Contrasting Microsoft Word and LaTeX

Here’s an interesting graph from Marko Pinteric comparing Microsoft Word and Donald Knuth’s LaTeX.

comparing Word and Latex. Image by Marko Pinteric.

According to the graph, LaTeX becomes easier to use relative to Microsoft Word as the task becomes more complex. That matches my experience, though I’d add a few footnotes.

  1. Most people spend most of their time working with documents of complexity to the left of the cross over.
  2. Your first LaTeX document will take much longer to write than your first Word document.
  3. Word is much easier to use if you need to paste in figures.
  4. LaTeX documents look better, especially if they contain mathematics.

See Charles Petzold’s notes about the lengths he went to in order to produce is upcoming book in Word. I imagine someone of less talent and persistence than Petzold could not have pulled it off using Word, though they would have stood a better chance using LaTeX.

Before the 2007 version, Word documents were stored in an opaque binary format. This made it harder to compare two documents. A version control system, for example, could not diff two Word documents the same way it could diff two text files. It also made Word documents difficult to troubleshoot since you had no way to look beneath the WYSIWYG surface.

However, a Word 2007 document is a zip file containing a directory of XML files and embedded resources. You can change the extension of any Office 2007 file to .zip and unzip it, inspect and possibly change the contents, the re-zip it. This opens up many new possibilities.

I’ve written some notes that may be useful for people wanting to try out LaTeX on Windows.

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9 comments on “Contrasting Microsoft Word and LaTeX
  1. Khoa says:

    John,

    For documents categorized as to the left of the intersection, I think one can effectively use Google Docs.

  2. tc says:

    There are a couple of things that a modern GUI-based program does better. Tables and multi-column text come to mind.

  3. Dave Doolin says:

    Two things in particular:

    1. The image is broken! I can’t see the graph!

    2. I know exactly what this graph looks like because I have drawn it for people probably hundreds of times. I don’t recall whether I figured it out myself, or saw a pointer on comp.text.tex or some other place.

    Google Docs is far better than it was two years ago. I hope the next two years shows as much or more improvement.

  4. Martin Barrett says:

    Just to set the record straight, LaTeX is properly ascribed to Leslie Lamport, who designed and wrote it using Donald Knuth’s TeX as the underlying engine. Knuth himself had almost nothing to do with LaTeX.

  5. Johannes says:

    In my experience the 2007 version of Word shifts the graph slightly. The math capabilities are well done and in my opinion far easier to use than LaTeX’ while still being similar enough to type without much thought for most LaTeX users. I was able to type lectures in real-time in Word, something I wasn’t able to do in LaTeX despite quite a number of documents I’ve written with it.

    Generally it’s not a totally fair comparison, though. LaTeX struggles with many figures as does Word, however in the latter when used properly you won’t have missing or misplaced figures ever (a common complaint leveled at Word). Tables are horrible to do in LaTeX, even more so if they span multiple pages. This is something far easier done in a graphical program. This holds similarly for matrices and equation arrays. Also with a well-defined set of styles there are few surprises in both worlds.

    LaTeX on the other hand is able to produce virtually anything due to its gigantic library of packages. Chemical structure diagrams, chess games, musical notation, syntax-highlighted (albeit poorly) source code listings, syntax diagrams and trees, &c. The list is quite long, although most of those things cater for a niche market and are only ever used by a few people. With the ability to insert figures into a document you can solve most of those problems with special software, tailored for the respective domain, too (well, not the source code one).

    For things that appear in plain text, such as math, there should be native facilities but for many other things inventing a markup language in a Turing-complete document description language is quite overkill imho.

  6. I consider the floating aspect of figures to be the single decisive advantage in LaTeX over Word 2007. If the Word 2007 team has not already taken notice, they should review the article by Covington at http://www.ai.uga.edu/mc/FloatFigWord.pdf and try to make that feature easier. Citation management is still something in which TeX/LaTeX has an edge, although that particular gap seems to be closing.

  7. Ben Deaton says:

    I may write a blurb about this for my site, but I was thinking about this post yesterday and realized that LyX has replaced Word for small/simple documents (i.e. letters, printing a “be back at 1pm sign”, etc.) for me. Maybe we should start marketing LyX as a gateway drug for LaTeX among colleagues?

  8. Marko Pinteric says:

    It is said that the picture can say thousand words. This is why I created the figure above in the first place. It is still a simplification and presented comments are of course correct. But most importantly, when I created it at least 7 years ago, the situation was a bit different – both Word and LaTeX advanced since. First you have dozens of LaTeX GUI mediators which makes creating simple LaTeX documents much easier. (I am much more familiar with the old way, so I do not use them.) On the other hand, Word’s stability and style management did improve a bit over years. But the general picture, I believe, is still the same.

    And Dave, for the record, I made the figure from my head and have never published it elsewhere. But other people do copy it, often without reference/back-link, so it might seem to originate elsewhere.

  9. Bill Fahle says:

    I don’t know; it may be because I’m a LaTeX newbie, but I found writing my dissertation (108 pages, plus frontmatter) to be quite easy in Word, and my first 12-page conference paper on similar material using LaTeX to be unnecessarily complex. For one thing, I had 0 syntax errors writing my dissertation. I had one or two situations arise in my entire dissertation which required any level of fiddling. As a CS pro, I assure you it is not out of any technophobia from which I speak.

    While there are WYSIWYG editors for LaTeX, it’s not clear that they will create documents acceptable to the various committees at journals where LaTeX is required in the first place. Tables in LaTeX are a nightmare, to the point that even the wiki recommends creating them in Excel (!). I also found the typesetting to be quite unpredictable in LaTeX, and more sloppy-looking on fine points like kerning and line spacing.

    Finally, what the heck is LaTeX anyway? No two authors of it seem to agree. There are dozens of ways to do even the simplest things. On the other hand, if I write a document in Word, not only is it possible to export it to prior versions, it will most likely be read by future versions. It is telling, however, that whichever method is used to create a document, the preferred method for sharing it is PDF.

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