What's new in the free LibreOffice suite

Prepare to Jump

© Lead Image © Robert Collins, Unsplash.com

© Lead Image © Robert Collins, Unsplash.com

Article from Issue 207/2018

LibreOffice 5.4 is the last major release before the big jump to version 6. In addition to a number of updates, you can now sign Writer documents with OpenPGP.

Every six months, The Document Foundation publishes a new release of LibreOffice [1]. The versions in the fresh branch offer experimental features aimed at users who want to test brand new functions, whereas the still versions are for those who value reliability [2].

The new fresh version 5.4, the last in the 5.x series before the big jump to version 6.0, is scheduled for early 2018. It comes with new toolbars, improved palettes and filters, and OpenPGP support for signing Writer documents. A test team looked at the new LibreOffice under Debian 9.0 (Stretch, 64-bit).

LibreOffice developers have continued to modernize the appearance of the Office programs. In particular, the cleaned-up default color palette immediately stands out (Figure 1). Instead of colorfully mixed hues, the palette now follows the RYB (red, yellow, blue) color model reduced to 120 tones. A new palette for chart colors (not yet compiled and available as chart-palettes) is also included.

Figure 1: The new standard color palette looks tidier.

The new toolbar for styles stands out. If you prefer to see it at the top rather than in the right sidebar, you can place it with View | Toolbars | Formatting.

The previous 5.3 release was the first to offer a "ribbon," called a notebook bar in LibreOffice, that gathers program functions into groups rather than menus. The feature is still marked as experimental in version 5.4, but you can enable it in Tools | Options when you check Enable experimental features (may be unstable) in the dialog below LibreOffice | Advanced.

After restarting the program, you can access the new look with View | Toolbar Layout | Notebookbar; then, in View | Notebookbar, you can decide whether menu entries appear as contextual single (context-dependent content in a single centered toolbar), tabbed (icons grouped by context), or contextual group (fixed File, Clipboard, and Format groups and an Insert group dependent on the object of focus). In version 5.4, the notebook bar now support themes. During tests, the feature did not prove itself to be particularly stable, and LibreOffice often crashed when changing the view.

Exchange Formats

XML-based documents in ODF and OOXML formats (ODT and DOCX in Writer) are now significantly smaller than the files that proprietary Office suites produce for identical documents, mainly because, according to the developers [3], LibreOffice does not write redundant XML tags to files. With code optimization, Writer documents are up to 90 percent leaner compared with Word documents.

As with any new edition, the programmers improved exchange between third-party formats. LibreOffice 5.4 includes improved support for Windows Enhanced Metafile (EMF) vector graphics created using the ChemDraw software and a revised PDF import feature: The office suite now relies on the pdfium library to render inserted images. Innovations in PDF export let Writer and Impress take over embedded videos (Figure 2).

Figure 2: New features for exporting PDFs: The Writer word processor and the Impress presentation tool also export embedded videos.

The most interesting feature in the new version is that Linux users can now sign their Writer documents with their OpenPGP keys, which guarantees the authenticity of their files regardless of storage location or transmission path. The developers rely on the GnuPG Made Easy API (GPGME) [4].

To sign an ODF file, call File | Digital Signatures | Digital Signatures, click on Sign Document, and choose the OpenPGP key in the dialog; Writer sends the public key along with the document.

No Spoofs

If a document signed in this way reaches someone that uses an older version of LibreOffice or an operating system other than Linux, a dialog appears with a note that the signed content does not match the current document signature. After clicking OK, Writer opens the file without complaint, but without a signature.

Linux users who also use the new LibreOffice will see a color bar between toolbars and the document, as well as a note that lets you draw conclusions about the signature. As with X.509 certificates, there are three options: valid, invalid, or not verified, in which case, you should not yet trust the key.

After clicking on Show signatures, a dialog box appears that not only displays the signatures (Figure 3), but also launches the Certificate Manager. LibreOffice currently supports Kleopatra, Kgpg, and GPA. Cooperation with the Gnome keyring Seahorse did not work in version 5.4.0, but the bug should be corrected in 5.4.2. Alternatively, use gpg at the command line to trust a key.

Figure 3: Linux users can now sign Writer documents with their own OpenPGP key. LibreOffice displays the status in a color bar; the light blue background in the image indicates a valid signature.

The office suite includes a number of other changes: Writer now adds user-defined watermarks and extends right-click context menus, depending on where the cursor is. In Calc, the developers added extended dialogs and an improved comment function. The spreadsheet application now also shows negative annual figures; the previous version was able to compute, but not display, them.

Impress comes with a new keyboard shortcut for inserting sheets quickly; Math gets additional commands for the context menu; and in Base, the developers improved a number of functions and rearranged the menu structures. The online edition of the office suite is now available with a responsive design for mobile devices and includes a read-only mode for documents.

In the Starting Blocks

The new version was largely stable. The test team only experienced crashes after enabling the experimental notebook bar features. When switching between viewing modes, LibreOffice 5.4 reproducibly bows out. If you can do without the notebook bar concept, you will receive a strong Office suite, with convincing new features and functions.

Teaming up with GnuPG is especially successful. For upcoming version 6.0, the developers are working on integrating additional platforms, especially Windows. It should also be possible to encrypt documents with GnuPG.

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