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What's New in LibreOffice 3.5

The LibreOffice 3.5 release is due out shortly, and this release comes with a number of improvements that free office suite users will find useful. From grammar checking to better importing for Microsoft Office documents, LibreOffice 3.5 contains a number of useful improvements. This release also contains preliminary work for porting LibreOffice to the Web and mobile devices.

A quick reminder about LibreOffice releases. The LibreOffice folks maintain several branches that are meant for different use cases. The .0 releases (like 3.5.0 here) are meant for users that are happy to get new features fast, with the understanding that there may still be bugs. The bugs should not be show-stoppers, but may not be suitable for deploying for production use in a business. The .1 release is considered "stable," and the .2 release is "very stable" and .3 or later are dubbed "rock solid." See the post about the release cycles on the Document Foundation blog for more.

The upshot here is that you should only jump on the 3.5.0 release if you're willing to accept that it could have bugs that might impact your daily work. So far, I haven't run into any major issues with .0 releases, but I still would recommend that users think twice before doing irreplaceable work in a .0 release. Save early, and save often in any case.

New in Writer

Naturally, the first LibreOffice component I check out is Writer. Looking over the release notes you'll find a bunch of new goodies in Writer. Let's take a look at some of the most interesting.

LibreOffice 3.5 Header EditorThe LightProof grammar checker extension is now bundled with LibreOffice 3.5. It has checks for improper punctuation, mixing up "a" and "an," word duplication, and more. It's not as extensive as the grammar checker in Microsoft Word (for example), but it's also less prone to false positives.

Want to add to the existing checks? You can install the LightProof editor and compile or modify rules. This is a bit rough at the moment, but should be improved in future releases. (Also, how many folks actively edit grammar rules? Not too many, I suspect.) In the meantime, if we could just ask that folks learn the difference between "its" and "it's" and "then" and "than," that'd be lovely.

Aside from trying to check users' grammar, the 3.5 release includes a much improved header/footer editing system. Instead of having to dig through several menus to find the header editor, just click on the header (or footer, if that's what you want to edit). Simple, right?

The 3.5 release also contains a number of improvements for font hinting, has a better page break indicator, updates the word count dialog as you type, and much more. Sadly, 3.5 does not bring a "write this TPS report for me" feature, but I hear the AI division of the Document Foundation is making great strides on that one.

New in Calc

If spreadsheets are your thing, there's a few goodies in Calc that may pique your interest.

LibreOffice now gives users the ability to specify the number of worksheets in a new document, so if the standard three is insufficient or over-generous, you can tweak that. I don't think I've ever needed more than 10 worksheets in Calc, but if you're really into huge spreadsheets, Calc now supports up to 10,000 sheets.LibreOffice 3.5 Multicolumn Input for Calc

Calc now has a multi-line input bar, so if you're working on putting a longer piece of text into a spreadsheet or working on a really long equation, this will be much easier. If you don't know it's there, it's not terribly obvious. At the end of the formula bar, there's a little arrow icon. Just click that to expand the input bar.

If you use the Conditional Formatting feature, you'll be pleased to know that you can now set an unlimited number of rules. (I believe the previous limit was three.)

The 3.5 release of Calc also includes a number of new Calc functions, and a number of performance improvements.

New in Impress

One of the first things you notice in Impress is that you go straight to a new presentation rather than the wizard to select a template. I'm a fan of this change. If you want the wizard, though, you can still go to File -> Wizards -> Presentation. Win all the way around.

If you're importing a newer PowerPoint document (.pptx), you'll see that the custom shapes import is much improved. See the before and after on the wiki, or try out the example presentation. Likewise, the import for Smart Art from PowerPoint has been improved significantly.

One of the things I've noticed in prior releases of Impress is that if you try to export a presentation to PDF with some of the slides hidden, it doesn't work. This can be a bit of a PITA if you're hoping to, say, export a presentation or part of one for a third party that doesn't need to see the entire presentation. Now Impress allows hidden slides to stay hidden when you export them.

The Future!

What's really interesting in the 3.5 release isn't really ready for prime time. At FOSDEM, Micheal Meeks talked about LibreOffice and (among other things) the work that's going on for LibreOffice mobile and Web. Meeks demonstrated the Web front-end which can render into an HTML5 canvas in the browser.

To be sure, this is not ready for prime time. Meeks' demo at FOSDEM crashed a bit and was not as snappy as running LibreOffice on the desktop. But this may be a good way forward for folks that want to run LibreOffice in the browser. Why not a complete re-write? Meeks talked about this at FOSDEM, and also in the interview that he did just before. Basically, re-writes don't go so well. Says Meeks:

"My personal feeling is that doing the last 30% of a WYSIWYG web office suite takes 95% of the time – you see, the first bits (that the browser supports natively) are really rather easy. After that, you get to write a huge mound of JavaScript, which you distribute and run under a JIT in several not-very-compatible browsers. Of course, we can always abandon WYSIWYG, perhaps printing onto pages is really truly dead, but I'm not so sure that crisp, repeatable paginated layout is really truly gone for good yet. That's particularly true for drawings, posters, marketing etc."

He went on to talk about some of the spectacular failures of re-writes, like Corel's attempt to re-write its office suite in Java and Micropro's re-write of WordStar. Both failed completely. Instead, Meeks says that he'd like to "focus on a single product, with substantial source-code re-use for different segments."

The mobile app is also in development, and Meeks says that he's "optimistic that we can get something useful on-line for the end of 2012 or early 2013, but that of course depends on community involvement and help." The Android port should start with a document viewer, "evolving over time to allow editing."

If you're the type of person who loves to ride the cutting edge, I'd recommend grabbing 3.5 as soon as its out. If not, just hang tight for the 3.5.1 release or 3.5.2 if you're feeling really cautious. The next (3.5.1) release is tentatively scheduled for around March 5th, and 3.5.2 is tentatively scheduled for April 2nd through April 8th. The feature freeze for 3.6.0 is scheduled for the week of June 4th with the final release the week of July 30th.

 

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