Review: LyX is an advanced but easy-to-use document processor based on LaTeX typesetting

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder LyX

    PCWorld Rating

    LyX is a good program for typesetting large documents, particularly scientific documents.

When one thinks of document editors, it's usually Microsoft Word and Google Docs that come to mind. But in the world of word processors there are marquee names, and then there are some worthies not yet in the limelight. Advanced cross-platform document processor LyX has its merits. LyX is free and Open Source. LyX's workflow is something of an adjustment from Microsoft Word, but learning it can pay off. The results are similar to professional typesetting.

Creating our first document on LyX is as simple as any other: Go to File – New. You can copy-paste or type your first text without bothering about any formatting. To start with formatting, we will say LyX uses Environments. Environments are lot like Microsoft Word and its use of Styles to format documents with consistency. But Environments give far greater control across a variety of document types.

Document processors are usually WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). LyX is WYSIWYM (What You See Is What You Mean), though the frontend does not differ much from any other document editor. The way LyX controls the layout of the document lies in the background, where it uses powerful typesetting markup language LaTeX.

The default Environment is Standard. LyX has different Environments for typesetting sections, lists, sub-lists, verses, quotations, bibliography etc. Expanding the dropdown, we can choose to apply the appropriate ones and within a few clicks, our basic document now starts looking more professional. Different Text Styles can be used on the text. It can be previewed with a PDF reader.

The idea is to separate the content from its presentation. Precise control over layout is a must for academic and scientific authoring. This is where LyX comes into its own. LaTeX is complicated. LyX is the friendly GUI. The program handles the final presentation, leaving the writer with only the business of writing the content. The end result is a more attractive and consistent document.

Different documents like a book, a thesis, a letter etc. need to be typeset differently. LyX uses Document classes which tell it how to typeset the document so that we don't have to bother about the distinctions. Each choice of a Document class also changes the Environments which go with it. Some are built-in but many Document classes and layout options are available online which allow us to extend LyX for all types of document processing needs.

LyX is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, with unofficial ports for OS/2 and Haiku. For a fresh installation on Windows, opt for the 200MB bundle, which is fully functional and includes the complete LaTeX distribution (MiKTeX) and a bibliography manager. A 35MB update installation is available for older versions of LyX with LaTeX already installed on the system.

LyX shows why the program is geared for the scientific community with its versatile Math toolbar. The Math toolbar helps us to create complex mathematical formulas easily. LyX has a detailed Math manual that explains all the features.

Lyx uses MiKTeX, an up-to-date implementation of TeX/LaTeX. It is composed of packages (programs, styles, fonts etc.) that help to format and render documents. Many of the packages are optional. During the course of your text processing, the program might prompt you to update the packages if it finds that you need a custom package not available with the default installation. LyX You can search for relevant packages using the Package Manager and install them.

Remember, LyX is WYSIWYM. In its raw form, the document might look like a mish-mash of brackets and typesetting elements. When you have finished with your text, render it with the default PDF reader. You can save it and render it later, or export it in many different formats (HTML, Open Document, Plain Text).

On first launch, the GUI does not seem any different from a standard document processor (though it doesn't resemble Microsoft Word's Ribbon interface). If getting on the learning curve feels slightly overwhelming, you can avail yourself of very detailed instructions in LyX.org's Introduction, Tutorial, User Guide, and additional manuals in the Help menu.

If you have a long and cluttered document waiting to be prepared, try your hand on LyX. It costs no money, and for complex scientific documents, it could end up saving you time.

Note: The Download button on the Product Information page takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    LyX is a good program for typesetting large documents, particularly scientific documents.

    Pros

    • A user-friendly, open-source, cross-platform interface for someone who does not know LaTeX
    • True typeset output
    • Intuitive mathematical formula editor

    Cons

    • A steep learning curve
    • No direct LyX to MS Word conversion
    • Collaboration with people who don't use LyX is difficult
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