Linux

Seven great features of OpenOffice and Libre Office that you probably ignore

Free office suite tools like OpenOffice and Libre Office have more advanced features than you might expect. Here are seven that go beyond the common tasks.

For many people Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office, which I'll call collectively FOs (Free Offices suites) for short, are nothing but "free, as in free beer" substitutes of Microsoft Office for basic to intermediate needs. Many users in this category may run the FOs for years without ever discovering some of their features, that is, without realizing the full power and flexibility of these tools.

Sure, even most beginners know that both the FOs are multi-platform, regularly updated, and can export documents to PDF without additional plugins (always a good "selling" point, in my experience), but that's pretty much it. I'm quite confident that only a part of these people already know all the features listed below, which may be lifesavers for their friends if not for themselves. It is also likely that some advanced users of the Free Office suites are so familiar with the same features that they may even forget to mention them whenever they advocate Free Software.

I hope this post will give as many people as possible even more reasons to try and/or promote the FOs. In the same spirit, stay tuned for more posts in the next weeks, in which I will explain in detail how to use some of the tools listed below. In the meantime, you are very welcome to add your favourite "least known feature" of AOO and LO in the comments, together with requests on how to perform other obscure tasks with these programs!

#1 Support for MANY file formats

Both Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office can handle lots of different formats. They cannot read and write all of them without losses, of course (nor can any other single application, for that matter). I know that very well myself, having said it for SVG graphics, in this very column and being still unable to open FrameMaker files on Linux. There are many other similar limits. Still, between "veteran" filters and optional or new ones, you can be reasonably sure to handle, at least partially, almost all files you may come across, including those from Visio, Corel Draw, and Microsoft Publisher. Two different extensions, both called Writer2Latex (here and here), even provide Writer export filters for LaTeX and BibTeX.

#2 The Math formulas editors and extensions

As you can see in Figure A, a user-friendly formula editor is included in both Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office. Yes, its flexibility and aesthetics results cannot match those of LaTex, but who cares when the TexMaths extension lets you insert editable LaTeX equations in your files?

Figure A

#3 Variables

Variables can save you a lot of effort, if you take the time to create your own in the right templates. Select Insert |Fields | Other to open the panel in Figure B and then follow the instructions here for AOO and here for LO.

Figure B

#4 Writer XForms mode

XForms is an open standard by the World Wide Web Consortium. It describes how to create in HTML, XHTML or other languages, user interfaces for entry and basic processing of many data.

In practice, an XForm is a file that can pre-fill itself with default data downloaded from a Web server and then let each of its users enter their data, in order to submit the result to a local or remote database. Both AOO and LO let you create XForms (just select File/New/XML Form Document and you'll get the form controls of Figure C) that your partners can fill and file straight from their office suites. I'll explain how to do this in detail in another post.

Figure C

#5 The Writer Sort Tool

When you work in a spreadsheet you can sort columns and rows according to several criteria. Did you know that you can do the same even in text documents with Writer (Tools | Sort) inside tables or even just plain paragraphs, just as I did in Figure D:

#6 Hybrid PDFs

Office documents are (must be) editable by definition. Many users, however, want to distribute PDF versions of their documents, to be sure they'll look the same everywhere (which cannot be always true, but that's another matter). This is fine if all the recipients must do is look at the files, but not if they also have to edit them. The "Embed OpenDocument file" option in the Export as PDF panel (see Figure E) is made to order to solve this problem. Check it, and you'll create a PDF file from which Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice can extract a copy of the original, editable file.

Figure E

#7 Automatic document analysis and processing

Let's finish (for now) by going back to file formats: both Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office do the right thing here (as do KOffice and Calligra!), in the sense that they use the OpenDocument standard as their default file format. This is great, because that is a format that makes it very easy to modify or analyze how many documents you want with very simple scripts. To see what I mean, read any of these posts of mine:

OpenOffice or Libre Office? You choose Some of the features described here may not work exactly in the same way in both suites. They may even not be available in the specific versions you currently run, or in the ones already packaged for your current Linux distribution. Such differences are beyond the scope of these posts. It is also not my intention to promote one or the other suite here: my only purpose is to help you evaluate all the possibilities that these programs offer, so that you can figure out which one suits your needs best. Now, did I miss some other important feature? Please let us know!

About

Marco Fioretti is a freelance writer and teacher whose work focuses on the impact of open digital technologies on education, ethics, civil rights, and environmental issues.

33 comments
SaintDanBert
SaintDanBert

I'm certain that there are dozens of features hiding in the dusty corners of LibreOffice, but there are some that add serious impact to my workflow by their notable absence (or highly successful hiding). Years ago in M$-land, I could create a document template. When I created a new document using that template, I would get prompts and dialogs to guide creation of the target document content. After over 10 years using StarOffice, the OpenOffice, now LibreOffice, I have not yet found a way to accomplish this very useful feature set. Another feature I find missing surrounds PDF documents. While LibreOffice will create a Hybrid PDF document, I have not discovered how to create an interactive PDF-form.

r.foersom
r.foersom

One more great feature is the ability to make user editable PDF forms. It is a longer process but there is a HowTo to get you started. Internet search for: create pdf form openoffice foersom

Kevin Robinson
Kevin Robinson

Just wanted to say thanks, and I'm looking forward to those future articles you mentioned. @ work, I use MS Office, as it is assigned. At home, my choice for years has been the FOs, in particular, Libre and its earlier incarnations. However, I've only scratched the surface of what the entire suite is capable of, and am looking forward to the further-explanation-articles, as I've already said. Take care, K

178175
178175

It's worth mentioning that dates before 1900 are supported. That's an Excel deal-breaker for me, having thousands of historic records to tabulate.

Condemned
Condemned

"OpenOffice or Libre Office? You choose" - ok, I choose FreeOffice! Why is FreeOffice in my opinion the best free office suite? Because... - I can't get familiar with the geeky interface of LO / OOo, but I like FreeOffice's comfortable UI. - the compatibility of LO / OOo with Microsoft Office formats is unsatisfactory. E.g. tables, figure captions, headers, and formatting like superscript and subscript are really messed up between MS Office and LO / OOo and vice versa; FreeOffice allows seamless interoperability without formatting loss. - FreeOffice is much faster and smaller than its free competitors LO / OOo. Everyone who hasn't used FreeOffice yet, but would like to try it out for comparison to LO / OOo, you get the free download here: freeoffice.com

zeeferrao
zeeferrao

The Writer program cannot edit PDF documents, but the Draw program can. The MS Office suite cannot edit PDF documents at all, it can only export to that format.

kevin.mahaffy
kevin.mahaffy

While FO's may meet many needs in the business environment, they fall short for academia. Students are not able to format for MLA, APA, or other style guides easly, if at all. As an instructor of Research Writing, students with FO's are unable to properly set up and change pagination (if they are able to find out how to put it in the header at all!), hanging indents, etc. without hours of searching for answers to these formatting situations (I've tried to help them and cannot find how to do it myself). Of course, students gravitate to FO's because they are, well, free--and I certainly can't blame them. I recommend students purchase a major office suite under an educational license that is both easily affordable and provides all the necessary tools and help students to format academic papers properly.

jevans4949
jevans4949

1. File Conversions. Although these work pretty well on the whole, there are some areas where they don't, especially with .docx documents. An annoyance of mine, even with .doc formats, is that anchoring of graphics to a page works less than perfectly, even when both .doc / .docx and .odt have analogous constructs. 2. Buggy releases, especially on Windows. Generally the developers work as quickly as possible to resolve such issues (and will let you know when the fix will be available), but it's frustrating to install the latest release, find a showstopper, and then have to roll back to a previous version.

eCubeH
eCubeH

MS formats are still the 'standard', meaning most outside parties we have to deal with use MS Office. So we do a lot of conversions back & forth from LibreOffice. Formatting does not translate smoothly between odt & doc, and frequently is a source of major hassle. Same issue with Powerpoint & Impress. Also, sometimes in the conversions, the open document formats get corrupted, another cause for pain. I think that, together with the absence of a simple coding language like VB are the 2 wish-to-haves on my list. Some of the items listed in this article are not that useful. For years we built web apps using XForms, then finally converted them to html5/js/jquery since xforms just is not well followed & supported. Editing pdfs is also not trivial, esply if you wish to maintain the formatting. All said & done, we will stick with LibreOffice. Happy to have a free open source product, well supported and with a great community.

Old Dog V
Old Dog V

After using MS office for a few years, I switched to Openofice, then Libre Ofice about 10 years ago. Aside from being free, I found them much more user friendly, and way more versatile, and updates/version changes much less disruptive than MS and the other paid for-suites that I've tried.

wnematollahi
wnematollahi

Ummmmm, in the Army, "FO" meant "forward observer", but nit also had another meaning shared with civilians. Try to come up with another abbreviation. It is refreshing to know that these suites can open CorelDraw and Visio files with some accuracy. However, one can save CDR and VSD files as other formats, which most of us do when we are sending them so someone else or preparing to put them in another application, e.g., a presentation file.

patricearnal
patricearnal

You missed one of the most important features of both suites : The internal file format of the documents is public. Hence these files produced by these FOs can meet legal requirement for administrative / legal documents. This was the main reason of the choice of Open Office in many hospitals in France. Did you try to open an old word document produced on a Macintosh 20 years ago? Microsoft Office failed, Open Office succeded

DurbanDon
DurbanDon

The conclusion seem to be that some things work and others don't. Not terribly useful.

levarcol
levarcol

Official product name is LibreOffice.(without space)

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I tried to open Publisher documents in Open Office and it did not recognize them. Am I missing something? Also, I would have switched to one of these applications, but none to my knowledge will save documents is the new MS format, which does not fly in the business world.

mfioretti
mfioretti

Hi Kevin, and thanks for your interest, I'm obviously very happy you found my work useful. I'll take advantage of your interest to repeat to you and all readers a request I made in the article: please don't hesitate to post here specific requests for other parts/functions/tricks of the FOs that you would like me to present and explain. Cheers, Marco

laseray
laseray

Just looked at the forums for that product. Too many complaints about simple things not functioning. I'll pass on that and stick with OO/LO which are both solid.

jevans4949
jevans4949

PDF is a format for print-ready documents. It wasn't ever intended to be a word-processor format. Anything you can extract from it is a bonus. If you want to edit properly, go back to the original word-processor or desktop-publisher file.

wnematollahi
wnematollahi

Corel WordPerfect has been able to publish to PDF since WordPerfect Office 11, and has been able to read PDF since WPO 13. The import isn't always pretty, but if one prefers importing to Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, then it is very useful. I haven't tried to import a PDF in CorelDraw, but I haven't needed to do so.

jimplante
jimplante

Subject says it all. There are numerous sources of information on how to adjust pagination, place page numbers (Insert->page number; Insert->page count), insert and use cross-references, indexes, and tables of contents. By using page, paragraph, and character styles, you can format just about anything. Look on the web, not just in the Help file (which, admittedly, is sparse and often incorrect.)

mfioretti
mfioretti

I do recommend, instead, that students refuse these diktats, and universities stop supporting and continuing this state of things. It's THEIR fault if students are forced to get this addiction. Universities should either provide templates that are tested and usable with all suites for MLA, APAs and what not. If such templates are not available this is a serious problem, and it's entirely the fault of Universities. It's exactly like if they accepted paper forms ONLY if they were handwritten with gold-plaqued pens: entirely unnecessary.

jevans4949
jevans4949

My son used Lyx (also free) for his academic papers in maths, and continues to use it to set up test papers for his private college students. The best thing I found for editing IT software documentation was WordPerfect 5.1 (the last DOS version). Never got to try the Windows versions.

Gisabun
Gisabun

So by my math, you haven't used MS Office for at least 10 years then...

mfioretti
mfioretti

"" no, I didn't miss that point at all. This is exactly what the "both Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office do the right thing here" paragraph is about. I've been writing online about how important the openness of ODF is since 2005, you can find plenty of evidence with any search engine.

mfioretti
mfioretti

DurbanDon, I assume that with "some things work and others don't" you refer to the possibility of reading or writing files in certain formats. IF that's the case, yes, you're right: for most people everything will work, all the times, but in general "some things work, others don't", indeed. This is the same thing that happens across different versions of MS Office, by the way. I didn't say that using these suites will solve everybody's problems all the time, but it would be impossible, and it isn't fault of OpenOffice or Libre Office. There are just too many variables out of the control of any single developer or company, from single bugs in certain programs to fonts or plugins for embededd objects not present on all computers, to make that possible.

wnematollahi
wnematollahi

I don't kn ow what version you're using, but I've had Publisher documents that were hard to read in Publisher. We have it at work, but use it only _very_ rarely (less than once a quarter?).Outside of some niche market, I don't understand the need for of Publisher in normal business activities. IMHO, it's best to save documents in PDF. OOXML is an acceptable standard (one among many), but a business that isn't willing to accept PDF is open to the charge that it is run by a Micro$oft troll. If one needs desktop publishing, try Adobe or Corel products, which actually work consistently well.

jred
jred

We just switched to LibreOffice for the exact reason of being able to edit/save docx/xlsx files.

levarcol
levarcol

Just try with LibreOffice 4.x . Do it fine !!! Same with Visio Files, docx, xlsx & pptx/ppsx.

jimplante
jimplante

You might do an article on using user fields with cross-references. That's a handy and often-overlooked capability in Ooo that I cannot do without now that I've learned how to use it. E.g., See graph in {Fig. 1>} on page {page#}; or See Appendix page {page#}. (Where the text in {braces} is replaced by a field.)

wnematollahi
wnematollahi

... as I pointed out above, if one prefers importing to Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, especially for large documents, then importing can be useful. Of course, I'm talking about non-copyrighted documents and proper attribution for copyrighted ones.

Gisabun
Gisabun

We assume you mean non-password protected PDFs. Importing PDFs into CorelDRAW usually does a decent job. I tested that functionality for them maybe 5-6 versions back.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

That by not using M$ Office for 10 years they have escaped the Ribbon. But my main problem with M$ Office is the incompatibilities between different versions. Sure it's not a issue with one version to the next but after a couple of versions have been released things get difficult. Try opening that Saved Document on the Government Web Site for whatever that was saved in Word 95 which isn't all that uncommon when it comes to down-loadable Forms/Letters in Word 2010 and see what doesn't open properly. The Author does have a point here that OO and LO do open older documents from their suites properly as well as Word Perfect. Pity that Microsoft can't manage it. Col

wnematollahi
wnematollahi

... to my knowledge no word processor or the like can open PDF/A documents, except Adobe's and that only by the author. When I was part-time adjunct faculty, I found it useful to compose take-home examinations in WordPerfect X5 then post them as PDF/A documents. By the way, I have CorelDraw X6 as well, and it is sweet.

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