Updated: September 1, 2021
My recent testing of Windows 11, as well as my overall satisfaction with Office 2016 (compared to 2010) are a constant remind of how urgently I need to break away from this cycle of technological dependency. Alas, I cannot. I am compelled by my personal and business needs. In the office space, they cannot be fully satisfied with LibreOffice. Cling to Microsoft Office, I must.
With LibreOffice 7.2 freshly out of the oven, my testing appetite has once again opened up, but I'm trying to be cool about it. I ain't too hopeful, I ain't too gloomy. Cautious and skeptical. After all, I've tried every single version of this free, open-source suite in the past decade or so, and I've experienced every emotion on the spectrum. The results seesawed widely. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a perfect LibreOffice release? Of course it would! Is 7.2 that release? Ah, let's check out.
I did my testing in Windows 11 on my IdeaPad 3, which has AMD processor and graphics plus NVMe storage. Not the most powerful of laptops, but certainly not the worst piece of hardware out there. Yet, I don't know how much the operating system contributed to the actual installation experience, but the installation process wasn't stellar. It simply took too long. The installer told me that it couldn't handle some file, so a reboot would be needed - I mean really, for a userspace tool - and then, it took almost 10 minutes for the wizard to complete. That's enough time to install an entire distro. Other than that, things seemed to be fine, at this point.
Anything worthy of mention?
Yes. The improvements and bug fixes that went into this round are quite noticeable. This is a good thing. There's polish all over the place, especially comparing to 7.1. For example, icon rendering on a hi-res display. No problems here anymore, at least not in my testing. The UI switcher wizard no longer has a horrible, glaring visual layout problem. Little tweaks here and there. Nice.
On the other hand ... the performance wasn't good. This was something that really stood out during my testing. Again, this could be the fault of the Dev release of Windows 11, or it could be a sub-optimal setup in LibreOffice, or both, or something else entirely. The actual startup wasn't fast. Opening existing documents or even creating new ones took quite some time. A hefty amount of seconds, during which the program's interface (any really) was simply not responsive. Writer, Impress, Calc, same results. As it stands, this makes for a really bad use case. This also extends into the realm of Microsoft compatibility.
Microsoft Office support
Now, the big thing. Philosophy aside, if we want more people to use LibreOffice, which we do want, then LibreOffice must first support the use of Microsoft's formats seamlessly. Without that capability, people will just use Microsoft Office, because they don't have a choice. No one cares about ideology when they are sending their CV to an employer, or a letter to a lawyer. It's cold, brutal pragmatism. We can talk about bad business practices, bad companies that accept bad formats all day long, but at the end of this long day, it doesn't matter.
So far, over the past decade, my experience with using Microsoft formats in LibreOffice was mixed, and slowly becoming worse. And I'm losing hope. Now, LibreOffice 7.2 is supposed to bring in a significantly improved support for the Office Open XML standard, without resorting to proprietary filters. Looking at the release notes, there are easily 50+ bugfixes in this space. Now, let's see if that actually means anything.
First, I created a document of my own, with all sorts of bits and pieces in there. Then I saved it as DOCX, and then opened it in Office 2016. Good. No problems, except Word placed the end note at the, well, end of the document, but ABOVE the footnotes, which feels odd, but it is technically correct, and not in conflict with what LibreOffice did. A cautious start. Lovely jubbly.
Next, I decided to start with the same set of files I had from the last few times I used LibreOffice - official templates downloaded from the Office 365 page, including both Word and PowerPoint types. This is where the performance issue became really noticeable. Opening the two .pot files took more than three minutes. Each. More than three minutes! Practically unusable.
Impress was completely frozen during this time, and I simply sat there, and watched the UI green progress bar stall at about 30% width, and stay there for about three minutes, before it finally displays the slide decks. Not sure why, but the performance and responsiveness seem to have been going down with each successive LibreOffice release for quite some time now. This needs to be fixed. Fast.
Now, they did render much better than last time. In LibreOffice 7.1, they looked ridiculous. This time, pretty nice actually. However, using them feels like running through honey. Slow, with sluggish response, and quite a bit of delay.
Writer has better performance, but still not good. It took a while opening the files. Then, they also didn't look quite as the original. Small misalignments, elements sticking out of their intended frame, y'know, just the kind of things that would prevent one from using an alternative program to open Office documents.
Next, I downloaded a few fresh templates. Some worked just fine, and then, boom. Total misalignment. So it is really a hit or miss situation, and not something people can afford if they expect precision and fidelity in their work. You can't send someone a file that will look different from the intended result, or may "randomly" change when you open them, save them, edit them, or else. And thus we go back to square one.
To be fair, there are visual issues with the native templates, too. I tried some of the available choices. While they do look pretty, sort of, look at the second example. In the sidebar, there are three slides. The last one, when not selected, looks truncated, because there is no border (outline), so the slide's white background merges with the sidebar white background, creating an effect of a partially rendered element, like you'd see with images on a Web page that didn't display or load correctly.
With the contextual layout in place, Writer now shows a pane of common styles, which is quite nice and useful. Fewer mouse clicks, more efficiency. A good starting point for more future improvements. Then, even though you get a lot of different layouts, there should actually be more flexibility in the positioning of elements. You can't really randomly resize the toolbar height, and for some reason, the program ignored the Very Large icon setting in the preferences. I think the LibreOffice team should focus on maintaining a smaller group of UI layouts, but then give them more focus and love.
You can export your documents to EPUB and PDF. Very decent. Digital signatures. Not decent. I tried the feature, and got confused. Not only were there no signatures available, I couldn't figure out how to create one, and the certificate manager was mixing (what would be that, BTW). This feels very raw, and maybe, assumes functionality (like from Linux), which won't be there in Windows. These kind of bugs actually annoy me, because you get these fancy buttons, you get all hopeful and happy, and then it all comes crashing down in one giant pile of nerdness.
What can I say? LibreOffice 7.2 feels better than its predecessor, but then, it feels like an entirely self-made situation. You have a sub-par release, with lots of bugs and problems, so when these get fixed in a new version, one can perceive these as progress or improvement. Which is true, but it also doesn't take away from the fact none of these issues should have existed in the first place.
The new suite does bring some goodies to the table - better Microsoft format support, more visual consistency. However, it's also significantly more sluggish, and the support for the non-native formats is average at best. You may be lucky and get a file to display correctly, after a while, or it may look totally messed up. These aren't strong selling points, I must say. Do they give me the functionality I need, and thus independence from Microsoft Office? Nope. Quite the opposite. Overall, LibreOffice 7.2 is okay, and I'd like to hope it will be an upward trajectory from here on. But the road to where it needs to be - providing an ubiquitous solution to everyday office requirements - is long and twisty. And thus we conclude this article.