Open Source Office Apps: Calligra Suite vs LibreOffice

Monday Apr 16th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Is one of these open source office tools clearly better than the other?

For home and enterprise users alike, software like LibreOffice has made desktop Linux a whole lot easier. A reliable office suite is a key part of using a modern computer for most people. Given that important, it’s worth noting that a new Koffice fork has been developed. It’s called Calligra Suite.

Unlike LibreOffice, which doesn't reflect the styles of one desktop environment over another, Calligra Suite is based on Qt and was definitely designed with the KDE user in mind.

In this article, I'll be comparing LibreOffice with the Calligra Suite. I'll be examining the layout of the application features, along with the functionality provided.

Is one better than the other?

Application list compared

Based on a default installation, LibreOffice provides you with several must-have applications. These applications include Writer, Impress, Calc, Draw and Base. LibreOffice Math is also included, but it won't be included in this comparison. With a default installation of Calligra Suite, you end up with Words, Stage, Tables, and Flow.

Right away, I noticed that Calligra Suite was missing a Base-like application from its suite. Not being overly familiar with the old revision of KOffice, this could be by design.

After digging a bit deeper, however, it looks like Calligra Suite will offer a database program called Kexi. And while Calligra Suite is said to be in a stable release condition, it's the first stable release for the software. Therefore, I think it's safe to expect some kind of ongoing evolution with the software with new releases.

Writer vs Words

If you're like me and find yourself being resistant to change, trying to switch Office suite applications can be painful. In my case, this meant that there was a significant amount of UI shock when learning where everything was with Words. Despite the fact that Writer isn't all that attractive, at least I know where everything is.

In an effort to make Words easier to use, I tried docking some of the stuff to the right hand side of the application. After having no luck there, I ended up simply trying to make the best of a poorly designed situation.

Words allows me to access functions that I would normally find at the top of my software, in a location that takes away valuable screen real-estate from me. Taking away screen real-estate and not allowing me to move the items interfering with screen space isn't okay with me.

Thankfully Words gives their users the option of grabbing options from the right-hand side of the screen and moving them to the top. If that isn't working for you, then you can simply choose to let the menu item "float" like you might in LibreOffice.

Like Writer, Words offers its users spell check. The spell check feature worked well, as I expected that it might. Words offers an auto-correct feature, text selection, formatting and other word processor functionalities that all work really well.

Adding to the stability of the functionality offered, I've also been told by a number of testers that Words handles the formatting of MS Office Word documents quite nicely. The one downside to this, however, is that Words doesn't appear to support the ability to save to .doc or .docx file formats. While this is seen as a win for FoSS fans, it's self-defeating in the enterprise community, where we still have to rely on Microsoft file formats regardless of our own personal feelings.

Overall, Words is a very solid word processor. For anyone who already uses KDE software, the work flow should feel natural enough, yet it's a bit of a learning curve if you rely more on Writer from LibreOffice. For me personally, I can't see myself switching away from LibreOffice Writer, simply because there's something to be said about having greater freedom with what file formats I can save a document to.

Calc vs Tables

Oddly enough, I found the controls being laid out on the right-hand side of the screen felt more natural within the Calligra Suite spreadsheet program, Tables. Once again, we have great control over the tool options in the right-hand side of the screen. I was also shocked at how slick it was to be able to do my spreadsheet calculations on the right-hand side of the screen vs the top, like in LibreOffice Calc. For a casual user, the Tables layout appears to be easier to navigate than with Calc. Or at least that was my initial impression.

The Tables function wizard mirrors that of Calc almost to the letter. So coming from Calc doesn't present any real pain for the end user, once they get used to the different user interface. On the flipside, I found functionality such as data sorting to be quite different. Calc is able to sort data either ascending or descending. With Tables, on the other hand, this function wasn't clearly labeled anywhere I could find it.

After spending some time running calculations with both programs, I came away feeling like Tables gave me a great first impression, only to let me down with its data sorting. Overall though, it is generally a suitable alternative to LibreOffice Calc for most spreadsheets.

Impress vs Stage

Both the Impress and Stage programs do a fantastic job providing usable templates upon startup. While the Impress startup wizard provides more initial options, I would suggest that Stage has more attractive templates. Once both programs are open, the differences continue, as Impress offers Normal, Outline, Notes, Handout and a Slide Sorter view.

By contrast, Stage offers Normal, Notes and Slide Sorter views only. Normally, missing a single view wouldn't be a big deal. However when you consider that the Outline view can make a complex presentation easier to manage, Stage really comes up short by missing this critical option.

Another option Stage lacks is the Handout tab. This isn’t as critical, since many presentations don't have corresponding handouts given with them, but it's still something that some presentation creators might find themselves missing.

Another area where Stage really let me down is with the tasks view. There are entirely too many icons presented on the right-hand side without a clear indicator as to what most of them do. With Impress, on the other hand, the tasks pane is clear as day. Each item is carefully spelled out, forgoing the over-abundance of needless icons.

I realize that Calligra Suite is a big fan of using tons of icons with minimal descriptions. However, I can tell you that most people are going to get lost with this type of layout very quickly. I was genuinely disappointed with Stage. I simply can't recommend it over Impress.

Remaining software

When comparing Kexi vs Base, the biggest issue I found was that Kexi offers great Microsoft Access support while LibreOffice Base is simply more logical to use. The maturity with Base really shines through, in that it actually works without errors or other hassles. That said, I did find that Kexi has a better flow in setting up databases. The database creation process just felt more modern, but Base wins in that it works without crashing.

Finally, we have Draw vs Flow. Surprisingly, Flow wins simply because all of my options are presented right there for me. It's one of those instances where having a flurry of icons and options laid out before me is actually a help and not a hassle. Flow was well thought out, so I am inclined to choose it over Draw.

And the winner is...

I really want to recommend Calligra Suite. And perhaps someday, as it matures, I'll be able to. However, as Calligra Suite stands now, it's not a great match with most of its software. Despite each of the included Calligra Suite applications doing some things right, the software is still in need of more time in development to catch up to LibreOffice.

So what is my overall recommendation then? Honestly, I'm a big fan of Flow and I think that with a little bit of patience, Words has a lot going for it. I would suggest using both office suites, as everyone's preferences will likely vary. There is no question that LibreOffice suffers from a tired, ugly UI. I offer no argument there.

Calligra Suite does offer a smoother user interface. Unfortunately, though, the overall usability simply isn't there to meet my own needs. If you actually need to get some work done with stable, proven software, then LibreOffice is going to be the clear winner based on my own tests.

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