March 8, 2006

First look: KOffice 1.5, part 1: The major applications

Author: Bruce Byfield

KOffice often gets overlooked in favor of rival office suite (OOo), which has a wider set of features, corporate backing, and cross-platform compatibility. However, the recent release of the KOffice 1.5 beta makes this a good time to take a closer look at the KDE suite's applications, features, and performance.

In this part I'll start with an overview of KOffice's usability and the applications most likely to be used by the average user: KWord, KSpread, and KPresenter. In part 2, we'll continue with KOffice's other applications.

You can open KOffice applications individually from the desktop menu, or through the KOffice Workspace, which features icons for different document types down the left side of the window, and tabs at the bottom for each open document. It's a convenient way to work with multiple documents. Although icons for tools such as KThesaurus are missing, the Workspace remains a handy desktop organizer, especially on a smaller screen.

All the KOffice applications share a consistent look and feel. Icons are uniformly tinted with shades of blue and yellow, and each subsequent version seems to move the menus and dialog windows closer to a uniform structure. All major applications open with a file or template selection dialog, and their editing windows all include similar utilities, such as scanner accessibility. The uniformity is far from perfect, however; for example, the Special Character item is located in the same place in the Insert menus in KWord and KPresenter but a different place in KSpread, and the Style Managers are laid out differently in KWord and KSpread. Yet, even with these lapses, KOffice's interface is generally far easier to navigate than's ramshackle collection of inherited, borrowed, and new designs.

KOffice's help system has the annoying habit of first displaying the copyright instead of a screen that contains useful information. Otherwise, it's as thoughtfully designed as the interface. Avoiding the usual error of marching through the menu, it focuses on tasks. The English version is clear and concise, makes ample use of bullet points to improve readability, and includes enough graphics to make it readable without constant reference to the program -- virtues I have despaired of seeing in other programs.

Language support is mixed. On one hand, as a KDE-compliant program, uses the system's locale, making it easy to get any characters and diacritical marks you might need. On the other hand, although paragraph styles in KWord can be assigned different languages, the spellcheck inspects all of them, which destroys the point of assigning languages in the first place. Yet even that is preferable to KSpread, which shows no awareness of language in its styles at all.

Import and export filters in KOffice include Microsoft Office, PDF, and OpenDocument, which is the new default format in the 1.5 beta. Like the filters for most programs, KOffice's work best on simple documents. For documents with complex designs, successful use of import/export filters often requires manual tweaking of documents and may be useful only as a last-ditch effort to open documents so you can copy and paste information elsewhere.

Surprisingly, this general observation applies even to the OpenDocument filters. For instance, when I opened a KOffice text document in OOo, the background colors of text frames were lost. Similarly, going the other way, an OpenDocument text file created in spontaneously changed fonts when I opened it in KWord. This irregularity is probably due to the fact that support for OpenDocument is new in 1.5, but it makes me doubt my assumption that problems with filters are due entirely to proprietary formats. Or possibly the OpenDocument format is ambiguous enough that programs can interpret it in different ways.

The greatest general problem with KOffice is handling of large files. KOffice took nearly three times as much time as OOo when opening and saving a 2.4MB document, while a 174MB file crashed KWord after a 40-second struggle. These performance issues may be due to using beta code, however.

The KWord word processor

KWord has the potential to be the star of KOffice. It's especially noteworthy for its frame tools. Both text and various objects have frame styles; text frames include a Frame Manager for controlling the text flow and a document structure view similar to's Navigator. Text frames can also be nested, allowing users to develop complex layouts quickly. Although weakened by a lack of page styles or master pages, KWord's support for frames gives the application the basic engine for becoming a layout program one day, rather than just a word processor.

This potential is strengthened by increasingly strong support for paragraph styles. As with text frames, KWord opts for a FrameMaker-like system for bulleted and numbered lists, assigning them to particular styles, with the option to use one style for restarting the count on numbered lists. In earlier versions, table styles were also included, but they are disabled in the 1.5 beta. Other tools include autocompletion, expressions (autotext), automatic spellcheck, a full range of variables (fields), and a multiple-split view for comparing documents or referencing different sections of the same document.

Unfortunately, the KWord 1.5 beta still lacks many advanced word processing tools, let alone typography tools for such purposes as kerning or tracking. Among the missing features are character styles, revision tracking, versioning, and macro recording. Tools for academic and other long-document work are also missing, including indexes, cross-references, and bibliographies, although footnotes are supported.

Other tools are only partially or clumsily implemented. Options for headers and footers are limited to a few selections, in a dialog that describes rather than shows the options. Similarly, you can create a table of contents only with heading styles, and by default the table of contents offers only the most pedestrian of designs, with leader dots between the headings and page numbers.

Despite all its potential, KWord remains a work in progress.

The KSpread spreadsheet

Spreadsheets have two main purposes: making lists and doing calculations via formulas. To date, KSpread largely ignores list-making, focusing instead on formulas. KSpread's only tool for list-making is the menu command Tools -> Custom Lists. Users can define custom lists, such as the days of the week, and quickly add them to cells by entering one list item and then dragging the mouse over other cells to add the rest of the list in sequence. Sorts and filters -- as well as outline grouping of rows and columns to allow them to be hidden or displayed together -- are absent, except for the ability to sort in ascending or descending order. Nor can the display be frozen so that users can see headers while scrolling through long lists, although a split window might provide a workaround.

In its favor, however, KSpread includes hundreds of functions. Most have names similar to ones used in Microsoft Excel, allowing for easy migration. Usefully, when a function is selected in the Function window, brief help appears beside it, including a summary of the function and some short examples. In addition, several basic function tools are available, including subtotals, goal seek, validity, and consolidating. Missing is a detective tool to allow users to see from which cells a function takes values. KSpread also would be easier to use if the Function window rolled up while cells were selected for values, and if results were calculated automatically instead of requiring users to click on the checkmark button.

KSpread provides cell styles, laid out in a tightly organized series of tabs. However, the application has no equivalent of's page styles to control printing. It can shrink worksheets to fit the page size, but lacks the ability to set the order in which columns and rows are printed when they require more than one sheet. These omissions effectively limit KSpread to online use for all but the smallest spreadsheets unless you have the patience for trial and error when printing.

The KPresenter slideshow program

KPresenter is nearly as innovative as KWord's basic engine. In some ways, it follows the conventions of its program type: Slides in a presentation are listed in a pane on the left and the current slide appears in the main pane to their right. Recurring elements can be set in the Slide Master, and several slide transitions and options for showing a presentation are available in the Tools menu. Like's Impress, KPresenter includes styles for text and objects for creating simple diagrams, although it doesn't make a distinction between regular and graphical text (that is, text that is treated as an object, such as a square or sphere), and the object styles are hidden in Settings -> Configure KPresenter -> Tools.

Yet, even in this generic interface, differences from Impress are obvious. The list of slides on the left has two tabs: One shows a preview of each slide, while an outline tab shows a collapsible tree view of all the elements on each slide. Items in the tree are highlighted when you select elements in the main pane, and you can edit their characteristics by using the right-click menu in the tree view. Similarly, KPresenter displays notes below the main pane -- and, unlike in Impress, notes are not confined to a limited number of lines. In the main pane, KPresenter doesn't automatically place non-title text in a bullet point, freeing users from the pressure to chop their ideas into pieces that are a half-dozen words long. In addition, instead of separating slide layouts from background templates, KPresenter makes both selectable from the templates list. Each of these innovations is minor, but the cumulative effect makes KPresenter resemble a word processing or layout program as much as a presentation application, and helps make it easier to master.

Sadly, as in KWord, the basic KPresenter engine is not supported by advanced features. Slideshows cannot include movies, sounds, or animation. Other advanced features, such as the ability to use the mouse as a pointer during a slideshow, would also be welcome. Still, the majority of slideshows in both business and academia do without these features, so, in many ways, KPresenter seems the most usable of KOffice's main applications

KOffice's current status

As I examined KOffice's major applications, a pattern started to emerge. In KWord, KSpread, and KPresenter, basic functions are available, but only a few advanced features. At a rough estimate, each has about three-quarters of the features that you would find in an equivalent commercial product or in OOo.

This status is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it suggests that KOffice is not rushing its development by trying to be all things to all users. Instead, KOffice seems to be gradually perfecting existing functions a little more with each release. This tactic is particularly evident in the steady improvement of the user interface.

To many free software users, this approach will probably be reassuring, because in the long run it promises to produce a dependable suite of programs.

On the other hand, you need to evaluate KOffice carefully before migrating to it. If you're a home user, an undergraduate, or an office worker who needs an office application for memos and timesheets, KOffice's major applications should more or less fit your needs. However, advanced users -- such as technical writers, publishers, and professional academics -- who want a graphical interface are apt to find that KOffice's major applications are still missing features that they expect and depend upon. Such users should check back in a release or two to see whether KOffice's feature sets finally match its attractive and efficient interface.

Do these conclusions hold true for the other applications in KOffice? In part 2 of this article, we'll see.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and

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