October 13, 2008

OpenOffice.org 3.0 is an incremental improvement

Author: Bruce Byfield

OpenOffice.org 3.0, which is being released today, is not the great leap forward in look and feel that version 2.0 represented, but it justifies its label as a major release with dozens of changes, some major, some minor, but in all more than can be easily summarized.

A new start dialog, support for reading version 1.2 of the Open Document Format, limited support for importing Microsoft VBA macros, increased language support, easier use of multiple languages in the spell check, native support for Mac OS X, OOXML support -- these are just some of the across-the-board changes in version 3.0. However, the largest changes are specific to the major applications. Here's an overview of some of the most important changes.

New in Writer

Writer benefits from several major revisions. Two of the most basic are in the Zoom view. Not only does the status bar at the bottom of the editing window have a slider bar, allowing you to set the zoom as you like rather than relying on preconfigured settings, but by selecting View -> Zoom -> Columns, you can now set how many pages to display at once. Previously, the only way to view multiple pages together was by using Print Preview, which opened in a separate window, so this simple change is a major step forward for those who use Writers' desktop publishing tools, since most page design is based on a two-page spread.

Collaboration also gets a boost, in the form of a complete overhaul of the Note system. Instead of forcing users to hunt through documents for the smear of color that used to designate a note, Writer now displays notes in a side panel on the right of the editing window, with a line leading to their location. You can also use basic formatting in notes, such as bold or italic weights. When you are finished, you can not only easily delete the current note -- something almost impossible to do in previous versions, since it required careful selection with the mouse -- but all notes or all notes by the same user if you choose. Although you may have trouble with the note changing position if you enter it at the end of your typing, in general the new note feature is a significant improvement on the old one.

Probably the largest advance is with cross-references. In earlier versions of Writer, setting up cross-references was a cumbersome affair, requiring you to set the source of the reference, then add the reference itself. Nor could you refer directly to headings, as you can in most word processors, despite the fact that most cross-references are generally to headings. But in version 3.0, you can select your reference from a list of headings, making it far more efficient. Now, if OpenOffice.org would only include an easy way to add the text that introduces a cross-reference, so that you could avoid continually typing phrases like "For more information, see" without fiddling with macros, AutoText, or AutoCorrect, its cross-reference functionality would truly be state of the art. But, for now, the changes are a good start.

New in Calc

Of all OpenOffice.org's applications, Calc probably benefits the most from the improvements in the latest version, with countless minor tweaks to default behavior and to functions. Also, more than any other application, Calc benefits from the ability to add custom error bars, regression equations, and correlation coefficients to charts.

A small but useful change is that highlighting in Calc is now transparent, rather than being an impenetrable black. As basic as it is, this change is enough to enhance your work flow considerably, since you can now see what is selected without interrupting the selection process.

Another small change in Calc is the addition of an options button in Printer Setup, which gives you the option of suppressing blank sheets when printing, or printing only selected sheets. If you have ever tried to print a spreadsheet in a readable form, you may appreciate this extra degree of control.

A larger change in OpenOffice.org's spreadsheet is a revised Solver for formulae. The revised tool now allows you to set the Condition to Integer or Binary, as well as less than, greater than, or equal to, and includes a setting to limit the time spent solving for various variables. It also seems to include an option of choosing a solver to use, although for most people, the only choice will be the one that comes with version 3.0.

Perhaps the largest change in Calc is the increase in its scope, with 1,024 columns supported instead of the 256 in previous versions. If you're using that many columns, you should contemplate switching to Base or some other database, but many seem to prefer to stay with spreadsheets, and, for them, the increase puts Calc on par with Microsoft Excel.

New in Impress

In early releases, OpenOffice.org 3 appeared to be following the lead of Microsoft PowerPoint by removing its initial wizard. Given users' growing familiarity with slide shows, such a move might have been justified, but, in the end, OpenOffice.org stuck with the wizard.

The most important change in version 3.0 is that Impress finally gains the ability to add tables without the kludge of assembling separate text frames. Tables still cannot be nested to create complex layouts, and Impress gives them a background of the default color, which means that you probably have to edit them as soon as you create them, but this handicap can be overcome by creating a master slide or two for tables, then saving the file that holds them as a template. What matters is that, with the addition in recent versions of the ability to add sound across all slides from the Slide Transition pane, Impress has finally achieved total parity in features with PowerPoint. If it could only be shipped with an assortment of usable templates, then free software users would have very little left to ask.

In addition, tables are now available in Draw, which shares much its code with Impress. In Draw, the addition of tables enhances the application's ability to serve as a basic desktop publishing tool.

Beyond the default packages

Since version 2.0 came out, OpenOffice.org has developed a thriving extensions community. Those who want to look beyond the standard code will find that browsing the extensions repository well worth the effort. Many users already swear by tools such as Sun Report Builder and Sun Presentation Minimizer.

However, along with the release of version 3.0 come at least two extensions built specifically for the version. PDF Import Extension, which Linux.com has already reviewed, opens PDF files in Draw, allowing you to edit or recover PDF files. If you frequently deliver slide shows, you should also appreciate the Presenter Console Extension, which allows you to view your notes and the next slide privately while delivering the presentation.

Once you have the extensions of your choice installed, you'll also find that version 3.0 has an automatic updater, just as Firefox does for its extensions.

Conclusion

One disappointment in version 3.0 is that no comprehensive effort has been made to improve interface consistency, or to revamp the dialog windows, which have a 1990s feel about them and look increasingly outdated and cluttered. Possibly, lack of attention to such concerns reflects the fact that the same code is used for StarOffice, Sun's commercial version of OpenOffice.org; in the marketplace where StarOffice operates, enhancements are bound to be greater selling points than an overhaul of key features. But, whatever the reason, those who want the interface cleaned up may have to wait at least another two or three years until the next major release.

At least OpenOffice.org's frumpy interface is familiar. And with all the changes in version 3.0, most users will probably discover at least half a dozen ways in which their office productivity is suddenly easier.

OpenOffice.org is available in English and a few other common languages from the project's download page. Versions for other languages should become available over the next few weeks.

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