LibreOffice's interface gets a long overdue makeover

LibreOffice is about to undergo a long-overdue interface upgrade. Here's how to preview this change and why you should do it.

Image: Jack Wallen

From the department of long overdue, the Document Foundation announced its flagship program was going to be getting a much-needed interface overhaul in the upcoming 5.3 release.


Not that there's anything wrong with the tried and true menu-bar system; but when the desktop interfaces and application themes have made significant advances since the 90s, it only makes sense that the method by which we interact with our applications would also change. So this should be a welcome shift to anyone who'd prefer their application menu systems better suit their desktop UI.

Before you toss your arms up in the air and proclaim the LibreOffice developers are doing the same thing to users of MS Office (when they introduced the "Ribbon Interface"), fear not. Instead of forcing a new UI onto its users, there will be a choice. In fact, there'll be four choices:

  • Default - The standard UI that you've been using for years
  • Sidebar - A single toolbar with a more in-depth sidebar
  • Single Toolbar - A single, minimalist toolbar
  • Notebookbar - A tab-based toolbar

It is the Notebookbar (Figure A) that should pique the interest of most users. Why? This is the LibreOffice developers take on the MS Office Ribbon Interface. With this interface, you have eight tabs:

  • Application - This tab doesn't have a name, but it offers you access to things like View, Options, Print, Menubar, etc.
  • File - Actions that can be taken on a file (such as Open, Save, Save As, etc.)
  • Home - This is a stripped down version of the standard toolbar found in LibreOffice
  • Insert - A section dedicated to inserting various objects
  • Page layout - Actions for formatting your page
  • References - TOC, Indexes, footnotes, bibliography database, etc.
  • Review - Editorial functions, such as Spelling, Track Changes, Comments, etc.
  • View - Control the view of your document (Normal View, Web View, Print Preview, Zoom, etc.)

Figure A

Figure A

The LibreOffice Notebookbar in action.

I installed a daily version of LibreOffice (to test out the new interface) and was really quite surprised at how much I liked the new interface. It isn't perfect. As of the Beta 2 release there are still issues with icons (Figure B); but what I found goes well beyond the look of the Notebookbar layout.

Figure B

Figure B

Some icons are missing, which makes the Notebookbar look a bit incomplete.

A drastic improvement in efficiency

One of the most important criteria by which I judge an interface is efficiency. This particular category isn't driven solely by simplicity, but by how the overall design makes my processes more expedient. One issue I've always found with LibreOffice is that adding anything to the toolbar creates a chaotic nightmare. Having all the tools I tend to use in the toolbar means I then either have to constantly remember the location of each button, or I have to scan through the wall of icons and labels. That is not efficient. To remedy that, I strip down the toolbar to the essentials and then navigate my way through the menu system when I need something I've removed. Still not terribly efficient.

As a sidenote: Ubuntu Unity's Heads Up Display (HUD) did an amazing job of solving this problem. Click on the Alt button and then type what you want to do. It was one of the single most clean and efficient menu systems ever created. Unfortunately, users are glacially slow to change and few adopted the HUD. And since I migrated away from Ubuntu (to Elementary OS), the HUD was no longer an option. And so, the new LibreOffice interface is a boon.

How do you test it?

If you want to test this new interface, but don't want to use 5.3 as your daily driver (it should be released some time this month), let me walk you through the process of installing the Beta 2 and run it alongside your current LibreOffice release. I will demonstrate on Elementary OS Loki.

The first thing you must do is download the beta release of 5.3 (save it in ~/Downloads). Once you have that downloaded, follow these steps:

  1. Open a terminal window
  2. Change into the ~/Downloads directory with the command cd ~/Downloads
  3. Unpack the downloaded LibreOffice Beta 2 file with the command tar xvzf libreoffice-XXX.tar.gz (Where XXX is the release number)
  4. Change into the newly created directory with the command cd LibreOfficeDEV_XXX (Where XXX is the release number)
  5. Change into the DEBS folder with the command cd DEBS
  6. Create a new folder with the command mkdir install
  7. Change into the newly created folder with the command cd install
  8. Issue this exact command: for i in ../*.deb; do dpkg-deb -x $i . ; done

When the command completes, there will be a number of new folders and files. Issue the command cd opt/LibreOfficeDev_XXX/program/ (where XXX is the release number) and then issue any of the following commands

  • ./soffice - to start the main application
  • ./swriter - to start the word processor
  • ./scalc - to start the database application
  • ./sbase - to start the database application
  • ./smath - to start the formula application

You're not done. Out of the box, the new toolbar feature isn't enabled. To take care of this, click Tools | Options. Under LibreOfficeDev click on Advanced and then click the check box associated with Enable experimental features. Click OK and then restart LibreOffice. Go to View | Toolbar Layout and select which toolbar you want to use. That's it, you can now test out the Notebookbar toolbar layout coming in the official 5.3 release.

Worth the wait

I've been anxiously awaiting this UI update for some time now and was quite pleased that it offers more than just a visually pleasing upgrade to a long-in-the-tooth interface. The Notebookbar gives LibreOffice a significant boost in productivity. Give this new UI a go and see if you find yourself working more efficiently.

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