Updated: August 23, 2019
I am a fairly happy user of LibreOffice. For real. I use it in a relatively lightweight capacity, mostly the Writer application, and it does a decent job for a program that costs nothing. But then, occasionally, when I do try to use Calc, or when I have to work with Microsoft Office files, issues do crop up. I've written about this in my day-in-office article. As much as I'd like for the reality to be different, it isn't.
However, every time there's a new LibreOffice release, like version 6.3, I perk up, aflush with hope that this new edition will bring in revolutionary changes and fixes, which will make it a business-quality rival to the expensive Microsoft suite. This is ever so more important and relevant, given how aggressively Microsoft is pushing its cloud-based software, and for people who just want a quiet and relatively inexpensive solution, the future holds little glamor. And so we test.
Setup and first steps
Usually, I do my LibreOffice tests in Linux, but to spice it up, I decided to run this review in Windows. I installed the suite in Windows 10, and it was a fairly simple ordeal. The installation wizard did ask me to close Firefox, which I find odd. What's Firefox got to do with LibreOffice? I actually let the installer try to close the browser, and it couldn't, and I had to do it myself. Oh well. But no biggie, this.
Visually, LibreOffice 6.3 does feel ever so slightly more polished than previous editions. It also comes with a first-run notification, allowing you to review the new features and options, and you also get the tip of the day popup, which kind of feels unnecessary.
I found the new default icon theme set named Colibre quite pretty and elegant - if you recall my games with how to setup LibreOffice icons, I tried to achieve something similar manually. In fact, to me, the icons do feels ever so Office-like, but this could just be a convergent evolution coincidence thingie. If you're not happy, you have a plenty of others to choose from.
Functionality, user interface
In general, the changes from version 6.2, which I've reviewed a few months back, aren't that huge. Speed improvements? Well, I've not had any problems to begin with, so I can't really vouch for this particular change. I do have to say the initial startup of the suite was quite slow, and the program even hanged for a few seconds, but this was a one-time glitch. I was far more interested in everyday use.
Here, things are more or less the same, and that's not a great thing. I'm not a great fan of the Office Ribbon, but then, at the same time, the classic standard file men with 50 icons and 200 options isn't the ideal solution either. LibreOffice tries to solve this by offering numerous UI layouts, which is commendable, but this brings more complications than actual value.
I tried several options - and they look and behave differently in different suite components, like Writer and Impress. The old Contextual layout is gone. Tabbed Compact and Groupedbar are a reasonable attempt to declutter the interface, but they just aren't consistent enough.
Styles, fonts, redaction
Styles - this remains a big one, for me. You don't have an easy repeat-last-style option in the UI. You can mouse-click the six or seven defaults (like H1-3, Title and a few others), but not your other styles. This means you must use the dropdown menu or the sidebar to select the style before you can apply it, and this is a massive waste of clicks.
In the Sidebar, the view jumps to selected style, so if you say want to apply a custom style called Dedoimedo, and the text has something called Normal or whatever, the list of styles will jump - each time - and you will need to reselect your chosen style. In Microsoft Office, the style list does not move, so you can quickly apply styles (with a single click, too). Ergonomically, functionally, from the efficiency perspective, this is a huge issue, especially if you're writing long documents with tons of custom styles - like a technical book for instance.
Then, I also noticed that the fonts looked kind of grainy. Changing from Liberation Sans to Times New Roman or Arial definitely helped. Not sure what's wrong, though. Speaking of fonts, scrolling through available fonts in the drop-down menu was slow. Also, you don't get the three most used fonts listed at the top, which is a shame, as it's another convenient little time-saver.
There were some good things, too. Subtle improvements here and there. You get full-page color, and this is a good change, because the old method of only coloring the background behind the text was rather jarring visually. Special Paste works really well.
Redaction is another new feature - if you activate the option, your document will be re-opened in Draw, and you will have the option to edit your text and remove/change portions. Well, I was actually expecting something more dynamic. The way this works, it's no different than editing an image really. However, the advantage is that you can export the rest as PDF, and you do this as part of the overall LibreOffice workflow.
The one thing that baffles me is that default redaction comes at 50% transparency, so you actually need to change that before you blank the text. But then I'm still wondering how effective this really is, because the actual text still exists, and it's only hidden behind a layer of color. All in all, it works, but there should be more magic to it.
Microsoft Office compatibility
This is THE thing. Yes, we can debate ideology all day long, but at the end of the day, the practical truth is that people need Microsoft Office, so if you want to work with them, your documents must look just right. To see whether LibreOffice 6.3 brings in any compatibility improvements, I downloaded a couple of templates from the Office 365 pages, specifically this template and this template, and then loaded them in Writer.
One of them looked quite all right. Surprisingly so. The second one ... well, it wouldn't really load. First, I had a big error message, and then the file only loaded with a tiny image on the top-left corner and none of the forms that it was supposed to include (check the template for details). Imagine a customer or a work colleague sending you something like this. What do you do then?
LibreOffice 6.3 is a powerful, rich office suite, and the fact it comes with no strings attached, the string to your purse included, is a commendable thing. But it is not enough. Simply isn't. Functionality is what matters, and if the program cannot satisfy the necessary needs, it's not really useful. Maybe on the scale of un-value, it's less un-valuable than something that costs a lot of money, but you still don't get what you require.
And in this regard, LibreOffice 6.3 doesn't quite cut it. I mean, you can still use it happily - I know I will, it does an okay job, and you can create files and export to PDF and all that. But then, working with Office files is pretty much a no-go, the style management is inefficient, and the UI layouts are somewhat clunky. I also feel the momentum has slowed, and the great, amazing hope that was there when LibreOffice was born is just a thing of mildly apathetic momentum now. True, this ailment grips the entire open-source world, and Linux in particular, but it doesn't change the fact that the hope is slowly dwindling. All in all, worth testing, but a solution to all office problems, LibreOffice 6.3 ain't.