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Now there are a couple of online LaTeX editors that seems fancy and handy to use, such as ShareLaTeX and writeLaTeX. On the other hand, there are classic local Latex installation packages that are also easy to set up and use, like MiKTeX and TeX Live.

I wonder what are pros and cons of online vs. local LaTeX editors and which I should use. (I am a PhD student and I need to write papers and thesis using LaTeX.)

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Local installations will be more convenient to customize and magnitudes faster (and don't require an internet connection!). Cloud solutions make collaboration more straightforward and reduce the opportunities for errors by taking care of 'installation' for you. It is also more complicated to use custom fonts (with XeTeX/LuaTeX) with online solutions. I would strongly recommend you use a local installation and take advantage of git (and its tags and branches) for project management. An online solution will eventually lag with the length of a thesis. –  Sean Allred Jul 29 at 17:37
We can't answer the 'which I should use' part: the best we can do is give pointers for you yo make a decision on –  Joseph Wright Jul 29 at 17:45
Oh! And you can't use the fantastic arara tool with online compilers as far as I'm aware :) (I highly recommend it; hat tip to @PauloCereda) Honestly, though: for my thesis, Emacs+AUCTeX+Magit+Arara was a killer combination. –  Sean Allred Jul 29 at 17:51
In addition to what @JosephWright mentioned, they both have a commercial side to it. Hence we should avoid explicitly recommending one to the other since that would be a commercial take. I would not be happy if I'm the other site's owner had I seen a comment praising one of them. –  percusse Jul 29 at 17:55
@SeanAllred Thank you for the recommendations. –  WoodBunny Jul 29 at 18:20

5 Answers 5

up vote 31 down vote accepted
  • Privacy: you can't guarantee that no one ever had access to you documents in online services. On the other hand they are greatly increase the collaborative editing of the documents. So, for this you need to choose between this:

       [        +         ]
    private            public

    And which do you value more: than it should be either local install (for private), or online services (for public access and some privacy options). For sharing better to use git, you will easily manage multiple editions of the document, can easily share with others, and rollbacks are awesome there! And you can use local install of GitLab for sharing private documents.

  • Usability: everything you need for online editors - is a modern browser and an Internet. Online services already have preinstalled the most used packages. But ease-of-use lacks customizability: you would definitely have problems with some packages (like, minted or TikZ), fonts, files processing, additional command-line options. So you need to choose between the customizability and easy-of-use:

           [          +          ]
    customizability         ease-of-use

    If you want to have full control on the compilation process - than online services are not for you. You want be able to use xindy or modern biber, or other modern TeX software. Moreover, online services can have old TeX distribution and on local install you can have most up-to-date packages available.

  • Compilation: I've already put some of the pros and conses in the usability section. In local install you can easily change anything: TeX engine, command-line options, BibTeX processing software, additional software, like asymptote or GeoGebra, even Python script for data processing. On the local install you have full support of any software available. That's much helpful for PhD thesis. And online tools useful to edit documents for which you already have all preprocessed data and images.

          [          +          ]
    data processing      available data
  • Extensibility: your local install can be easily extended. If you typeset more than one document at a time, it's much easier in local install to manage shared custom document styles, beamer themes, common images in your %APPDATA% in Windows or .local in Linux (so, this can depend on distro).

        [       +        ]
    multiple          single

    If you typeset just one document: the online services are OK; but for multiple, complex documents it is better to use local install.

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+1 for the point on privacy. –  Sean Allred Jul 29 at 17:54
@SeanAllred yeah, today, privacy concern should definitely be accented first. Most people forget about it. –  m0nhawk Jul 29 at 18:10
+1 for the extensiability as well. I might need to typeset multiple documents. To this end, I think it's better for me to use local install. For term papers or course project reports, which are most likely to be one time things, it's good to use the online editors. –  WoodBunny Jul 29 at 18:26
Nice answer. (Off-topic, but the phrase is 'ease of use'.) –  jon Jul 29 at 18:44
@jfhc I have once tried the externalization feature and it didn't work on ShareLaTeX. So, it was a concrete example, just without a more info. –  m0nhawk Jul 31 at 7:33

Pros of online editors (I'll refer to WriteLaTeX as I don't know ShareLaTeX):

  • They usually come with all important packages preinstalled.
  • You can still import style/class packages into your projects.
  • You don't have to install software so you can use them without admin rights.

Cons of online editors:

  • You can't use them without an internet connection (you could however keep local copies, work on the files and update them as soon as you've reestablished a connection)
  • AFAIK, you can't install packages which involve extra programs/scripts.
  • Custom fonts might also be a hassle (haven't tried it out yet, though).

As I like to keep it simple, I usually work with TeXstudio + TeX Live when I'm at home and use WriteLaTeX only when I need to write something and get it finished while at university.

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They actually come with fully installed TeX distribution which is both a pro and a con since I think they use a frozen distro hence it doesn't get updated that often. –  percusse Jul 29 at 17:53

A pro of the online services is if you teach a class where students use LaTeX then you don't have to wrestle their install troubles. Last semester I (an English-only speaker I'm sorry to say) fought mightily with a student's computer. He is from China and I never did figure out what the install errors in chinese could possibly have meant, and the communications between my student and I on the subject were not fruitful. I pointed him to an online service and problem solved.

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There are some good answers here which cover a lot of good points comparing the two. From my personal experience, I would strongly recommend an online editor like WriteLaTeX or ShareLaTeX for beginners to learn with. LaTeX has quite a steep learning curve at the beginning, and compilation is not always as simple as you might expect (it might be necessary to run LaTeX twice to compile a document, or run LaTeX, then bibtex, then LaTeX again....). The online compilers handle all that for you, so you can focus on learning LaTeX itself. Things like live previews showing when you've made errors are also really useful when you're starting out.

A recommended reason for using a local install is that it gives you more control and customisability. This is something that's likely to come later — not when you're just starting out. (And that said, the online editors tend to have most of the packages you are likely to use installed anyway).

When you are past that beginner's hump and starting to itch for more customisability, it's useful and important to learn how to set it up on your own machine and get everything working that way, too.

In the long run, unless there is a reason you can't use the online editors (maybe you need some package they don't support), I think it comes down to your individual circumstances:

  • Do you need to be able to access and edit your documents from different computers, including maybe a public library computer? Then use the online editor.

  • Do you always have your laptop with you, but not always have internet access? Better to install your own copy.

  • Are your documents extremely high security? Best not to put them on the online editor's servers.

  • Are the online editors sufficient for your needs, and are you collaborating with others? The online editors have great capabilities for google docs-style real-time collaboration.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what you find suits your needs best — if you're not in a huge rush, why not try an online editor for a couple of documents, then try a local install for a couple of documents, and see how you find them?

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Dont have LaTeX distribution installed with you right now? Wanna do your assignment? Online LaTeX Editors are of great help. They have almost the latest packages and compatibility and easy compilation unlike individual local TeX installation.

You have a slow internet connection, then individual local TeX installation is a better choice ;)

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