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Monday, September 22, 2008

LyX: LaTeX made easy

I have to admit, that when it comes down to it, I'm pretty lazy.  I hate having to do work that I don't really need to do, and will take the easy way out.  Unfortunately, that doesn't quite merge with LaTeX (for the uninformed, that's pronounced "Lay-Tech," not like the plastic-y stuff).
One day I stumbled upon a very nice application that merges the lazy approach of a typical word processor with the good-looking output of a LaTeX document: LyX (which is pronounced "licks").  Its a classic example of a program that does one thing and does it great.
Main window (and this blog post!)
That said, it isn't perfect.  Some common actions require some pretty arcane key shortcuts (Command-M puts you into math mode).  Math mode still uses standard LaTeX "\" macros, so new users of LyX should have such a document nearby (I'll post a few at a later time).  The given interface for some of the common symbols is pretty awful, as well.  Just take a peek:
Ugly toolbars
Also, it looks like it uses the GTK+ toolkit, which is pretty renowned for giving pretty poor results across all platforms.  It also rigidly enforces structured document formatting, as the back-end processor will handle everything.  Then again, this last point is one of the appeals of LaTeX.

That said, even with these issues, LyX is a great entry point for technical papers.  I've been using it for all my notes this semester, and it has performed admirably.  It provides a good range of export options, from plain-text to PDF, that make distributing/sharing documents easier.  "Easier," not easy, since collaboration is impossible without everyone using LyX, as its save files are plain-text and very similar to TeX source files.  It also has some pretty awesome-looking output:
LaTeX output

LyX, ultimately, is a great program for math and science documents, but enforces too many restrictions for casual users.

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