A Fresh Look at LibreOffice Alpha for PPC

I have always had a love/hate relationship with OpenOffice/LibreOffice.

First, a note about the terminology – LibreOffice used to be OpenOffice. A few years ago though, OpenOffice had a change in leadership, and many coders and community developers didn’t like the result and struck out with a new fork. Both software suites are still around, but LibreOffice is the only suite that still offers a build for PPC, even if it is alpha and via a community member.

Back to the love/hate: OpenOffice has existed in several flavors for the Mac, including the somewhat decent NeoOffice (which is no longer available for PowerPC either). I’ve tried to use it, since I generally support the philosophy of open source software and dig free stuff. I did write a big paper in OpenOffice once for grad school and managed through some problems. It wasn’t perfect, but I survived (and graduated). The best thing about open source software is that it keeps alive possibilities for those of us who use these older machines – TenFourFox is the clearest example.

But there is a downside – sometimes, you get what you pay for.

I have always found OpenOffice/LibreOffice to be one of the least visually appealing software suites around, littered with overly complex sets of options, burdened with a less than pleasant (albeit functional) user interface, and offering little that Microsoft Office and Pages ’09 can’t do better in a shorter amount of time. Still, if you needed something free and with a mature feature set, it is definitely worth a shot.

I’ve linked to a set of Alpha builds that I discovered a while back. The most recent is an alpha version of 4.4.0 compiled on the 21st of August. Why not give it another shot?

The download weighs in as a 159 MB dmg file. The suite itself copies over at about half a gigabyte. Not fun, but it’s less than Microsoft Office I bet.

Here’s the start screen that greets you after a brief loading bar:

screenshot of Libre Office

Right off the bat, you can tell this is not the most Mac friendly interface. It is functional and self-explanatory. It picked up an older install of LibreOffice and a single file that I had worked earlier in the year. I’ll focus just on the word processor for now, as I don’t have much use for the other apps in the suite.

Opening up a new text document, we get a fairly familiar looking window:

A basic text document in LibreOffice

LibreOffice doesn’t get high marks for its originality, but again, it is functional. Anyone with any experience with another Office suite will typically understand what is going on here and be able to get to work. The icons and user interface don’t look particularly good on a Mac, but maybe looks aren’t everything. There is always one nagging issue that greets me on every version of LibreOffice, OpenOffice, and NeoOffice that I have used – typing your first word is also greeted with a few seconds of lag. It’s like the app is surprised that you are actually going to type, and it takes a few seconds to catch up and display the words. After that though, things get more responsive.

I hate to harp on a theme here, but the icons and overall look and feel of LibreOffice just don’t do it for me, especially compared to the elegance of Pages ’09 or Mellel. Microsoft Office even looks better than this. There used to be some options to change icons, but I can’t find them in the maze-like preferences pane.

Seriously, just look at this:

Preferences hell

This is why open source software can often be painful. There is just way too much here – way too many options, way too many fiddly things, repeated entries for the same preference sets, and so on. There are literally three “View” groupings under three different headings, which all seem to be the same thing. Clicking on the wrong one crashes the whole app too. Is this a bonus feature?

I am being sarcastic, but I think packages like this would be far more useful to seriously drill down to the few things it can do well and focus on those. NeoOffice made an attempt to produce a more Mac-like LibreOffice by dealing with some of these annoyances. I think the community developers should take some cues from them.

Is it usable on a PPC Mac? Sure, I guess. The thing did crash at least 3 times on me, but it is alpha software. Maybe if I didn’t fiddle with preferences, I could get by just writing what I needed. It’s an option, and it’s good that someone is trying to keep this viable for us few Power Mac users. In the end, though, I do think part of what makes the Mac unique is a sense of design and cohesion. Not that it has to be perfect, LibreOffice misses on that account.

— Nathan

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