LibreOffice viewer app for Android

Outdoor Office Helper

Article from Issue 178/2015
Author(s):

The LibreOffice Viewer for Android displays office documents on mobile devices and now even has simple editing features. We investigate whether the smartphone and tablet app is useful as a helper for the main office suite.

At the end of May 2015, the LibreOffice developers released the first stable version of LibreOffice Viewer for Android on Google play [1]. The free app has been released under the Mozilla Public License and was developed in cooperation with Igalia, Collabora, and Smoose, as well as some Google Summer of Code students. If you run Android without Google, you will find an APK at the Document Foundation website [2].

The viewer uses the same engine as the desktop version of LibreOffice. The front end is based on Firefox for Android. According to the release notes, the app displays the free ODT, ODS, and ODP formats, and the Microsoft DOX, DOCX, XLS, XLSX, PPT, and PPTX formats. An experimental editing feature provides tools for bold and italic fonts as well as underline and strikethrough.

LibreOffice Viewer requires at least Android 4.0. The test team installed the app on a tablet (Tolino Tab 8.9 with Android 4.2.2) and on a smartphone (Galaxy Nexus, Android 4.3) and tasked the mobile office assistant with opening Writer, Calc, and Impress files as well as MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents; we also tried to edit them (Table 1) in the viewer. One thing up front: The app did not open password-protected documents as a matter of principle – it even crashed reproducibly.

Table 1

Features at a Glance

File Type

View

Edit

Word Processor

ODT

Yes

Yes

DOC

Yes

No

DOCX

(Yes)

No

Spreadsheet

ODS

No

No

XLS

(Yes)

No

XLSX

Yes

No

Presentation

ODP

Yes

Yes

PPT

Yes

No

PPTX

(Yes)

No

Successful Start?

A file manager that displays the folders on the device, including the hidden directories, appears after launch. The icons are clear-cut on a tablet but too big on a small smartphone display. Via the menus, users can filter the list alphabetically, show only certain file types, or just show the latest or biggest files. If you rotate the device at this point, you can say goodbye to the viewer. Changing the orientation repeatedly caused crashes on both test devices.

After you select a file, the viewer can take some time to open it, depending on the memory capacity of the tablet or smartphone. Documents with images, charts, and several font types are often pixilated until the app finishes rendering them correctly. In the Settings menu, users can switch to Experimental Mode, which displays the editing features at the top.

The developers warn both in the app and in the Release Notes: Use at your own risk – and this is very much justified, as our lab tests revealed. If you try out this mode, you will find small buttons for bold and italic highlighting of words and for underline and strikethrough. An icon with a keyboard displays the keyboard at the bottom if it does not appear automatically.

Pretty Much Presentable

The ODT file and the MS Word document (DOC) looked quite good on both test devices, and the DOCX, which contained several columns and images, was accessible. Although the desktop version of LibreOffice showed a very fragmented view of the document, the viewer did this slightly better. Of course, the display still wasn't perfect, but all the content was readable.

Switching to edit mode worked in some cases but not always. If it did work, it took a while for a tap to reach the document in the viewer. Both test devices finally understood the request, showed the cursor, and unfolded the keyboard at the bottom (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Although the experimental edit mode works in text files and Impress presentations, it slows down the app significantly, making you wait for the keyboard to unfold.

The app does not select words or paragraphs. To format something, you need to tap on a word and then press the corresponding button. Inserting text into a document also takes quite a while, so that function should currently only be used to make short additions. It makes more sense to use a desktop to type longer passages of text.

Attempts to view a simple Calc spreadsheet with a sum formula ended in disappointment, with or without the embedded chart: The viewer refused to comply. An Excel file (.xls) was slightly better; however, the column width was not perfect, and the pie chart was also unimpressive (Figure 2). An attempt to modify an XLS file also failed on both devices.

Figure 2: Although the viewer opened an XLS file, it butchered the pie chart and failed to identify the column width correctly. Surprisingly, it performed better with XLSX files.

The test team did have one positive surprise on opening an XLSX file. The viewer correctly presented the charts, and the column width was correct. To make up for this, the diacritical marks (specifically, the umlaut) were broken. The Parts selection from the menu at the top right or a swipe gesture from the left to the middle displays a bar with the spreadsheets on the left.

The Parts menu entry is also available in presentations and lets you access the slides. The thumbnail on the left did not always survive rotating the device. Sometimes the thumbnails appeared again after several minutes, and sometimes they didn't. ODP files worked quite well in the test, and we were also able to edit them – with a little patience.

The app also displayed Microsoft formats. The viewer presented the PPT file quite convincingly, even if the animations were missing. When navigating through the slides via the sidebar, or after swiping, the viewer returned significantly better performance than with its native file format. The PPTX file took ages to open and annoyed the test team with broken umlauts.

Staff or Paid Help?

The viewer failed to display password-protected files. It would be useful if the app could just give users a hint of this. At best, it returns to the folder view, and in the worst case, it crashes. As with the other crashes in our lab, the only remedy was to forcibly shut down the app in the system settings and clear the cache.

Given the fairly mediocre performance, the question is whether the LibreOffice developers have done themselves a favor in declaring the beta version to be "stable." LibreOffice Viewer for Android certainly has potential but is not currently suitable for production use. If you do want to test the app, be sure to report diligently all the bugs you find via the LibreOffice bug tracker [3].

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