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LaTeX: An introduction
Dec 21, 2002 10:59 AM 6312 Views
(Updated Dec 27, 2002 02:46 PM)

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TeX is a typesetting engine, written by Prof Don Knuth (Stanford) in 1978. It implements a typesetting programming language of some 900 basic operations and has formed the core of dozens of DTP systems. Although it is possible to write in raw TeX, you need to be able to write macros (mini command programs) to perform even the simplest of tasks. LaTeX is a user interface for TeX, designed by Leslie Lamport in 1985 to automate all the common tasks of document preparation. LaTeX is a friendly way of using the TeX text formatting system. Automated chapter and section macros are provided, together with cross referencing and bibliography macros.

LaTeX is not a word processor. It is a document preparation system for high quality typesetting. It is most often used for scientific documents. Both TeX and LaTeX have been constantly updated since their inception. Knuth has now frozen development of the TeX engine so that users have a virtually bug-free, stable platform; typographic programming development continues with the NTS (New Type-setting System).

The LaTeX 3 project has taken over development of LaTeX, and the current version is LaTeX 2e . The LaTeX program converts a text file containing special formatting commands into a DVI (DeVice Independent) file with suffix .dvi which can be previewed or printed out. To use LaTeX, all you have to do is create a normal text file with your text in it, along with a few special formatting commands and give the filename a .tex suffix. The LaTeX program reads in text from a suitably prepared input file, and creates a DVI file which encodes information on the fonts to be used and the positioning of the characters on the printed page. There are many programs available that can translate the DVI file into page description languages such as PostScript, or convert it into the format appropriate for previewing the document on a computer screen.

The advantages of LaTeX are:

  • It's free

  • LaTeX files are ASCII and so it is easy to understand how someone achieved an effect

  • You can use an editor of your choice

  • The typesetting especially the mathematical equations are better

  • LaTeX is extensible. If you want a new feature, you can look around for a free add-on or write one yourself

The disadvantages of LaTeX are:

  • Font selection is difficult compared to selection in Word and Framemaker

  • LaTeX's not good at flowing text around pictures

  • LaTeX insists on structured writing and the separation of style from content. This is not the way that many people (especially non-programmers) are used to working

  • Without a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) front end, it's not always easy to find out how to do things

  • Compiling and checking for errors is a time consuming job

  • Indexing is not a simple process and hence not very effective

If you are not particular about formatting and can go with a set standard, then LaTeX is good. It is also easy to create equations using LaTeX. Hence it is widely used to create scientific papers and documents!

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