How they test – Papeeria, ShareLaTeX, and Overleaf

Leaping

The online editor and the PDF viewer lie in the next two frames to the right. You can jump in both directions with an arrow key, switching from a PDF document to the relevant place in the editor, and vice versa. This feature proves to be extremely helpful when working with LaTeX. Buttons for compiling, viewing the log, and access to other output files are placed above the PDF viewer.

The frame to the far right provides an area for project-related conversations. The design is generally modest in a positive sense, although the unified menubars in Papeeria occasionally organize work somewhat more elegantly.

The frame division proves to be somewhat inconvenient when you are working in the editing layer if you want to look up documentation or support functions, which are only accessible at the project layer. The developers are not currently planning to add context-sensitive support.

Editing functions are limited to the essentials, which is perfectly adequate for speedy and smooth work with LaTeX. Automatic code completion is a well-implemented feature and is turned on and off separately for each project. An interesting addition for those who have only a little experience with LaTeX would be to make the LaTeX code invisible so that only the content could be seen. Unfortunately, the editor does not offer this feature.

The editor supports files with UTF-8 encoding exclusively, which means projects that have been in progress for decades cannot be continued when changing over to ShareLaTeX. According to the developers, this aspect of LaTeX is rarely criticized; therefore, it will probably not see any changes in the near future.

The LaTeX version installed is TeX Live 2014, which compiled all of the prepared documents without any errors. However, I could not figure out why some of the texts did not produce a valid PDF with pdflatex, even though the DVI file generated could be converted without problem into error-free PS and PDF files. Once I compiled the text again, I was always successful. The error appeared only rarely during testing and was possibly the result of short periods of high server load.

TeX Live behaves like a local installation. If you move LaTeX packages and style files not made available by the provider into the document directory, LaTeX finds them during compilation. If requested packages are missing, the ShareLaTeX team installs most of them when asked to do so.

Very Inviting

The ShareLaTeX user can make a project available at the editing layer, either with write permission or as read only. The share settings have been well designed. Invited collaborators do not have to do anything to accept the invitation. ShareLaTeX lists the most recent changes to the open file right next to the share list (Figure 4). This file history, or Recent Changes, lets you undo changes or re-create them. The history also shows which user has made which change. The service synchronizes the project files with other services and local installations via Dropbox and GitHub.

Figure 4: The file history shows the details of any changes made to the document.

ShareLaTeX has an impressive number of templates for creating new text files. Unfortunately they are not tagged, nor are they very well sorted. For example, if you go to the Thesis category, you will find 185 templates for use with undergraduate theses, dissertations, and undergraduate and graduate papers. The program advises you as to which template fulfills requirements set by a particular university. However, the program is silent on the topic of how the template is built and the settings used for compiling it. You will also look in vain for a filter that restricts the view to templates that are compilable with XeLaTeX. Templates for use outside of the scientific disciplines are in short supply in the ShareLaTeX directory.

ShareLaTeX costs $15 per month for 10 coworkers and $30 per month for an unlimited number of coworkers. The service also incorporates a fee-based editing service, Enago [15], which lets you purchase text-related services ranging from proofreading to text editing.

Large portions of the project are freely available in the source code. This means that users can look at the source code if they are thinking of building a similar service or if they want to get a glimpse behind the scenes [16]. ShareLaTeX also offers a service named DataJoy [17] for the statistical computing language R and for working with Python, although the service is not accepting new accounts and will be shut down completely on January 2, 2017.

The developers were easy to communicate with and information exchange went quickly. The web pages clearly state who is responsible for what.

Overleaf

The online service Overleaf [6], previously known as WriteLaTeX, was started in 2011. The goal of the founder was to support all users who wanted to compose their text with LaTeX and exchange their work with teams at the same time. The thought was that an online service would allow users to focus their attention on content instead of spending so much time dealing with installation issues.

Once logged in, you land directly in the project directory as you would with other services. The directory contains the usual project-related functions (e.g., create new file, rename, delete, archive, copy). Additionally, you can clone LaTeX projects to GitHub from here. All of the other functions are found on the editing layer.

An extensive set of templates are available for setting up a new project, and they come with comments and are tagged with keywords. All users, not just scholars, can profit by using Overleaf templates. Some templates can be used for everyday office activities, creating posters, sending visually pleasing business correspondence, or designing a calendar for annual vacation planning.

Figure 5 shows the clean display in editing mode, which is only available in English. The screen looks tidy and well put together thanks to the organization of the frames. Compared with ShareLaTeX, the horizontal arrangement of frames has a simple and easy-to-understand menu structure that is much more appealing.

Figure 5: Editing mode in Overleaf, which only comes in English. LaTeX displays an error message when you try to compile a file with ISO Latin 1 encoding.

The left frame is used for file administration and can be hidden and displayed by clicking the Project button that sits above. This frame also contains commands for downloading the project files from the server (Download as ZIP) or for depositing them in a Dropbox account. Google Drive users can also upload files. Overleaf hides DVI, AUX, and LOG files in this structure. However, the files are found in the downloadable ZIP archive of each project.

Like ShareLaTeX, the Overleaf division of functions is somewhat inconsistent. It is unclear which belong to the project layer and which to the editing layer, although you can easily become familiar with this situation in both services. The nearby buttons Versions and Share are self-explanatory: the Versions button lets you compare multiple versions of a file in frames that sit side by side, and Share generates links for write permission or read-only access to the project files to be shared.

When sensitive content is involved, you should exercise caution, because everyone who receives a link has user rights. The fee-based version, however, has extended access control. During testing, I was surprised to see links that provide access to projects that had already been deleted.

Behind the Publish button are a series of repositories of scientific literature. If you want to publish your project here, you can set it up easily.

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