Introduction to LaTeX

Posted on: Thu, 04/26/2007 - 13:49 By: dae

In this section, I will describe LaTeX especially what is LaTeX, what it can do, its strength and weakness. I will not bother give the introduction on using LaTeX, since there are many good introduction already available. Check "Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2e". for a good starting place in using LaTeX.

LaTeX is a document preparation system. It is used to produce a document just like what exactly MS Word does, only nicer, simpler and more exquisite.

What it is unlike Word is that it does not have GUI, though several front ends exist. LaTeX takes a source file as input and produce a document as an output. The input file is described in a LaTeX language, a kind of markup language just like HTML, XML, SGML, and lots more. The output of LaTeX is a special type of file called DVI (DeVice Independent). DVI is then used to produce other specific format such as Post Script, PDF, SVG or even PNG.

Creating a document using LaTeX is like writing a program. One starts by writing a document by writing a source file and then use LaTeX to "compile" the source file into an output, which is a document. LaTeX is like an HTML with a style sheet, there is strong emphasize on the distinction between content and representation. LaTeX allows author to concentrate on the content while the actual representation can be modified later. For example, one could write an entire book using one style and use other style to convert the first few pages of the book into three-fold brochure, or render only the section header into a handout slide for presentation, or modified the document into two column format, etc.

In fact, LaTeX does not resembles writing a program, it is indeed writing a program. LaTeX is a full featured programming language where user author is actually writing a program to "control" the way to display a document. Being a programming language, LaTeX allows a user to create a variable, assign a value, compare, comment, loop, etc. A good LaTeX author can produce a wide range of documents using only a minimal effort.

LaTeX is another way to produce a document. Is it a better way than MS Word, or other WYSIWYG software is only a matter of taste. In general, there is nothing that Word can do but LaTeX cannot, and vise versa. One can choose to use Word instead of LaTeX and still gain the equivalent output. There are some exception, though. Writing mathematic equation is something LaTeX always a better choice. Word cannot typeset mathematic effectively. What you get from Word is a clumsy GUI that produce ugly looking mathematics. LaTeX gains much popularity in the academic circle, given its programming nature. It is also easier to generate LaTeX document from other program, a perfect tools for writing a report or scientific paper.

The only bad thing about LaTeX is that its it not well-documented. Though basic usage is usually easy to understand, it is hard, if not possible, to obtain a complete reference that covers every aspect in LaTeX. This makes it harder for someone to gain the best out of LaTeX.

Normally, I would recommend LaTeX to every person who has programming background. LaTeX fits more into their style than Word and, in most of the cases, using LaTeX give more productivities.

In the upcoming section, I will describe the installation of LaTeX with Thai support on Windows XP.