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In the spirit of a free-form Friday on StackOverflow, I'd like to know if I should consider learning ConTeXt. What got me into LaTeX way back in 1994 was having structural markup that made longer documents easier to write. What got me into XeTeX was being able to use my Mac's fonts just like I could in a word processor. What makes ConTeXt users passionate about it or at least willing to forsake LaTeX?

Edit: Thanks for all the answers and great discussion in the comments. The whole page deserves a green check. Success! I am now interested in ConTeXt.

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Context Official manual and Updated Chapters. I'm just going to leave this here, as I know I had trouble finding a good place to start. –  drozzy Mar 6 '13 at 17:15

4 Answers 4

up vote 59 down vote accepted
  1. Not really any extra packages with ConTeXt - there are a few modules, but dealing with package conflicts doesn't really happen here.
  2. Built in XML processor - I use this with TEI and Docbook XML. I gain the typesetting sexyness of a TeX backend, coupled with the validation features of XML is great.
  3. PDF-X compliance pretty much right out of the box - this is one thing LaTeX really lacks if you are doing any kind of serious publishing. there is a package for LaTeX for pdfx for latex, but i've never been able to make it work.
  4. along the same lines as the last one, icc color profile support pretty much out of the box.
  5. simplefonts package - load your system fonts like XeLaTeX
  6. UTF-8 support by default. important if you write a language other than english. you can use utf8 in LaTeX, but you need a package... again, this is the default.

I'm sure i've missed some major things. I'm still pretty new to context after using LaTeX for some years, but so far i'm really enjoying it. Another major, but probably not "documented" feature is that ConTeXt is aimed more at general publishing, while LaTeX seems to be aimed heavily at academia.

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Sounds good. I'm intrigued by by XML processing. I need to look up PDF-X and ICC though. –  Matthew Leingang Nov 5 '10 at 22:06
@morbusg - I think that would be wrong. –  Mica Nov 5 '10 at 23:39
@marczellm I assume you already know what XML is... if not then see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XML. With context you can write a stylesheet where you map XML elements to ConTeXt styles. You then feed both the XML and your stylesheet into the ConTeXt binary, and it typesets your XML in a PDF. Now, most XML projects (DocBook and TEI are two XML applications, the former for documenting computer software and hardware, the latter for structural representations of humanities texts) will use XSLT and Apache FOP to render PDF. I don't find the typesetting by FOP to be of good quality, and XML-FO –  Mica Mar 13 '13 at 0:13
@Mica Do you have good resources on how to get started with the "XML first" workflow? –  Jubobs Jun 26 '14 at 11:07
@Jubobs dl.contextgarden.net/myway/tas/xhtml.pdf is a good way to get started if you have an XML file and want to write a stylesheet to transform it to PDF, which I think is what you're asking for. –  Mica Jun 28 '14 at 3:46

In my opinion, the two biggest strengths of ConTeXt are:

  1. By design, every command is configurable using key-value options
  2. These options are consistent and predictable.

Lets consider an example of changing the style of various parts of a document to bold italic.

  • To make section headings bolditalic:

  • To make page footers bolditalic:

  • To make contents of enumerations (which are similar to LaTeX's theorems) bolditalic:

  • To make the contents of the second levels of itemizations bolditalic:

  • To make the first row and first column of a table bolditalic

    \setupTABLE[row]   [1][style=bolditalic]

Knowing this, can you guess how to change the style of figure and table captions to bolditalic? (Hint: captions are set using \setupcaptions). Now contrast this with the corresponding commands in LaTeX.

Because of this consistency, you do not need to have multiple ConTeXt manuals open when you are tweaking the document style.

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I guess that the more general point that I'd take from this is that ConTeXt is mainly the work of one small team, who've therefore kept things consistent. –  Joseph Wright Nov 6 '10 at 15:31
True and false. The initial development of both LaTeX and ConTeXt were largely a single person effort. And the dev teams of both LaTeX and ConTeXt are small (2-5 active devs in both cases). The difference is because LaTeX was designed to be configurable by writing a .sty file, while ConTeXt was designed to be configurable by the user, a reflection on their purpose and the time when they were created (80s vs 90s). As a result, in LaTeX a number of packages that allow configuration by the user have sprung up, each with its own user interface; in ConTeXt, such packages are not needed. –  Aditya Nov 6 '10 at 15:50
The dev team of the LaTeX kernel is small but you shouldn't forget all the package authors. The LaTeX2e kernel is frozen so all the work that in context is done in the kernel is done in LaTeX through packages and so their are a part of LaTeX. A frozen kernel has advantages: a hello-world-document in LaTeX will always compile. There is no beta which suddenly breaks a simple document. Packages have advantages too: it's much easier to solve a problem if you can remove easily large parts of the code, which leads to more user knowledge and so to more contributors. –  Ulrike Fischer Nov 6 '10 at 17:09
@Ulrike: having lots of separate contributors does not turn them into a team automatically. I think this is actually the point that Aditya was trying to make: if these package writers actually were a team, surely they would have agreed on a common user interface. –  Taco Hoekwater Nov 7 '10 at 7:35
One thing worth noting is that some LaTeX classes, such as memoir, have been designed to provide unify commands and options for page layout and provide a level of consistency similar to your examples. –  Sharpie Nov 8 '10 at 22:05

To add to Mica's list:

  1. The thing that attracted me to Context is support for graphical layout, through grids and layers. Context is good at organising material on a page. I have the impression that Tikz is being used more and more for this kind of thing for Latex documents, but using Tikz in this way leads to slow compile cycles.
  2. Beyond the fact that "packages are included," as Mica says, passing options to environments is done in a very consistent way. I generally find it much easier to remember what values to pass to which keys in environments, than remember which package does what.
  3. Generous functionality is given to environments: look at what can be done with framed boxes, how general and useful they are for setting off visual information.
  4. The possibility of naming setups for environments allows a much cleaner separation of content from typesetting.

The last point, in particular, is something I'd like the Latex 3 team to be thinking about.

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grids is a good call! I haven't had a project that required one, but I'm eager to try it out. –  Mica Nov 5 '10 at 22:42

Not exclusively ConTeXt feature, but definitely best supported in ConTeXt is the programmatic interface to luatex. You can generate all kinds of documents entirely in lua using lua versions of ConTeXt commands. Very cool.

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