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Please to forgive the somewhat broad question, but what exactly is the deal with and appeal of Overleaf & Co.? What do I get out of it that I would not from the local LaTeX distribution of my choice? Or the VCS of my choice, for versioning and collaboration? What am I missing?

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    for many people using a VCS and installing tex and an editor are not really options they want to consider. you can try tex on overleaf without doing anything. Dec 4, 2020 at 20:59
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    Quick start on any machine you have internet on. You don't have to have any software locally except what's necessary to access the internet and a browser in which the editor runs. That's it.
    – Skillmon
    Dec 4, 2020 at 21:02
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    @JairoA.delRio the point is that overleaf (always) uses latexmk so if you can convince latexmk to run context then it should work on overleaf, I am just experimenting wit a latexmkrc file now.... Dec 4, 2020 at 22:41
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    @JairoA.delRio almost got it: check this overleaf context project overleaf.com/read/gqkyhmftnrrw It actually worked, if you look in "other files" the main.pdf has been generated (and can be viewed locally) but latexmk is confused and has a non zero error status so overleaf thinks it has errored and doesn't show the pdf. That must be fixable by someone who knows latexmk... Dec 4, 2020 at 22:50
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    @JairoA.delRio try now, it is working in the overleaf display window. Dec 4, 2020 at 23:38

8 Answers 8

76

I'm providing this answer in case the question is closed for being off-topic.

I teach undergraduate physics and have introduced my students to LaTeX over the past several years. At first, I used MacTeX, which of course required the intervention of our IT department. Package updates became problematic and effectively impossible given their frequency. Keeping all the computers in my lab in sync was also a problem. Additionally, students who either didn't want, or didn't know how, to install MacTeX or TeX Live on their own computers would essentially have no access to LaTeX outside of the classroom.

Overleaf solves all of these problems. Additionally, it allows students to create an organized library of their work throughout the semester to which they can refer in future courses or professional work. Students can access their work from essentially any device, including tablets and phones (yes, some have tried it despite the small screen size). Overleaf really is a panacea in this case as far as I'm concerned.

There are also helpful collaborative features that let coauthors, editors, faculty, students, researchers, etc. all help put documents into their final form. Finally, students tell me they love both LaTeX and the Overleaf environment, which is a clear sign it serves our needs quite well.

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    I second this answer. Overleaf has made the entry barrier into LaTeX much smaller and students really like it. It also works very well for collaboration and simultaneous editing. I can also help troubleshoot my students’ problems more easily if they use it.
    – Alan Munn
    Dec 5, 2020 at 2:33
  • I edited the answer to mention the collaborative features. Dec 5, 2020 at 2:54
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    Completely agreed, my students were sooooo reluctant to using LaTeX until... Overleaf. They share project, comment what they don't get and I can review. Integrate their work in my workflow for class.
    – JeT
    Dec 6, 2020 at 0:58
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I'm a student of computer science, and I would consider myself quite tech-savvy. I'm using Overleaf.

The appeal of Overleaf is that it "just works". I'm a great fan of tools that boost my productivity. I don't really care about reading what Latex distributions exist. I don't really care to maintain my installation. What I care about is quickly producing good looking slides for a presentation or writing an article without much hassle.

Overleaf offers that. I open it, type my document, download the PDF and I am just done. I just save a lot of time.

I can work on my project from any computer I happen to have at hand, be it my desktop, my laptop or my tablet. If I am on the road with only my tablet and want to show the latest draft to someone? Great, just open Overleaf. I don't have to maintain three separate Latex installations.

My Overleaf account is of course linked to a Git Repo. I'm also not hosting my git server myself, I'm using a reputable VCS hoster which holds my git repos. All my software projects are there, too.

I sometimes have to collaborate with less tech-savvy users. I can't stress enough what a blessing services like Overleaf are. Prior to using Overleaf, any collaboration with less tech-savvy users was plagues with "Can you help me setup Latex?", "My Latex doesn't work, can you have a look?" and "What settings did you use to compile, it doesn't work for me?". Overleaf completely cuts out all the annoying things you have to deal with otherwise.

Overleaf is just a whole lot more user-friendly than maintaining a Latex installation yourself.

It also works on computers where I can not install software, like university computers (e.g. the terminals in the library).

Also, Overleaf has collaboration features you can not replicate with Git. You can leave notes anywhere, you can see where the cursor of the other person is. You can sit in a teleconference with another author and discuss the paper and make changes in a very natural and organic way.

Yes, I could use Git and a local Latex installation. Actually, I'd need four local Latex installations and four git installations. And I'm not even sure I can install git on the library terminals. With Overleaf, all of that isn't my problem and instead of getting a headache just thinking about what Latex distribution I want to use, how to get it, how to update it and how to get my collaborator to use the same thing, I can just work and get my PDF.

Is Overleaf the magic silver bullet? No, of course Overleaf has its own problems. But compared to other solutions, for me it still comes out far ahead in terms of productivity.

Also, the entry barrier is much lower. You can get collaborators to using Latex far more easy if you say "You just need to register there and then click this link", compared to giving them a whole page of installation instructions.

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    @Myridium That assumes that I have thought about it beforehand and copied the draft onto my tablet. And trying to figure out how to install a portable git and latex installation on a thumbdrive (because really, the sources go into the repo, not the build artifact) is still something I just don't need to do when using Overleaf. Could I do it if I wanted to? Sure. But why bother? Again, for me, overleaf is about boosting productivity precisely because it lets me focus on writing stuff, not how to make it work in the first place.
    – Polygnome
    Dec 6, 2020 at 4:48
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    Fair enough. PADDING
    – Myridium
    Dec 6, 2020 at 4:54
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    I cannot argue with anything in this answer. The only point it doesn't work for me is »You just need to register there and then click this link«. I don't want to register and log in to things with third parties just in order to access what used to be on my own device. These days everyone and their brother wants my personal details and the ability (if possible with permission, otherwise without) to observe what I do with "their" product at all times. I can't explain how much that turns me off. Maybe if Overleaf were self-hostable, or there were different providers...
    – Zak
    Jun 27, 2023 at 17:00
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    @Zak Overleaf is self-hostable. Besides, for me, a lot of the appeal is precisely that it is not on my device, because I regularly use more than three different devices to write my papers and collaborate with other people on them. I have yet to find any alternative that is as painless. Although I have made some great experiences lately with Git + VSCode (Latex Workshop). If you work with someone who is versed in Git, that can also be a great option (and you can use Gitpod as well).
    – Polygnome
    Jun 27, 2023 at 22:00
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    @Zak github.com/overleaf/overleaf if you want to set up your own instance ;)
    – Polygnome
    Jun 27, 2023 at 22:01
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  1. Mobility. I'm working on often four different computers in a day, two of which are on different relatively locked-down networks that don't allow USB drives. Thus, in order to have access to my work wherever I happen to be, I need to move them around over the internet. Given that I need some such service, using Overleaf is far more convenient than downloading them to work on locally, then uploading them again when I'm done, and also doesn't require me to make sure that all systems are kept on the same version of whatever local option I'm using (which is especially a pain as it means having to go through IT services for both locked-down networks), with the same configurations/packages installed/etc.
  2. Collaboration. If I'm collaborating on a document with multiple people not using Overleaf, I need to do something to ensure proper version control. Now, I could use github or similar for that, but then I still need to make sure everybody's local configurations are compatible, and persuade people to actually use git properly. Overleaf deals with all of those difficulties for me.
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  • My experience is that people learn to use TortoiseHg much faster than any Git client, though it still does require some learning. Which I will acknowledge is of course more effort than not having to learn it at all (though it's also useful knowledge in many other situations, too). Using web services to circumvent overbearing IT restrictions ... really not much else to do about that, at least until they start blocking Overleaf because you might leak sensitive data to the operator of the service...
    – Zak
    Jun 30, 2023 at 11:43
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I agree with the other answers about ease of working across several devices and of collaborating without any extra setup. A few other, possibly less important, reasons I can think of that were not fully covered:

  1. Real-time collaboration: Overleaf works like Google Docs with LaTeX. Several users can edit the same document at the same time. There is also a chat feature to discuss online, and features to add comments and track changes.
  2. Link sharing with permissions and access control: One can create a link of the project that can be opened to view it in its current state at any time. This can be useful if you want to give someone access to get input on a project from time to time. It is particularly time saving since one does not have to download or compile anything, the output is already available to see. I have also seen it used to store lecture notes for a course, that were updated periodically by the lecturer, and the students had read-only access. This avoids the problem of having several versions after multiple iterations of fixing errors and adding new information.
  3. Sync with cloud: One can directly sync projects with Dropbox or GitHub, and so still use a more conventional VCS in parallel.
  4. Templates: This is less important and also a bit orthogonal to the others, but Overleaf also showcases a large collection of useful templates for various use cases that one can simply open in a new project, or download to use offline.
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  • in your point 3, I would also mention you can share with git directly with push / pull which is even simpler than going through a third party (github or dropbox)
    – meduz
    Dec 8, 2020 at 20:05
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You're using a computer in a library where you're not allowed to download software, and LaTeX isn't there. You want to prepare something with LaTeX that you will attach as a pdf file to an email you're about to send. So you use Overleaf.

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    This is my reason. I could not use LaTeX at work (since I can't install anything on my computer), if there was not Overleaf (or Verbosus, or similar).
    – CarLaTeX
    Dec 7, 2020 at 8:00
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    @CarLaTeX I find it kind of paradoxical that IT departments lock down software choice "for security reasons", while probably knowing that this triggers people to use web services over which IT has no control at all. So in order to avoid trojans exfiltrating sensitive data, they create incentives for users to move that same data off-site ...
    – Zak
    Jun 30, 2023 at 11:49
  • @zak I don't use Overleaf for sensitive data, of course, only to write manuals, but I agree with you.
    – CarLaTeX
    Jun 30, 2023 at 16:17
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For me the main use case is collaborating with people who know their away around LaTeX but are not comfortable with a version control system. This is the majority of academics in non-computer related sciences, in my experience.

Aside from Overleaf, the main alternatives are:

  • Teach everyone to use a VCS (if any of them are senior this is not going to happen as they don't have time)

  • Google docs (no use if you need maths)

  • DropBox, Google Drive etc. (conflicts are really hard to manage, so you end up doing manual version control by copying the files, which gets messy)

  • Email files back and forth and merge them manually (I can remember doing this a long time ago but can't imagine doing it now)

With Overleaf you can just send everyone a link and they can edit directly without any hassle. I prefer the git approach myself, but Overleaf is great when it's not an option.

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    This is essentially the answer I was about to post. I just used Overleaf as one of five authors on a paper, all of whom could have wrapped their head around git (and I know that two of them already have) but not having to resolve even one merge conflict was still a huge benefit, especially when frantically polishing wording close to the deadline.
    – zwol
    Dec 7, 2020 at 22:33
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Quite a few answers … Since this is such an open question I'd like to sum up the answers so far. (I'll also make this a community wiki: all credit goes to the original posters.)

All answers and comments seem to boil down to one of the following aspects (in no particular order):

  1. Ease of Use. Overleaf is a ready-made tool. “It just works”, not excluding less tech-savvy users. It's a lot more user-friendly than maintaining a LaTeX installation yourself, which drastically lowers the entry barrier. You can get collaborators to use LaTeX far more easy if you say “You just need to register there and then click this link”, compared to giving them a whole page of installation instructions. The fact that it only works with LaTeX (and not plain TeX oder ConTeXt, e.g.) out of the box does not matter to its target group.

  2. Mobility & LaTeX as a hosted service. It works on the Internet. This means you can use it from anywhere in the world, really, without a local setup: a friend's computer, the terminals in the library or some lab where you might not be able to use USB drives; even your tablet or cell phone in a pinch.

  3. Sharing & Collaboration. It works a lot like “Google Docs for LaTeX”. Several users can edit the same document at the same time, there is a chat feature and you can add comments and track changes with ease. You can leave notes anywhere, you can see where the cursor of the other person is. You can sit in a teleconference with another author and discuss the paper and make changes in a very natural and organic way. It's also easy to share a document, without having to explicitly compile and send it (via email, say.) Proper version control is still possible (Overleaf allows for syncing projects with Dropbox or GitHub, e.g.) but you don't have to persuade and teach other users to use git properly.

  4. Document Organization & Templates. Overleaf allows you to create an organized library of your previous work to which you can refer to in the future. It also provides a collection of useful templates for various use cases that you can simply open in a new project, or download to use offline.

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    5. great online help!
    – meduz
    Dec 8, 2020 at 20:06
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In the past my students would have their thesis/dissertations in a VC server of their choice (SVN or GIT) and I would simply checkout/clone it and have my copy. But life taught me that eventually I would lose track of some of those repositories and would not be able to recover them, being lost forever.

Because every project in Overleaf is also a GIT repository, this is my current workflow with my students:

  1. I create a project (in my account) for their thesis/dissertations;
  2. I share the project with them;
  3. They either work directly in Overleaf or clone the git repository to their machine;
  4. If they clone the project, they must do frequent git commit and push operations;
  5. Whenever I want to see their document, I just go to my account in Overleaf and it is there;
  6. When the student finish their thesis/dissertation and leave the university, I still have their "LaTeX source code" archived in my Overleaf account.

I have to say that both me and my students we feel that this solution is very smooth and we are very happy with it.

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    It seems odd to me that you should be the owner of your students' theses or dissertations. I'm happy if my students share their thesis projects with me, but personally I wouldn't want to be the owner; it's their work not mine. [BTW, your edit changed very idiomatic English into very prescriptive unidiomatic English. :) ]
    – Alan Munn
    Feb 19, 2021 at 0:28
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    @AlanMunn, I'm the “owner” for practical reasons. Some nice Overleaf feature are only accessible to “non-free” accounts, such as more than a couple of collaborators, git access, comments, etc. If the students create the project themselves, they won't have access to those features. In the end it works even for Overleaf, as some students enjoy the service features and workflow and opt-in for the non-free service in a longer term. :) Feb 20, 2021 at 1:19

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