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Monday, August 24, 2009

Software Review: LyX

This summer I learned to use a piece of document composition software called LyX. I think it is quite an interesting and useful piece of software, so I thought it would be worth giving a brief review about it. More information (as well as the software itself, free to download) is available on the Lyx website, so, aside from a brief description of the software, I will concentrate my commentary on my impression of the program.

LyX is, essentially, a more user-friendly layer thrown on top of the typesetting program TeX and the widely used language based on it, LaTeX. If you have never heard of LaTeX before, it is worth looking at its Wikipedia article. LaTeX is, basically, a language which allows one to produce professional looking documents with automated consistency for a wide range of typesetting requirements including citations, section numbering, and formulae.

While LaTeX documents being developed often end up looking similar to html documents or even a program under development (with brackets and labels, such as \title{}), LyX partially compiles a document as it is prepared so that items like section titles and mathematical formulae are displayed with their desired appearance. The final document layout, however, remains unfixed until the document is finished and exported. LyX also provides a set of drop-down menus and toolbars such that you don't have to learn an entire typesetting language. Rather, you simply need to find the necessary option in the correct menu (which, granted, can be frustrating at well, but I think it is quite a bit easier for a first time user than trying to figure out the correct programming syntax). Although menu and toolbar selection is slower than keyboard shortcuts and typed commands for experienced users, LyX does also accept a wide range of keyboard shortcuts and TeX commands to be written in directly.

For an experienced LaTeX user, therefore, LyX does not offer a lot of functional advantages (other than perhaps making the development process a little more aesthetically pleasing and reducing the burden of keeping track of your brackets - much like the difference between composing a blog post using Blogger directly in html versus the 'Compose' option). For someone who needs to quickly learn how to do complicated typesetting (such as a thesis or report), however, but has never learned how to use LaTeX, LyX can be quite valuable. It provides a program with nearly the same power as LaTeX, but with a much shallower learning curve. There is a very worthwhile tutorial bundled with the LyX installation (and I highly recommend a first-time user go through at least the first part of the tutorial - using LyX is, in several important respects, a great deal different than traditional word processing programs like Microsoft Word and Open Office, and the tutorial helps get those concepts across fairly quickly), as well as more extensive help documentation. Even for tasks which are relatively straightforward in a standard word processor, it might be worthwhile experimenting with LyX to accomplish them. LyX can be easily combined with a bibliographical TeX program like BibTeX to create a database of references which can then be automatically compiled into individual reference sets for multiple reports, drastically reducing one of the main sources of frustration in laboratory reports and even essays in the humanities and social sciences.

Rather than continue rambling on about LyX, I will again reiterate that it has quite a straightforward website and accompanying set of documentation. In final summary: if you are in need of a powerful typesetting tool but have not had a chance to learn how to use a typesetting language like LaTeX, or if you know how to use LaTeX but find it generally unpleasant to use due to its tendency to feel more like programming than linguistic composition, you might be interesting in using LyX.


Macrosoft said...

Good information about software review.

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