Unlike many computer programs, LaTeX is not a single application containing ‘everything’ in one. Instead, there are separate programs that work together. We can divide those up into two things you actually need:
The core of working with LaTeX is having a TeX system available. A TeX system is a set of ‘behind the scenes’ programs and files that are needed to make LaTeX work, but most of the time you don’t directly ‘run’ this.
There are two major TeX systems available today, MiKTeX and TeX Live. Both are available for Windows, macOS and Linux. MiKTeX has a strong background on Windows; on macOS, TeX Live is bundled into a larger collection called MacTeX. There are advantages to each system, and you might want to look at some more advice from the LaTeX Project.
As TeX Live is available on all common platforms, and as it has some performance advantages, we recommend that if you are unsure which system to install, you choose TeX Live.
LaTeX files are simply plain text, so they can be edited with any text editor. However, it’s most convenient to have an editor that is designed to work with LaTeX, as they provide features like one-click compilation of your files, built-in PDF viewers, and syntax highlighting. A really useful feature in all modern LaTeX editors is SyncTeX: the ability to click on your source and go straight to your PDF, or back the other way.
There are many more LaTeX editors than we can hope to list here: there is a comprehensive list on StackExchange. A basic editor, TeXworks, is included in TeX Live and MiKTeX on Windows and Linux, and TeXShop is included in MacTeX.
Whichever editor you pick, we recommend you install it after your TeX system, so that the editor can ‘find’ the TeX system and set itself up correctly.
There are several powerful online sites nowadays that allow you to avoid the need to install a TeX system and LaTeX editor at all. These websites work by letting you edit your files in the webpage, then they run LaTeX behind the scenes, and display the PDF that is produced.
Some of these sites combine LaTeX with features similar to a word processor, whereas others are more focused on letting you see the LaTeX code and so are closer to having a local installation.
There are systems that let you run LaTeX without needing to be logged in, and we are using one of those, LaTeX CGI, to let you edit and test the examples we give. For more complete work, the best online systems require that you register before you use them. That lets you save your work but also helps the sites not get overloaded. We have set up links so you can edit our examples using Overleaf, one of the major websites for LaTeX online. There are of course others: Papeeria is an example.
If you are planning to send your LaTeX sources to destinations which process them, such as publishers, conference organisers or pre-print servers (e.g. arXiv), you should check what restrictions they impose.
Get yourself set up with a local LaTeX installation or an account with an online LaTeX service. If you are using a local installation, you’ll need to pick an editor too: we recommend starting with either TeXworks or TeX Shop (see above), then looking at other editors later once you know how you work best with LaTeX.
You’ll be able to run all of our other exercises in your browser, but we want to help you get working with real documents, so now is a great time to get yourself ready.