Make LibreOffice more productive under Plasma

Updated: January 6, 2019

Welcome. Wilkommen. Bienvenuti. This article is part of my neverending series of articles on making your life better, smarter, faster, more efficient - with technology. Specifically, a few months ago, I bought myself a new laptop, a Slimbook Pro2, and installed Kubuntu 18.04 on it. Then, I started using this Kubuntu in earnest, and began uncovering all sorts of bugs and issues.

Some of these escapades are covered in my Slimbook reports one and two and three. And some of the annoyances mentioned come without trivial solutions. Since I can't let things rest, I began exploring in more depth ideas and tweaks that allow both Gtk and KDE software to work nicely on a small-size HD display, replete with good font clarity, readable UI and such. LibreOffice is normally okay, but I did encounter fresh new niggles on this journey, so we shall remedy that now.

Teaser

Details, details

As it turns out, the visual integration of LibreOffice inside KDE is not without issues. We talked about some of these in the past, where we had to use different AA settings to overcome poor readability of the UI elements and fonts when running inside the Plasma desktop. Now with a full HD resolution screen stretched fourteen inches diagonally, we're hitting another problem.

It may be hard to actually showcase this with a screenshot, but I'll try. Normally, in Plasma, LibreOffice will use the Breeze theme. The icons are pretty, but they are thin and largely monochrome, with only an odd color detail here and there. Moreover, even with HD display scaling tweaks in place, the fonts might look somewhat better, but the icons still remain rather too small, and they cannot be governed (resized) through the tweaks we saw in the scaling tutorial, plus the scaling artifacts were quite bad. Now, proper scaling is the solution in a way, and with Plasma 5.14 onwards, it seems to work much better than before. But again, there's no simple or consistent answer here in this regard.

Standard UI, HD display

Tweak 1: Icon size

Luckily, LibreOffice does have a built-in option to scale UI toolbar icons, so you can change their size to improve legibility on small HD displays. Go to Tools > Options > View. Then, on the right side, under User Interface, you can tweak the icon size for different elements and toolbars. We've seen this panel before when we played with LibreOffice icon themes, and here you also have the option to change their sizes. Our next task, indeed.

Scaling icons

Tweak 2: Icons theme (reloaded)

Even with larger icons, the ability to quickly guess 'n' stab an icon is not trivial unless you really have a good photographic slash muscle memory. There's an ever so slight element of hesitation, which makes LibreOffice that much less productive than say Microsoft Office. Say what you will, but there's solid logic there.

Using different icons does help. I did play with the older sets, like Tango and such, and they don't look too pretty. Somewhat outdated, and they don't blend well into the Plasma (Breeze) theming. A solution to this is to use the SIFR theme. For Linux users, getting this is easy, as the theme should be available in most distro repositories. Windows folks will probably not need this tweak in the first place, because they won't be using the Plasma desktop environment, which is what this article is all about, after all. In the Ubuntu family range, the likes of my machine:

sudo apt-get install libreoffice-style-sifr

Calc, new icons and notebookbar

Calc, new icons and notebookbar, zoomed

Much better visibility than before.

Tweak 3: Notebookbar

LibreOffice does have a sort-of "ribbon-like" interface. It's called notebookbar, and it will change the standard toolbar view into one with several tabs and icon grouping based on functional context, somewhat like Microsoft Office. I found this to be useful not because the ribbon is a superior way of word processing, but it is better than the standard layout in LibreOffice, especially if you use styles. Namely, the ribbon-like interface lets you quickly reuse styles (the current one will be marked), you need a single click rather than two like when using Styles from the sidebar, and the styles menu won't re-focus on the currently selected style, which can be tedious and annoying. You save quite a few mouse clicks this way. If the sidebar behaved properly, this would not be necessary.

Writer, new icons and notebookbar

Conclusion

Overall, LibreOffice is a decent program. But when it comes to high-end productivity, it's still not quite as good and coherent as Microsoft Office, and I'm not talking about document conversion fidelity. It's how fast and responsive the UI is (mouse clicks and such), the layout of commands, the styles management, the toolbar arrangement and visual clarity, even the consistency among different programs - just compare Writer and Calc with these different permutations.

Luckily, some of the issues can be remedied, including the HD screen issues. You can fix the clarity using a more ribbon-like toolbar, bigger icons, and a different icon theme. The rest requires much more investment, and some of it is beyond your immediate reach. But even some of these small changes are big and meaningful and go a long way toward making your office suite experience more pleasant. I hope you find this article useful. Well, we're done for now, but we will soon talk some more about the use of LibreOffice as a potential replacement for Microsoft Office. Stay tuned and take care, word smiths and number slayers.

Cheers.

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