Microsoft Office occupies a dominant position when it comes to office suites, but it isn't the only choice if you want a runs-on-the-desktop suite on multiple platforms. How does it compare to its most visible rival, LibreOffice? Let's take a look at how the two compare for individual use.
Our focus in this comparison is on the three core elements which most people think of as comprising an office suite: word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. On both sides of the fence, there are other elements included: Office includes OneNote and Outlook, plus additional storage options and added software depending which version you buy. LibreOffice includes the Base database, which isn't part of the cheaper Office releases.
We're also not looking at web-based alternatives. In that space, you have two obvious choices in the form of Google Docs and Microsoft's Office Web Apps, as well as other more specialised tools. Those options are free and capable of basic tasks, but lack the extra frills of desktop software (and work poorly or not at all in offline mode).
It's worth pointing out that you won't see many job vacancies advertised listing "Libre Office" as a desired skill. Gaining experience in Office is still useful for many jobs. However, if you're cash-strapped, it's worth weighing up the free LibreOffice alternative. (LibreOffice itself comes from the same core as OpenOffice, and is generally regarded as the more frequently-updated open source office platform.)
In what follows, we'll compare the most commonly-used features of each platform, but we don't claim this is an exhaustive list. If you're interested in looking for a specific feature, head to this page and search for it on the table. It should give you a good idea of exactly which features are in which suite.
Word Processing: Word versus Writer
LibreOffice Writer and Microsoft Word are both very capable word processors. In terms of basic features, Writer and Word are incredibly similar. Writer has all the major features of Word, including a fantastic grammar checker, a solid autosave system, and support for a huge variety of formats. If you're a Word user, you'll have no problem making the jump to Writer because the two operate and look the same.
For years, one of Word's killer features was a variety of editing options and change tracking, but Writer also offers those options as well. Word does have a broader range of formatting and customisation options.
The Bottom Line
After using both for a couple weeks, I didn't notice any major features missing in either. If a word processor is all you really need, then Writer will do everything Word can do. That said, if you have Office anyway, Word is a familiar and well-executed package.
Spreadsheets: Excel versus Calc
Spreadsheets are a major part of an office suite and Microsoft Excel has long been the king. Depending on how you use spreadsheets, LibreOffice's Calc may very well be enough for you, but you're heavily invested in Excel's ecosystem, switching could be tricky.
For the most part, Calc and Excel work the same way. If you're a light spreadsheet user, you probably won't notice much difference between the two. Both can do basic calculations, handle light maths, and organise tables in a variety of ways. However, if you use a lot of Excel macros, programming and specialised functions, then you're going to struggle with Calc.
The reason is that Calc has its own macro language and it's not always compatible with Excel's VBA format. This means if you're trying to switch over to Calc from Excel, you may need to redo a lot of your macros. Calc macros do translate well to Excel -- just not the other way around -- so if you're just sending off your own spreadsheets to other people, Calc may suffice.
The Bottom Line
If you're new to spreadsheets or just a light user, Calc gets the job done. However, if you're working in an environment where you're sharing a lot of macros or complex files then you're best off sticking with Excel.
Presentation Software: PowerPoint versus Impress
PowerPoint has been synonymous with presentations for a long while, and with good reason: it's a powerful piece of software and produces presentations easily. LibreOffice's presentation software, Impress, is capable enough, but it's not going to convert any naysayers.
The main issue with Impress is that it still struggles occasionally when importing presentations made in PowerPoint. I had issues with some missing fonts and other rendering problems. That said, if you're creating presentations from scratch, Impress does it pretty well, albeit without quite as much flair as PowerPoint. Impress has fewer animations for slides, lacks animated diagrams, doesn't offer the same range of video exports and lacks the ability to collaborate on presentations as a group.
It's not all bad news for Impress, though. Impress can export presentations in lots of different formats, which can make sharing presentations easier. While neither will magically give you an Academy Award-winning presentation, they're both equally easy to start.
The Bottom Line
LibreOffice's Impress is a perfectly capable program, but if you're working with people who usually use PowerPoint you might run into some compatibility issues still. If you're just making presentations for your own purposes, then Impress should work for you.
Which Suite Is Best For You?
If money is tight or non-existent, LibreOffice may be the office suite for you. If you're regularly sharing files with others, need a support infrastructure or rely on advanced features, Office remains the obvious choice.