Quality and Aesthetics

Simply, LaTeX produced documents just look better. This is a recipe created in Microsoft Word 2011 for Mac OS and this is the same text typeset with LaTeX. Both files were generated using default settings with the only deviation being centering in the Word version. It should be immediately obvious that the LaTeX version is superior. Through much deviation from default settings, it is of course possible to converge the styling of word processors and LaTeX. This is the result; while the differences may not immediately be seen, a detailed description of the typographical issues with the two word processor versions can be found here.

The reason that LaTeX looks more refined and polished is that it is uses iterative typesetting algorithms which determine the optimal layout based on many typographical rules. Word processors are not written to typeset (i.e. determine the optimum position of characters/words) documents on the fly.

Price

Free; multi-platform.

It is difficult to ignore Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages as the two main word processors available. Both cost money, have compatibility issues between platforms and either aren’t available on all platforms or require additional licenses. There are many free open source alternatives (such as LibreOffice), but even these have compatibility issues.

LaTeX is free with a multitude of front-ends to choose from for each platform. If you create a .tex file on Windows at work and go home to your iMac running Mac OS, the file will compile the same regardless. Since LaTeX itself does not get updated very frequently, you are unlikely to run into version errors.

Another consideration is the bibliography manager. For the word processors that are capable of including bibliographies automatically, this software is usually an extra expense (e.g. EndNote for Microsoft Word). The LaTeX implementation of a bibliography manager (called BibTeX) uses any number of free reference managers to store your papers and saves the library as a .bib file which is read by LaTeX.

Editing and Output

A .tex file is just a text document. This means it can be opened and edited in any simple text editor on any version of any operating system. It will not crash or corrupt for seemingly no reason. Many people feel this is liberating and enjoy being in control of their documents. Word processors can seem slow and bloated but few computers will find a text editor a daunting application to run.

The output from LaTeX by default is DVI which is readily (and automatically) converted to PDF. The PDF format is used extensively in academia and is viewable on any platform without formatting differences. Along with PDF, you can output to PostScript, RTF, HTML, PNG, TIFF and others.

Focus on Content

LaTeX separates content and style. What you see in your .tex file is not what you get as the output. While this makes things more confusing for those that haven’t used LaTeX before, it is actually liberating in that the structure of the document is set once and the content falls into place when the document is compiled. The document content is written without any worries about the final look of it, if, for example, a footnote is required it is simply written into a \footnote{} tag and the writing process goes on. This also ensures consistency since all of the formatting is handled separately and en masse. This means if different paragraph indentation is required, this is specified with one line at the beginning of the document and is applied to the entire document.

Time Investment

There is no doubt that LaTeX requires an investment of time in order to learn how it works and how to use it. The key word here, however, is investment. In a word processor time spent trying to achieve a certain formatting task is essentially time wasted. It is unlikely the same problem will arise again. In LaTeX, once you figure out how to create a table or change the line spacing, you now effectively know how to do this and it becomes quite natural given some repetition. Each new task builds on top of previous knowledge to make the process even easier.

Longetivity is another benefit of LaTeX. Documents written 20 years ago in LaTeX are just as usable and customizable as those produced today. Compare this with a document produced using a word processor from 20 years ago, it is likely the software no longer exists and if it does it has undergone so many changes that it may not display the document correctly.

Downsides of LaTeX

For those with little experience beyond point and click interfaces on a computer, LaTeX represents a learning curve that needs to be conquered in order to effectively create documents. This may take differing amounts of time based on previous exposure to programming or command line operations. Time is often a luxury in a professional or academic setting, so it is one of the aims of this website to help ease new LaTeX users into the system by providing ready-made templates which can effectively be filled in by a novice.

Since LaTeX outputs PDF files which are essentially read-only, it can be difficult collaborating with another person on a document. In an academic situation where a PhD student may regularly need documents checked by a supervisor, this will require workarounds. The easiest is to use PDF annotation built into Mac OS, Adobe Acrobat and other software, but this can be slightly more cumbersome than the automatic ‘Track Changes’ implemented in Microsoft Word. Another option is to print the document and make annotations by hand. If a collaborator requests a document as a Word file, this represents further problems since both a PDF and LaTeX code are not easily translated to plain text and formatting will not be retained.

Customizing a document in LaTeX can be a finicky process. The default settings have been optimized for creating beautiful documents but when a change from the default is required, it often takes more effort to determine how to make a change than it does in a word processor. While it is not incredibly difficult, it requires a willingness to learn new commands and search for answers. Templates can help because advanced customization is not required, the layout has already been optimally configured in the template so the user can focus on content instead of worrying how to customize the layout.

In a word processor, when a change is made, it is immediately obvious what has been changed. In LaTeX, every change can only be seen after the document is compiled. This means LaTeX does not provide the immediate feedback that a word processor does, which adds another layer between the user and the document. Some may find this frustrating but it ties in with the point above about the separation of content and style.

OK, this sounds interesting, how do I start using LaTeX?