Latex vs. Word 2010 and why you should not use Latex for smaller documents

My name is umij, and I am a typophile.

I don’t know when it started. Probably during my university days, when I wrote lots of documents using Latex. In fact, I rewrote the whole thesis-document class of my faculty – the old one had several bugs, was originally created in the mid-90s and used pslatex, and just looked ugly.

There are several pages in the net advocating the use of Latex quite loudly. Of course there is no doubt that Latex is _the_ tool for larger documents, like a thesis or book. However I got so used to Latex, that after leaving university I was thinking of using Latex also for smaller documents; letters, CVs, and the like. And after toying around a little bit, I have to say that Word’s bad reputation isn’t justified at all. My recommendation is: Definitely stick with Word (2010) if your document is small (i.e. less than say, 25 pages).

Bad Typography

Word is notorious for having bad typography, but in actual fact, Word 2010[1] improved typography quite a bit by adding support for several advanced OpenType features, namely:

So to compare Tex and Word, I’ve prepared a small document. I took the first two paragraphs from the fifth adventure of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes”. To not get distracted by different fonts, I’ve used the extended OpenType versions of URW Palladio (Tex-Gyre-Pagella) for both Word and Latex. For the latter I simply included the package tgpagella.

A quick comparison

Here is the result for Latex, and here for Word – use Adobe Reader to ensure you’ll see the real thing. In particular Firefox‘ new built-in PDF reader seems to have some problems with font-hinting. A quick comparison:

  • Word 2010 still doesn’t have true small caps, even though they are included in the OpenType font. I have no real clue why Word sticks to fake small caps, but I suspect backward compatibility issues.
  • Ligatures are available in both documents. See „offered“ in Line 6. Not all are properly set (see the „ffl“ in „baffled“ in Line 8), but this is simply a design choice (or a bug) of Tex-Gyre-Pagella, affecting both Tex and Word alike.
  • I can spot no obvious problems with kerning in the Word version except
  • drop-caps of course. Word does support drop-caps, but no advanced things like vertically adjusting the spacing between the lines and the letter in question. As done here with Tex for the letter “W”.
  • Full justification: Of course no other program comes close to Tex’s full justification algorithm. Still ‘though, Word looks pretty decent, in my opinion. I did however switch the justification algorithm to the one of WordPerfect (File – > Options – > Advanced – > Layout Options – > Do full justification like WordPerfect 6.x for Windows)

All in all, while the typography of Latex is clearly superior, Word isn’t that bad anymore. In fact, the document looks quite decent, I think [2].

Latex makes difficult things easy, and easy things very difficult

Now, here are some reasons on why I think Latex is not optimal for smaller documents. These are issues I encounter again and again:

  • “You only specify what to do, and Latex does the layout for you”. That’s something I read quite often, and it is a blatant lie. In fact, the opposite is true (see below).
  • You’ll spend a lot of time setting up your document. Time that is better spent on the actual content. Of course, if you are going to write your thesis or a book, a little bit time spent on setting up the document is easily justified. However spending eighty percent of your time setting up your CV, and twenty percent on the actual content is the wrong way to go.
  • “Quickly” changing the layout of your document is very difficult, and usually as time-consuming as setting it up in the first place.
  • Latex makes difficult things easy, and easy things very difficult

To give an example, here is a quick rep on how I’ve prepared the pdf’s. First, I didn’t want to go for Computer Modern. If you like Computer Modern, then you have bad taste, but that’s ok. There is however a more fundamental issue with CM: It is very “light”. The letters, i.e. all strokes are very thin. CM was designed to be printed on a laser-printer, and the result usually looks quite ok (except for the fact that CM is ugly). Nowadays however, most documents are not only printed out, but also read on a screen, and the thin letters make it very uncomfortable to read. Latin Modern helps (and should be used instead of CM anyway), but only to a certain extent.

I opted for URW Palladio L (i.e. Palatino) instead. To my surprise however, going with mathpazo, which is the default package to switch to Palatino in TeX, doesn’t give you ligatures. Which is one OpenType feature that I want to explicitly illustrate here. I am not sure whether Palatino has no ligatures by design, or that’s simply a bug, even though I do not see any reason on why they should be missing. But then again, I am not Hermann Zapf. Thus I switched to the extended version, namely tex-gyre-pagella (tgpagella). That gives you ligatures, but whereas matzpazo has a simple switch [osf] for old-style numbers, there is no such thing for tgpagella. I opted to mark each number with \oldstylenums in the document, but that again created two problems:

  1. The numbers aren’t switched for the whole document. So the page number in the footer still used standard numbers, which looked quite inconsistent. Thus I used fancyhdr to set a custom footer, where I changed the page number  with \oldstylenums, too.
  2. The old style numbers look very odd. If you zoom into the pdf a little, you’ll see that they are too thin. My suspicion is that these are actually numbers from Computer Modern, and not from Palatino. I am not sure though…

Word has several advantages, too

My point? One issue easily leads to another, and getting things to look the way you want them to, isn’t that easy in Latex either. And don’t even get me started on placing figures, tables over multiple pages, and many more things. Sure, Latex has beautiful typography, but how often do you use small caps and drop caps in your business letters? Setting up the document in Word took way less time. And Word has several other advantages, too:

  • It’s easy to select your own font. If  the font is free and there is a Latex-package, then it’s easy to switch in Latex too, but all those that ever tried to buy a decent version of Garamond and add it to their Tex-installation will probably agree that it’s basically a pita, if there is no package.
  • Unicode. Ever tried to prep a Japanese document with platex on a non-Japanese locale? Ever tried to include both Japanese and German umlauts in one document? And yes, I know there is xelatex, but that’s still far from being standard.
  • A decent spell checker and a useful grammar checker. Granted, I can’t really say anything about English, as I am not a native speaker, but at least for German with all its compound words, ispell, aspell and the like simply suck. There is another issue too: If you are editing a Latex document in say, Texmaker, a lot of Latex-specific code is underlined in red. That trains you to ignore the red underlining. And even if you use something more sophisticated, like vim, all the latex commands still distract you from the actual content. At least personally I can say that I make way more spelling and grammar mistakes when using Tex. And while (sadly) bad typography is forgivable nowadays in your cover letter, bad spelling is not.

To sum things up: Opposite to larger documents, for smaller ones: don’t go for Tex. It’s not worth the hassle.

[1] I did not include LibreOffice here, since LibreOffice does not support advanced OpenType features at the time of writing. With Graphite, LibreOffice implements a technology that is capable of all of that. However the only two Graphite-fonts available right now are Linux Libertine and Biolinum. Which, unless you are really into those two fonts, pretty much renders Graphite useless. At least for now.

[2] Yes, there are some issues with tgpagella, i.e. some additions that are not so optimal (some might consider the old-style numbers to be suboptimal, at best), but I won’t delve into that here


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9 Antworten to “Latex vs. Word 2010 and why you should not use Latex for smaller documents”

  1. Felix Says:

    I choose AbiWord and never looked back! ps: very very interesting article.. especially after the other one’s.. btw, why in English?

  2. Master-Chief Says:

    kein besonderer Grund – lag halt noch „auf der Halde“. Und interessiert vielleicht nicht nur Deutsche…

    > very interesting article.. especially
    > after the other one’s

    noone forces you to read my rants 🙂

  3. Felix Says:

    ha ha.. was ich eigentlich sagen wollte; so ein Artikel hab ich nach deiner Reisedoku eigentlich nicht erwartet. Da ich mich um solche Sachen wie Word, LaTeX und Co nicht wirklich interessiere war ich etwas enttäuscht. Aber natürlich ist das dein Blog und du darfst hier schreiben was du willst und wenn es der Tagesablauf ist wie du beim Farbe-trocknen zugesehen hast (mit hübschen Anekdoten von andere Farben wo du ebenfalls beim Trocknen zugesehen hast.) Ich freue mich auf alles, was mir den Büroalltag ein bisschen angenehmer macht. In diesem Sinne: besten Dank!

  4. Silvia Says:

    Danke für diesen Artikel, macht es für mich deutlich einfacher zu verstehen warum ich für meine Diplomarbeit vielleicht doch LaTex hätte verwenden sollen. Aber was erledigt ist, ist erledigt.

    Beim Sherlock Holmes Beispiel fand ich die Word Version deutlich lesbarer am Bildschirm. Warum gerade die Geschichte?

  5. Master-Chief Says:

    @Silvia: Kann auch gut an der OpenType-Konvertierung liegen: Die TeX-Version wirkt „schwärzer“. Vlt. hätte man da besser eine größere Schriftart genommen. Sei’s drum.

    Die Geschichte, weil frei von Copyright, und außerdem las ich damals gerade zufällig Sherlock Holmes auf dem Kindle 🙂

  6. Hasan Jaffal Says:

    Thank you for the clear comparison and the objective opinion, I believe that Microsoft word is better than LaTEX when it comes to writing simple documents with graphics. And when writing technical documents such software and IT documentation. I think LaTEX is better for research houses and mathematical documents. Anyway I did an analysis about LaTEX and Microsoft Word for IT organization please have a look on it :
    I will be waiting for your opinion, kindly post your agreement in the comment.
    Thank you

  7. umij Says:

    > I will be waiting for your opinion, kindly post your agreement in
    > the comment.

    And if don’t agree? 😉

    I think there is no clear yes or no; everyone has to consider his/her requirements. Some thoughts in no particular order:

    – if the documents will only be used in-house, then layout really doesn’t matter that much
    – if they are distributed to the outside world (and actually read by other people and not just thrown away) they should look nice. After all, it’s something that represents your company
    – git + tex is a vastly superior simultaneous-editing solution to everything else _if_ users are technically smart enough to use it
    – no matter what you do, graphics will look ugly in Word. Whether it’s flow-charts, pie-charts, technical diagrams or illustrations: You can immediately spot tikz/graphviz/pstricks in any document, because it just looks „right“.

  8. Èric Guisado Says:

    Have you tried LyX? you write and customize (margins, style,…) your document and then lyx writes the latex document or the pdf

  9. Master-Chief Says:

    Sorry, but LyX is just not that simple solution that everyone is looking for. Try to recreate the PDF with the font settings of the article (Pagella + Old-Style Numbers + Header), and then come back. I highly doubt that you’ll still speak fondly of LyX.

    Also note that
    > In fact, I rewrote the whole thesis-document class of my
    > faculty – the old one had several bugs, was originally created
    > in the mid-90s and used pslatex, and just looked ugly.

    I do know a thing or two about TeX, and of course am well aware of all the various solutions that try to take away the complexity of TeX and fail.

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