by Dylan Burger, Canada
In September of last year I e-mailed the Mintcast team with a question about dual booting Windows vs. Running in a VM. The crux of my question was a desire to switch to Linux while still using the one software package that is absolutely essential to my daily activities: Microsoft Office. While most of the software that one uses on a daily basis has a native linux app or workable alternative, Office is still noticably absent and, in my opinion, this represents the biggest barrier to switching to Linux. It is near ubiquitous in government, schools, universities, and much of the business world. I myself have consistently used Outlook, Word, Powerpoint, and Excel for more than 20 years (following brief stints with Corel Office and Lotus Smartsuite). So when I decided to switch to Linux my primary focus was on identifying a solution that allowed me to maintain my productivity with a viable office suite. Over the past few months I have tested every solution that I could find to the Linux Office conundrum. Spoiler alert: none are perfect. Until there is a native linux option with true feature parity and 100% compatability we will be left to select the best option for our personal needs. Below is a summary of my experiences and when and where each option would make sense.
Option #1: LibreOffice
This is probably the simplest option available. Virtually every distribution is pre-loaded with LibreOffice and it is well maintained and constantly improving. LibreOffice features a word processor (Writer), spreadsheets (Calc), presentation (Impress), graphics editor (Draw), databases (Base), and formula editing (Math). Notably lacking is an e-mail client equivalent to Outlook so if you want a full replacement for Office then you will need to add an e-mail client such as Thunderbird.
Feature-wise, LibreOffice is fairly strong. Things you would expect in a word processor, such as track changes, spell check and thesaurus, are available in Writer, and there is compatability with citation managers (i.e. Zotero) and other add-ons. Calc and Impress also have the expected functionality. Document recovery is available and works as well as that in the Microsoft package in my experience. Draw offers vector graphics editing. Generally speaking I use GIMP as my image editor, but I do appreciate the ability of Draw to edit PDF files easily. I rarely use databases and have not touched Math so I won’t comment on the remaining offerings. Support-wise, LibreOffice is fairly widely used, so there are a large number of resources available for troubleshooting.
LibreOffice by default saves in the open document format (.odt, .ods etc…), however the suite is capable of opening and saving common office formats (.xls/xlsx, .doc/docx, .ppt/pptx) so using LibreOffice will not prevent you from editing documents originally created in Office. Office compatability is good, particularly for Writer, but not perfect, and this is really the main drawback. If you are working with LibreOffice but interacting with others who are using Microsoft Office you will almost certainly run into compatability issues. A few examples of issues that I have ran into:
• Font switching that can lead to loss of special characters in documents
• Embedded images in files from Powerpoint commonly (more often than not in my experience) appear streched or altered in some way. This generally requires me to re-do the slides.
• Calc has a maximum number of columns of 1024 whereas Excel has a maximum of 16,384. Unfortunately this means that I have spreadsheets that I am unable to open in Calc.
• Citation manager compatability. I typically use Zotero but even with the identical database on both systems I cannot create a document with Zotero-embedded references in Word and edit it in Writer or vice-versa. So collaborative writing with this tool was an issue for me.
• [From Moss:] Quite often, bringing an MS Office document into LibreOffice, editing it, and sending it back to the MS Office user results in major formatting issues, as the entire concept of paragraphs is different between the two. I have often had to convert the complete office to .txt and then reformat it in MS Office.[/Moss]
Acknowledging the above and other compatibility considerations, LibreOffice remains a decent option for many productivity needs. If I was generating my documents myself and did not need to share with colleagues using office it might be sufficient. Likewise if I could convince everyone in my work circle to switch to LibreOffice there would be few issues. Unfortunately that is not the case and when I need to share a document or create a presentation that will be delivered in Powerpoint I cannot rely on LibreOffice to yield a product that is without issues. On top of that, the e-mail clients which are available (external to LibreOffice) also fail to replace Outlook adequately. In particular options which have compatability with exchange servers are limited (i.e. Hiri and thunderbird with add-ins).
The Verdict: If I just needed to produce documents on my own and was using IMAP server for e-mail then this might make sense but as it is, this option falls a little short of my needs. That said, for simple tasks, such as writing this article, I still use LibreOffice. [from Moss: Ditto for sharing files — if everyone you are interacting with is using LibreOffice, you’ll be just fine.]
Option #2: Office Online
There is actually a way to use “Microsoft Office” on Linux without any compatability issues. You simply have to use Office 365. Because it is a web application that runs in your browser it will run on virtually any system without any plug-ins and as Microsoft’s own product, compatibility issues are non-existent. There is also an online version of Outlook which obviates the need for a separate e-mail client. Troubleshooting should be easy as this is a widely used product with fair documentation and support from Microsoft. Nevertheless this is by no means a true replacement for desktop Office. First, it still does not have full feature parity: for example Word online can not edit protected documents or run macros. The major limitation though is the total reliance on internet access- there is no editing offline. That’s a dealbreaker for me because I need to be able to work when I travel. I also find there to be lag when working with Office 365 that reduces my productivity (even in a high powered system with a good connection).
In terms other drawbacks, some users may be put-off by having their files held in the cloud and the notion of having to maintain an annual subscription can also be a barrier for longtime users of desktop office suites.
The Verdict: I’m not personally going to pay for an office suite that I can only access part-time. Individuals who have access to Office 365 through work and/or those who will only be editing when there is access to the internet may still be interested in this option.
Option #3: Google Docs
Cloud-based options are not limited to Office 365. Google Docs also offers the ability to edit .xls/xlsx, .doc/docx, .ppt/pptx and does a fairly good job with respect to the word processor. Gmail is an option as an e-mail client although it does not easily work with exchange servers. Generally speaking there are good online resources for troubleshooting should you run into trouble.
The issue with not being able to use the applications offline comes into play again here. As does any concern that you might have with saving your documents in the cloud. A further issue with Google Docs is that the presentation program is extremely weak and flat-out not an option for anyone used to the functionality of Powerpoint.
The Verdict: Add compatibility issues on top of an online-only restriction? Its a no for me. But individuals who aren’t trying to share across platform, have minimal need to create presentations and will only be working online may turn to this option.
Option #4: Softmaker Office
Softmaker office is a commercially available cross-platform office suite that offers some impressive functionality. It has been around since 1987, predating the Microsoft offering by a full year. The package includes a word processor (Textmaker), spreadsheet editor (PlanMaker) and presentation application (Presentations). Much like LibreOffice, Softmaker’s offering lacks an e-mail client. The Windows version also includes a macro editor (BasicMaker) and a PDF editor (FlexiPDF) is usually thrown in to the package, but that is not included in the Linux version (there is no discount in lieu of this). The office suite is available as an annual subscription (~$30-50 USD/yr depending on setup) or as a one-time purchase (~$80-100 USD/yr). Updates from previous versions, issued every 2-3 years, usually go for half the price of the full license. If you purchase a license it can be used on up to 5 computers in the same household. The manufacturer has fairly decent documentation and support on their web site, however external material is limited compared to LibreOffice, Microsoft Office, or Google Docs. There is a 30-day free trial for those who wish to test before they commit.
The Softmaker Office package features an impressive list of features that are close to on-par with Microsoft Office. The word processor has spell check (in 20 languages), a large library of document templates, and integration with citation managers; Planmaker can work with up to 16,384 columns (the same as excel), and Presentations has a large variety of templates to work from. Softmaker Office works natively in .docx, .pptx, and .xlsx so file conversion is not necessary.
In terms of weaknesses, compatibility remains an issue. In particular I had formatting issues when I tried to open powerpoint files in Presentations and vice-versa. The prospect of paying for the product when a no-cost alternative is available in LibreOffice may also put off some users but others may appreciate the visually appealing and feature reach Softmaker Office. While some macros from MSOffice do not work readily in Planmaker, they are usually easy to convert, but that leaves a task for the person you pass it back to if you’re exchanging files.
The Verdict: To me this offering fits in a very narrow space, it offers a bit better features and compatability than LibreOffice. But given that it still falls shot of feature parity and 100% compatibility I had a hard time justifying a purchase. Cost considerations aside, the use case here is very similar to LibreOffice: if you are just creating documents for your own use and do not need to share with Microsoft Office users then this may be worth considering. At least you can take advantage of the 30 day free trial to be certain. [from Moss: This is my choice, and I’ve been using SoftMaker Office since 2008, 2012 in Linux.]
Option #5: Microsoft Office in Wine
For those who are unfamiliar with Wine: it is a system for running Microsoft Windows applications on Linux. The details on what Wine is and how it works is beyond the scope of this article. If you want further detail then check out the Wine manual or one of the many Youtube videos on the subject.
The promise of using a simple framework to allow Microsoft Office to run within the Linux environment is incredibly appealing. Unfortunately I was never personally able to get Office to work on Wine. I tried with Office 2003, 2013, 2016 and 2019, all to no success. Part of that could be my inexperience, it is possible that with persistance one get this to work. However I have read that Powerpoint and Outlook often have issues even when the other Office programs are able to work through Wine. While there is documentation available across various platforms, it was sufficiently limited that I wasn’t able to get this option to work.
The Verdict: This would be a very appealing option but sadly I couldn’t get it to work. If I could (with full functionality) then might be a preferred option.
Option #6: Dual Booting Windows
Another option is to maintain a copy of Windows alongside your Linux distribution and reboot to Windows as needed to run Office. Of course this isn’t really a true solution since it involves running a full Windows system completely distinct from Linux but it does allow at least allow for the ability to run Linux while maintaining the ability to edit Office documents. Critically, you will not be able to multi-task with Linux applications while running your Windows applications.
The Verdict: I did use this option for several months when I first started but this isn’t really a solution to the problem. You are essentially just sticking with Windows.
Option #8: Remote Desktop
One option that does come with the ability to simultaneously run Microsoft Office and Linux applications is to maintain a separate system running Microsoft Office in Windows (or even Mac) and then use your Linux system to remote desktop (SSH) in to that system. Personally, when I employ this option I use the truly excellent Remmina as my remote desktop client but other clients are probably available. A good tutorial for setting this up on Remmina is available here.
This arrangement offers a number of advantages. First, it does allow you to run Microsoft Office while otherwise using Linux to run your applications. Compatibility is 100% since you are running a true version of Office. Another benefit of this approach is that the additional resources required to run Office come from the host PC rather than the client. This preserves resources for Linux tasks and can make a big difference for low spec systems.
In terms of drawbacks, the need for a second system that is available (and powered on) for remote access will be a barrier to many users. Likewise it will require a Windows license if the user does not already have one. Another drawback is that file transfer between the host and client systems can be an issue. There are ways around this (I, for example, use ProtonDrive to move files) but it is definitely not equivalent to having a native application on Linux. Another issue is that there will be no integration between Linux programs on the client system and Windows programs on the host system. For example, my Zoom client on Linux can not schedule through Outlook on the Windows system.
The Verdict: This is a fairly decent option that I do use on my low spec systems regularly. If it weren’t for option #9 this would be my go-to solution.
Option #9: Virtual Machine
The final option is run your Microsoft Office in a Windows virtual machine. This involves using a software package (in my case VirtualBox) to emulate the functionality of a full computer system within your Linux system. There are a number of ways to do this but I find this guide to be particularly helpful. Don’t forget to install the guest editions package to ensure full screen functionality.
I should note that this is a fairly resource instensive process so you will need a decently specced system. I typically reserve at least 2 cores and 8 GB of RAM for my VM. I have gotten away with 4 GB of RAM but it is a bit slow. Ultimately you want to make sure that while your VM is running there is still enough resources to ensure that Linux runs smoothly.
Once you have your Windows VM set up, boot into your VM and you should be able to install Office the same as if you were on a physical system (right down to the excrutiatingly long wait for download).
As with the remote desktop option, compatability is 100% since it is Office running where and how Microsoft intended. Likewise there will be the same barrier to integration with native Linux applications. This is a good option to run Office alongside Linux applications on a single system. I have had zero compatability issues and, in contrast to remote desktop, there is no risk of losing your connection in the middle of a critical task. Another benefit is that you can share folders between the main system and the virtual machine so accessing files across the two systems if quick and painless.
The Verdict: At the moment I think that this is the best option available for a high spec system. In a dual monitor setup I sometimes even forget that the VM is even running. It feels that close to native. The fact that I have to pay for a Windows license is a little frustrating and there still is room for app integration if a native Linux Office suite does emerge. However this is my choice for the time being.