LaTeX forum ⇒ Decision GuidanceHighly Configurable LaTeX Editors---A Review

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Highly Configurable LaTeX Editors---A Review

Postby SmithWillSuffice » Sat Jan 12, 2008 8:50 am

Review of Free Software LaTeX Editors


1. Overview
2. The LaTeX Editors
3. A Parting Word on Typesetting versus Word Processing

1. Overview

In the free software category emacs, kile, lyx, and texmaker have to be standout LaTeX/Tex/BibTeX editors for GNU/Linux, Unix and MacOS. For Windows I haven't seen anything better than LEd. Honorable mentions go to TeXMacs. I'll focus on GNU/Linux systems, but Windows and MacOS users can also find some guidance.

For the uninitiated: You never need to feel bound to any particular LaTeX editor (unless you're one of those fanatics who just LIVES within emacs or vi Mr. Green ). If a superior editor arrives on the scene it should be able to read your old LaTeX sources perfectly, and all the toolbars and buttons that run latex and bibtex etc., should just plain work with your old source files. The only thing that should go wrong would be if your old LaTeX source files were written for an old version of LaTeX or TeX, in which case it would not be the editor at fault, but your fault for not maintaining your source files (or, you might argue, the LaTeX developers for not maintaining backwards compatibility!). If that is not the case then beware, for you will be in danger of becoming a slave in bondage to one editor! Mr. Green With that said, I'm reviewing here some of the best free software LaTeX/BibTeX editors, but focusing on LaTeX and TeX (I won't review bibtools for example, but i will put in a plug right now for kbibtex, the KDE bib file editor and bibliography manager Very Happy ). Also, although I give some praise to LyX, I think of all the editors reviewed below LyX is the one that probably might still have trouble reading your old customized latex preambles and classes or packages. So beware! LyX has high bondage risk!!!

2. The LaTeX Editors

Kile is the KDE LaTeX editor. I've found Kile to be great not only for editing raw LaTeX and BibTeX files and running the binaries but also for all the extra goodies, it makes latex editing feedback almost as good as wysiwyg word processing. It is incredibly flexible and powerful. I just add buttons to the toolbar to run my own wrapper scripts to do some really fancy stuff, such as fixing Index and Glossary files. (Glossary files seemed to not admit more than so many characters, so i made a script to automatically add the full glossary text that I needed and proces the tex source files from latex right through to PDF generation with one button click). LEd, the Windows free-LaTeX editor and viewer seems possibly more user-friendly than Kile, but since it's a native Windows application I can't run it under GNU/Linux, sadly (unless I install Wine). I'm not sure about LEd, but Kile has zero bondage, meaning any .tex files and .bib files that work with Kile should just work straight up in any other LaTeX aware environment (modulo dumb things like carriage returns when moving files from DOS to Unix), and believe me, this is a very good thing (zero bondage).

Now, if you are obsessive about wysiwyg then you can virtually have it with Kile, here's how: Simply create a toolbar button for running latex-dvi2ps-ps2pdf (or your favourte PDF generation sequence) and add a button for opening the pdf typeset document in Kpdf (as an external process, not embedded within Kile). Now everytime you run your pdf generator it'll immediately update the Kpddf window, so you'll see near instantaneous wysiwyg feedback. It's not perfect real-time viewing, but it's close enough. (Note Kghostview doesn't reload for instant updates when it's PS source is changed, so you can't stop at the dvi2ps step to make it faster for viewing, it's slightly quicker I think to generate the PDF and view that.) Kile also has a Viewer mode, so you can rapidly switch between a DVI (or PS) view and back to editing mode, which again is almost as good as wysiwyg feedback. Finally, if you don't care about viewing images then the DVI viewer gives really ultra-quick feedback, just run latex, that's all, and it instantly updates your DVI viewer (Kdvi by default of course, which instantly reloads when the dvi file changes). If you must clutter your screen with a wysiwyg view then this is almost as good as LEd and LyX. (Since an editing save is Ctrl-S and running latex is Alt-2 you are literally only ever two keystrokes away from a wysiwyg live update view of your document with Kile.) So Kile is my current favourite, though admittedly if i was a Windows user I'd be using LEd.

Texmaker is harder for me to evaluate since I've only read the overview and played with it for a few minutes. It is GPL licensed like Kile and Emacs. It is very similar to Kile in it's interface and features. Kile has the advantage, I think, of having the use of KParts, e.g., Kile will be network transparent, so you could work on files on remote machines seamlessly. One wonders why Texmaker and Kile both exist, which editor was released first? Well, from the looks of things I guess Texmaker is French in origin and was first released about the same time as Kile, whereas Kile seems to have a more German developer flavour (both projects seem to date from 2003). Both are excellent free software projects, but I favour Kile for extensibility and because of my bias in not having used Texmaker much (maybe texmaker is just as flexible, but I wouldn't bet on that).

Emacs---for fanatics (I was tempted to write "fematics"). I'm still fond of emacs (and vi for that matter) but there are just too many keyboard command controls that one has to memorize to be able to work efficiently on a large project, and Kile is probably better for document and project management overall. Of course if you've committed to memorizing all the vi or emacs key command sequences then these editors may be the best for you, but just admit that you are now a bondaged slave! Laughing Just kidding! Any latex files edited with emacs or vi are of course zero bondage, they can be reused with any other normal LaTeX environment. For emacs you have AUCTeX or teTeX, if you favour emacs then you most likely do not need me to tell you how this works. So I won't say much more about emacs.

LyX---Does it Suck? I've worked with LyX a bit, but was not overwhelmingly impressed, that was 5 years ago, so it could be great now! In fact I had a small play with LyX just a minute ago, and it does look greatly improved. But how can it maintain it's wysiwyg interface integrity when you add arbitrary CTAN packages? I don't think it's possible, unless it runs latex in the background to generate the rendered typesetting? Hence, I believe that LyX suffers from a high degree of bondage and maybe even religiosity amongst it's users. Nevertheless it's a great tool to use if you are starting out from scratch. I probably won't ever know for sure because for me my custom preambles just were not handled at all well by LyX, so it was just too much of a chore to migrate to LyX. I find the speed of latex and bibtex on modern processors is fast enough that it's near enough to wysiwyg anyway! ergo, no need for LyX or KLyX (Klyx is a clone of LyX for KDE, so it should also be pretty sweet to use one would imagine). If I wanted a LaTex editor that shows me the rendered typesetting in real time then I'd be inclined to use LEd instead. For experienced (La)TeX users you just can't beat writing in direct LaTeX source code, and LyX just seems to make it harder to do that, so despite having a pretty interface, for speed a tool like LEd can't be beat.

There is one caveat to all this! If you are totally new to the world of (La)TeX then LyX is the way to go, at least initially. It'll give you 90% of the functionality of any laTeX editor but with wysiwyg feedback built-in. So it'll have the look of conventional word processing while also encouraging you to get used to content and structure in the spirit of TeX/LaTeX. Also, for including pictures in your document LyX is terrific because it gives you instant visual feedback on how the figure will appear, whereas with Texmaker, Kile, emacs, etc., you till have to run latex then view a DVI or PS file before you can see if the images turn out OK or not. While a minor inconvenience for experienced users this is a major hurdle for new users, so I'd encourage green newbies to start with LyX, especially if you are in a hurry. For PhD students I'd say plunge into using Kile or Texmaker, because if you become overly dependent upon LyX you may get burnt down the road when you need to appy some complex tricks that LyX cannot easily handle, also for large documents it is still quicker i think to write mathematics manually rather than the labourious mouse point and click methods that LyX makes habitual. In that sense LyX is too much like OpenOffice or MSWord equation editor's, what LyX really needs IMHO (to kill Kile and Texmaker and so on) is a MODE switch that instantly converts from wysiwg editing mode to raw LaTeX editing mode, this would be especially useful when typsetting a lot of mathematics. Id be mainly using LaTeX edit mode, and switching to wysiwyg mode when doing things like figure/image inserts. Now that'd be cool! I'd even consider ditching Kile for that ability! But wait there a minute...isn't the "virtual" wysiwyg viewing ability of Kile that I outlined above just the same thing as a MODE switch for LyX? Well, not quite, I still must save and run latex to get a view update in Kile. Maybe in the near future Kile will have wysiwyg modes for image insertion rapid feedback as well! Who knows? It's QuickBuild button is almost wysiwyg---at least on a fast machine---but it's not a true wysiwyg mode.

I wouldn't mind betting however that live update views will become featured with Kile if the developers stay active. Heck, Idea I might even write a crude daemon for myself that does the job, say auto-running latex on an open Kile project in the background every few minutes, since Kdvi auto-reloads it requires no extra code to get a wysiwyg view, just something that auto-runs latex, but the catch is that this daemon must check for latex syntax errors, it can only update a valid latex source, so it would have to save the sources for every last successful build (in a temporary directory, but that's really simple to do with say a Perl script). It'd be much nicer and faster if Kile had this sort of thing built-in of course. With a daemon running in the background checking for the most recent valid LaTeX source for a build you could even go for a live PDF viewing mode (the problem with DVI views is that not all image file formats are rendered in the dvi view).

TeXMacs---for (La)TeX with Macsyma. In the "Honourable" category I will mention TeXMacs. I found texmacs a little annoying for pure LaTeX work. It seemed a bit schizophrenic, a little slow, a little bit Jekyl & Hyde, something in between Emacs, Kile and Maxima, or some strange hybrid of the three. But there is one really cool thing about TexMacs that is perhaps the reason it is a bit strange---it runs a sort of WYSIWYG LaTeX editor that has the native ability to embed (in your LaTeX and LIVE!) lots of other high-level scientific programming languages like XMaxima worksheets and it runs the Maxima calculations (that's symbolic algebra and numerics just like Maple and Mathematica for those who don't know!). Hence the name "TeXMacs" (TeX/Macsyma or Maxima) But what's even better is that TeXMacs also hands you an editing interface to Scilab (a Matlab-like tool that's free and opensource, but not freely licensed), plus an editing interface to Gnuplot, plus an editing interface to Octave and Python and other languages What this all means for the user is quite important. Instead of running separate sessions of say your LaTeX editor and X-Maxima or Gnuplot, Dratex, DrGeo, Graphviz, Macaulay, Octave, Python, R, Scheme, or Scilab, you can instead run any of these computational software applications within TeXMacs and have the input and output embedded in your document. This is just so sweet and beautiful for creating quick tutorials and textbook "ShowMe" type example sets for these scientific tools. The ordinary typesetter may not be impressed, but for an educator writing in-house textbooks and tutorial handouts for students this ability with TeXMacs is simply dynamite, a real time saver if used correctly. All these tools are embedded within TeXMacs, but it's also a wysiwyg LaTeX editor in effect. It comes closest to Emacs as a complete editor/calculator/plotter/symbolic-math tool that you are likely to see in the free software community at present, in fact it surpasses emacs in these strictly mathematical and scientific capabilites. One downside to TeXMacs is that it seems to consume a lot of memory, but that's forgiveable given the scientific power it provides---and it might run beautifully on a 64-bit machine, provided all the scientific software it interfaces is also 64-bit---and besides that, when you are done with your live symbolic/numeric computation and graph plotting session in TeXMacs you can just save (or is it an export?) the latex source and then reopen it in your preferred LaTeX-only editor. Sweeeet!

LEd is not a diode! Windows users should probably go with LEd. The great thing about LEd is that it has a panel that shows you the DVI, alongside the raw LaTeX, so it looks as good as some commercial LaTeX systems that also provide wysiwyg views alongside the raw latex. You can also plugin your own features and use LEd as an editor for other languages with Add-on packages. LEd would be my pick of the Windows tools for LaTeX editing.

Texmaker could also be used on Windows---it's cross-platform, so Mac users could also use Texmaker (but would also have other options I'd imagine, like OzTeX with the Alpha programmer's editor in (La)TeX mode). MacOs-X also has TexShop, but that tool looks a little inferior to Texmaker perhaps. It seems like Mac users have the most choices, now that they are basically Unix compatible.

TeXnicCenter---for all your LaTeX needs. TeXnicCenter also looks like a really nice tool. It's got everything you need. Honestly, for Windows users there is an embarrassment of LaTeX riches. Unfortunately that'll keep a lot of scientific wordsmith's away from GNU/Linux. Too bad. Now because I haven't played with TeXnicCenter or LEd a whole lot a cannot honestly tell you which is the better editor. TeXnicCenter claim they don't provide a wysiwyg view because they tell you that you do not need it. That sounds a bit condescending to me, especially if you're a newbie to the TeX/LaTeX world. So TeXnicCenter had better have a damned good LaTeX syntax error checking daemon! Let's face it, the beauty of LaTeX is that is soooo different and superior to conventional wysiwyg word-processing silliness that a lot of nice science and artistic folks who only know MSWord or WordPerfect are a little intimidated when they approach LaTex typesetting. So why not give them a bit of a wyssiwyg view? It doesn't cost much to give them that comfort. Then if they get hot with LaTeX they can just disable the viewer and bring it up only when required for finishing. For these philosophical reasons I'm going to suggest that LEd is my favourite Windows LaTeX editor. But please, please, please, don't be discouraged from trying TeXnicCenter! In fact if there's one thing to take way from this mini-review it is that you should play with all of these lovely free software tools for at least a few hours each. The true freedom here is choice and deliverance from bondage. With TeXnicCenter, and indeed with all pure LaTeX editors you are always only a couple of key-strokes or menu mouse clicks away from a nice typeset DVI or PS of PDF view of your masterpiece. After a little playtime you might just find yourself falling in love with the little gem of a tool that you initially thought was an ugly duckling.

Also, for Windows users I think WinEdt is a fair tool, though it wasn't free software when i last checked it (some years ago). UltraEdit is another shareware editor that's very powerful and laTeX-aware. But why bother with these when LEd or Texmaker can run under Windows? Moreover, if you are intent on spending money to submit yourself into bondage then why not go all the way and marry yourself to ScientificWord. That's a commercial LaTeX IDE that has the dubious advantage of professional support on demand, if you pay the licence fee. I say "dubious" support because while it is comforting and time-saving to solicit help from a professional at the end of a phone or via an email, if you are really in over your head there is not much that a person operating a help desk can do without physically watching you over your sweat-laden shoulders. So in the long run it's probably smarter to grit your teeth, make some coffee or fruit-smoothie, and settle down and read all (well, not literally "all") the free online help that's available. You'll love yourself more for doing it the tough way, and this way you'll eventually learn to solve complex typesetting problems for yourself and you'll be able to educate your children or colleagues. Whatever you do, don't ever think that you're going solo. There's this vast community of LaTeX power-users out here waiting to help you, you just need patience. I digress however---if life just seems too short to do things the hard way by learning LaTeX in-depth then you probably are not reading this!

Hey Windows users! You can also use Emacs and Kile on Windoze! Just run them from Cygwin. You'll have to install the KDE base stuff though. You shouldn't bother of course, just use LEd instead. If you're a complete beginner then try installing CygWin and run LyX from CygWin. Once you get the hang of writing LaTeX and get a decent grasp on the commands that LyX is really using behind the scenes then you should consider migrating to LEd for more power-usage.

3. A Parting Word on Typesetting versus Word Processing

These days I think you can typeset mathematics in MSWord or OpenOffice or KWord using LaTeX. But why bother? What's the advantage? Well, I think it beats the old "Equation Editor" toolets, it was so painful to insert equations with those things. However, really caring scientists will still be using LaTeX for a long time to come because the traditional word processor just doesn't produce as beautiful typesetting. This means general typesetting, not just the mathematical equations!

So by all means make use of the LaTeX equation editors. But the next time your pagination or section headings or headers and footers or figure inserts jump around and scream at you, or your 1000+ page masterpiece breaks down from the memory overload, then turn to the LaTeX guru for help---we can rapidly re-type your entire manuscript into neat and fast LaTeX source.

That's all from me for now. I hope this little review helps some of you young people out there sniffing around for some great scientific word-smithing, word-crunching, free software.
Support Free Software---It's Made for Everyone

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Postby sommerfee » Sat Jan 12, 2008 11:49 am

Hello SmithWillSuffice,

First of all, thank you very much for this fine review! Smile

One very small addition of mine:
Beside Scientific Word there is also another (non-free) WYSIWYG LaTeX system called "Bakoma": ... 32/bakoma/

I actually don't use it, but I took a closer look at it and if I would still typeset large documents with LaTeX under MS-Windows, I would buy it immediately.


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Postby JasonGawker » Thu Apr 03, 2008 4:14 pm

Hi all

LaTeX editors are very important for any programmer, mathematician or aspiring computer scientist in general. There has been a long time debate putting "vi" and "emacs" in different camps. I am of course an emacs fan, but that's irrelevant. I've read this book with full LaTeX documentation, and I found it very very useful for people who want to study and experiment in the subject, therefore enhancing their performance.

:) Best,

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Postby Maksi » Sat Apr 05, 2008 8:55 pm

Thanks for the great review. However, I do not agree with your opinion on LyX. First of all, LyX is not a WYSIWYG-editor. I say that because in the world of TeX calling an applicatication a WYSIWYG-editor is just about the best way to discredit it. LyX is a WYSIWYM-editor.

Funny enough, people like to bash LyX and at the same time they admit to never really have used LyX before or to have used it many years ago. I do not think that there is good or bad software out there, I rather think that I have to do some tasks in real life and that maybe a computer helps me doing these tasks and then I go and look for software. And any tool is always just as good as the person using it.

If one wants to have an editor where you can see and influence the code directly, then many of the above mentioned editors are just right. If one wants to write a paper, say a thesis, and really wants to concentrate on the writing or if one does not want to deal with memorizing commands, caring about spelling mistakes or does not even want to learn too much LaTeX, then LyX is quite a good choice. In some ways it also depends on the subject you are studying. In rather technical subjects LaTeX is very comfortable. But for people from humanities and other “Non-LaTeX-subjects” it is completely unacceptable to make things more complicated than necessary (and for them, learning LaTeX is such an unnecessary complication).

And this is, where LyX comes in. LyX offers you the world and power of LaTeX with the ease of a few mouse-clicks. And whenever there is no mouse-click possible, you can always insert plain LaTeX. Just to give an example: I am using LyX 1.5.4 on OS X Tiger with XeTeX to typeset in Hoefler Text, biblatex to manage complex references, many crossreferences, embedded SVGs and PDFs, booktabs for tables, and an index featuring indexed words, authors and works cited to write my masters thesis in political science. And all of that I do with the ease of a few mouse-clicks. And I am convinced that my thesis looks better than a lot of standard-LaTeX-thesis out there (at least those that I have seen; e.g. many people do not know about booktabs and write papers with the horrible looking default-tables in LaTeX--in LyX it is just the matter of a click).

I started into the world of LaTeX with plain LaTeX and got frustrated very soon. Then I worked with LyX and learned all that I need bit by bit. Because of negative propaganda I began writing plain LaTeX, “as a real man would do”. Then after a while I figured that it is easier to concentrate on your paper when you do not have to look at LaTeX code all the time and began using LyX again. Now, with the knowledge of LaTeX, LyX was even more comfortable than ever, because I had the best of both worlds at my fingertips.

So I think that LyX is not only good for beginners, but it also for people, who do not like the rather crude work with code and a simple text editor. Probably you will find most people with such an approach in subjects that yet hardly ever use LaTeX. But who knows, maybe the development of LyX will change this. Quite a few of my friends are now starting into the world of LyX/LaTeX and are very happy to have found a way to write papers that is even easier than Word or Writer. But I also think that LyX can be useful to LaTeX power users, because many of its developers are LaTeX power users and write an app that they themselves use.
A Humanities user of LaTeX :)

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Postby lianju84 » Sat May 10, 2008 7:11 pm

Thanks a lot for this incredible review.

I'm a graduate student in Chemistry considering switching to (La)Tex.

I started using JabRef in combination with MSWord and an appropriate plugin, which made my life much easier (in organizing my references).
But it really makes a lot of sense to switch to Tex and make use of all the other advantages of this philosophy.
The best part is that the database used in JabRef is simply a BibTex file, so I don't need to waste time in import-export.

I have to say that Lyx really worked for me (I've been using it for a few months now), and I agree with Maksi: it's not necessarily only for beginners, it can really work for people not willing to learn latex but still wanting beautiful typesettings.

The only problem I can see is that I did get used to WYSIWYM, but I'm not really learning any latex coding, so switching to Texmaker or Kile won't be that easy.


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Postby nortexoid » Tue Jul 15, 2008 2:52 pm

This is why I like LEd better than the rest.

1. The navigator panel works whether or not the file is part of a project and whether or not the is the main file of the project. This is one disadvantage of TeXnicCenter. Winshell is even worse since you need to build a table of contents to even use the navigator!

2. Massive customization. Importantly this includes syntax highlighting. You can *highlight* code in environments, etc. This doesn't mean make the font a different color. You actually highlight the font!

3. Excellent default settings, including syntax highlighting. What good is a highly customizable program when you have to spend hours configuring the damn thing? You don't need to here, and the customizability is nice.

4. It works as well as TeXnicCenter. I've used others that are flaky. For example, the PDFView function of Winshell stopped functioning for me after a month.

5. Thesuarus. Not that I use it, but it's there which is nice if you're offline.

6. Built-in DVI viewer. Good if you have a big widescreen monitor. You can output code directly in a DVI viewing panel without having to open or disturb other viewers. I never use it though!

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Postby runbei » Fri Jul 30, 2010 2:29 am

A possibly unwelcome thought. Led sounds just great, and is it really so unfortunate that it's a Windows-only app? I don't think so. I use Linux Mint 9 mostly, and I've happily run the Adobe applications (Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Acrobat) under Linux through Virtualbox.

Virtualbox is marvelous, once you get it up and running stably. You can seamlessly save files to Linux partitions.

Off topic: That said, I would almost be willing to switch distros (to Scientific Linux perhaps) so that I didn't have to live in fear of bugs trickling down from Ubuntu to Mint. In Mint 8, for example, VB stopped working (unresolved). Still, Mint is the best Linux experience I've had by far.
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Postby » Thu Oct 28, 2010 3:44 pm

What you say about kile is wrong.
Kile was created by a french developer (Pascal Brachet). He maintained Kile until the 1.5 version. Then, he created Texmaker (the author of texmaker is simply the creator of Kile!)
The second maintainer of Kile came from Holland (Jeroen Wijnhout).

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