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The StartX Files: Learning the Ways of LyX - page 2

Lessons in the Circle of Life

  • October 30, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

LyX is pretty easy to get a hold of, when you want it. You can point your FTP client to the LyX FTP site and grab tarballs and RPMs of the binaries and source of the latest version in a snap. The RPM I downloaded forLyX 1.1.6fix3, which is the latest stable version, came in at a easy to swallow 3.8 Mb, so it's not a monster to download at all.

Once you get LyX up and running, you will be pleasantly welcomed by an application with a clean interface and smart layout. In a few minutes, however, you may be scratching your head and wondering what the heck to do next.

Even for someone who's had exposure to this type of application, the simple LyX interface will initially offer few clues on how to put a document together. Pure word-processing mavens may completely choke on it and label the application as unusable.

That's because this application uses a completely different method of setting documents up than a word processor. If you try to hold it to the same standards as a word processor, yes, you will be disappointed. So, you need to throw out all of your preconceptions right at the get-go and start treating LyX as something different.

The best way to begin with LyX is to read its well put-together documentation that comes with the application. Notice I did not say review, nor peruse. I said read, and I meant it. It is not a situation where LyX is overly complicated. On the contrary, once you adapt to the LyX Way, the application is pretty simple to use. It's just that you will need to know the LyX approach to doing things.

One big, big change for word-processor users is going to be the complete separation of what's in the document and how the document will look. The main workscreen of LyX is where you enter the content and frame the styles for the text. If you want to see how the document will look, you have to call up a separate display window, which will show the document in the native DVI format, PostScript, HTML, or PDF. This takes a bit of getting used to, since many of us are so used to instant gratification with font style applications. In LyX, you have to wait for a while for the document to be displayed as it will appear in the final format.

How long depends on the target format. I displayed a test document in DVI and it took a very long time to initially open the display window. Once the document was displayed, however, then any changes I made in the content window would be instantly shown in the display window--after I clicked the Update button in the display window. This manual updating is something else that takes getting used to.

I do not point these features out as criticisms of LyX. Rather, they are meant to be realistic guidelines for what LyX will and will not do. With all of these different paradigms, would I recommend LyX to a word-processor junkie? Probably not. But would I recommend it to an IT staff that needed to do some serious documentation work for their company? You bet your sweet bippy, I would!

As far as interoperability is concerned, LyX is available both on Linux and Win32 systems, and can produce documents within the PDF and HTML formats. There is a Word import feature in LyX, but it did not work on my Linux machine.

LyX will never be the ultimate replacement for a word processor, although its got some of the same tools, like spell checking. But for superior document creation, LyX moves way beyond word processing, with excellent figure and table management (though table creation is not for the faint of heart). Not to mention very powerful table of contents and indexing tools. LyX is designed to create professional documents, and that's the area in which it will certainly excel.

Beyond its innate abilities, Bj�nnes has one more interesting feature for Linux users: the ability to present the same interface no matter what desktop environment is running. Known as GUI Independence (GUII), this feature will enable LyX to be right at home on KDE, GNOME, or whatever. And GUII is one of the main focuses of the LyX developers, with whom I conversed earlier this week.

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