How they test – Papeeria, ShareLaTeX, and Overleaf

Linux Ahoy!

With Overleaf, you have project-specific and overlapping settings under the Settings icon on the right side of the screen. A pleasant discovery is that the default settings for the editor can be adapted to Vim and Emac. This should make Linux users happy, especially because numerous editor themes are provided.

The second frame containing the editor can be hidden or displayed. Its menu structure offers various common functions important in dealing with LaTeX, like keyboard shortcuts.

The Rich Text display mode should be interesting in the context of team work. Overleaf has put numerous control commands and LaTeX code sequences there and displays the results they generate. This is an experimental feature, but it should nonetheless be helpful for those who are put off by the thought of text coding.

Overleaf does not display comments in its own frame and instead embeds them in the text. Short text is therefore difficult to administer and read. The conversation structure in ShareLaTeX is easier to use. Moreover, the chat information in Overleaf gets lost when a project is transferred from one colleague to another.

The editor displays the UTF-8 character encoding and other international character encodings correctly. Unfortunately, a valid PDF file did not appear when the test file was compiled in ISO Latin 1 text encoding. Strangely, Overleaf repeatedly failed to generate PDFs even though the DVI files that had been created appeared to be free of errors. These files also could be converted into valid and display-ready PDF files without problem. Apparently, the Overleaf programmers are taking the LaTeX errors and warnings too seriously. As a result, the platform will occasionally not display functioning PDF files.

The current version of Overleaf uses the TeX Live 2015 distribution. This behavior, as noted with the other two services, is conspicuously inconspicuous.

When you encounter frequent coding problems in LaTeX, it is a good idea to read the help files and logfiles created during compilation. Papeeria and ShareLaTeX make these available online. With Overleaf, you will need to evaluate the data locally, which is cumbersome on a notebook, extremely difficult on mobile devices, and therefore ultimately one of the major shortcomings of the service.

Helpful

Both LaTeX and Overleaf help is available from a button located on the right side of the screen in the horizontal bar. Thoughtfully organized, a search function quickly takes you to important information. The remainder of the LaTeX body of knowledge is typically found using your favorite search engine.

Session management in Overleaf also prevents you from participating in multiple projects at the same time unless you log out and back in again. Sadly, you often gain important insight just after logging out. LaTeX users who administer their bibliography and cited sources in clear text with Zotero [18] or Mendeley [19] find that Overleaf accepts data from both services.

The free version permits an unlimited number of projects and collaborators provided there are no more than 60 files per project. The fee-based versions cost $8 and $12 per month for 10GB, and no more than 500 files, and 20GB, and no more than 1,000 files, of storage space, respectively.

Communication with the Overleaf developers via the contact form on the website and by email worked perfectly. Their answers were helpful and delivered promptly. As it turned out, though, we had the fewest number of questions with Overleaf.

Conclusion

If you want to use LaTeX anytime and anywhere, the three online solutions presented here are eminently practical. Authors who lack funds are better advised not to use the free version of Papeeria, because it has significant disadvantages not found in its fee-based counterparts that impede productive work.

All three providers expend considerable effort to create a frictionless environment for teamwork, and they have succeeded. Two of the providers, ShareLaTeX and Overleaf, are deficient in session management by preventing users who want, or need, to work on multiple projects from achieving effective teamwork. Papeeria shines here because its developers have taken this particular scenario into account.

To derive reasonable use from the services, it suffices to have basic LaTeX knowledge and a modern browser. Large display screens have a positive effect on productivity. Users with mobile devices roughly the size of a smart phone should probably rely on a locally installed app like TeX Writer or VerbTeX. Both of these do much better with display screens ranging from 4 to 6 inches diagonally.

The load and compile times of the online services are short and definitely competitive with those the average notebook achieves. This is equally true for large documents with complex document structure.

The big advantage to online services like those discussed here is that they let you concentrate on content instead of installation. Therefore, it is possible to get started quickly in an educational environment and in a productive work environment. It doesn't matter whether you are working alone or on a team, everything sets up and works quickly. Team members can help one another by letting knowledgeable participants deal with more complex LaTeX properties, so the remainder of the team is not slowed down or does not become discouraged. This reason alone is a big plus.

An online LaTeX editor cannot be used as a substitute for a conventional text editing system. The display in rich text mode helps bring less confident colleagues on board large TeX projects. Although the services are intended for scholars, they can also be helpful in publishing other material. For example, publishers can offer their authors a professional encoding system that helps avoid unwieldy manuscripts.

When comparing the services, you will quickly determine that each comes with both clear advantages and at least one shortcoming. Table 1 helps acquaint you with these characteristics.

Table 1

Feature Overview

Feature

Papeeria

ShareLaTeX

Overleaf

International character encoding

No

No

Yes

Syntax highlighting

Yes

Yes

Yes

Code completion

Yes

Yes

Yes

Useful editor adaptations

 No

No

Yes

Rich text editing and display

No

No

Yes

Multilanguage interface

No

Yes

No

Browser compatibility

Yes

Yes

Yes

Suitable for mobile devices

No

Yes

Yes

Number of functions with free account

Limited

Sufficient

Sufficient

Adjustable print quality

No

No

No

TrueType and OpenType fonts

Yes

Yes

Yes

Management for multiple sessions

Yes

No

No

Synchronization with GitHub and Dropbox

Yes

Yes

Yes

Built-in version administration

No

No

Yes

Quality of the LaTeX installation

Good

Good

Good

Compile settings

Yes

Yes

Yes

Hidden LaTeX coding

Not possible

Not possible

Possible

Team support

Yes

Yes

Yes

Source code available

No

Yes

No

Developers available

No

Yes

Yes

The Author

Dr. Harald Jele works at the University in Klagenfurt, Austria. He became acquainted with LaTeX in 1993 after switching to a Linux server and desktop. Since then, he prefers not to be without either.

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