After a lengthy development cycle, we have a shiny new version of OpenOffice.org to play around with. But has it been worth the wait? Neil Bothwick rolls up his sleeves and picks apart OOo 3.0's new features, finding out whether it deserves a major version number bump and finally sorts out the performance woes...
After the well-received release of Firefox 3, it's time for another major update in the FOSS world - and this time it's OpenOffice.org. OOo 3.0 has arrived and there are three key questions to be answered here: what new features does it introduce, it is any faster and is it worth of the full version number jump?
Installing was easy enough after downloading the Debian or RPM files from download.openoffice.org. These are compressed tar archives: unpack one to find several .deb or .rpm files for installation. These install OpenOffice.org 3 into /opt, whereas many distros install 2.4 in /usr, which means you can have both versions installed and switch between them.
If your distro uses a different package management system, download the RPM version and run rpmtotargz on each of the RPM files, then unpack the resulting tarballs into / (the root directory). You can also use this method to install everything into your home directory, which puts everything into ~/opt without touching your working OpenOffice.org 2 installation (if you want to keep it). The programs are found in opt/openoffice.org3/program and have reverted to the old Star Office names, swriter, scalc and simpress instead of oowriter, oocalc and ooimpress.
The most obvious change comes when you run soffice instead of one of the component programs. Instead of the empty window that greets 2.x users, a new Start Centre appears, offering options to create various types of documents, open an existing document, download templates or install extensions. It may not make a massive improvement to productivity, but it gives a much better first impression.
The Start Centre is new for OpenOffice.org 3 and does
give a more professional first impression (click for bigger).
This version is able to import files in the new Microsoft Word format, OOXML. These are recognised by the additional x in the file extension. OpenOffice.org's support for .docx, .xlsx and .pptx is currently read-only, but that is all you need to share documents with users of Office 2007, as you can save in the older Microsoft Office formats (which all Office 2007 programs can read). OOXML write support would be useful in a heterogeneous environment, but we will have to wait a little longer for that. Some distros already include some OOXML support in OpenOffice.org 2.4, but having it as a core feature is an improvement.
Writer has gained the ability to display multiple pages at once. As you zoom out, a task made easier by the new zoom slider at the bottom of the window, the previous and next pages are displayed, showing the current text in context and the effect of changes you make on the formatting of the next page. With large or multiple monitors, a display of several pages is quite readable. Notes are now displayed in the margin - they show the user and time and are displayed in a different colour for each user.
Viewing multiple pages in context while still able to edit is a real boon.
Calc has also seen some improvement. The old limit of 256 columns has increased fourfold and the collaboration features mean that a spreadsheet can be shared, allowing other users to add data. The spreadsheet owner can then integrate the added data after checking it. There are other additions to Calc, such as custom error bars.
Meanwhile, in Impress you can now insert tables instead of the using the previous fiddly workaround of embedding a spreadsheet object to get a similar effect.
As with previous releases, OpenOffice.org 3.0 supports extensions, and some of the new extensions for this release are very useful indeed. For example, the Presenter Console is an extension that requires OpenOffice.org 3. It displays upcoming slides (or your slide notes) on your laptop's screen while showing the presentation on an external monitor, thereby removing the need for paper notes while presenting. It requires a dual screen display, such as Xinerama, but it's well worth any hassles in setting this up.
The new extensions manager makes working with extensions a doddle.
The PDF import extension does just what it says, allowing you to open, edit and export again a file that is only available as a PDF file. The extensions manager, available from the tools menu, makes installing extensions as simple as selecting a file.
OpenOffice.org startup times are legendary and there is not much change with OpenOffice.org 3. That comes as no surprise as much of the delay comes from loading Java rather than OpenOffice.org itself, especially on the first load. Disabling Java in either version greatly reduces startup time, but it reduces functionality too. With Java off, for a fairer test, OpenOffice.org 3 did start up and somewhat faster than its predecessor - our stopwatch test revealed a 20% improvement.
Once an office suite is running, most tasks are I/O bound, waiting for the user to do something. For example, loading the reference ODT document from katana.oooninja.com was almost twice as fast with OpenOffice.org 3, but that means it took just over a second instead of just under two seconds.
We also tried a spreadsheet with 62,000 rows:
OpenOffice.org 2.4 OpenOffice.org 3.0
Load file (.xls) 6.5s 7s
Save file (.ods) 12s 13s
Overall, does OpenOffice.org 3.0 provide a step forward? Yes, with extra features and some performance improvements at startup, although in use it still feels sluggish and clunky in places. Does it justify the jump in major version number? We're not convinced, but the 2.x series has been around for a while and this release does present a fresh face, and more scope for extensions with the internal changes. On balance, the new OpenOffice.org release is a step forward, and if they can speed it up a bit for 3.1 we'll be more than happy.