Software Review: Using LaTeX on Windows – LyX and Texmaker
January 9, 2009
I spent five years earning a Computer Science degree deftly avoiding formatting anything for LaTeX and was immensely proud of myself for dodging that. I was also immensely proud of myself for getting through five years of a Computer Science degree without horrifically math-intensive graphics courses and promptly landed myself in the end of the gaming industry where horrifically math-intensive graphics grunt work is done. That alone ought to have taught me not to gloat over such things. Now, another six years later, I have a conference proceedings paper to write, one which is required to be formatted via LaTeX using various template pages for the publisher and the conference itself. What follows is my formative experience in the world of LaTeX in a Windows environment.
This being an attempt at a usefully academic blog entry, I shall not disparage the character of LyX with my customary coarse phrasing. My complaints are legitimate enough to stand on their own. The installation itself is bloated and overwrought — LyX installs MikTex as its underlying processor, which, as far as I can tell, scours the internet looking for plugins in order to install half a *nix kernel teetering atop one’s Windows environment. I already have Cygwin, I do not need this. The real issue, however, is trying to use the thing. LyX uses its own wrapper file type which imports sample .tex files just fine but worried me regarding saving them. While the underlying TeX code is available for viewing, the simple inclusion of .sty template files is hidden in a menu of document settings in order to access the otherwise visible but untouchable document preamble. Error messages in compilation are confusing and unhelpful. The unforgivable aggravation it inflicted on me, however, was that I could find no way to cut-and-paste into the document itself. That’s right, no paste. I’m sure the option is available somehow, but if I couldn’t figure it out myself in ten minutes, that sort of fails the software all on its own. I didn’t get halfway through retyping my paper’s abstract while tabbing back and forth to the browser window containing the proposal before closing and uninstalling LyX.
This brings me to Texmaker. Texmaker also works with MikTex or any other LaTeX processing engine, but it seems that in this world nothing is standalone. The one other thing I’ve found bundled to it is GhostScript, which serves as a utility for viewing PostScript versions of your formatted document and can handily open any other PostScript files you may have need of viewing on their way to a printer. Texmaker, as its name implies, handles raw .tex files and nothing else. Included template files go right in the main file, which you can access directly. Errors regarding missing templates are clear and thus easily fixed. A document outline sits in a small window to the left of a simple text-editor interface for easy navigation. Autocompletion hints based on your included template files appear when backslashed commands are begun. Word-like formatting options hover in a toolbar over your editor along with shortcuts for the mathematical and scientific special formatting that encourages LaTeX use in the first place. Output viewing options from PostScript (through Quick Build) to Dvi to PDF to converted HTML are available and obvious. Texmaker may actually get me to grudgingly like working with this system. Considering how little I want to work on the paper requiring me to wrangle LaTeX in the first place, that is high praise indeed.