Latex + Emacs vs. MathType + Word

Recently I had to write two simple scientific documents. Their subject and structure was similar, so I decided to compare Latex + Emacs and Word + MathType.

Emacs was Aquamacs, standard version, configured to work with Texniscope. You can read my last two posts about Aquamacs w/th Latex and Texniscope. Aquamacs is itself almost configured: of course to use its extended capabilities you should already know Emacs. If you are a novice, you may want to try TextMate or BBEdit instead, or maybe TexShop (search google for them ☺).

Please notice than when I speak about Emacs, I assume Auctex is configured and working. This is the case with Aquamacs, which comes with Auctex bundled. Other Emacs installations already include it (and if you use GNU/Linux or FreeBSD it should be easy to install the package).

MathType was able to handle the equations: for example some equations used in computer science are really hard to express with MathType. So this is not a test intended to prove that latex is more powerfull. This is known.

While Word is a wordprocessor meant to write and quickly format texts (this is not perfecly true, since Word includes some functions that are part of a publishing software), Latex is a full environment meant to produce documents ready to be published.

We already know that Latex is more powerfull than word. We are now comparing Latex and Word on Word’s own field: small simple documents.


The main problem I found with Word + MathType were errors. MathType tends to crash in unexpected ways. This is not usually a problem: the rest of the document is not touched (and Word itself does not hang) and you lose only the last minutes of work.

The first thing you do is close Word and reopen it. Everything will work as usual. Unfortunately crashes anger me a lot, and I tend not to be able to continue working. I find overly annoyinh to redo the same job twice.

On the other side Latex and Emacs never crashed. In fact I have never seen Emacs crashing in my whole life.


Using references with MathType and Word is not difficult. You can create a numbered equation, then say you want a reference to an equation and double click the equation number. This is pretty simple: unfortunately if you have a long Word document, you have to manually find the equation you want to reference, and this is not quick. You have to manually find the equation.

With Emacs you can say you want to put the reference of an equation and it will present a list of all equation (you can read the label and the equation itself) from which you chose which equation to reference.

If you use Emacs(Auctex) facilities to create sections, subsections and such, the editor encourages you to label them. This way you can also reference theorems and sections. Moreover it’s terribly simple to use, while Word’s referencing facilities are less powerful and more complicated to use.


This is not a problem, in this case: in this document we are using only basical symbols. If you need more symbols, while amslatex (which comes with standard latex distributions) provides them, MathType does not (well, you have to find a font that uses them, change the font and everything).

Bugs aka “Copy and Paste”

With MathType and Word you cannot copy equations. This is a known bug. If you just select an equation within Word and copy or cut and paste it, Word will say it’s not able to save on “current volume”. Changing volume does not help. You have to “convert” all equations. It is a command from MathType menu in Word, easy to call, but slow to complete, if you have many equations.

This bug usually does not apply if you drag n drop, but I’m afraid this is not always true.

If you want to copy and paste, you have to double-click on the equation to open it in MathType, copy the equation in MathType, create another equation in Word (and this opens it in MathType), paste the old equation in the new one. I don’t like this.

Copying equations (or part of them) with Latex is simple and fast.


Of course Word + MathType is a full WYSIWYG environment. Emacs is too. You can “preview” equations and pictures in the document (that is to say inside Emacs buffer you see the rendered equations). Of course to do this you need an Emacs with graphic capabilities, for example Aquamacs or X11 GNU Emacs or XEmacs; it does not work with the textual version ☺.


Of course to use Latex you need to learn Latex (but to learn how to use advanced Word features, you have to study too). And to use Emacs, you need to understand a bit how it works, even if an environment like Aquamacs can be used with little knowledge about Emacs (don’t know similar Emacs versions for Windows, still I suppose they exist).

But this allows you to be much more productive in the middle and long term. Moreover Aquamacs (or Emacs) is free and so it is Latex. Word + MathType costs a lot. Moreover Emacs + Latex is cross platform. You can work with people using Macs, Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, everything they like. You can edit their documents and you can easily publish your results in PDF on the web. You can also send your files to an editor, until some time ago Latex was one of the few formats accepted by scientific magazines.


8 Responses to Latex + Emacs vs. MathType + Word

  1. Paul Topping says:

    Just another “review” by someone for whom Latex was already the winner. If you like typing a lot of backslashes and scratching your head trying to figure out the keyword for some effect or debugging some unbalanced expression or solving some thorny installation problem or … then go right ahead. TeX or LaTeX is for you.

  2. Here’s another one, namely Mr. Topping, that just kneels in front ogf the “easy to use software”. A smart Emacs user types much less than the average WYSIWYG wordprocessor, knows that a few small books are plenty of reference to use LaTeX at full power, its editor does balance the expression for the user installation and reinstallation is an easy issue on at least three operative systems. That’s not the same thing for some OLE component dlls…

  3. rik0 says:

    About Latex installation problems, I had never had one. This is probably because I’m relatively new to Latex, as I starded about 3 years ago. In this period I’ve never had a single installation problem.

    MathType is great to write equations whose structure is complicated. For example matrices or cases. In this cases the WYSIWYG helps positioning elements. But if the equation is just one logical line, I found that writing a few characters takes less time than taking the mouse and selecting something from a menu editor.

    I found OpenOffice equation editor idea interesting. You can both insert “latex commands” and chose things from a menu. But I found annoying it forced me to write “syntactically corrected equations”.

    Latex was “the winner” when I wrote this article. When I made the comparison, the result was uncertain. In fact there are things I dislike about Latex. It looks terribly “old” in conception.
    I had hard times learning Latex, I had to admit. I’m not a tex hacker. I’m just a standard user and I do know only the things I need. They are sufficient to do what I have to do, and with a good environment (I’m not talking about Latex + Notepad) I’m quite productive.

    I’ve been told MathType was the best alternative out there. It is. But it’s not for me. First of all I would have to pay a lot of money. Second some kind of things I need to do are not possible to do in an easy way (or I didn’t figure out how to do them). Third I would be bound with Microsoft stuff (MathType in this sense does not frighten me: it has a wonderful latex export function), and I would not be compatible with OpenOffice. Last but not least, I’m a Computer Scientist. I’m not afraid of learning languages and such, so learning latex has not been a problem.

    Of course for people with different needs (for example who work in Word based environments, or who need to write different kind of equations), with different skills MathType + Word can be the right choice.

    In fact even MathType + Latex can be an interesting one. Most problems I found with the MathType based environment were more Word’s fault than MathType’s.

  4. Stefano Argirò says:

    I can’t find a way to type curly braces {} , backticks ` etc on an italian keyboard under Aquamacs 0-9-9d, do you have any suggestion ?

  5. RiK0 says:

    This is the old version of my blog. In fact it is not upgraded nor mantained.
    The new version is

    This post is here

    The short answer is that you can use Apple-; to toggle Alt use as Meta Key (Emacs commands but *no* braces etc) or standard MacOS alt (that does not enter Emacs commands, but can be used to enter braces etc like in any other Mac application).

    In any case the ESC key is a meta key (you can use alt as alt and esc for meta). This is not very practical indeed. However, you can use Apple (in the Aquamacs wiki they tell how) as a Meta key.

    So you have Alt as Alt and Apple as Meta. Of course you can’t do Apple-C to copy text this way.
    You have to chose which version works better for you.

    But, please, let’s continue the discussion on my new site (I do not watch this one very often).

  6. crackhead says:

    word + mathtype = fail.
    one zilliion errors i want to break the computer screen.
    never, i repeat , never purchase it.

  7. Other equation editors says:

    There are other equation editors such as MathMagic.
    When LaTeX is not an option for some reason and WYSIWYG equation editor is needed, MathMagic would be the best equation editor, as an alternative to MathType.

    MathMagic reads MathType equations and other equation formats including LaTeX, MathML, Google Docs, MS Word equations, …
    More features, better quality.
    Although it is a commerical product, it is worth a trying. Their trial version is avialable here:

    There are also many great equation editors including some online equation editors although most of them are based on LaTeX.

    Here you can find a comparison table.

    As we all have to deal with math equations anyway, let’s hope some better solutions in the near future such as handwritten recognition or speech recognition or so.

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