Blog Post

LaTeX and OSX

The vast majority of us use word-processors to fulfill all of our document-preparation needs. It has become the standard in writing our letters, resumes, novels, reports and theses, and most of us have not seen the need to explore alternatives. Indeed, many of us are not even aware that there are alternatives (other than the typewriter!) to the word-processor.

Enter LaTeX: not a word-processor, but a typesetting system designed to produce beautiful, professional documents that are superior to word-processor documents in many ways. (Technically, a program called TeX is actually the typesetting system; LaTeX is a macro package that makes TeX a bit easier to use. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using these terms rather interchangeably.) Many of you have probably not heard of it, but it isn’t a new piece of software — it has been around since 1984, but has thus far been relegated to mostly mathematicians and other academics making use of its powerful ability to typeset complex formulas.

In this article I’d like to provide a brief introduction to what LaTeX is, its advantages over word-processors, and how to get started using LaTeX on OSX.

But what the heck is LaTeX, and how is it different from word-processors? LaTeX software essentially takes a raw text-file and compiles it into a typeset document. The text-file is comprised of the content of the document structured by a markup language that specifies information about the document: what kind of document it is (e.g., article, book), what is a header, footer, title, bibliography citation, what text is italicized, bolded, etc. (If you are familiar with HTML you’ll note that a LaTeX file looks much like an HTML file.) LaTeX takes all of this information and spits out a lovely, elegant document (as, e.g., a pdf file), structured exactly as you specify.

The philosophy of LaTeX is essentially the following: the system itself handles the presentation of the document (the look of the fonts, margins, section headers, etc.) , allowing the writer to concentrate on the content and structure of the document. The writer does what she does best — writes — and LaTeX handles the rest.

So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of using LaTeX over word-processors? Let’s briefly list its pros and cons:


  • The primary advantage of LaTeX is that it allows the writer to concentrate on the content of his document, rather than messing with fonts, title pages, bibliography pages, headers and other nonsense that detracts from her writing. Word-processors, with all of their bells and whistles, still make us do all of the work. While some word-processors can automate some of these tasks (e.g., the creation of tables of contents), these features aren’t oft-used by the ordinary user, and are not as deeply integrated into the software as they are in LaTeX.
  • LaTeX files, unlike word-processor files are truly portable. You don’t need expensive word-processing programs to view a LaTeX-produced document, and you don’t need to worry about backwards-compatibility for older versions your software. Raw LaTeX documents are simple text files: any computer can read and edit a text file, and they are much smaller than .rtf or .doc files (Although, with gigabytes of hard drive space, this may be less of a concern nowadays). Compiled LaTeX documents are pdf files (or dvi files, depending on how you compile your document), which, of course, any free pdf-viewer can open. The additional advantage of pdf files is that any viewer will see the document exactly as you intended it to look — its appearance is not vulnerable to the whim of a viewer’s particular word-processing program.
  • Finally, LaTeX produces beautiful, professional-looking documents — much nicer than the average user will create on a word-processor. (Note: You may want to check out this article for an even more impassioned rant on the virtues of LaTeX vs. the evils of Word Processors. Many of these points are distilled from this article.)


  • Despite it’s advantages, I don’t think that LaTeX will be appealing to many (if not most) users. Why? There is a learning curve. While the average user can probably open up a word-processor they’ve never used before and manage to produce a basic document in very little time, the same user will need to sit down for a good hour or so to learn the basics of LaTeX. You basically have to learn a markup language — much like HTML — in order to create LaTeX documents. This is either much too intimidating, or simply too much of a bother to be appealing to most people. And, even when a user dedicates the couple of hours to get the basics of LaTeX down, he can easily get frustrated trying to do what is quite simple to do in a word-processor (e.g., it took me several hours of tearing my hair out to figure out how insert a bit of vertical space into a document — which I could have done in a few seconds with the ENTER key in Word).
  • It’s not appropriate for some types of documents. While LaTeX is ideal for reports, books, letters and articles, it is a bit too robust of a program to want to, for example, make up a simple note or grocery list (although I would argue that a simple text-editor — rather than a word-processor — would be better for such a task). And documents with a complicated layout (e.g., a magazine), probably would be better suited to programs made specifically for that purpose.

So, should I use LaTeX? There will be many die-hard LaTeX fans answer with an emphatic “Yes!”, and others who will just as vehemently eschew all things LaTeX. I think, ultimately, that it is much a matter of preference. If you are an academic or other serious writer, I wholeheartedly suggest at least giving LaTeX a try (LaTeX simply has so many advantages when creating long, complex, or reference-laden documents). For the rest of us average joes, who only need to create the occasional letter, resume, or report, I say check it out if it intrigues you (otherwise, it probably won’t be worth the bother).

How does one get started using LaTeX? As far as software goes, you only need to two things to produce LaTeX documents:

  1. The LaTeX typesetting software itself, and
  2. A text-editor

Instead of a text-editor, you may opt to get a complete LaTeX front-end: a piece of software that includes an editor specifically designed for LaTeX (including many LaTeX templates and commands, as well as compiling options, available from a convenient menu). Such a front-end can make LaTeX much easier to use for a newbie.

Below I’ve listed some software to get you started. There is a lot of software out there, so I’m only listing applications that I myself have used and have had success with. All applications listed below are free unless otherwise noted.

LaTeX and LaTeX-Related Applications

i-Installer i-Installer:This doesn’t actually include the software itself, but provides a way to easily download the TeX and LaTeX typesetting system. (Alternatively, if you use Fink, downloading the tetex package is even easier.)
Vim Vim: A great open-source editor that, nonetheless, take a bit of time to learn. I suggest it because, along with the Vim LaTeX Suite package, it becomes a powerful LaTeX-making machine.
TextMate Textmate: A lovely Mac-only text-editor that also comes with powerful LaTeX tools. Highly recommended, but a bit pricey.
TexShop TexShop: A simple LaTeX front-end complete with editor, previewer, and more.
iTeXMac iTexMac: Another LaTeX front-end, similar to TeXShop, but more feature-rich. I used to use this pretty much exclusively, but it’s newest version is a bit too complicated for my tastes.
BibDesk BibDesk: A graphical bibliography manager for LaTeX. A must if you use a lot of external references in your documents.
Excalibur Excalibur: LaTeX spell-checker


I recently discovered MacTeX, which is an all-inclusive package that installs pretty much all of the software you’ll need to get started, including TeX, LaTeX, TexShop, Excalibur and BibDesk. If you’re just starting out with LaTeX, this would be a great choice.

Further Resources:

This article has only scratched the surface of LaTeX and LaTeX in OSX, but I hope it has piqued your curiosity enough to check it out further on your own. Happy TeXing!

24 Responses to “LaTeX and OSX”

  1. I could answer a lot of these questions, but better yet, we have a wiki!
    The wiki goes beyond the mactex distribution, and is in fact run independently (by me).

    As for the “focusing on content” thing… provided style files exist, you don’t see format so much as structure in the document. True, you may not like seeing the command section, however, it has much more useful meaning to it than bold, slightly larger, and preceded by a number.

    A quality editor precludes many syntax errors by providing keystrokes that match braces, etc. Further, for the faint of heart, a “GUI interface to LaTeX” is available through LyX, which provides a more visual experience while retaining the power LaTeX provides.

  2. James mortison

    The thing about LateX letting you focus on the content — I just don’t understand that. Because it’s far more distracting to have to type out the markup for bold or section heading than clicking one button in a word processor to apply that style. You spend more time typing and later debugging your LateX markup whereas in a word processor what you see is what you get… right?

  3. novice

    Dear Blogger:

    I recently downloaded your MacTex. While trying to typeset in TexShop, the program said that I was missing teTex or that I had the wrong path. As I would like to download MacTex – 2007, how do I uninstall the version from your page?

    Thank you. I think you’re doing a great job.



  4. I also recently wrote a similar article, inspired by a really poorly written article that made it to the front page of You can read the article on my website.

    I also think that this was a fairly well written summary of the pros and cons of LaTeX. I do have one more suggestion for a very helpful LaTeX related tool. For those who use bibtex to handle their bibliographies, you should check out jabref. It is a bibtex organizer written in java. It has a very intuitive UI, and can import and export all sorts of bibliographic formats like Endnote, RIS, ISI etc. very easily.

  5. For those interested in using the advanced features (ligatures, correct kerning tables, hyphenation, alternate glyphs, full Unicode support) of Mac OS fonts, XeTeX is a must. The possibility offered by XeTeX to create documents using OpenType technology is another—often understated—advantage of the LaTeX/Mac OS combination. Structured content and typographic accuracy is definitely what sets LaTeX apart from most word processors. A short article I wrote on this topic (with downloadable sources and a comparison with font rendering in MS Word) may be of interest to some of your readers:

    The Beauty of LaTeX

  6. james dear

    The main problem with LaTeX (and I’ve been using it for over 7 years now), is … the so-called “(professional) publishers”. Rarely can I submit for a journal or other publication files in TEX.

    And why do all these journals have their own typesetting preferences? It would indeed be easier if academics could focus on the content – and let LaTeX take care of the form. But more often than not, I spend days tweaking LaTeX or making Stylesheets to fit the requests of a publisher who thinks that his stylesheet is the best. If they would show a more professional attitude, they could provide free .sty files to make LaTeX work effortlessly with their own stylesheet requirements. But more often than not, they don’t provide any templates.

    So far, I have collected stylesheet with 8 different way to do headings and subheadings. That’s really truly unprofessional. We have a tool that allows excellent type-setting, but it seems that publishers are not too keen to make us use it.

  7. Teekay,

    You have a really good point here – but your argument is sligthly sollipsistic. I mean to say that the fact that M$ Word is the de facto business standard document format is the reason why most people would resort to it for data exchange. Otherwise, people would use a more stable data format. Such is life :-). But your point is good: what’s my editor going to do with my lovely, hyper-linked, indexed and printer-ready pdf manuscript?

    Of course, Real Men ™ would use cvs, or some other versioning system. For a programmer, nothing is easier than checking in a TeX source file into cvs. But writers need to write, not go for an IT degree, so this makes the accessibility of the system very hard indeed. (LyX 4.x incorporates change tracking, and it’s very nice, but that ties you to the .lyx document format, which is hardly an improvement).

    I expect the current trend in web-based applications to eventually incorporate concurrent version tracking. You only need to put two and two together to realise that solutions like Writely ( can really benefit from such an arrangement. So here’s looking to the future.

    Btw, there is a rather less known web-based office suite called gOffice ( which is based on a TeX engine (the rather recent XeTeX variety, if I am not mistaken). Unfortunately, it has recently ceased to be free, for reasons which are beyond my comprehension, so I’m not even sure one can test-drive it for a while to see how it handles.

  8. Lordmike

    Kamen: ahh ok, I will try to learn how LaTeX works, so I don’t have to use MS Word all the time for simple txt documents.
    I sometimes want different layouts then just plain text from first page to last and this sounds like it could help me.
    Never got around to learn teTeX because it was too hard and all I used was vim and pico when I used linux and ms word to format the text in windows.
    Thanks for the info!

  9. I’m a big fan of LaTeX (via iTeXMac) but there’s one thing that’s a show-stopper for me: as a professional editor and writer, I exchange documents with colleagues all the time for revisions (both at their and my end). Using PDF is simply a drag: sure, you can mark up a PDF file either in Preview or in the full Acrobat version, but when I get those comments back I still need to work them into the text myself. With Word, you simply turn on track changes and there you go. (Of course, Word has a propensity to screw up track changes very badly. But it works in about 70 percent of cases.) So, yeah, for collaborative work LaTeX is not going to work unless your colleagues all use it too.

  10. Lordmike: LaTeX is actually a collection of macros running on Donald Knuth’s TeX. While TeX is the underlying language there, it is rarely used in the raw (“plain TeX”, as it’s called).

    teTeX is simply one of the main current distributions of TeX – it includes LaTeX, of course, and MacTeX is based on it. So there’s no particular difference there.

    Eric MacKnight:

    “Superiority” is a complex term, especially in a public discussion. ;-) I am also not profficient in pages, but I do understand it is template- (and, therefore, somewhat structure-) based.

    The “superiority” – let’s call it adequacy – of LaTex for large projects is centred mainly in its handling of structured data – it doesn’t matter how many hundreds of sections, subsections, footnotes, margin notes, paragraphs and headings you have, you can affect the appearance of all with minimal effort. This includes automatic page-, section- and note-numbering, as well as automatic generation of indexes and tables of content.

    The algorithmic handling of typesetting is probably one of the best currently available ones – I believe only Quark Express comes close. You never need to worry about hyphenation, line-separation, orphaned or widowed paragraphs, etc. Not to speak of its brilliant handling of a wide variety of bibliography styles via BibTeX.

    Conclusion – I wouldn’t trust my Ph.D. thesis to Pages. Or my Great European Novel. Not even my articles.

    On the other hand, if I were to write a quick note, an in-company memo, or a brief list, LaTeX would be overkill – Pages, or Your Preferred Word Processor, are better at that.

    So, it really depends on what, when, for whom, and how often you write. As it is with most tools.

    If I were new to LaTeX, I would give it a try. I would consider the pros and cons of LaTeX and my existing word-processing software. And I would take my decision.

  11. I would say if you want to make a short document, say within 15 pages, use word/pages. For larger documents I would definitely go for Latex. I have written my thesis in Latex and helped in writing lecture notes (200 pages), when i think of having to do these kind of things in word makes me unhappy.

  12. I prefer Pages. It too has a bit of a learning curve but it allows me to have great control over the look of my documents. I also find it easier to use than InDesign or Quark. I often use Pages to fix styles of documents I receive from my coworkers that have been badly butchered in MS Word.

    While LaTex has an advantage of being a simple text format, it is just too weird for my tastes.

    Thanks for the article however. A very well done piece. I think it will get some people to give LaTex a try.

  13. Jeff S.

    For the last 6 quarters I have been switching back and forth between Mellel/Sente and LaTeX/BibDesk (writing papers in APA format), often writing the same paper in both just to compare.

    My programming background makes me like LaTeX, and its output looks really sharp. But I never really felt like it let me “focus on the content” as everyone says it does. My short papers (less than 10 pages) always looked crowded with all of the LaTeX syntax (citations, enumerated lists, etc). When I write in Mellel the document looks clean and distraction free. I set the pararaph style I want and then just get to work.

    I wish that I preferred LaTeX, but Mellel is too excellent for my needs.


  14. Ah, LaTeX… It’s more than a typesetting system. Like Emacs, it’s a drug. Once you try it, there’s no going back. Sometimes I wish I could feel happy and satisfied with a run of the mill rtf document.

    But no, after LaTeX, no output looks satisfying. Thus marvellous Mac apps, like OmniOutliner, DevonThink, or VoodooPad, seem below par, bereft of a means to export to LaTeX.

    Luckily, TextMate’s MultiMarkdown bundle does a great job of exporting from Markdown to good quality LaTeX – so my quick notes, lists, and memos can be exported straight into average rtf or pdf, whereas longer, more complex and ambitious documents can get the LaTeX treatment they deserve.

    A dvi/pdf viewer I particulary like is TeXniScope – it’s also very good at following source specials, etc.

    Another essential tool is what we can consider the best possible LaTeX environment – Emacs with the AUCTeX, BibTeX and RefTeX modes… But, as you mentioned in the case of Vim, asking a Word/Nisus/Pages/OpenOffice/TextEdit user to learn a) LaTeX, and it’s almost infinite depth and complexity, b) Emacs, and its almost infinite depth and complexity, and 3) AUCTeX, BibTeX and RefTeX and their almost infinite quirks and issues is more likely to cause them a brain tumor rather than increased productivity…

    A possible option is LyX – a GUI front-end which attempts to avoid this complexity by hiding away the TeX source. LyX is brilliant, but, IMHO, not quite successfull – it has its own quirks, so, instead of avoiding the complexity and learnign curve of LaTeX, it adds it’s own…

    Indeed, the steep and lenghty learning curve and the relative complexity are likely to keep LaTeX away from public focus… But remember, once you try it, there’s no going back. Honest.

  15. Just to play the devil’s advocate – professional typesetters and designers these days use WYSIWIG software, such as Quark XPress or InDesign (or even Illustrator) for typesetting and Adobe PDF as an exchange file format…

    I totally agree what a biaché Word is when trying to get your document to look just right, but then that’s what the other design packages are for.

    Word is essentially a word processing application, that attempts to tackle the issue of page layout, whereas the Quark and InDesign are proper page layout applications that allow you to perform text processing.

    I’ve used Quark for so long that even if I’m working on a simple one-page letter, I find it easier (and a whole heap less frustrating!) to do it in Quark than I do in Word =)

  16. I use great program called LaTeXit. It designed to create equations that you can export as PDFs or image files and import them into presentations or documents. It is the best equation editor i have ever used.

  17. I have been using LaTeX for quite a while now, with the latest job being my master’s thesis. It works great for focusing on getting content down instead of fiddling with fonts, space adjustments, lists, references, etc.

    One little note in reference to LaTeX: The first version of LaTeX was published untested by the author. He hadn’t tested it live at all. He knew that it would work though … he had mathematically proved it ;-)

  18. I was forced to use LaTeX in 11th grade at a summer camp to write a biology paper. At the time, being new to both Linux and LaTeX, and thinking that LaTeX was overkill for biology, I hated it, because the learning curve was so frustrating.

    Now, three years later, I am ready to completely ditch Word. I am sick of watching it bounce in the dock 10 or 11 times before it opens, and I am sick of its slow performance across the board. I have started using LaTeX again to write documents, and it has been such a joy. The finished product looks extremely professional, and it is much easier to concentrate on the content rather than worrying about why Word wants to split your table across two pages!! I urge anyone reading this to give LaTeX a try.

  19. I’m a recent convert to LaTex myself (mainly through the magic of TextMate. Love that program), and let me just say: i never want to go back to word processors. If you have anything at all to do with academia, and can get past the learning curve, there really is no other game in town.

    HTML is a great analogy: Think of something like Word as a WYSIWYG editor: sure its easy to use (for the most part) but the end result is invariably ugly, and looks the same as everyone else; there’s no character, no personality. LaTeX is like coding your own HTML: you have infinitely more control and the results can verge on the artistic.

    i not only write my own academic papers, but I also do technical support for a campus full of faculty who i know could really benefit from something like LaTeX. I’m am going to do my best to convert a few along the way. If you deal with any type of long-form document, deal with multiple references, make use of indexes, TOCs, etc, LaTeX is a breath of fresh air