Collaborative LaTeX Editors: ShareLaTeX vs Overleaf

I have used both Overleaf [referral link] and ShareLaTeX [referral link] for multiple collaborative papers over the last 2 years or so. For many months I thought there is little to separate them. I have finally come to a conclusion about which I prefer. Yeah, I took my time. Anyway, here’s why.

First, it’s important to note that both are pretty good at what they do. If you’re simply after a way of writing and compiling LaTeX documents with your collaborators and you’re not particularly picky, then honestly either would do. Also note that I’m only reviewing the free tiers of these services for us pauper academics.

Ok, let’s split some hairs!

Let’s start with ShareLaTeX which I tend to use slightly more and more. The interface is minimal but effective. It is designed for folks comfortable with LaTeX without much bells and whistles. Having said that, this minimal interface has got a lot to help your LaTeXing such as:

  • Choice of 4 compilers (pdfLaTeX = default, LaTeX, XeLaTeX, LuaLaTeX)
  • Automated checkpointing with roll-backs of full document history
  • Built-in chat server
  • See online collaborators and what they are editing
  • Simple keyboard shortcuts that could be changed to Emacs or Vim keybindings
  • Syntax highlighting (with about 2 dozen color themes)
  • Manually-triggered output preview pane, with different compile options and syntax checks
  • Total word count
  • Tag projects with keywords
  • Sync with DropBox and GitHub
  • Private documents by default
  • Autocompletion of commands and reference names

There’s more; I just picked the things that seem most important to me. Some of the above features are not enabled for free accounts, but you can reach them easily as I explain at the end of this post.

Let’s move swiftly to Overleaf. This is clearly designed for people who are new to / skeptical of LaTeX. The interface has 2 modes: ‘Source’ for the LaTeX-competent and ‘Rich Text’ for the non. The latter is not intended to be a WYSIWYG editor (ala LEd) but is much more user-friendly with as little markup as possible and a few edit buttons (bold, italic, new section, bullets, etc.).

I tend to instinctively recommend Overleaf for colleagues who are allergic to LaTeX. Having said that, the rich editor is not really that rich. A common response I get from such folks is “this is very restrictive” and “I don’t know how to…”, which are fair comments. Most other online editors they would use (on blogs, Moodle, etc.) have more functionality which makes them expect more and leave them disappointed. I don’t really care much about this issue because I think (1) it is a difficult problem to solve; and (2) sovling it completely dissolves the benefits of LaTeX editing anyway. But it is noteworthy because many academics are not LaTeX people and will ask about this before anything else.

The main features Overleaf gives you are:

  • Choice of 4 compilers (LaTeX dvipdf, pdfLaTeX, XeLaTeX, LuaLaTeX)
  • Automated checkpointing but only for very limited number of recent changes
  • Built-in comments
  • Simple keyboard shortcuts that could be changed to Emacs or Vim keybindings
  • Syntax highlighting (with about 2 dozen color themes)
  • Automatic and manually-triggered output preview pane
  • Total word count
  • Tag projects with keywords
  • Clone projects with git
  • Autocompletion of commands and reference names
  • Auto-closing brackets
  • Access to an impressive repository of templates

What it lacks, compared to ShareLaTeX, in descending order of importance IMHO is:

  1. Cannot see online collaborators and what they are editing
  2. Documents are public by default and until you pay for Pro level
  3. No built-in chat server
  4. No full history
  5. No sync with DropBox or GitHub
  6. No choice of compilers

Let’s go through these.

You wouldn’t think #1 is important until you use Overleaf and find the document changing in front of your very own overworked eyes without knowing who is doing that. This becomes especially alarming when my paranoia kicks in due to #2. Each new Overleaf document gets a URL with a 13 digit hash code. This URL is unlisted and not indexed by search engines like Google. However, the page is unprotected: This URL is public: anyone with the URL can view and edit the document. Of course it is quite difficult to guess the URL but coupled with #1 it makes me uneasy whenever the mentioned ghost editing experience happens. Also, you cannot un-invite a collaborator or anyone who ends up with the URL for whatever reason (apart from making a copy and purging the original – not an elegant solution). What’s more is that #3 means you have to have Skype or whatever else open on the side to send panic messages like “WHO’S EDITING SECTION 4.3!??!?!” and hope someone responds.

#4 and #5 are such an unhappy couple. Full document history is preserved for Pro levels, as well as syncing to DropBox. This means us peasant academics will have to be content with “goldfish documents”, i.e. those with an extremely short memory (which I think is capped at 24 hours). I don’t like this. Although I don’t require to refer to the full history of a paper all the time, every now and again I do in order to check where the document has gone on a tangent or if collaborators are undoing and redoing each other’s changes. These are things that you sometimes have to deal with in collaborative papers and I will not be online all the time to look out for them. Hence the importance of having a full history and the ability to roll back as a possible resolution. Overleaf really disappoints in this regard. “Nevermind, I can do this outside Overleaf.” Nope. Syncing options are not for you, peasant. You can clone it in git like the nerd you are, and have fun troping through the “Update on Overleaf” commits. Just pray none of them is by

Anonymous <anonymous@overleaf.com>

Finally, you cannot choose your compiler in Overleaf. Never caused me any loss of sleep but I know a couple of XeLaTeX devotees out there who would flip tables over this. You can choose your compiler in Overleaf, which is something I missed before till they got in touch.

What does Overleaf have over ShareLaTeX? A few things, but all of which I can happily live without.

  1. “Rich” text editor
  2. Built-in comments
  3. Automatic update of output preview pane
  4. Clone projects with git
  5. Auto-closing brackets
  6. Access to an impressive repository of templates

I already covered #1. #2 only works in the rich editor, so I have no need for it. #3 is not bad but is RAM hungry which makes Overleaf a bit heavier (see below). #4 is pretty neat, but I find that I’m either collaborating through a git repo or using an online editor. Maybe others need the hybrid setup, in which case this side of Overleaf would be quite handy. #5 is nice. #6 is great but open for all anyway.

On memory use, I did a few quick tests on Firefox 50.1. Here are the results:

  • Homepage: 15MB for ShareLaTeX vs. 24MB for Overleaf
  • Project open: 40MB for ShareLaTeX vs. 69-72MB for Overleaf
  • Project compiling: 49-50MB for ShareLaTeX vs. 71-74MB for Overleaf
  • Project co-editing + compiling: 58MB for ShareLaTeX vs. 76-79MB for Overleaf

(For context: typical Google Doc ~65MB, Twitter ~67MB, BBC ~22MB)

Overall, ShareLaTeX is quite lighter and you can tell.

Another thing on Overleaf. On a recent paper it lost some changes I made. I got all my co-authors to pinky swear they didn’t edit that part, so it might be one of those ghosts I discussed above. This happened on the deadline day of that paper! Thankfully it wasn’t a lot I needed to re-do, and I couldn’t recreate this issue so I’ll leave it there but it sure left a bad taste.

A final note on free tiers and upgrade models. Both give you freebies the more users you bring to them, but at very different rates. Yes you start with only 1 collaborator and no history/DropBox in ShareLaTeX, but you can get easily ramp up: bring 1 user and you get another free collaborator, 3 you get 3, 6 you get another 3 plus DropBox syncing and full history, 9 and you get unlimited. I did this quite quickly by talking to colleagues on my floor and they signed up. In Overleaf, you get unlimited collaborators from the get go which is great! Referrals only bring you additional storage capacity (you start with 1GB which is enough). You cannot bring them enough users to get full history or DropBox syncing.

Final pet peeve: neither of them highlights BibTeX syntax ಠ_ಠ

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2 thoughts on “Collaborative LaTeX Editors: ShareLaTeX vs Overleaf

  1. Thank you for the extensive review. It got me to check out Share LaTex, and indeed I find it quicker and more comfortable to work in than Overleaf. However, the ability to clone projects locally in Overleaf is a killer feature for me. The thing is, I prefer working through local Latex editors most of the time, and only occasionally switch to online editor. The ability to push and pull changes directly from my laptop (in a free version!) is really quite useful. If I were to get the same convenience in Share Latex I would have to:
    a) Pay for the Pro version
    b) Add the extra step of setting up GitHub repos and suchlike

    • PS. Overleaf also has a feature of importing files via URL which can be quite handy. I make a lot of presentations in Beamer, and grabbing images directly from the web is quite nice. In Share Latex one needs to download to computer first, then upload again.

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