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LaTeX in the Cloud

8155665827_61cdd0c562_mLaTeX is a powerful text markup language that allows for document preparation. For some academic fields and subfields, it is the accepted means by which to prepare documents for publication. Like most computing languages, it takes a little time to learn — Bryn Lutes wrote about getting started with LaTeX for us in 2010 — but the effort pays off in beautifully constructed documents.

In the past the learning curve for LaTeX has involved not only the LaTeX language itself but also the platforms that compile and prepare documents. There are a few good software options available, such as TeXWorks, but these can sometimes be unwieldy to install, or even impossible to use if you need to use LaTeX with a computer on which you cannot install programs. Recently, however, two different websites have become available for allowing users to create and update documents on the web, drastically reducing the time and effort needed to get up and running with LaTeX.

  • Writelatex was founded in 2011. A free account starts you out with 200 MB of storage in the website’s cloud, as well as the option to start with a template or with a free document. There can be a bit of lag time as the website processes your document and refreshes the pdf that is shown side-by-side with the LaTeX code, but it’s not too terrible. Each document created has its own unique web address, which can be good for easy collaboration, but perhaps not so good if you are concerned about security or privacy. Users can increase their storage amount by referring others to the site.
  • SpanDeX is a second option that started up in July 2012. It has several similar features as writelatex.com, such as the ability to use templates, but if you are looking for Dropbox integration, SpanDeX is the only one that connects with it. Doing so gives you an extra bit of security in that your files exist both in the cloud and on your hard drive if you have the Dropbox desktop client installed. Dropbox integration is available on Premium accounts, which are $5 per month or $50/year, and give you unlimited collaborators (free accounts are limited to two simultaneous collaborators) per project.

Each website is backed by helpful blog posts that offer “getting started”-type info and Twitter accounts staffed by responsive folks ready to answer questions. For me personally, finding these sites significantly lowered the adoption efforts by both me and my students for getting them to start preparing scientific articles for our advanced lab course, and I’m very glad to have found them. I recommend both sites to my students.

How about you? Have you tried online LaTeX documentation preparation venues? How are they working for you? Let us know in the comments.

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user livilou]

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