  At the time of writing, Math and Base still only support the Standard (traditional) Toolbar.

Now let’s take a quick look around each of the main LibreOffice suite programs.

Writer

Writer is LibreOffice’s equivalent of Microsoft Word.  You’ll notice several little icons in the top left corner, which are common to most of the LibreOffice programs.  Here we have an Open icon, a Save one, Undo and Redo buttons, and a little Print icon.

As it’s, arguably, the more modern (and closer to Microsoft’s ribbon toolbar) we’ll look at the tabbed interface we set up earlier.

File

The File tab is where you’ll find your New, Open and Save options.  There’s also Templates to help you get going more quickly.  Besides the expected files, you can Export to PDF, or even EPUB (if you have an eReader).

Home

The Home tab contains many of the formatting tools; Font Name (type) and Font Size can be set from this menu.  Text can be Bold, or Italic, and you can Underline or Strikethrough.  There’s Font Color and Background Color, bullet points, alignment and indenting.  If it’s directly shaping your text, odds are it’s in here.

Insert

The Insert tab is quite an obvious one, being anything you wish to add to the page.  Be it a Table, Chart, clip art (Gallery), Image or other Media.  You can insert a Hyperlink or Text Box.  Then there’s Page Number, Time or Date (all located under Field).  A lot of visual improvements can be introduced from this tab.

Layout

On the Layout tab you’ll find numerous Page options, such as Margins, Size and ColumnsOrientation can be set from here, and you can also create a Page Break.

References

References is home to Table of Contents, Index Entry, and BookmarkFootnotes and Endnotes are also located on this tab, as is the facility to Cross-reference.

Review

Then we have the Review tab.  This is the place to head to check your work over, with tools such as Spelling, Thesaurus, Word Count, and Comment.

View

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the View tab gives us access to multiple Views; including Normal, Web, and Print.  There’s an option to view your work Full Screen.  You can also choose to show or hide the Sidebar, and to add Rulers, if desired.

Tools

Finally, we have the Tools tab.  This deals with Macros (a macro is a set of instructions used to automate a frequent task).  The Mail Merge Wizard (which imports data from another source, such as a spreadsheet, and places it into your document at set places, so as to personalise a single document by addressing multiple recipients individually) is likewise located on this tab.  You’ll also find the Envelope and E-mail tools in this section.

Calc

Calc is LibreOffice’s spreadsheet program (think Microsoft Excel).  It has the same little icons as Writer, including Open, Save and Print.  The tabbed interface likewise contains File, Home, Insert, Layout, Review, View and Tools with all their associated options.

For obvious reasons, there’s no References or Review tabs, as we’re dealing with spreadsheet software here, not word processing.  As a result, we’ve gained a Data tab.  This allows us to carry out such actions as Link to External Data, Recalculate (sums and equations), Sort the order of cells and (Auto or Standard – manually) Filter content.  As with Microsoft Excel, you can add additional sheets to your spreadsheet by clicking the little + (plus) sign at the bottom left of the page (sheet).

Impress

Impress is the presentation software, or what might otherwise be Microsoft PowerPoint.  Upon opening it, a Select a Template box will pop-up.  Choose one to get started, or click “Cancel” if you’d sooner build yours from the ground up.  The layout should look familiar to anyone who’s used Microsoft’s version, with tools along the top, Slides laid out on the left, and the slide you’re working on in the main panel.

We have the usual Open, Save, Undo and Redo icons at the top left.  This time there is no little Print icon, though.  Instead we have a Start from First Slide button to get your presentation rolling.  The tab line-up is similar to the other programs (that support it) within LibreOffice.  The File tab is where you’ll find the option to Print your slides, and the View tab let’s you add some Notes.  Unique to Impress, though, we have a Slide tab and a Slide Show tab, as discussed below.

Slide

The Slide tab gives us options to Format Page, Set Background Image, create a New Page, Duplicate Page and Delete Page, too.  It also allows us to Rename Page and Hide Slide (this last function will prevent a slide from appearing in the presentation, without having to delete it).

Slide Show

Head for this tab when you’re ready to test the fruits of your labour.  You can Start from the First Slide or Start from Current Slide.  You can also Rehearse Timings, and there’s a handy option to create a Custom Slide Show.  Make your presentation ready for prime time by delving into the Slide Show Settings, playing around with the Slide Transition, or even adding some Animation to liven things up a bit.

Writer, Calc and Impress; those are the three main office components.  Unfortunately there is no Publisher equivalent.  That said (although not desktop publishing software) the office suite does contain a program capable of opening .pub files…

Draw

That program is LibreOffice Draw.  While it won’t be much use for working on your publisher files as you could with MS Publisher, it will at least allow for some basic editing, and, perhaps more importantly, being able to print the document(s) off or export them to PDF (Portable Document Format).

Speaking of which, Draw can also be used to open PDF files and carry out some simple editing – just don’t expect to be working on the document in the same way as the program that created it.  Still, at a pinch, LibreOffice Draw can come in very handy for the task, and (so long as your requirements are basic) it might just save you from having to shell out on Adobe’s expensive Acrobat software.

Base

Base is the database component of LibreOffice.  While you won’t be opening any Microsoft Access database files directly, you can at least link to them.  Base has a Connect to an existing database wizard that you can run to hook into the tables in a Microsoft Access database.

This is Bases’s biggest strength – although it can create smaller scale embedded databases – being a fully-featured desktop database front end, it can connect to multiple existing (and external) far larger databases.  Designed to meet the needs of even enterprise requirements, it supports some of the most popular database engines, including MySQL, MariaDB and PostgreSQL.

Math

A program designed for editing equations and formulas, Math can be used as a standalone application or inserted into your Writer, Calc, Impress and Draw documents.

That brings us to the end of LibreOffice’s suite of applications.  Don’t forget, these programs contain numerous context menus, giving you quick access to the relevant tools for any section you right-click on (if available).

Setting the default font

LibreOffice Writer usually sets Liberation Serif as the default font.  Since (for the purpose of this feature) we are trying emulate Microsoft Office as much as possible, it’s a good idea to change this to MS Word’s default font, namely Times New Roman.  In order to do so, first open LibreOffice Writer.  Then go to Tools and Options.

In the left-hand column, click on the little + (plus) sign to the left of LibreOffice Writer.  Now click on “Basic Fonts (Western)”.  On the right-hand side change all of the dropdown boxes from Liberation Serif to Times New Roman (as pictured), then click “Apply” and “OK”.

LibreOffice icons

Newer versions of LibreOffice (6.1 and above) now have an icon set called Colibre that resembles the icons found in Microsoft Office.  In order to make LibreOffice appear even more like the proprietary office suite, we should check that we’re using them.  First, though, make sure that you’re running the latest version by clicking “Help”, then “Check for Updates” from within the software and updating (if necessary).

Once up-to-date, open the LibreOffice start screen and go to Tools and Options.  Next, click on “View” in the left-hand column.  On the right-hand side, look for the Icon style and make sure this is set to “Colibre”.

Troubleshooting

LibreOffice won’t open

Usually LibreOffice is very reliable software, but on the rare occasion that it does let you down, what do you do if it refuses to open?  Of course, you could try uninstalling and reinstalling the software (making sure that all of the files are gone from the Program Files directory – on Windows – after uninstalling).  You could also try downloading the latest version and installing that (if you weren’t running it already).  But there is something else to try, which may just help you out.  When LibreOffice installs, it creates a profile directory.  This contains all of the settings that you’ve selected when using the software.

Warning. Carrying out the following procedure will reset your personal preferences back to factory defaults.

On a Windows computer, open up the C Drive (Local Disk) and go to the Users folder.  Double-click the directory that has your username.  Then from the View tab, check the Hidden items box.  You should now see the AppData folder.  Inside it, double-click on “Roaming” and you should see a LibreOffice folder (as shown in the screenshot) – this is your profile directory.

Rather than delete, we’ll rename it – in case we need it later.  So right-click on it and select “Rename”.  I suggest adding “.bak” on the end, so it becomes identifiable by its .bak extension.  Now go back to the View tab and uncheck “Hidden items”.  Lastly, you can close the window.  Next time you open LibreOffice (and, hopefully, it will now open), the software will rebuild a new LibreOffice (profile) directory.  All that’s left to do is reconfigure any settings and preferences to the way you want them.

If for any reason, you need to revert to the previous profile (perhaps this wasn’t the cause of your problem, after all), you can go back to the Roaming folder (as per the previous instructions), delete the new “LibreOffice” profile directory, right-click on “LibreOffice.bak”, select “Rename” and delete the “.bak” extension.

Spellcheck doesn’t seem to be working

If you’re typing and you’ve noticed that Writer isn’t highlighting your typos, you need to make sure that the dictionary is loaded.  Note. For the following instructions to work, you should to be on at least LibreOffice version 6.0.  You can check your version by going to Help and About LibreOffice from within the software.  Update to the latest version, if necessary.

Click on the following link to open the LibreOffice extensions website (an extension provides added functionality to the main office suite – in this instance, a dictionary).

https://extensions.libreoffice.org/extensions

On the page that opens, type “english dictionary” (without the quotes) into the search box and press Enter on your keyboard.  Click the English Dictionaries entry from the search results, then scroll down the page to the Current Release section.  Now locate the .oxt file (e.g. dict-en-20190501.oxt) and click on it to download the file.

Open LibreOffice Writer (if it isn’t already) and go to Tools, and Extension Manager.  Click “Add” in the window that opens and navigate to the dictionary file you just downloaded.  Select it and click “Open”.  You should see something similar to the pictured screenshot.  when Writer re-opens, type a word (or a sentence) with a deliberate error.  All being well, you should now see it highlighting any spelling errors as you type.

Next let’s look at where to turn to if we get stuck.

Help

If you’re in need of some extra assistance, launch the offline help.  Available from within any of LibreOffice’s programs, click “Help” on the top menu bar, and then “LibreOffice Help”.  Alternatively, tap “F1” on your keyboard.  If, like me, you receive a LibreOffice Help Not Installed warning message; worry not, (assuming you have installed the Help for offline use package) it just means the language version of the main office suite doesn’t match the offline help.

This is easily rectified by going to Tools – Options – Language Settings – Languages (as shown in the screenshot).  Make sure all the language boxes are set to the same language as your Help for offline use package and click OK.  It will ask to restart the software, so click to do so.  Now when you go to the Offline help, it should open in a web browser – perhaps a little strange that it uses a web browser, being offline help, but you may have noticed in the address bar that the directory of the help files are on your computer, not the internet.

Alternatively if you’d rather not install the offline help files, you can still go to the Help menu for assistance.  This time, when you click LibreOffice Help, select “Read Help Online” to access the online help.  There are many other options available in the Help menu, including “Get Help Online”, which links to a site (somewhat confusingly, different from the Read Help Online link mentioned just a moment ago).  Still, it’s a useful resource, as you can type in your question(s) and, hopefully, get immediate answer(s) – if it’s a topic someone has asked about before.  There are also User Guides and books you can download (for free).

LibreOffice’s Help dropdown menu is also the place you go if you’d like to check for updates to the software.  Simply click the “Check for Updates…” entry.  If an update is available it will give you the option to download and install it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is LibreOffice used for?

If you’ve read the main feature, hopefully, you know the answer to this one by now.  But, if you’ve jumped straight here from the contents at the top, LibreOffice is a traditional office suite (much like, and compatible with, Microsoft Office).  It consists of a word processor (called Writer), a spreadsheet application (known as Calc), a presentation program (named Impress), database software (also known as Base), a drawing package (imaginatively titled Draw) and a maths component (known as, you guessed it, Math).

Is LibreOffice as good as Microsoft Office?

This definitely depends on who you ask; there are many people who favour both camps.  As LibreOffice (unlike its proprietary counterpart) is completely free, why not install it and find out for yourself.

Is LibreOffice compatible with Microsoft Office?

The simple answer is, yes.  Compatibility is getting better all the time, with the latest major release of LibreOffice, version 6 (at the time of writing) having made many improvements in this area.  How successfully Microsoft Office documents display in LibreOffice depends on multiple factors, not least of which is formatting.

LibreOffice can open Word documents (doc and docx), Excel spreadsheets (xls and xlsx) and PowerPoint presentations (ppt and pptx).  While you’ll need to try each individual document to gauge how successfully it opened, basic documents will appear with far greater accuracy than more complicated arrangements.

Is LibreOffice safe to use?

Absolutely.  It could be argued that it’s even safer to use than Microsoft Office; the reason being is that LibreOffice is open source.  This means that the code is available for anyone to look at, so if there are any problems they’re out in the open.  With proprietary software (such as MS Office), you have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes (which is why it’s essential that you only install these products if they are released by reputable companies).

Will LibreOffice run in Windows 10?

Yes.  Note. It’s always advisable to run the most up-to-date version of software anyway, but this is especially the case if you’re looking for trouble-free installation on a new operating system.

Conversion time

I hope you’ve enjoyed this feature and are ready to give LibreOffice a go.  Obviously, anything that isn’t Microsoft Office is ever going to be 100% compatible with the actual product itself, but LibreOffice has made great strides in this direction.  The compatibility of version 6, in particular, has improved a lot.  At least you now have all the tools to make the transition as seamless as possible, and, who knows, given time you may even try a few of LibreOffice’s defaults – many people do prefer it to Microsoft’s equivalent.

Finally, if you’d like to watch a YouTube video called Making LibreOffice More Like Microsoft Office (For Free), click on the following link.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2uE_q1YLp8