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I've been using LaTeX and BibTeX since 1985. Over the past year or so I've noticed that a lot of the examples I'm finding online are using biblatex, a nearly complete reimplementation of BibTeX in LaTeX, and biber, another nearly complete reimplementation of BibTeX. I know that biblatex can be used with either bibtex or with biber. And all come with the standard LaTeX distribution now.

So my question:

  • Should I move from bibtex and pdflatex to biblatex?
  • Should I move from bibtex to biber?
  • Should I move from bibtex to both biblatex and biber?
  • What should I worry about?
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Biber can only be used with biblatex. The traditional BibTeX approach with \bibliographstyle is incompatible with Biber. This means there is no moving from BibTeX to Biber without also moving to biblatex.

So your options are to use

  • BibTeX with \bibliographystyle,
  • biblatex with BibTeX, or
  • biblatex with Biber.

Using biblatex with BibTeX gives you the worst of both worlds: Some fancy biblatex features are only available with Biber, while most – if not all – drawbacks of the biblatex approach are still present if you use BibTeX. (For example in Biblatex: submitting to a journal it really doesn't matter a great deal whether you use BibTeX or Biber as biblatex backend: The publisher will still have to use a different workflow for biblatex bibliographies.) The development of new biblatex features generally assumes Biber is being used as a backend. Sometimes it is possible to implement some of these features also with BibTeX as backend, but it is not top priority to find a way to do that if it is more tricky.

It is true that Biber is generally slower than BibTeX and a bit more picky about your .bib files. I can't argue a lot against the fact that Biber is slower: I can only say that it is not necessary to run Biber every time you (re)compile your document. A build tool like latexmk will help you run Biber only if it is necessary. I see the fact that Biber is a bit more fussy about malformed .bib files as a plus, because in general Biber only complains about things that are wrong, i.e. that could cause trouble also with BibTeX, it's just that you might not have realised that there is an issue.

So I believe that nowadays the choice should be between the classical BibTeX approach with \bibliographystyle on one side and biblatex with Biber on the other.

My usual advice is that there is no reason to switch to biblatex (+Biber) if you are happy with what BibTeX (w/ \bibliographystyle) can give you at the moment. biblatex is generally not that well liked by publishers (who often have their own \bibliographystyles for BibTeX). Because it is still under active development it can sometimes be a bit of a pain if you want to use new features when you collaborate with others who are using older systems.

But there is a bunch of things that is so much easier with biblatex than with BibTeX: Mainly style adjustments, split bibliographies, on-the-fly data manipulation, ... If you need one of these features, then biblatex is usually your best bet of getting these things done.

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Based on Biblatex: submitting to a journal, it appears that I should not move to biber as I frequently submit to scientific journals.

However, it does seem that I should consider using biblatex.

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    Journals have fixed bibliography styles file anyway. So from your perspective it wouldn't matter if you emulate the journal style with biblatex or use directly bibtex. Your .bib file will be the same. The real power becomes evident when you design your own style just like you design your own template. Hence this shouldn't be a reason to stay away from biblatex and biber.
    – percusse
    Sep 6 '13 at 13:31
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    That's a reason not to submit documents to journals using biblatex, but has nothing to do with your own documents.
    – Joseph Wright
    Sep 6 '13 at 13:40
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    @percusse Well, I think you could run into problems if you started using biblatex-specific (such as \bibrangedash) commands in your .bib file, while still intending to use the same .bib file with bibtex (for journals, perhaps). No?
    – jub0bs
    Sep 6 '13 at 13:49
  • @JosephWright, what's that reason?
    – vy32
    Sep 6 '13 at 13:56
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    @Jubobs You shouldn't introduce range dashes or other nuances if the original style doesn't include them. The journal style should be followed faithfully (no matter how terrible they might be). So for scientific submissions emulation of the .bst file is wasted work if the journal doesn't support it unless you want to base your design over a journal style and customize it for your own templates. Hence, everytime a user asks a question about customizing a journal style for personal taste over a submission, I have a generic comment waiting for them :P
    – percusse
    Sep 6 '13 at 14:16

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