OnlyOffice Desktop Editors review - A challenger appears

Updated: June 24, 2019

The world of documents is neatly divided into two parts - the one where you use Microsoft Office, and the one where you do not. Whatever your say on this matter is, the simple, cruel, practical reality is that most people rely on the former to create, share and receive their files, and they expect Office-like behavior, file format fidelity and everything else. For those people not using Office, especially Linux users, this ain't an easy task.

This ain't a new topic, either. I've talked about the Office compatibility time and again, had Google Docs for a long, thorough spin, and even gave you a day in the office spiel on what it's like not using Microsoft's suite and trying to be productive. So whenever I discover a new program that promises solid compatibility with Powerpoint or Word or alike, I'm more than keen to test and figure out if this is indeed doable. My latest discovery is OnlyOffice, a cross-platform, open-source suite with a free Desktop Editors version. Well, I guess it's testing time! Let's see what gives.

Teaser

More philosophy

OnlyOffice is an interesting ... project, and it reminds me a little bit of Open365, mostly in that there's also a cloud version. More than one. In fact, OnlyOffice comes in five flavors, including the Cloud Service, Enterprise Edition, the self-hosted Integration Edition and Developer Edition, all of which are aimed at businesses, and finally the fully offline and free Desktop Editors suite.

Sounds like a rich repertoire, but there's more. OnlyOffice claims 100% compatibility with Microsoft Office, and this is possibly the most important component of the entire stack. Because unless you work in total isolation, you will come across Microsoft Office files. Compatibility wise, easier said than done, of course, but that's why we're testing.

Installation & setup

This was easy. I decided to try the program in Fedora 29, and the installation worked fine. But then, the program wouldn't launch, complaining about a missing library. Now, that's not good:

onlyoffice-desktopeditors
./DesktopEditors: error while loading shared libraries: libcurl-gnutls.so.4: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory

Searching around, I noticed that I did in fact have the right libcurl library, it was just a symbolic link missing. Once I had that sorted out, the suite launched fine. But this can be a big stumbling block for non-technical users, and warrants far more attention and care.

sudo ln -s /usr/lib64/libcurl.so.4 /usr/lib64/libcurl-gnutls.so.4

Starting the suite, there was another warning. Not sure what it does, but I sure don't like random messages, especially if I'm not 100% sure what the implications are, if any. This might be a consequence of my symlink, but then I expect this not to happen in the first place.

./DesktopEditors: /lib64/libcurl-gnutls.so.4: no version information available (required by /opt/onlyoffice/desktopeditors/converter/libkernel.so)
/opt/onlyoffice/desktopeditors/DesktopEditors: /lib64/libcurl-gnutls.so.4: no version information available (required by /opt/onlyoffice/desktopeditors/converter/libkernel.so)

First impressions

OnlyOffice looks the part. Simple, clean. Reminds me of WPS, plus you also get tabs, which are a very handy addition, and not something you get to see that often in most office suites. The different ribbon-like menus come with relatively few options, as the focus seems to be on simplicity. So, it would seem, more like Google Docs rather than Microsoft Office in this sense. We'll see whether this actually harms the usability.

Main window

New document

I was surprised that the Open dialog only exists on the main screen and not inside any of the open tabs. You need to switch back to open (and also create) new files. Kind of breaks the workflow, and it's also rather not intuitive. There was also a theming problem when using the Open dialog - my Fedora theme wasn't used, instead, it was some generic Gnome-2/3 thingie.

Open dialog missing

Where is Open file...?

Theming problem

Documents

Solid. The workflow is reasonable. I was able to add content easily, including images. A nice feature is the ability to grab images from the Internet directly using the URL option, so you don't need to mess with manual downloads and such. Very handy. This program feels polished, and I guess most people will be spending the bulk of their time using the doc part of the suite, unless they are poor office slaves, in which case, it's presentations for them.

Document

Bookmarks

Spreadsheets

I found this to be the weakest component in the bunch. It worked all right, but it feels the least mature. There are lots of nice chart options, but you can't really customize them that much. It took me a while to figure out how to edit the chart foreground and background colors using the standard menu options. I couldn't find a way to highlight an individual bar in a bar chart and paint it its own hue. F4 does not repeat actions like in Office. The UI fonts are paler than in the Document program, and I had to make manual changes to have presentable charts. I'm really not sure why the non-black option is there.

Spreadsheet

Chart types

Chart colors

Vertical axis: bold/white font (my selection); horizontal axis: default pale gray on dark gray.

Chart options

Right-click on the chart area doesn't tell you how to edit content; hint, the standard menu.

I couldn't find a way to move a floating chart to its own sheet, and there's no option to duplicate sheets, either. Then, I noticed the currency button only has five options. Maybe there are more, but this is not instantly evident from the drop-down. While the clean ribbon-like layout is delightful to use, some of the minimalism actually harms the expected functionality.

Currency

Presentations

Another well-sorted program. The Spreadsheet components works well and mimics the Powerpoint functionality with a good degree of precision. You get the standard shortcuts, animations, layouts and themes, and you can also add shapes. While I did struggle editing styles and charts earlier, here, you have a lot of freedom sorting out the presentation [sic] layer. The one non-intuitive part is, if you finish editing a shape, and leave it by clicking with the mouse button outside its perimeter, re-editing requires that you select the right tab in the vertical sidebar on the far-right, and switch from document to shape edit. This can be quite confusing.

Presentation

Shapes

As I said, the existing themes are quite odd - very garish and not really styled after any particular motif. The fonts are pure black, a surprise and an inconsistency compared to Spreadsheets, and bullet points in a list don't show unless you type, so this can make your OCD demons jitter, or just make you insecure.

Bullet points

Styles & collaboration

This is an interesting one. I guess OnlyOffice tries to balance over-complexity with simplicity, so you don't have the quirky full-blown setup like in Microsoft Office or LibreOffice, but also not just seven default themes as Google Docs. Somewhere in between. Editing styles isn't simple, but you can update your document as you like, and then update styles from current selection - or create brand new ones. I still think Microsoft's way of handling this is nicer, but OnlyOffice handles it better than Google Docs or LibreOffice styles, for instance.

Styles

Styles, update

Tracking changes works fine, and you can also add comments - with some rather pale, ergonomically bad fonts in the process. I presume the sharing component is more prominently featured in the business-oriented editions. Still, this isn't too bad.

Track changes

Comments

Microsoft Office compatibility

I did the same thing I tried in LibreOffice 6.2 recently. I downloaded a couple of Office 365 templates and then loaded them in OnlyOffice, and tried to see whether there were any differences or discrepancies. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. Both documents rendered just fine - except the background images were pale, as though set with 50% transparency for some reason. I didn't have the full, bright colors like the template previews showed. In LibreOffice, I had true colors, but the elements were all messed up.

MS compatibility 1

MS compatibility 2

Plugins, encryption and other features

OnlyOffice Desktop Editors also comes with plugins - not too many, but they seem quite useful. I used the Youtube one, and it embedded a video in the document just fine. However, it's not immediately apparent how this works, and you don't know if you have an actual media file or just a thumbnail there. Translations are surprisingly good, if not perfect. I tried different languages, and I liked the results. OnlyOffice uses the Yandex service, but I'm not sure if this happens offline or the content is sent to the cloud somewhere.

Plugins

Added Youtube clip

Translations

Thesaurus works fine, symbols, yup. Macros - unfortunately, I didn't get to test that much. Now, the encryption piece made me raise my eyebrows. Mostly, because it's a very rough, very experimental feature - it does say so when you enable it. There's a combination of AES-256 and Blockchain, and I'm wondering why is this necessary in an offline edition of the suite, and if so, why not add some other features, like more emphasis on collaboration and sharing?

Encryption

OnlyOffice also comes with the OCR plugin, based on Tesseract, which I tested a while back. This is a commendable addition, and I presume the idea is to help pick text from image scans and whatnot. I think this is a neat thing, but I will need more time to test it under real-life conditions.

OCR plugin

Some other observations

We talked about the startup issues. Now, documents are somewhat slow to load, even brand new ones, about two or three seconds, which I find odd. Not sure if this is Fedora-specific. I'm also not keen on the fonts in most of the cases - too pale or inconsistent or both. I'm mostly talking about the default color on the screen, and the combination of font color and background canvas in the different components of the suite. In particular, the comment section (collaboration) was rather jarring. But overall, fonts need to be crisper, larger, clearer, and with more contrast. That said, I couldn't find how to edit the layout of the UI, and I'm not sure if that's possible.

In Spreadsheet, there was no auto-update for charts when I deleted rows, creating problems on chart updates, whereby the chart data range would shift and mess up the actual graph. Elsewhere, Find & Replace feels like an afterthought, and there don't seem to be any advanced options, like regex, case sensitivity or alike. PDF supports look all right, but there are no customization settings - image quality, encryption, password protection, etc. And that's about it.

Conclusion

OnlyOffice Desktop Editors is definitely an interesting office suite. Unique, fairly stylish, with reasonably good Microsoft format compatibility - I'm not sure about the background image transparency, whether it's a glitch, a bug or a PEBKAC. I also like the UI - minimalistic yet useful. Plugins are another nice feature, and you will find lots of small, elegant touches everywhere. With a free price tag, this is a rather solid contender for home use.

But there were some problems, too. The initial startup, that's a big one for newbies. Styles can be better sorted out, document loading is too slow, the UI suffers from over-simplification here and there, and the fonts need to be sharper and with more contrast, the whole new-age gray-on-gray is bad. Maybe some of these missing options are actually there in the business editions, and I'm inclined to take those for a spin, too. So far, I wouldn't call this an outright replacement for Microsoft Office, but I'm definitely intrigued, and do intend to continue and expand my testing of OnlyOffice. Very neat. I suggest you grab the program for a spin, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Cheers.

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