posted by Andy Roberts on Mon 6th Jun 2005 18:19 UTC

LaTeX, Page 4/4"
C'mon, be fair!

Ok, I am obviously biased here. However, I am someone who uses both systems. It's perhaps not really fair to compare Latex and Word, because they are different types of system, which are suited to different jobs. However, for as long as people are using Word within academia and research institutions, I feel I should enlighten them and let them know what they are missing out on.

Sure, Word can be extended using its in-built scripting language. It also has document management features to help with large documents. As already mentioned, it has styles that can ensure manageable and consistent presentation. Yet very few people seem to take advantage of them. This is especially worsened by UI improvements that mean Word will hide features that you do not use, which makes it more difficult to remember what Word can actually do.

Word may have the advantage of a GUI which is good for beginners. It reduces the cognitive load as it's a case of recognition verses recall. If people really want a GUI, then there are ones that act as a front-end to Latex. It's not a WYSIWYG editor, because what you see on screen is not what you will get when you print it out. Instead, you have What-You-See-Is-What-You-Mean editors that still hold to the ideals of Latex by keeping content and style separate. However, they are environments that allow a more visual approach to your content, which is handy for producing complex equations, for example, but will pass your content to Latex for producing the final document. Lyx is the best example and was originally developed by Matthias Ettrich (yep, that's right, the same guy who founded the KDE project). You can also get Latex editors, which are like normal text-editors, in that you see all the raw Latex commands, but they come with additional features that help with creating that file, like table wizards, symbol databases, etc.

The learning curve

The reason why everyone isn't using Latex is because you can't just load up and go, like you can with a word processor. I consider Latex analogous to HTML with CSS. You need to put some markup around your text before your browser knows what to do with it - and the same is true with Latex. Of course, nowadays, any one can knock up a webpage thanks to, er, Word, and various other visual HTML editors and as a result, they generally look crap. So, you need to invest a bit of time in learning some basic commands, but you'll soon realise that it's very simple afterwards. Here's a Latex "Hello World!" as an example:

% hello.tex - Hello world Latex example

\documentclass{article}

\begin{document}

Hello World!

\end{document}

This that generates the following output. It wasn't that difficult, was it? To continue learning the basics, here are the best places to go:

So who is Latex good for?

Quite simply, anyone who is writing non-trivial documents and is tired of being let down by the performance of the current crop of word processors. If you are in academia, you really ought to be using it! Anybody writing anything maths related will not find a richer and better quality system. For example, even WikiPedia use Latex for rendering any formulas that appear on their site.

Latex isn't for people who are too lazy or dislike change! I personally found the investment paid off because Latex allows me to produce my documents at a greater pace. I know that the enterprise will not be interested as Word is so ingrained, even though their business reports would look so much nicer. Their loss! For everyone else, it's time to give it a fair try, just so that you compare and contrast, then decide which does the job best for your needs.