About LaTeX

LaTeX is macro package for the type setting system TeX. TeX has been developed between 1977 and 1986 by Donald E. Knuth. In 1984 Leslie Lamport developed LaTeX on top of TeX to ease its usage for normal document authors. Today most people are using LaTeX instead of directly TeX.

No WYSIWYG

Today most document systems like Microsoft Work or OpenOffice are working based on the so called WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) concept. If you are used to this, working with LaTeX will be quite new to you. Instead of typing in a document showing the final layout the document is typed as a simple text file. Special formats like headings of emphasizes are achieved by using LaTeX’s markup commands. If you are used to HTML this may be quite familar to you, with the difference that LaTeX is focused on high quality printable documents like books. To get the final output, the LaTeX source you have creates as a simple text file is compiled by the LaTeX compiler. The result will normally be a DVI, PostScript or PDF file.

Short Example

To get an idea of what we are talking about, lets run through a short example. I will not go into details here, but I want you to get a feeling of LaTeX. At first ensure that you have installed a LaTeX distribution. For Windows MiKTeX is a good choice. Open your favorite text editor – even Notepad will be good enough – and enter the following text (do not mind the colors – they are just to make it a little bit more clear for your):
\documentclass{article}

\title{My first \LaTeX\ document}
\author{You!}

\begin{document}
	\maketitle
	\tableofcontents

	\section{My first Section}
	\label{firstSection}

	This is my first section!

	LaTeX is great in setting formulas like in example $c = \sqrt{a^2 + b^2}$

	\section{My secon Section}

	Even referencing other sections is very easy. See section~\ref{firstSection}.
\end{document}
outputSave the file as ‘demo.tex’. Now open up a windows command line and use the ‘cd’ command to change to the directory where you have stored your file. Enter
pdflatex demo.tex
LaTeX will print some output. When it is finished execute the same command again. Now you will find a file called ‘demo.pdf’ in the same directory. Open it in your favorite PDF-viewer like i.e. Adobe Reader and you will see something similar to the screenshot on the right.

Disadvantages

The drawbacks of this concept seem to be clear:
  1. Complicated workflow (editing a text file, calling the LaTeX compiler, using an additional software like Adobe Reader to view the output)
  2. High learning efforts to get used to the LaTeX markup commands
To tell it in advance: Both drawbacks are not really existing any more when working with TeXnicCenter.

Advantages

So why do you still might to choose LaTeX instead of a modern WYSIWYG tool like OpenOffice? The following sections will provide the answers…

Concentrate on Content not on Layout

When you write a document you should concentrate on its content insted of its layout. This is hard when working in WYSIWYG environment. When inserting a figure there you might move it to different positions until you get the look you like. In LaTeX you simply say “include this graphic” and LaTeX will care about where to place it exactly following typesetting best practice rules. So you can concentrate on what matters: The content. The final look of the document can be changed completely by just using another document class. This is similar to CSS files in the HTML context.

Scalability

Have you ever worked on a Microsoft Word document with a lot of pages and figures. Have you ever surprisely found all your figuers at the end of the document though you placed them somewhere else? This is something you will never encounter when working with LaTeX. Here you will just reference a figure in the text position where it belongs to and LaTeX will care about were the figure will be placed exactly based on typesetting best practices. With LaTeX you can easily create documents with hundreds of pages, figures and formulas and you will not run into any trouble – even on older computers. That’s why LaTeX is used by many students for documents like thesis.

High Quality

The document output generated by LaTeX is of very high quality – higher than what you might expect from Microsoft Word or OpenOffice. Especially when mathematical formulas are involved, the results are impressive. Even today, many – especially scientific – books are written using LaTeX.

Platform Independent

Have you ever put high effort into the final tuning of a Microsoft Word document to get the formatting right just to notice later on that the print out looked completely different? The layout of Microsoft Word and OpenOffice documents is always based on the currently selected printer driver. When tuning a document at home and printing it at the college the result may be quite different. In contrast the output generated by LaTeX is fixed and will look the same no matter whether viewed on Linux, Windows or Mac OS. Today most LaTeX users will use pdfLaTeX instead of the classical LaTeX compiler to directly generate PDF output with all its known advantages.

Performance

When you are a fast typer I am sure that you often hate word when you are again grapping the mouse to change a paragraphs style. For fast typers it is easier to keep the hands on the keyboard. Because in LaTeX different text styles are referenced by markup commands you will be quicker with LaTeX than with other systems.

What about TeXnicCenter

Now you know the pros and cons of LaTeX. If you like its features but fear about its drawbacks we have good news for you: TeXnicCenter will make it easy for you to get started with LaTeX. It provides many menu items and dialogs to quickly insert the necessary markup commands. Its integration with the LaTeX environment and the output viewers allows you to do all your work from within the TeXnicCenter user interface. No need to open up a command line any more ;-)
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