TeX on Windows: TeX Live versus MiKTeX revisited

On Windows, users have two main choices of TeX system to install: TeX Live or MiKTeX. I’ve looked at this before a couple of times: first in 2009 then again in 2011. Over the past few years both systems have developed, so it seems like a good time to revisit this. (I know from my logs that this is one of the most popular topics I’ve covered!)

The first thing to say is that for almost all ‘end users’ (with a TeX system on their own PC just for them to use), both options are fine: they’ll probably notice no difference between the two in use. It’s also worth noting that there is a third option: W32TeX. I’ve mentioned this before: it’s popular in the far East and is where the Windows binaries for TeX Live come from. (There’s a close relationship between W32TeX and TeX Live, with W32TeX more ‘focussed’ and expecting more user decisions in installing.)

Assuming you are going for one of the ‘big two’, what is there to think about? For most people, it’s simply:

  • Both MiKTeX and TeX Live include a ‘full’ set of TeX-related binaries, including the engines pdfTeX, XeTeX, LuaTeX and support programs such as BibTeX, Biber, MakeIndex and Xindy.
  • The standard installer for MiKTeX installs ‘just the basics’ and uses on-the-fly installation for anything else you need; the standard install for TeX Live is ‘everything’ (about 4.5 Gb!). Which is right for you will depend on how much space you have: you can of course customise the installation of either system to include more or less of the ‘complete’ set up.
  • MiKTeX has a slightly more flexibly approach to licensing than TeX Live does: there are a small number of LaTeX packages that MiKTeX includes that TeX Live does not. (Probably the most obvious example is thesis.)
  • TeX Live has a Unix background so the management GUI looks slightly less ‘standard’ than the MiKTeX one.
  • TeX Live has a strict once-a-year freeze,which means that to update you have to do a fresh install once a year. On the other hand, MiKTeX versions change only when there is a significant change and otherwise ‘roll onward’.

So the decision is likely to come down to whether you want auto-installation of packages. (If you do go for MiKTeX on a one-user PC, choose the ‘Just for me’ installation option: it makes life a lot simpler!)

For more advanced users there are a few more factors you probably want to consider

  • TeX Live was originally developed on Unix and so is available for Linux and on the Mac (and other systems) as well as Windows; MiKTeX is a Windows system so is (more-or-less) Windows-only. So if you want exactly the same set up on Windows and other operating systems, this of course means you need to use TeX Live.
  • Both systems have graphical management tools as well as command line interfaces. They have a lot in common, but they are not identical (in particular, MiKTeX tends to emulate TeX Live command line interfaces, but the reverse is not true).
  • The engine binaries in TeX Live are (almost) never updated other than in the yearly freeze period, meaning that for a given release you know which version of pdfTeX, etc., you’ll have: MiKTeX is more flexible with such updates. (At different times, one or other of the systems can be more ‘up to date’: this is not necessarily predictable! The W32TeX system often has very up-to-date testing binaries.)
  • The two systems differ slightly in handling how local trees are managed (places to add TeX files that are not controlled by the TeX system itself). TeX Live automatically expects <installation root>/texmf-local to hold system-wide ‘local’ additions and <user root>/texmf to hold per-user additions, whereas MiKTeX has no out-of-the box locations, but does make it easier to add and remove them from the command line. MiKTeX also makes it easy to add multiple per-user trees, whereas for TeX Live there’s more of an assumption that all user additions will be added in one place. (This makes it easier in MiKTeX to add/remove local additions by altering a setting in the TeX system rather than deleting files.)
  • TeX Live has a team doing the work; MiKTeX is a one-man project. This cuts both ways: you know exactly who is doing everything in MiKTeX (Christian Schenk), and he’s very fast, but there is more ‘spread’ in TeX Live for the work.
  • For people wanting to step quickly between different versions of TeX system, the fact that TeX Live freezes once a year makes life convenient (I have TeX Live 2009,2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 installed at present, plus MiKTeX 2.9 of course!) You can switch installations by adjusting the PATH or by choosing the appropriate version from your editor, so have a ‘fall back’ if there is an issue when you update.
  • TeX Live has build-in package backup during maintenance updates.

TeX on Windows: MiKTeX or TeX Live

Around two years ago, I wrote a short post comparing MiKTeX and TeX Live for Windows-based TeX users. Looking at my log files, this topic is perhaps the most common search term that brings people here. As such, I think it’s time to revisit the question and bring what I said before up to date.

On Windows, there are two actively-developed TeX systems with similar coverage: MiKTeX and TeX Live. Before I look at the comparison, a reminder that they are not the only choices. W32TeX is popular in the far east, and as well as being a TeX system in its own right is the source of the Windows binaries for TeX Live. There are also the commercial BaKoMa and VTeX systems (although whether anyone can get hold of the supplier of the latter is another question). However, for most users it comes down to a choice between the ‘big two’.

The good news is that there is a lot of similarity between the two systems, so for most users both systems are equally usable. However, there are differences and depending on what you need these might be important.

  • The standard settings install everything for TeX Live, but only a minimal set of packages for MiKTeX. MiKTeX will then install extra packages ‘on the fly’, while TeX Live does not (there is a package to do that in TeX Live, but it’s aimed at Linux). Install-on-the-fly is useful if space is limited, but is more problematic on server set ups. So this is very much a feature who’s usefulness depends on your circumstances. Of course, there is nothing to stop you using MiKTeX and installing everything.
  • The xindy program is only available in TeX Live. For those of you not familiar with it, xindy is an index-processor, and is much more capable of dealing with multi-lingual situations than MakeIndex. If you need xindy, TeX Live really is the way to go.
  • MiKTeX is very much a Windows tool set, while TeX Live comes from a Unix background. This shows up from time to time in the way TeX Live is administered, and the fact that the TeX Live GUI is written based on Perl rather than as a ‘native’ Windows application.
  • As TeX Live is the basis of MacTeX, and is the TeX system for Unix, if you work cross-platform and want an identical system on all of your machines, then TeX Live is the way to go.

Spaces in file names

Spaces in file names are a constant issue for LaTeX users. As many people will know, TeX is not really very happy with spaces, as they are used to delimit the end of input in a lot of low-level macros. This shows up particularly in two areas: graphics and shell escape. For graphics, the excellent grffile package will deal with many of the issues. When using shell escape, the issue is usually that \jobname may be slightly odd. For TeX Live users, that is not so much of a problem as the name is automatically quoted to protect the space. However, MiKTeX does things a bit differently, and uses a star in place of a space. So you end up with

> \example=macro:
l.2 \show\example

which is not exactly helpful. However, it is possible to deal with this, as recently mentioned on TeX.SX. As * cannot normally appear in file names, and \jobname makes all characters have category code 12, a simple approach is to do a quick replacement

\def*{ }
\catcode`\*=12 %

If you want to deal with both TeX Live and MiKTeX, you’d of course need first to test which system is in use (for example using \pdftexbanner).

Updating LaTeX3 support in MiKTeX

The LaTeX3 Project have recently updated the organisation of the various LaTeX3-based packages on CTAN. This means that the older expl3 and xpackages need to be replaced by l3kernel and l3packages. Unfortunately, this seems to confuse MiKTeX, which does not pick up the need to install the new material. So MiKTeX users will need to do this by hand in the MiKTeX Package Manager. This should be a passing problem, but does seem to be causing some confusion for MiKTeX users.

TeX and security

Security in computer programs is always an issue, with the balance between ease of use and security never being a simple black and white line. There’s a very interesting paper, being presented at an upcoming conference, about TeX security issues. This is particularly significant to MiKTeX users, as it’s led to a change in how MiKTeX implements certain features.

One of the well-known security questions with TeX is whether to enable \write18, and as a result this is off by default in TeX Live and MiKTeX. Another area that is of obvious concern is the \openout primitive, which allows writing a new file and could therefore be used for undesirable purposes. Of course, this functionality is also important: writing to files is how LaTeX manages a whole range of automated cross-referencing. So there is a balance to be struck: we need \openout, but not at any cost.

The TeX Live team have taken the attitude that \openout should be able to write within the current directory structure but not outside of it. This can be seen with a couple of very similar plain TeX test files. If you try

\immediate\openout\mywrite test/test.xxx

then everything will be fine and the test file will be created. On the other hand

\immediate\openout\mywrite ../test.xxx

will raise an error. The behaviour with MiKTeX was to allow both (and also absolute paths, etc.). That has now been altered, so that MiKTeX behaves in the same way as TeX Live (at least, that’s what it looks like in my tests).

Reading the MiKTeX lists, the new behaviour is causing issues because LaTeX’s \include relies on \openout. Quite a lot of MiKTeX users have been doing things like:

\include{C:/Users/<user>/My Documents/Chapters/chapter1.tex}



which used to work and now does not. There is a setting which enables the old behaviour, but it’s not really to be recommended, I think. So users will have to rearrange their input a bit to reflect the new more secure approach.

There are some other interesting points in the paper on TeX security. One is that making a truly secure LaTeX implementation (to use as a web service) is basically impossible. The MathTran site gets mentioned as the most secure TeX web service: it uses a specially hardened version of plain TeX, with no access to things like \csname, \catcode and so on to make it secure. For LaTeX, that is probably not possible (at least with LaTeX2e). Worth reading, but for those of us who just use TeX on our own computers not quite so immediately relevant.

Windows TeX Users: MiKTeX or TeX Live

I was talking to someone at work recently, and the topic of whether to choose MiKTeX or TeX Live on Windows came up. With MiKTeX 2.8 released and TeX Live 2009 due out any day, I thought I’d make a few comments.

First, both systems are very capable, so there is not really a “wrong” decision. However, when installing you do have to pick one. In the past, MiKTeX was the best choice for Windows by a distance, but recent work on TeX Live has altered this. So I’d say there are some factors to balance against each other.

  • If you work on Windows and on Unix, then TeX Live is the system to favour. It preforms essentially in the same way across platforms, whereas you’ll get some minor differences if you use MiKTeX on Windows and TeX Live on Unix.
  • If you want to only install what you use, go for MiKTeX. TeX Live doesn’t have anything to match the auto-installation system in MiKTeX.
  • On the other hand, if your happiest installing everything in one go, go for TeX Live. It does this by default, and includes any new packages when you do an update. For MiKTeX, a full installation is something you have to do deliberately.

As you’ll see, there is not much in it! I’m mainly using TeX Live, but still have MiKTeX around as well.

EPS graphics with PDF(La)TeX

One issue a lot of people find confusing with (La)TeX is the rules about which types of graphic files work with which engines. EPS files are fine when going via the DVI route, but do not work with direct PDF creation. The solution is to turn the EPS files in PDFs, and the problem goes away. However, there is then the question of how to do the conversion.

For most documents, having to convert every file by hand is not a sensible choice. The next nearest thing is the epstopdf package, which will do the same thing but from within a LaTeX run. However, it needs \write18 enabled, and this is not always desirable. More importantly, a lot of people who struggle with the graphics problem do not know how to turn on \write18 anyway. A good way around has been added to the latest version of TeX Live, which is currently in the final testing stages. TeX Live 2009 has some restricted \write18 functions enabled as standard, and also has a version of epstopdf “built in”. The result is that EPS files are automatically converted to PDF files, in a transparent manner. Of course, this only happens if the PDF does not also exist! At the moment, this feature is not in MiKTeX 2.8, so it is one reason to favour TeX Live 2009 even on Windows.

There are places where epstopdf will not help: for example, when using psfrag or pstricks. There, the best solution will either be auto-pst-pdf or pstool. Both are written by Will Robertson, and both need \write18 enabled to work. pstool is more efficient (it only re-creates graphics as needed), but for some cases on auto-pst-pdt will work. Will has documented both packages very well, so the best way to learn about them is to have a read of the documentation.

TeX Live on Windows

As I posted earlier, the upcoming releases of both MiKTeX and TeX Live have very similar sets of features on Windows. I’ve just stumbled upon something that points up the slight differences that exist, even though this one is a bit complicated.

To detect what system is being used, for things like shell escape tricks, there is a LaTeX package called ifplatform. However, this only works on Windows if MiKTeX is being used. The reason is that while TeX Live aims to be as similar as possible across platforms, MiKTeX can adopt a different approach and stick to Windows conventions. Most of the time, this is transparent but it shows up if you use the -shell-escape option for either system and try to do some testing. Inside ifplatform, you’ll find the lines:

\immediate\write18{echo \ip@win >"\ip@file"}

The idea is that the text written to the temporary file will be different on Windows to on a Unix-like system. MiKTeX will retain the single quotes around the test data:


whereas Unix-like systems will not:


But try using ifplatform with TeX Live on Windows and the test fails. First, no test file gets written at all: a bit of hacking leads to the change of the write line to

\immediate\write18{echo \ip@win > \ip@file}

and then at least the first step works. However, the test file now looks like a Unix one (with no quote marks), and ifplatform gets things wrong. So for the moment the only thing to do is create a stub package file and use it, something like:

\ProvidesPackage{ifplatform}[2007/11/18 v0.2  Testing for the operating system]

I’ve reported the problem to Will Robertson, and hopefully a solution which really tests the OS rather than the TeX system can be found. However, it is a reminder that even with very general feature sets, the two major TeX distributions still act differently in some respects when used on Windows.

Testing MiKTeX 2.8 and TeX Live 2009

Both MiKTeX and TeX Live have new versions in the offing. I’ve been testing out both MiKTeX 2.8 and TeX Live 2009, to keep up to date with what is happening. In the past, I’ve tended to stick with MiKTeX as it is designed for Windows, and so can make some platform-specific decisions and be more focussed. However, the TeX Live team have done a lot of work to make TeX Live usable across platforms, and there are advantages to that approach.

Looking through the feature lists, a lot of the new features are common to the two systems, for example:

  • TeXworks installed as a distribution-maintained editor.
  • XeTeX version 0.9995 (which includes the new primitives that the LaTeX3 team asked for).
  • Some \write18 functions enabled without turning on full \write18 support: this is used to allow “safe” functions.

There are, of course, also differences. For example, only TeX Live includes LuaTeX at present. I also notice that MiKTeX 2.8 is adding the full path of files to the log, whereas in the past you got the relative path. I’m not so sure this is a good idea: it makes things rather wordy, and also the log will vary between systems: not so great. On the other hand, MiKTeX 2.8 does provide user-specific texmf directories. For multi-user systems, this is a real bonus: you can use the auto-install system without needing to be the Administrator.

As I said, I’ve tended to use MiKTeX to date as it’s been the best “fit” on Windows. The latest version of TeX Live makes this a pretty tight call, I think. If you are happy installing a full TeX system (which I do), then there is very little in it. MiKTeX still has the edge for small installations, as the auto-install system really pays off there.