LaTeX vs. MiKTeX: The levels of TeX
A friend once asked us, “Should I use LaTeX or MiKTeX?”
In various guises, this is a common question, seemingly innocent, but
actually betraying a fundamental confusion about the levels of operation
in the TeX world. As a further confusion, the word “TeX”
can be used to refer to any of a myriad of items at any level. Starting
at the top:
Live, W32TeX, … These are
the large, coherent collections of TeX-related software to be downloaded
and installed. When someone says “I need to install TeX on my
machine”, they're usually looking for a distribution.
- Front ends and editors:
WinEdt, … These editors are what you use
to create a document file. Some (e.g., TeXShop) are devoted specifically
to TeX, others (e.g., Emacs) can be used to edit any sort of file. TeX
documents are independent of any particular editor; the TeX typesetting
program itself does not include an editor.
- Engines: TeX,
pdfTeX, XeTeX, LuaTeX, … These are the executable
binaries which implement different TeX variants. In short:
There are other engines, but the above are by far the most commonly used
- pdfTeX implements direct PDF output, along with a variety of
programming and other extensions.
- XeTeX does the above, and also supports Unicode natively, OpenType
and TrueType fonts, access to system fonts, …
- LuaTeX does all the above, and provides access to many internals via
the embedded Lua language. Thus it is by far the most programmable engine.
- [e][u]pTeX provide full support for Japanese typesetting.
plain TeX, OpTeX, … These are the
TeX-based languages in which one actually writes documents. When someone
says “TeX is giving me a mysterious error”, they usually
mean a format.
geometry, lm, … These are add-ons to
the basic TeX system, developed independently, providing additional
typesetting features, fonts, documentation, etc. A package might or
might not work with any given format and/or engine; for example, many
are designed specifically for LaTeX, but there are plenty of others,
too. The CTAN sites provide access
to the vast majority of packages in the TeX world; CTAN is generally the
source used by the distributions.
TeX source files can be typeset into several different output
formats, depending on the engine. Notably, the pdfTeX engine (despite
its name) can output both DVI and PDF
At a high level, the output format that gets used depends on the
program you invoke. If you run latex (which implements the
LaTeX format), you will get DVI; if you run pdflatex (which
also implements the LaTeX format), you will get PDF.
No TeX engine implements native HTML output, but it is still possible
to get HTML, XML, etc., output:
- The tex4ht program can be run
(e.g., htlatex, make4ht). TeX4ht uses TeX behind
the scenes, so user macros, etc., are generally recognized. There are
many possible output formats, including Office XML.
TUGboat article on tex4ht, and
- The lwarp LaTeX package causes LaTeX
to output HTML5. It hooks into many packages to create the html.
TUGboat article on lwarp.
- The LaTeXML Perl program
independently parses LaTeX documents and generates many output formats.
ConTeXt is a special case,
straddling levels. It contains a format at the level of plain TeX and
LaTeX, but unlike the other formats, it is invoked via a separate
program (e.g., context) which then runs a TeX engine. This
makes it possible to support a wide array of advanced features, such as
integrated graphics and XML input, since the control program can
determine the flow of processing.
Of course, this short web page is only a brief introduction to the
basics. Here are some pointers to further information.
- Getting started with TeX, the TUG page
giving an introduction to various parts of the TeX world.
of TeX, Joachim Schrod's technical article describing many of
the relationships hinted at here in more detail. It was written
many years ago, but the relationships still hold.
- A First Set of LaTeX
Resources, Jim Hefferon's document recommending LaTeX packages
for many common tasks.
with “TeX” in the name, FAQ entry.
- The TeX Family in 2009, an article published
in AMS Notices by Jim Hefferon and Karl Berry, giving an overview
of the TeX engines, graphics, hypertext, presentations, fonts, etc.
Although now more than a decade old, it still reasonably describes
the current state of things.
This file is public domain.
$Date: 2021/01/17 23:59:19 $;