LibreOffice: A Free Alternative to Microsoft Office and AppleWorks

LibreOffice is a free alternative to the not-inexpensive Microsoft Office suite. I’m using it to replace AppleWorks, which I’ve been using since ClarisWorks 1.0 shipped back in the System 7.0 era. Unfortunately, AppleWorks is incompatible with OS X 10.7 Lion and later, so I’ve had to find an alternative since installing OS X 10.9 Mavericks on my Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook..

I rarely use Microsoft Office, although I do have Office 2004 on my OS X 10.4 Tiger10.5 Leopard, and 10.6 Snow Leopard Macs. Problem is, I’m using Mavericks on my MacBook, so Office 2004 is not an option – nor do I want to spend the money to buy a newer version.

Likewise, I can’t run AppleWorks in Mavericks, so if I want to be able to work with my spreadsheets, I have to export them from AppleWorks (still running on my 2007 Mac mini with Snow Leopard). LibreOffice can open Microsoft Office files as well as AppleWorks word processing documents, and after I export my spreadsheets into Excel format, LibreOffice can open them as well.

By the way, despite its name, AppleWorks was also available for Microsoft Windows. AppleWorks development ended in 2007, and the software only runs in XP compatibility mode on Windows 7 and later – if it runs on Windows 8 at all. (I don’t use Windows, but I have read user reports that AppleWorks for Windows is incompatible with Window 8.)

Broad Hardware Support

LibreOffice isn’t limited to Mac users. If you use Windows or Linux, LibreOffice gives you the same capabilities and open document formats, making it easy to work with the same file on any of the major platforms.

LibreOffice is a competent replacement for Microsoft Office, AppleWorks, and other office suites. It’s not as pretty as the commercial apps, and the current version (5.1.3) requires OS X 10.6 or later, so it only works on Intel-based Macs, but that’s the vast majority of Macs in use today.

About 15% of Mac users visiting Low End Mac are still running G3, G4, and G5 Macs with older versions of OS X. LibreOffice 4.0.x supports PowerPC and OS X 10.4 Tiger and newer, so even they have an option, although finding the download is a challenge. Version 4.2.5 is the current version, so PowerPC users aren’t too far behind the curve.

On the PC side, Windows XP or newer with 256 MB of RAM is required, and the Linux version has the same memory requirement. That means you can use your LibreOffice files on the three most widely used platforms, giving you compatibility with most hardware under 15 years old.

Every time you launch LibreOffice, it will tell you if there’s a newer version available for download.

The Spreadsheet

I’m a number cruncher. I love math. I love analyzing data. I love spreadsheets. That’s been my primary use for AppleWorks, and it will be my primary use for LibreOffice.

chart with straight lines

LibreOffice chart using straight line segments between data points.

One huge improvement LibreOffice has over good old AppleWorks is that you can create line graphs with smoothed lines instead of just straight ones. AppleWorks was positively primitive in that regard.

smoothed chart

LibreOffice chart using smoothed lines.

It’s not a night-and-day difference here, since these charts show Windows user share among visitors to Low End Mac from October 2009 to March 2014, but I think the smoothed lines just look nicer.

LibreOffice spreadsheetI’ve been impressed at how easy the LibreOffice spreadsheet is to work with, since I’ve been using AppleWorks for ages and really haven’t used Excel since version 3 or 4.

On the negative side, LibreOffice handles type poorly in its graphs. If you use italic or bold type, you’ll see what I mean. It isn’t true italic or bold, just angled or doubled. Yecch! They need to fix this. My solution is to only use plain text in my graphs.

It’s Not Word or Excel

Although LibreOffice can open and save Microsoft Office files, because you’re working in a different program, your documents and spreadsheets may display differently in Microsoft Office. This is true of any app that supports Microsoft Office formats.

If it’s important that your resumé, cover letter, or other important document look just right in Microsoft Word, your best option is to open it in Word, fix any problems you may find, and then re-save as a Word file. Ditto for Excel.

The same probably goes for LibreOffice’s other modules, but I can’t comment, as I haven’t used any of the other modules. Forewarned is forearmed.

It’s Free!

Seriously, what’s more low-end that free? Bean was a very nice, simple, quick, free OS X alternative to Word for basic documents, but it’s no longer being developed. LibreOffice gives you replacements for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and even Access, Microsoft’s Windows-only database app that has never even been available for any version of the Mac OS.

It Just Works

I have been using spreadsheets since Compute! magazine released its free SpeedCalc spreadsheet for the Commodore 64 in January 1986. When I moved to MS-DOS, I chose PFS: First Choice as my office suite.

On the Mac, I cut my teeth on Excel 3.0 working at the local ComputerLand store. When ClarisWorks 1.0 arrived, I jumped at the most integrated office suite to date. Word processing, spreadsheet, database, drawing, and more were all part of the same program, not a series of separate modules you had to switch between. I miss that integration!

LibreOffice is really the first office suite I’ve used since I first tried AppleWorks (the software previously known as ClarisWorks), and it’s as easy to pick up as anything I’ve used.

Yes, It Can Be Slow

Microsoft Office has grown bloated and slow over the years, and LibreOffice is pretty slow and bloated itself. That said, you can speed it up. A Google search will find quite a few pages telling you how to tweak your settings for better performance on Windows or Linux.

But Mac users have generally been left out in the cold – until now. Low End Mac has published Speed Up LibreOffice on Your Mac, which tells you where to find those settings in OS X.

Try It, You’ll Probably Like It

If you don’t have Microsoft Office and need an office suite – or even just a good word processor or spreadsheet – LibreOffice is the cream of the crop in freeware.

If you have a 2004 or earlier version of Microsoft Office or are using AppleWorks and want to move beyond OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, LibreOffice is a good way to move forward without investing in a newer copy of Microsoft Office.

If you’ve been using OpenOffice or NeoOffice (Mac only), LibreOffice gives you a free up-to-date replacement.

If you’re simply looking for a competent, usable office suite that works more like Microsoft Office than Apple’s Pages and Numbers apps, LibreOffice will give you that.

Best of all, The Document Foundation continues to work on LibreOffice, troubleshooting, adding features, and improving the code. And you certainly can’t beat the price.

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4 thoughts on “LibreOffice: A Free Alternative to Microsoft Office and AppleWorks

  1. Don’t forget, if you really need to use MS Office for light work but don’t want to buy a new version, you can use the Office web apps in Microsoft OneDrive.com

    They have most of the commonly used features of office but with full document compatibility and a great price tag, Free!

    • I looked into using Onedrive, and it is mindblowing slow on an iBook G3, LibreOffice is a lot faster. Plus, it can be used when you don’t have an internet connection.
      And I hate storing my documents in the cloud. I admit, the information is encrypted while in the cloud, then you lose control of the documents to another company. I remember back in 2005 (I think), Microsoft had a problem with Hotmail and deleted all the e-mail messages on the server. Everything was gone, and deleted.
      And from that day forward, I don’t trust the cloud.

  2. I heard somewhere that Open Office and Libre Office were once one and the same? What are the differences between these two? I’ve used Open Office some but am not really impressed with it’s Word compatibility.

    • LibreOffice was an offshoot of OpenOffice after Sun Microsystems took over OO and was less than responsive to community contributions. Things only got worse when Oracle took over. Since OO was open source, The Document Foundation created LibreOffice as a more open, more responsive, more community involved alternative to OO – and LibreOffice has pretty much replaced OO, which is now owned by Apache.

      I’m not really a Word user, so I can’t talk to compatibility. I do have Office 2004 for times when I absolutely need a file in Word format or have one that is problematic to open in LibreOffice.